Major Civil War Battles in the Heart of Texas

During the Civil War, there were five major battles in Texas. Two over Galveston Island, one at Palmetto, and two at Sabine Pass. Description, leaders, and winners at each.

Although there were many skirmishes in Texas during the Civil War, and the state provided men and supplies to the Confederacy, there were only five major battles. These five were:

  1. Battle of Sabine Pass I (September 24-25, 1862)
  2. Battle of Sabine Pass II (September 8, 1863)
  3. Battle of Galveston I (October 4, 1862)
  4. Battle of Galveston II (January 1, 1863)
  5. Battle of Palmetto Ranch (May 12-13, 1865)

Each of these locations involved major ports or entry areas into the state.

The Battle of Sabine Pass

The first battle of Sabine Pass took place between September 24 – 25, 1862. Sabine Pass is located in Jefferson County. The purpose of the battle was the Union’s plans to operate a blockade of the Texas Coast and to give a point so forces could enter Texas. During this engagement, the Union commander was Acting Master Fredrick Crocker. The Confederate commander was Major J.S. Irvine.

The Union forces had the steamer Kensington, a schooner named Rachel Seaman and the mortar schooner Henry James. The Confederates had the thirty men at the Fort Griffith Garrison, an unknown number at the gun battery at Sabine Pass and twenty-five cavalry men that were located about 3.5 miles away.

Acting Master Frederick Crocker, on September 23, 1862, arrived near Sabine Pass and proceeded to position the Kensington, Rachel Seaman, and Henry James just off the entry of the Pass. He and his crew spent the remainder of the day ready for the attack planned for the next day. On the morning of September 24, Crocker gave the order to cross the bar at Sabine Pass and begin firing on Irvine’s troops at the Confederate shore battery. Initial firing proved useless against the Confederates because the shells were unable to reach the shore. Quickly realizing the problem, Crocker ordered the ships to continue moving closer until the shells began to hit the Confederate guns.

On the Confederate side they were attempting to fight back but their cannons couldn’t come anywhere near the Union ships. Major Irvine ordered four of the guns spiked, as many supplies as the troops could carry packed up and the evacuation during the night.

The following morning, Crocker had the schooners moved closer to the battery (which he destroyed), and Sabine Pass, the town, surrendered on the same day. The number of casualties during the first battle of Sabine Pass remains unknown.

The Battle of Sabine Pass 2 took place on September 8, 1863.

The Union commanders were Maj. General William Franklin and the promoted Captain Frederick Crocker. The commander of the Confederates who would soon become a Southern hero was Lt. Richard (Dick) Dowling.

Franklin and Crocker had four gunboats and seven transports that were loaded with Union troops. Lt. Dowling only had the forty-four men that comprised the Davis Guards.

For months before the Union boats appeared on September 8, 1863, the Confederate gunners at Fort Griffin had been practicing their accuracy to break the monotony and boredom of their posting. Considered one of the worst of possible postings, men were sent to Fort Griffin as a type of punishment. One way they practiced was to place range markers in the river and then turn loose upon these markers with their artillery. This daily practice paid off in an unbelievable way when the Union boats arrived around 6:00 am and proceeded to steam up the Pass and the Sabine River with thoughts of putting an end to Fort Griffin. The Union commanders also had thoughts of landing troops and beginning the occupation of Texas.

With the benefit of their accuracy practice, Lt. Dick Dowling and his forty-four men forced the Union boats to retreat. Before the Union boats left, Dowling was also able to capture one of the gunboats, Clifton, and approximately two hundred Union prisoners. This complete rout of the Union expedition by only forty-four Confederate troops was a shameful black mark against the records of Maj. Gen. Franklin and Capt. Crocker but proved an immediate boost to the morale of the entire Confederacy and lifted Lt. Dowling up as an instant hero. The Confederate casualties, if any, are not known. The Union casualties totaled two hundred and thirty.

The Battle of Galveston

Another place in Texas where two important engagements took place was on the island of Galveston.

The first one can’t be termed a “battle” in the normal sense. The Union Navy’s blockade of the island had been in effect for fourteen months before Cdr. W.B. Renshaw sent the “Harriet Lane” into Galveston Harbor on October 4, 1862, under a flag of truce.

Harriet Lane’s mission was simple. She was to relay a message to the Confederate authorities stationed in Galveston that the town had one hour to surrender or the Union ships would begin firing upon the town. The Harriet Lane wasn’t able to deliver her message at this time because Col. Joseph Cook refused to come out to the ship or to even send an officer to receive the communiqué. Eventually the Harriet Lane weighed anchor and returned to the other ships in the fleet.

Battle of Galveston - vintage illustration

Renshaw responded to Cook’s refusal by sending four steamers with a mortar boat in tow to the same location where the Harriet Lane had been anchored. Col. Cook watched the activity and ordered the gunners at Fort Point to fire upon the Union boats. These boats returned fire and were able to disable one of the guns at Fort Point. They then turned their guns onto other locations. It was at this time Col. Cook decided it was time to discuss terms with Renshaw. He sent out a boat and two of his officers who boarded the U.S.S. Westfield.

Renshaw’s demands were for an unconditional surrender of Galveston Island. He stated his intention of shelling the town if Cook continued to refuse to surrender.

