All Hands For Texas: The First Texas Navy and the War on the Gulf of Mexico, 1835-1843

The history of the Texas War for Independence is heavily entrenched in the land campaign fought between the Texas rebels led by Sam Houston and the Mexican Army led General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The ‘Last Stand’ at the Alamo and the wars’ penultimate battle at San Jacinto being the two most popular and well studied events in both academic and popular histories to date. The history of the First Texas Navy (1835-1837) and its very small fleet of brigs and schooners is nonetheless highly important to the study of the conflict and the eventual success of the Texian revolt against Mexico in April 1836. As both a blue water (ocean) and brown water (rivers) naval force, the Texas Navy fought many small engagements and carried out several minor blockades before, during, and after the Texas Revolution in defense of the young Republic of Texas and its ally, the short lived Republic of Yucatán (1841-1848).

See, Texas Revolution 1835-1836: Battle for North Mexico and the Birth of the Texas Republic, for more. 

The Invincible of the First Texas Navy, Galveston April 1837

Formation of the First Texas Navy, 1835-1836

The genesis of the Texas Navy began with outbreak of hostilities between Anglo-American settlers in Northern Mexico, the Texians, and Mexican colonial authorities and the Mexican military. In September of 1835 just before the Revolution began, Texians aboard the merchant ships the San Felipe and Laura, captured the Mexican treasury vessel Correo de Mejico off the coast of Brazoria. Accusing them of piracy, the Texians took the San Felipe to New Orleans where it was held until the Mexican government could ransom it. Though these sailors had been acting in an extrajudicial manner, the Correo de Mejico Incident seems to have made a Mexican land invasion of Texas inevitable. Following the seizure of the formerly American ship Hannah Elizabeth by the Texian privateer ship William Robbins on December 19, 1835, Mexico soon placed a token naval fleet in the Gulf of Mexico to protect its fishing and merchant fleets from piracy.

Officially, the First Texas Navy was formed on November 24, 1835, by a degree from the ad interim president David G. Burnet. The first secretary of the Navy was Robert M. Potter (b.1799-1842), a North Carolina native and U.S. navy veteran. The first "commodore" of the First Texas Navy was Charles Edward Hopkins, a New Yorker by birth who had served in both the U.S. and Mexican navies in the 1820’s. The first ship acquired for the tiny Texian “fleet”, which it can be named in alliteration only, was the former U.S. treasury ship the Ingham, renamed the Independence. Cruising between Galveston and Tampico during the first three months of 1836, Commodore Hopkins captured a number of smaller merchant vessels and fishing craft, generally disrupting the seaborne communications and resupply of Santa Anna's army.

A larger schooner, the Brutus, was commanded by Captain William A. Hurd, a privateer on the William Robbins, which was renamed the Liberty by the Texians and captained by William Brown (d.1838). Brutus patrolled the mouth of the Rio Grande River. William's elder brother Jeremiah Brown received command of the schooner Invincible. Both the Brown brothers and Hurd had privateer experience previously and definitely had reputations for roguish behavior; though very little was recorded about them. The Texas Marine Corps was created during this period and eventually consisted of 350 enlisted men and 18 officers.

The Texas Navy schooner Brutus

The war was proving costly for the Texians after proclaiming independence officially on March 2, 1836. Defeats and subsequent massacres at the Alamo and Goliad had shaken the would-be republic to its knees. The subsequent “Runaway Scrape” saw thousands of Texians; soldiers, pioneers, citizens, and their slaves, flee to the coast. Some left for New Orleans or Mobile and many took refuge on Galveston Island until the end of the conflict. Despite this seemingly doomed situation; volunteers, material, supplies of war, and foodstuffs continuously poured into Texas through the seaports of New Orleans and Mobile, Mexico’s tiny naval force unable to stop this large influx of contraband vessels. Conversely, Texas privateers and Navy ships captured thousands of pounds of military supplies sent from New Orleans to Mexico flying false flags and carrying forged manifests. In fact, this interruption of the Mexican-New Orleans trade outraged many Americans especially the ship's owners and insurers who did business out of the Crescent City. The small but capable First Texas Navy made sure that Mexican and American ships holding their supplies would be frequently molested in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the conflict.

