|General John B. Magruder|
Colonel Tom Green ordered his command to form a single line during a frosty December morning. “I want three hundred volunteers who are willing to die for Texas, and are ready to die now,” he thundered. The entire 5th Texas Cavalry Regiment volunteered by taking a step forward; the three hundred would have to be chosen by their officers. Their assignment, however, would not be carried out on the back of a horse, but on the deck of a converted steamboat.
Since October 1862, a Union flotilla, under Commander Charles Renshaw, occupied the port of Galveston while the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment occupied its streets. Lacking sufficient numbers to fully occupy the city, the 42nd bivouacked at the end of Kuhn’s Wharf at night and patrolled the streets during the day. Though dangerously isolated, with little room to maneuver, the flotilla’s heavy guns defended the wharf from any infantry assaults. The commander of the 42nd Massachusetts, Colonel Isaac Burrell, was assured his men could be evacuated in a few minutes if it became necessary.
Confederate General John B. Magruder, Commander of the Texas District, wanted to retake Galveston. Referred to as “Prince John” by his fellow officers for his extravagant lifestyle, Magruder gained early acclaim for his deceptive tactics at the Battle of Yorktown. So effective were Magruder’s theatrics that Union General George McClellan was convinced he was heavily outnumbered - he actually had more than a two to one advantage. As a result, the Union advance was delayed, buying precious time for Confederate forces to establish a defensive front on the outskirts of Richmond, the Confederate capital. Magruder’s fame took a hit after a badly coordinated attack on Malvern Hill. The enormous losses led to a major shakeup of General Robert E. Lee’s command. Now a scapegoat, Magruder was transferred to far away Texas.
Texans considered Magruder a fighter and welcomed him with a downtown parade in Houston. Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford declared Magruder’s arrival was worth the addition of 50,000 troops. Bolstered by the local support, he immediately sought troops to recapture Galveston. Donning civilian clothes, Magruder crossed over to Galveston Island at night for a firsthand look at Union activity. Based on his own observations and those of the island’s residents, he formulated his plan of attack. The problem was where find the troops to carry it out.
Manpower was low to nonexistent on the Texas home front, but not entirely unavailable. Worn but rested after a disastrous campaign in New Mexico, the 5th and 7th Texas cavalry regiments were about to be dispatched to Louisiana. Instead, Magruder rerouted them to Houston. Now he needed a navy.
Transplanted New Englander, “Commodore” Leon Smith, appropriated a pair of side-wheel steamers – the Bayou City and Neptune. Each was to be equipped with one to two heavy cannons and 150 sharpshooters. Ragged in appearance as well as discipline, the Texans were anxious to redeem themselves with a victory on Texas soil or water for that matter. Colonel Green requested command of the sharpshooters while Smith would command the cottonclads. To protect the sharpshooters, cotton bales were piled like sandbags along the decks. For an onboard assault, two makeshift gangplanks were mounted to be dropped after steaming into a Union gunboat.
On New Year’s Eve 1862, Magruder assembled his land forces at Virginia Point. A railroad bridge was planked over to allow his command to cross over to Galveston. Because of the mules’ refusal to cross the narrow bridge, the artillery and wagons had to be pulled over by hand. After the Texans took up positions near Kuhn’s Wharf, Magruder himself fired a canon to signal the attack. “Now boys, I have done my best as a private, I will go and attend to that of General,” he declared. The Texans attempted to assault the wharf with ladders carried out into the harbor and placed on the deck above – they were too short. Naval gunfire prevented a direct frontal assault across the wharf’s deck. Magruder’s infantry fell back to barricaded positions in town. The outcome now depended on Leon Smith’s cottonclads.
Magruder’s plan called for the cottonclads to attack after the assault on Kuhn’s Wharf got underway. It was hoped the assault would divert the Union flotilla away from Smith’s tiny fleet. A lookout on the Bayou City spotted the muzzle flashes and heard the intense gunfire – Smith ordered the cottonclads to attack. Their target was the revenue cutter U.S.S. Harriet Lane, a state of the art steamer used to pursue smugglers before the war. The Neptune stuck first by ramming into the Harriet Lane’s side. In the process, she suffered extensive damage to her bow followed by a canon shot from the Lane that caused her to sink. The fast thinking skipper headed the Neptune toward the nearby shallows. The onboard sharpshooters kept up an effective fire from the upper deck while the hull became submerged.
The Bayou City had better luck. The sharpshooters forced the Harriet Lane’s crew away from their guns and enabled the Bayou City to ram into the Lane. Green’s rebel-yelling marines poured out like ants onto the deck and overwhelmed the crew. The U.S.S. Owasco tried to help but couldn’t fire for fear of hitting their captured friends. The Lane’s colors were lowered and replaced with a white surrender flag. Smith boldly issued a demand for the surrender of the entire Union Flotilla.
Meanwhile, Commander Renshaw’s flagship, the U.S.S. Westfield, had ingloriously run aground during the battle and could not free herself. The captain of the U.S.S. Clifton, Captain Richard Law, rowed over on a small boat to the grounded Westfield. He told Renshaw about the Harriet Lane’s capture and Smith’s surrender demand. Law was afraid the captured guns on the Lane would be used on the flotilla. Not wishing the Westfield to be captured intact, Renshaw decided to blow up his flagship. After setting a fuse to the Westfield’s powder magazine, soaking the decks with flammable turpentine, and evacuating his crew to a nearby transport, Renshaw struck a match. The fuse proved defective when the Westfield blew up with Renshaw still onboard. Unsure of what to do next, Captain Law ordered the Union flotilla to steam back to New Orleans, leaving the 42nd Massachusetts and the Harriet Lane behind. Colonel Burrell surrendered his sword to General Richard Scurry, the commander of the infantry that attacked Kuhn’s Wharf. “Keep your sword colonel, a man who has done what you have deserves to wear it,” replied Scurry.
Despite all efforts to block or capture its harbor, Galveston remained in Confederate hands until the end of the war. Former Texas Governor and staunch Unionist, Sam Houston, penned a note of thanks to Magruder. “Thank you for driving from our soil a ruthless enemy. You have breathed new life into everything.” Further glory awaited Colonel Green in Louisiana, where his cavalry inflicted a string of humiliations on Union troops. His life ended tragically in 1864 at Blair’s Landing. While his troops sniped at Union naval vessels on the Red River, an ironclad’s lucky shot hit Green square on the head.