Colonel Cook did indeed refuse and informed Renshaw the destruction of the town and the killing of innocent women and children would be upon Renshaw’s shoulders. The attempt at guilt didn’t change Renshaw’s intentions, and he began to tow the mortar boat to a better position. One of the Confederate officers who had boarded the Westfield was a Major who asked if Renshaw would grant more time so he (the major) could have time to try and convince Cook. Renshaw approved the request, and this unknown major eventually returned to the Westfield and negotiated for a four-day truce that would allow the women and children to evacuate the city.

As the final terms went back to Cook for approval, he added the stipulation that as long as Renshaw’s troops moved no closer to Galveston during this time, Cook wouldn’t allow his men to come below the town. Both sides had agreed to these terms, but nothing had ever been written down. This lack of a signed agreement would cause problems for Renshaw later.

The women and children did evacuate the town, as did the Confederates stationed there. As they left, they also took all their weapons, ammunition, foodstuffs, other supplies, and anything else they could move with them. Renshaw felt the agreement didn’t allow for this but had little recourse since he didn’t have a written document to fall back on.

The first “Battle of Galveston” was a decided victory for the Union as it closed an important Confederate port to commerce. Unknown to the Renshaw and the rest of the Union, the victory would be short-lived.

Plans for the second battle of Galveston began in November 1862. Maj. General John B. Magruder was given command of the military forces in Texas on November 29, and he immediately set his sights on retaking Galveston. His plans culminated on New Year’s Day 1863 at three in the morning as four of his gunboats headed towards Galveston.

The Commanders of the Union forces were Col. Isaac Burrell and Cdr. Renshaw. Cdr. Renshaw still had several of his boats, including the Westfield and the Harriet Lane, and Col. Burrell had three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Maj. Gen. Magruder had ships and landing troops.

Shortly after Magruder’s gunboats entered Galveston Bay, he landed and began a land attack. These Confederate troops proceeded to fight their way across the island and into the town itself.

In the end, all of the surviving Union troops had been captured except for the regiment’s adjutant. The Harriet Lane had been boarded and taken over, as had two barks and a schooner. Cdr. Renshaw’s flagship, the USS Westfield, had attempted to come to the aid of the Harriet Lane and instead run aground. The Union naval personnel blew her up at 10:00 am to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands.

The island was surrendered to the Confederates, who would remain in control of it until the end of the war. Commerce was, of course, limited in and out of its harbor because of the Union blockade that remained in effect.

The total number of casualties for the second battle of Galveston was Union 650, Confederacy 50.

The Battle of Palmito Ranch

The final major conflict in not only Texas but for the entire Civil War took place at Palmetto Ranch, also known as Palmetto Hill, after April 12, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

Between May 12 and 13th, 1865, Union Col. Theodore Barrett had detachments from the 62nd US Colored Infantry Regiment and 34th Indiana Volunteer Regiment begin an assault upon the Confederate forces under the command of Col. John “Rip” Ford. Col.

Ford had detachments from the Giddings Regiment, Anderson’s Cavalry Battalion, and various other Confederate units. Some reports even say the Confederates received aid from the Imperial Mexican forces located right over the Texas/Mexican border, but there has been no real proof of this.

Fighting along the Rio Grande River between Union and Confederate forces had halted in March 1865 after a cease-fire agreement had been made. On May 11, 1865, Col. Theodore Barrett decided to break this agreement and sent some 250 men from the 62nd US Colored Regiment and 50 from the 2nd Texas Cavalry to attack the various Confederate outposts and camps.

These troops, which were under the command of Lt. Col. David Branson, were to cross at Point Isabel, but foul weather upset these plans and required them to cross at Boca Chica much later in the day. Sometime around 2:00 am on the morning of May 12, Branson’s troops surrounded what was supposed to be a Confederate outpost at White’s Ranch. Imagine the soldiers’ surprise after staying up all night to do this only to find the outpost was deserted.

Lt. Col. Branson decided to allow his men to find hiding places along the banks of the Rio Grande and rest up for future assaults against the Confederate troops.

Unknown to the Lt. Col., people from the Mexican side of the river could see his men and decided to inform. Confederates as to the locations of the Union troops. Hearing their calls, Branson immediately routed his men to attack Palmetto Ranch.

After several skirmishes, the Confederate troops seemed to scatter from Palmetto leaving food and horse feed that Branson’s troops made use of.

At 3:00 pm, a large group of Confederate troops appeared, which caused the Union soldiers to retreat. They attempted to burn the supplies they hadn’t consumed before leaving. By this time, Branson decided to send a message to Col. Barrett to apprise him of the situation.

Barrett then left with 200 men of the 34th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and assumed command of the entire force. He and his troops began fighting their way back towards Palmetto Ranch.

Once they reached Palmetto, they destroyed the remaining supplies and decided to continue onward with the fight. A few miles later, Col. Ford’s cavalry attacked them, and after heavy fighting, Col. Barrett decided retreat was the better part of valor. They had returned to Boca Chica by 8:00 pm and embarked upon the waiting ships by 4:00 am on the morning of May 14.

Ironically, the Confederacy won the final battle of the Civil War.

The Civil War battles in Texas, though less in number than those in states such as Virginia or Tennessee, served as a testament to the strategic significance of Texas in the Confederate supply chain. These battles also showcased the resourcefulness of Confederate military strategies. The state’s capability to thwart Union forces played a vital role in preserving Confederate dominance over key territories and resources necessary for the war effort.

These conflicts highlight the intricate nature of the Civil War’s influence on various regions of the United States, showcasing a combination of military, economic, and social factors that helped shape the post-war reconstruction era.

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