Either Take it or be Taken: Battles At Sea & River, 1835-1840

The Texian navy proved to play a decisive role between March-April of 1836 during the final stages of the Texas Revolution. Capt. William Brown's Liberty whilst on patrol off the Yucatán captured the Mexican merchant schooner Pelicano near the fortress at Sisal, directly off the northern coast of Yucatán. They captured military supplies, smuggled contraband, and a large quantity of gunpowder concealed inside the ship which had come from New Orleans. These supplies most certainly aided General Houston in his victory over Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21. Capt. Brown told a New Orleans newspaper, “My situation requires that I should keep a constant look-out, and when I see a Mexican Flag flying, I shall either take it or be taken. I cannot fly from a Mexican, and will not.” The Pelicano was then sailed to Matagorda, Texas, where it was lost on a sandbar just weeks later.

Undoubtedly the most important action of the First Texas Navy was their victory in the Action of April 3, 1836 off the coast of Matamoros at Brazos de Santiago on the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Here, Capt.Jeremiah Brown’s Invincible met the General Bravo, trading broadsides for over an hour before the Texian schooner broke off battle from the damaged Mexican warship. Just an hour or more later, the Invincible came across an American merchant ship, Pocket, which they soon captured. More than a ton of supplies and foodstuffs were found, as well as several Mexican naval officers, who Capt. Brown had flogged, and dispatches from Santa Anna detailing a planned amphibious landing near Galveston.

Map of the major events of the First Texas Navy, 1835-1836

In April of 1836, Brutus, Invincible, and the Independence were moored close to the Galveston Island citadel by Commodore Hawkins. Galveston had become the last redoubt of the Texian cause and the navy was both the defense and safety net for the military and civilian populace residing there. Following the improbable Texian victory at San Jacinto both the Brutus and Invincible set sail for New York City for repairs and to be re-outfitted. After the Revolution had been won, President Sam Houston appointed Samuel Rhoades Fisher Secretary of the Navy. Rhodes set out to regulate and rebuild the infant nations’ depleted flotilla, though he was quickly reeling following the capture of the Independence within sight of Galveston harbor on April 17, 1837. Fisher vowed revenge for both his own honor and the honor of the Texas Navy.

Samuel Rhoades Fisher, Secretary of the Texas Navy, October 1836-Oct.1837

Commodore Hawkins would never return to sea as the leader of Texian Navy, perishing from smallpox in February of 1837. Capt. Jeremiah Brown was dismissed in the same year as was W.A. Hurd for insubordination. Capt. William Brown was sacked as well but served as a sanctioned Texian privateer until his death in 1838. Both the Brutus and Invincible were held in New York City due to the debts incurred against them and would not return to the Gulf of Mexico until June of 1837. In remarkably maverick style, secretary of the navy Fisher ordered the captains of the Brutus and Invincible, J.D. Boylan and H.L. Thompson, to pull their anchors and sail for the Gulf. Fisher boarded the flagship Invincible with Commander Thompson, who was placed in overall command. Thompson was apparently a volatile drunk and a poor officer, though Judge Fisher, as he was known to the sailors, was likely the de facto commander.

This unsanctioned raid on the Gulf across down to Veracruz and back was quite an effective sea raid if wholly unorthodox and illegal. Fisher’s Raid was essentially an unsanctioned military operation carried out unilaterally by the Texas naval department’s highest civilian authority. The Fisher Raid pillaged several seaside villages, taking six ships and boarding several others at sea,  In direct violation of President Houston’s orders they had boarded British, French, and American ships in the process; netting close to $10,000 in prize money and confiscated goods. The flotilla attempted to besiege fort at Sisal, to little success, later claiming Cozumel for Texas in July, and making a well documented landing at the village of Dzilam De Bravo, where they Texas Navy was viewed as curiosity more than a real threat by the local populace. At Telchac on the Yucatan, Fisher's raiders were chased back to their boats by Mexican cavalry, not before Judge Fisher fired on the Mexican cavalry with his pistol. The Texians stole many sea turtles wherever they disembarked for a readily available source of meat at sea [Jordan, Lone Star Navy], there was likely little else of value in most of these small seaport villages which they visited. On the return to the Texas coast, both Texian vessels were wrecked on sandbars and by October 1837, the First Texas Navy was no more. Fisher was sacked by President Houston, though he had the support of the majority of Texas and some members of congress as well, his career was effectively over. In addition both Thompson and Boylan were relieved of their commands. Fisher was shot and killed in a duel (or perhaps an assassination) in Matagorda just two years later.

