Friday, January 18, 2013

Counter Offensive at Galveston and the Capture of Harriet Lane

USN map of the 1863 action at Galveston
Confederate offensives took a sharp increase in 1863.  On the western side of the Confederacy, "Prince John" Magruder kicked things off for the CSA with a New Year's Day assault on Union forces in Galveston, Texas.   Union forces captured the port of Galveston in October 1862, effectively blockading much of Texas.  When Margruder arrived from Virginia to command ground forces in Texas, he found all ports except Brownsville under the control of Union forces.  He set out to change that. Working with Texas cavalry and local steamboat captains, Magruder converted the steamers Bayou City and Neptune into makeshift gunboats protected by cotton bales.

Patrolling off the coast of Galveston was a squadron of six U.S. Navy ships: USS Westfield, Clifton, Owasco, Sachem, the sailing yacht Coruphues, and the former Revenue Cuter paddle steamer Harriet Lane.  In addition, 260 soldiers from the 42nd Massachusetts Volunteers occupied the wharf. 

Watches aboard Clifton and Westfield spotted Neptune and Bayou City in the moon light at 1:30 a.m., but discounted them as harmless civilian steamers. Soon after, pickets lines of the 42nd began passing back reports of Confederate artillery advancing on the wharf.  Confederate ground forces launched their assault on the wharf at 3 a.m.  Though they had no artillery attached to their unit, the 42nd had the Sachem and Corypheus backing them up with light Parrot rifles. 

Capture of USS Harriet Lane
An hour later, Neptune and Bayou City made their advance on Galveston and Harriet Lane turned to engage the two ships.  A newspaper later reported that someone on shore called out to Bayou City's captain during the advance to give them a "New Year's present."  The captain replied, "Well, here goes your New Year's present!" and pulled the lanyard on his ship's 32-pounder.  The gun exploded in the face of the captain, killing him instantly. 

Neptune then rammed Harriet Lane.  Lane returned fire on Neptune, causing Neptune to take on water and eventually sink.  Bayou City also rammed Harriet Lane and sent boarders to storm the Union vessel.  With revolvers in hand, Harriet Lane's commanding officer, Commander J.M. Wainwright, fought the boarders until he was shot in the head.  The rest of Lane's company soon surrendered after that.

Scuttling of USS Westfield

The rest of the U.S. squadron was a confused mess.  Westfield ran aground amidst the confusion.  Owasco also ran aground, but attempted to sink the now captured Harriet Lane with gunfire.  Corypheus' company came under a hail of musket fire from shore, doing all they could to keep their heads down while they sailed out; Clifton went to help Westfield, then turned around to help Harriet Lane.  But, by this point Harriet Lane had a white flag of truce flying above her.  Instead of trying to recapture Lane or destroy her, Clifton's commanding officer accepted the truce. 

Westfield's commanding officer saw what he believed were more Confederate warships.  He lost his nerve and ordered the ship to be scuttled.  All of the men of the 42nd Massachusetts were killed or captured when Confederate forces overran their positions.  The Confederate ground forces also captured two coal barks.   Clifton became the senior ship in the squadron.  Her commanding officer ordered the remaining Union ships to withdraw to New Orleans.

Admiral Farragut was naturally furious at the loss.  He had Clifton's commanding officer brought up on charges for ordering the withdrawal and failing to recapture Harriet Lane.  The decisive victory led Magruder to proclaim the blockade lifted.  The USS Brooklyn arrived a few days later to put the blockade back in place.

 Read Farragut's official report to Secretary Welles here.

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