It was New Year’s Eve 1862 and three hundred men from Massachusetts had been lords of Galveston since October. Or at least they were by day. At night the 42nd Massachusetts ceased their patrols of the city and holed up on Kuhn’s Wharf.
It was their job to hold the city, which they had taken without much resistance, until thousands of reinforcements could arrive from back east. Once several thousand Yankees were in place on the island, nothing could stop them from taking Houston and the railheads. That would put Texas out of the rebellion business.
General John Bankhead Magruder understood this and had planned a New Year’s surprise to keep it from happening.
Under cover of darkness, about 900 Confederate Texans sneaked into the city by walking the mile-long railroad trestle from Virginia Point to the island. The crossing went slower than expected because the mules pulling the artillery refused to proceed. The field pieces were unhitched from the beasts and hauled across by manpower.
Once in place they waited for the attack signal from their navy, which was expected to come at midnight. It was the job of the navy to engage the six Federal gunboats in Galveston harbor and keep those guns occupied.
The 42nd Mass was an infantry regiment. Without support from the Yankee fleet, they would be no match for the superior Confederate force.
The signal Magruder expected was a cannon shot, indicating his navy was on the scene and engaging the enemy.
It never came.
Somehow, Captain Leon Smith, commander of the Confederates afloat, had misunderstood the plan and was anchored in Bolivar Roads waiting for the cannon signal to come from Magruder.
At 4 a.m. the fiery General, disgusted that his Navy had failed to appear, decided to go it without them and personally fired the first cannon shot. The Yankees were taken by surprise, but their gunboats, unmolested and able to drop shells on the attackers, were up to the task of responding.
Magruder’s force was being crushed. Daylight was coming and they faced surrender or annihilation.
Then the cavalry showed up.
The Fifth Texas Mounted Rifles (sans their mounts) and the Seventh Texas Cavalry (ditto) were deployed as Marines and sharpshooters with the tardy naval force.
If a seagoing cavalry isn’t odd enough, consider the vessels.
The Bayou City was a side-wheel riverboat normally used for delivering mail between Houston and Galveston. The smaller Neptune, also a side-wheeler, was what we would now call a tugboat. Both were armored with bales of cotton, the gaps between which cannon protruded. These were the cottonclads.
Now the Yankees were really surprised. The Federal flagship Westfield grounded and her captain blew her up to prevent capture, taking his own life when the charge went off early.
Neptune was hit and sunk, but in only eight feet of water, so the aquatic cavalry climbed atop her cabin and kept a constant barrage of rifle fire on the deck of the Federal steamer Harriet Lane, killing Captain Jonathan Wainwright, and allowing Bayou City to ram, board and capture her.
The rest of the Federal fleet fled and Galveston was again in Confederate hands.
Eyewitness drawing of the capture of the surrender of the Harriet Lane
Other unusual things about the Battle of Galveston:
It involved the oldest combatant in the Civil War in the person of sixty-nine year old Captain Levi Hardy, who commanded the Neptune.
It may also may have involved the youngest combatant, if one of the Bayou City boarding party was correct when he wrote that a “young son of Captain Wainwright, just ten years old, stood at the cabin door with a revolver in each hand and never ceased firing until he had expended every shot.”
The artillery commander aboard the Bayou City was Captain E. B. H. Schneider, a well trained German soldier who had come to Texas in 1848. He would go on to serve many years as Tax Assessor of Harris County, and despite losing an eye in the battle, would entertain locals with his trapeze act into his seventies.
And finally, there’s the executive officer of the Harriet Lane, Lt. Commander Edward Lea. He was the son of Major Albert M. Lea who had moved to Texas in 1855 and was on General Magruder’s staff.
Wounded during the boarding, the younger Lea refused to surrender his sword or his ship except to his father. Major Lea was brought aboard and Edward died in his arms.