Military Adventures Beyond the Mississippi

Heroic Death


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The Destruction of the Wakefield

The city of Galveston is situated on a long, low, narrow island of sand. It is connected with the main land by a bridge, some two miles in length. Upon the shore commanding this bridge the rebels had planted batteries. No attempt had been made to dislodge them from this position. The bridge even had not been destroyed. For a considerable time no infantry even occupied the town. It was considered to be sufficiently guarded by the presence of the Federal fleet. The Harriet Lane, a revenue cutter converted into a gun-boat, stood sentinel at the island end of the bridge. It probably afforded a sufficient protection against any land attack. No attack by winter seems to have been anticipated or even thought of. The latter part of December, 1862, some regiments of infantry were ordered from New Orleans to Galveston. Not quite three hundred had already arrived. More were on their way. The previous fleet of four vessels was increased by two more. In a few days the Federal force would have been strong enough to have assumed themselves the offensive. But those few days were not allowed them.

For in the mean time the Confederate General Magruder had been preparing to attack the place. Two steam-packets, running between Galveston and Houston, were fitted up as gunboats. They were protected by bulwarks of cotton bales. One of them was manned by a squad of sharp-shooters. Early in the morning of the 1st of January the rebel batteries opened on the Harriet Lane and the infantry in the city. The latter could only reply with their musketry, having no guns. The former replied with a vigorous fire. Almost at the same time she discovered the rebel gun-boats coming from the bay. She signaled for assistance. The Westfield, flag-ship, started to her aid, ran aground, and was thus left hors du combat in the very beginning of the engagement. The Clifton exhausted her energies in vain efforts to pull the Westfield off the bar. The Owasco dared not venture up the uncertain channel, which had already proved so perilous to her companion, and contented herself with engaging the enemy’s batteries on shore. The rebel steamers built for these shallow waters had the Harriet Lane at their mercy.

Struck amidships with a tremendous blow, boarded by an overwhelming force, she was not surrendered until her commander had fallen dead, bravely defending his vessel to the last. The defense of the town thus destroyed, it fell necessarily into the rebel hands without further struggle. The gallant commander of the fleet, Commodore Renshaw, finding all efforts to rescue his flag-ship vain, determined it should not fall into the rebel hands. He allowed his men fifteen minutes to transfer themselves and their baggage to a neighboring transport. He himself prepared the vessel for destruction. For fifteen minutes the most intense activity prevailed. Then all were ordered out of the ship. The last boat awaited the Commodore’s presence. Another, filled with men and baggage, waited close at hand. The Commodore was the last to leave the vessel. He stepped down the stairway into the waiting gig. A few minutes more and all would have been well. But he had hardly taken his seat when a thick cloud of smoke rolled up from the hatches of the vessel. A bright flame leaping up followed close upon it. Then in an instant there followed an explosion which shook the bay, as though an earthquake trembled underneath it. The air was filled with the fragments of the ill-fated vessel, and dark with the smoke of its explosion. For some unexplained cause the explosion had taken place prematurely, and when the smoke had lifted neither boat was to b seen. The Commodore had perished with his ship. The rest of the fleet immediately abandoned a harbor which was no longer tenable.

None of the military movements which have taken place in Texas can be considered of great importance. It was too far removed from the seat of war to afford a field for very active operations by either side. Texas has indeed furnished to the Confederate army as many soldiers in proportion to her population as any other rebel State. But they have fought chiefly upon other fields. Texas has furnished large quantities of supplies to the rebel armies. The chief object of the national Government seemed to be to cut off these supplies, while the rebels endeavored to open some one of the harbors which lie along her coast to the commerce of other nations.

Immediately after the recapture of Galveston General Magruder issued a proclamation declaring the blockade raised, and inviting commerce to the port. But it is hardly necessary to say that the national fleet was too vigilant to allow the invitation to be accepted. On the 21st of January the blockading vessels off Sabine Pass, two in number, were captured, during a dead calm, by two rebel steamers with cotton bulwarks. They were instantly pursued by the Union gun-boats. One of the captured prizes was burned to prevent its recapture. Again General Magruder, by public proclamation, declared the blockade raised; and Commodore Bell, by counter proclamation, warned all concerned that it was as effectual as ever, and that merchant vessels attempting to carry on illicit traffic would do so at their peril.

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