The Commodore as His Lone Star Navy: The Second Texas Navy, 1838-1841

Additional privateer ships were given letters of marque by the Texian government to fill the role of the destroyed First Texas Navy, these ships continued to harangue Mexican and American ships throughout this antebellum period. Between 1839-1840, six well built ships were commissioned in Baltimore and delivered to the Republic of Texas. Led by a new Naval department chief, William Shepard, and later by Memucan Hunt, John Grant Tod, the Naval Yard commander and later acting navy secretary, and with a pro-naval President in power from 1838-1841 in Mirabeau Lamar (b.1798-1859), the Second Navy of Texas of 1839-1843, was born.

After initially languishing for two years with no ships and without a commanding officer, the Texas naval department found their commodore in Lt. Edwin Ward Moore (b.1810-1865). Moore came from a family of Revolutionary and War of 1812 veterans, joining the U.S. navy as a midshipman in 1824 and serving until 1839, when he resigned his commission and sailed for Texas. Soon recruits began to trickle in from all corners of both the United States and Europe. By the early 1840's a more professional corps of officers was being fostered, as many of the buccaneers and swashbuckling rogues like the Brown brothers and Hurd had been purged during Houston's first presidency.

Commodore Edwin W. Moore, the Admiral Nelson of the Texas Navy

The Texas naval department also placed an order for Colt Paterson revolvers and Colt Model 1839 Carbines for use by their sailors and marines. These small arms made in Connecticut and designed by Samuel Colt’s engineers gave the Texas Marine Corps and naval boarding parties a key advantage in close quarters combat. In a letter to Colt sometime in the 1850-60’s, Moore himself exclaimed to the guns inventor, “the confidence that your arms gave the officers and men under my command when off Campeche in 1843-opposed to a vastly superior force is almost incredible, I would not sail if I could possibly avoid it without your repeating arms and I would have no other.”

The first ship purchased and armed was the steamship Zavala, built in Philadelphia and refitted in 1837, Lt. John T.K. Lothrop was given command after first being granted captaincy of the San Jacinto. A New Englander, Lothrop had served as a midshipmen on the Brutus and Independence and was the most capable and seasoned junior officer in the Texas Navy. The flagship of the fleet was the Austin, a 125 foot sloop-of-war armed with sixteen 24 pound cannons and two 18 pound cannons. Schooners San Antonio, known as the fastest ship in the fleet, San Bernard, which was armed with four 12 pound guns and a 9 pound ‘Long range’ pivot gun, and the San Jacinto, a 66 foot long schooner which was identical to both the San Bernard and San Antonio, formed the vanguard of the new Texas Naval fleet. The armed brigs Wharton and Archer served as well. Commodore Moore’s first cruise took place in the spring of 1840 and lasted until February of 1841. The Second Texas Navy took several small ships in this patrol, selling at least one as a prize in New Orleans and also blockaded Veracruz for a short time.

Texas Navy captain armed with a Colt Paterson by Bruce Marshall (Schiffer Military History)

In the Tabasco River Incident, Zavala was used to ferry both the Austin and the San Bernard roughly 70 miles up the Tabasco River (Río Grijalva) from the Bay of Campeche. The Texians aided a column of 150 Yucatecan rebels who forced the surrender of around 600 centralist soldiers defending the regional capital at Villahermosa San Juan Bautista on November 20, 1840. Moore and his crew were promised $25,000 in silver as tribute for sparing the city a naval bombardment, though he was originally only paid $10,000. The Commodore threatened the Yucatán generalissimo Anaya with a blockade and bombardment of the Tabasco region if the Texians were not paid in full. In December, Moore’s flotilla, now decimated by Tropical fever, was paid off and departed for Galveston.

