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More of a visual learner? Read the transcript of this week's Galveston Unscripted podcast episode below:
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The American Civil War made its mark in Galveston, Texas. Galveston was a key port for supply lines and cotton exports to fund Confederate operations. Between 1861 and 1865, the Union Navy organized and implemented blockades against Confederate ports along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. During the Civil War, Galveston was a notoriously tricky port to capture for the Union Navy as Texas was far from the front lines and Union Navy resupply. Local blockade runners could allude the Union vessels at the mouth of Galveston Bay. The Confederacies' flow of shipments remained steady Until October 1862, when the Union Navy finally seized control of the Port of Galveston.
The Union Naval forces at the Port of Galveston by the time the Battle of Galveston initiated consisted of six warships, the USS Clifton, Harriet Lane, Westfield, Owasco, and Sachem, and the previously captured confederate warship, the Corypheus. The warships were spread out at docks along the Port of Galveston to keep watch over the city in Confederate territory.
A detachment of Union troops from the USS Harriet Lane moored at Kuhn's Wharf, a finger pier extending to deep water in the harbor between 18th and 20th Street and the Harbor. The troops marched daily to the customs House at 20th Street and Postoffice to raise the American flag during the federal occupation of the island. Three hundred fifty men of the 42nd Massachusetts regiment tore up the wooden planked approach to Kuhn's Wharf. They erected a barricade with the planks about 100 feet from Strand, leaving only one plank to avoid being overrun by a confederate attack.
The Union Navy held Galveston until the early morning of January 1, 1863. On New Year's day, a joint effort between the Confederate Army and a makeshift confederate naval force planned a surprise attack against the Union vessels in the harbor to take the port city back. The Confederacy devised a plan to sail cotton-clad steamships from Houston and mount a land-based attack from Galveston Island. These Confederate vessels were steam-powered barges with tightly compressed cotton stacked around the edges as armor to protect from inevitable rifle-shot. Cotton was used because time and resources were scarce and constructing armored iron vessels was out of the question.
The Confederate Army marched from Houston and, in the middle of the night on December 31st, 1862, crossed the bay on a wooden rail bridge led by General John Bankhead Magruder. He staged his troops and cannons in the Henley Building and other smaller buildings along the waterfront. Moored along the Galveston wharves on New Year's Eve, The Union Navy was not suspecting a landing party from the Confederacy to storm the crude garrison or docked vessels.
In the early morning before the first sunrise of the new year, Confederate Cannon fire erupted on 20th street and Strand towards the Harriet Lane from the Hendley Building. The Cotton-Clad steamers named the CS Bayou City and the CS Neptune were coming in hot from Houston.
The Confederate naval forces were outnumbered six to two, but the surprise attack against the Union Navy rendered the Naval firepower insignificant. The Union Navy was caught off guard and ill-prepared in terms of ammunition and firepower; the battle of land and sea was short, with most of the casualties on the Union side. The Confederacy captured the Harriet Lane at Kuhn's Wharf. The Westfield struck a sandbar near modern-day Pelican Island and was intentionally destroyed by its commander to prevent the vessel from being captured and used by the Confederacy. The remaining vessels sailed through heavy bombardment towards open sea to regroup near Louisiana.
The Confederacy declared victory and claimed Galveston for the remainder of the war. After this battle, Union forces could never successfully maintain control of the Port of Galveston or halt confederate shipments through the city. Galveston remained the only significant Confederate port not successfully captured and held during the Civil War. Still standing today, the Hendley building, where the battle was initiated, is located on the corner of 20th Street and Strand. Looking closely at the 20th Street facing side, you can spot cannonball or shell damage on one first-floor pillar. While standing on 20th Street between Harborside and Strand, remember that you are standing on a Civil War battleground, an aspect of the island's history often left out of the conversation.
The USS Westfield was excavated from the Texas City Ship Channel in 2009, and a cannon from the Westfield is on display in the Texas City Museum.