The Texian Flotilla 1841-1843, Naval Battle at Campeche

After Commodore Moore’s cruise of the Gulf in 1840-1841 to aid the rebellious Republic of the Yucatán, the San Antonio was used for coastal mapping and survey of Texas coast. On the day that President Houston was sworn into office for a second time, the Austin set sail to aid their allies across the Gulf yet again. A new deal with the Republic of the Yucatán promised $8,000 a month for the Texas Navy for protection of the region from the Mexican navy and its ships. The federal navy had acquired the Guadalupe in 1842, a massive British-built iron ship, 200 feet long, and armed with two 32 pound cannons and two 68 pound French made Paixhan pivot guns, which could launch an explosive shell over a mile and a half. The other was the wooden steamer Moctezuma, armed with Paixhan guns and six 42 pound guns. Both of these ships were worth four each of the Texians smaller and under-armed wooden sloops-of-war. These new Mexican vessels were staffed by a contingent of British officers and sailors who had deserted or were on leave from the Royal Navy.

The Guadalupe, ironclad steamship made in Birkenhead, England for the Mexican Navy

Unfortunately the Second Navy of Texas was hamstrung before it could be fully brought against the might of Mexico’s new fleet of ships in a Battle of Jutland of the Gulf of Mexico. Economic shortfalls meant funds were in short supply, as a result ships’ crews were underpaid and their vessels went without repairs. The Commodore put himself in nearly $50,000 debt borrowing money in his own name to pay for the repairs of the Republic’s ships. Moore and Houston loathed each other with the President threatening on several occasions to scrap the navy completely (which he eventually did). 

The Zavala and San Antonio around 1840

There were significant mutinies on both the San Antonio and Austin as well, the latter of which Commodore Moore personally put down; executing four Marines and flogging several more sailors on the eve of the Battle of Campeche. The San Jacinto was wrecked in 1840 on the Cayos Arcas west of Campeche and the San Bernard was beached near Galveston and later transferred and sold by the U.S. Navy. San Antonio was lost at sea with all hands on a diplomatic mission to the Yucatán sometime in September of 1842, its whereabouts are still unknown as of 2019. The Zavala was scrapped in 1843 after the damage it incurred on the Tabasco River expedition in 1840 proved too numerous and therefore costly to fix.

Actions of Commodore Moore's flotilla, 1840-1843

In late April of 1843, Commodore Moore took his now depleted squadron back to the sea in order to aid the Republic of Yucatán. His flotilla consisted of the Austin, Wharton, and a small Yucatán gunboat squadron, including the Sisaleno, commanded by the French Captain LeRoy. Commander Lothrop, former captain of the San Jacinto and the Zavala in the Tabasco Expedition, was given command of the Wharton. From April 30 to May 16, 1843, the Texian Navy fought its largest and well remembered battle at the Naval Battle of Campeche against the Mexican navy squadron led by Commodore Tomas Marin. Commodore Marin's flotilla was comprised of the Moctezuma, Aguila, Mexicano, and Guadalupe, amongst several other ships.

The Battle of Campeche was stagnant for nearly the first two weeks as the small Texas flotilla and their wily commander looked for favorable winds to outmaneuver the heavily armed Mexican squadron led by the armored flagships the Guadalupe and Moctezuma. The guns began firing at 7:35 on the morning of April 30th, the Guadalupe and Moctezuma's Paixhans overshooting the Texas flotilla from some distance in their opening salvo. When they were close enough for their long range guns, the Wharton and Austin fired sporadically, careful to stay out the immediate distance of the devastating Mexcian Paixhans. Unfavorable winds brought the battle to halt from May 7 to the 16th. Moore used this time to outfit both of his ships with long range guns loaned from the fortifications at Sisal.

The Austin at Campeche, 1843

On the final day of the Battle of Campeche, after 11am the Wharton hit the Guadalupe with a lucky shot and destroyed its flagstaff though both the Texian ships were now at the mercy of the Mexicans guns, who nonetheless missed many shots and fired with relatively poor accuracy. At one point in the in the battle as the Wharton trailed behind, its small guns essentially useless, Moore’s flagship charged the Mexican squadron, firing maybe dozens of broadsides in between the ships before after chasing the Mexican ships towards the coast, breaking off for a feigned retreat.  The ships traded shots for several hours before the Mexican squadron began to separate. By 3pm on May 16, the battle was over. The Mexican navy fled with their crews decimated by both disease and cannon fire whilst the "pirates" aboard the Wharton and Austin counted their dead, cared for their wounded, and celebrated a steadfast victory.

Moctezuma’s British Captain had died of tropical fever as had dozens of other British sailors during the battle, and it's reasonable to believe that the Mexican navy squadron at Campeche suffered well over 60-100+ casualties due to Texian shells alone. Five Texas navy sailors and marines were killed and 21 wounded, including several who had to have their legs amputated. The Wharton had only minor damage, firing just 65 rounds during the engagement. The ships only casualty was due to friendly fire. The Austin had taken twelve major hits off Campeche, it’s starboard side and the rigging veritably destroyed by a couple of direct Paixhan hits, whilst firing 530 rounds against the Mexican squadron during the engagement. [Jordan, Lone Star Navy]

Campeche was a very important battle for several reasons. Historically it is remembered as yet another improbable victory in the annals of Texas military history. Arguably, it saved the Texas Republic yet again from a greater Mexican intervention by land or sea just as the First Texas Navy had done in March and April of 1836. Campeche certainly checked Mexican naval power in the Gulf, assuring that a large scale amphibious invasion of Texas would never be mounted while also aiding the Republic of Yucatán, who would not return to the Mexican federal government until 1848. There certainly can be some debate whether the battle was a draw or an outright Texian victory as the Mexicans celebrated the battle as a victory as well. The Naval Battle of Campeche is most notable for being perhaps the only battle in history in which wooden ships defeated armored steamers and for being the first battle in naval history in which explosive Paixhan shells were used by naval vessels. Samuel Colt later immortalized Campeche on every one of the over 250,000 Colt 1851 “Navy” pistols that were made in his Hartford, Connecticut factories.


The fall of the Texas Navy was swift following the Battle of Campeche. What followed was the dismissal and court martial of Commodore Moore, 1843-1845. Charged with treason, murder, and piracy, Moore was dishonorably discharged on these trumped up (except piracy) charges levied at him by President Houston. Most Naval officers resigned in protest and within a year the last ships of the Texas fleet were put up for auction in Galveston; though patriotic citizens refused to buy them or let them be sold. Following the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1846, the last remains of the Texian Navy were transferred to the U.S. Navy, the poorly kept fleet of the Wharton, San Bernard, and Archer, were soon sold by the naval department for several hundred dollars. Commodore Moore was eventually cleared of the charges though he had to fight for over ten years to gain compensation for his service and debts incurred in the service of the Republic of Texas Navy from the now state of Texas and the U.S. Government.

Though small in number of ships, led by mostly immigrant sailors, privateers, midshipmen, and mercenaries, the Texian Navy performed admirably during and after the Texas Revolution, playing a critical role in the “cold war” period with Mexico 1837-1843. The Texas Navy and its sailors showed incredible pluck and resilience, as sailors have been want to do from Trafalgar, to Hampton Roads, and Midway. Several excellent books are available on the subject of the Texas Navy, including the Fighting Texas Navy 1832-1843, by journalist and historian, Douglas V. Meed, and Lone Star Navy: Texas, The Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, & The Shaping of the American West by Jonathan W. Jordan (see below). Jordan sums it up best, “[their success helped establish] the Texas Navy’s reputation as an effective, semi-piratical force that made Mexico’s supplier think twice before shipping goods across the Gulf.”

Suggested Further Reading

Lone Star Navy: Texas, The Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, & The Shaping of the American West By: Jonathan W. Jordan (Potomac Books, 2006)

Uniforms of the Republic of Texas And the Men Who Wore Them 1836-1846, Illustrated and written by Bruce Marshall (Schiffer Military History, 1999)

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