Texas was a part of Mexico when the colony of Spain obtained independence as a result of the Mexican War of Independence, 1810-1821. There followed a brief empire under Agustín de Iturbide followed by the first Mexican Republic in 1824 with Guadalupe Victoria (an assumed name) as President. The election to succeed Guadalupe Victoria was one by the founder of the Partido Moderador (Moderate Party), Manuel Gómez Pedraza, however, before he could take office, the now infamous Antonio López de Santa Anna forced him out and annulled the election. Antonio López de Santa Anna installed the first arguably African-American president of a major North American country, Vicente Guerrero, into power. One of Vicente Guerrero’s most important acts of his brief (1 April 1829 – 17 December 1829) term in power was to ban slavery and emancipate all slaves. The Presidency of Vicente Guerrero ended when his Vice President, Anastasio Bustamante lead a coup against him (and had him executed). More unrest followed, but many must have thought that Mexico was slowly becoming a democracy.
Liberal changes may be good (especially applied to conditions of the early 19th century), but Valentín Gómez Farías changed things too much and too fast for the Catholic and military parts of Mexico which revolted against him. The resulting conflict saw Antonio López de Santa Anna in power as President with the followers of Valentín Gómez Farías forced to hide or leave (mostly to the United States). Enough with democracy; Antonio López de Santa Anna reformed Mexico into a Catholic dictatorship in 1836 and tore up the Constitution of 1824. The new Constitution of 1835 eliminated the loose confederation of states and created a powerful federal government.
The Republics of The Rio Grande, Texas, and Yucatán
Those states of Mexico who disagreed with the new conservative government or wished to remain under the 1824 constitution revolted. Eventually 11 states went into revolt, among them Coahuila y Tejas, which included the colony of Texas. Three of the 11 revolting states declared themselves independent of Mexico. Of these new states, only Texas still remains free of Mexican control (more or less). The other two were eventually reabsorbed and are now mostly forgotten.
The revolt in Yucatán began in 1838 and the area declared its independence in 1840 as the Republic of Yucatán. Yucatán was well armed and Antonio López de Santa Anna negotiated its return to Mexico under a treaty that he then ignored. They revolted again. In 1843, Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered the blockade of Yucatán and they eventually agreed to another treaty. Again Antonio López de Santa Anna broke his promise and again the state declared its independence, this time on January 1, 1846.
As an interesting aside, Yucatán suffered a race or caste based civil war that began while it was independent, in 1847. It is known as the Caste War of Yucatán. A fascinating but long book on the subject is The Caste War of Yucatán. During the civil war, the Hispanics (or Yucatecos) of European descent asked for help from the US, Britain, and Spain, offering to sign the country over to whoever would send help against the Maya. Everybody turned them down and, in order to keep the Maya in place, Yucatán rejoined Mexico in 1848 where the state remains today. The Mayans had imported gunpowder over the border with British Honduras. This border was cloased in 1893, and the Mexican army finally marched into the Mayan capital, Chan Santa Cruz in 1901. The rest of the Mayan lands were mostly under Mexican control by May 5, 1915 when victory was declared but the last capture of a Mayan city by Mexican forces was in 1933. Now the area is relatively calm. One of the contributions to prosperity there is the export of chicle, or chewing gum. The introducer of chewing gum to the United States is said to be Antonio López de Santa Anna, who was living in exile in New York in 1848.
The Texas Navy
Antonio López de Santa Anna came north with an army to put down the revolt in Texas in 1836. Every professional knows that with an army, the most important thing is supply. In this case, the Mexican army could be supplied either by sea through the Gulf of Mexico, or by land through west Texas. At this time, supply by sea was far more efficient than supply by land (if it weren’t for rail it still would be), and knowing this, the government of Texas bought 4 small “ships” in early 1836 to protect the coast of Texas (as well as to harass Mexican shipping).
These ships are known as the “first Texas Navy” and they did their job well. The Mexicans were defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836. Antonio López de Santa Anna was captured and forced to sign documents giving Texas its independence. Of course these documents were repudiated by both the Mexican government and Antonio López de Santa Anna and the war would continue, but for now, the Texas government sold off its ships.
As another interesting aside, those who are not professionals look for alternative explanations to explain the fortunes of war than the boring topics of weapons and supplies, and a popular myth arose that the victory at San Jacinto was due to Antonio López de Santa Anna spending time with a woman. That woman was Emily D. West, and since she was mostly Caucasian, but partly black, and since she was quite beautiful, she was called “the Yellow Rose of Texas”. A song by that name is considered the unofficial state song of Texas. One of the (less offensive to the modern ear) stanzas is:
Where the Rio Grande is flowing, and the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night;
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promis’d to come back again, and not to leave her so.
Over the years the song has morphed from a description of a yellow or high yellow woman, so much that the Elvis Presley version includes the lyrics has “Her eyes are even bluer than Texas skies above”.
By 1839, it had become clear that the Mexicans would still not acknowledge the independence of Texas and the Texas government, worried about another fight on Texas soil, particularly worried about an invasion of Galveston, commissioned the second Texas Navy. These ships harassed the Mexican coast and kept the Mexican navy busy defending their own coast instead of blockading Texas (which was very much dependant on sea for commerce and trade).
The Republic of Texas and the Republic of Yucatán were at opposite ends of Mexico but they both were on the Gulf of Mexico and it was natural that they assisted each other in naval affairs. Both states were blockaded by Mexico and both were invaded by Mexican troops that needed supplies from the Gulf. The existence of the Texas navy helped keep Yucatán from being blockaded and the government of Yucatán provided $8000 per month to help defray the costs of the Texas Navy.
The Battle of Campeche
The problems with the Texas navy on the Gulf coast drove the Mexican government to acquire one of the best warships of the time, the British built (and British manned) but Mexican owned 1100 ton ironclad steamer Guadalupe. This vessel, plus a wooden steam powered warship, the Moctezuma, blockaded the Yucatán port of Campeche. Two Yucatán warships, five gunboats, and two Texas Navy ships, the sloop Austin and the brig Wharton attempted to lift the blockade.
Two battles were fought, one on April 30, 1843, the other on May 16, 1843. The result was unusual in that this was the only naval battle which was arguably won by wooden sailing ships over steamships. “Won” in this case means that considerably more British and Mexicans were killed than Texans, but the Texas ships were badly knocked about and retreated to Galveston. British forces were suffering badly from yellow fever. The two Mexican steamers had British captains (Edward Phillip Charlwood or Charlewood captain of the Guadeloupe, and Cleaveland, captain of the Montezuma about whom I can find little information) and crews, so I suspect that this is the last time US and British sailors fought a significant sea battle against each other. At the start of the Mexican American war, the British steamers fled to Havana and were returned to the British.
The Guadeloupe was the world’s largest iron ship when it was built in 1836 by John Laird, who expected to sell it to the British Royal Navy. They weren’t interested because at that time, they hadn’t figured out how to correct compasses in iron ship; he sold it to the Mexicans instead. His business, John Laird Sons and Company, also built the Montezuma but is most famous for secretly building the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama (used by the Southern side in the US civil war from 1862-1864).
Other Texas conflicts with the Mexican Navy didn’t turn out so well, with several Texas ships ending this way. The remainder of the Texas Navy was absorbed into the US Navy in 1848 when Texas joined the United States.
And as yet one more interesting aside, Samuel Colt got one of his first contracts for his revolver from the Texas government. The company he founded, Colt, still makes weapons. When he created the Colt 1851 Naval Revolver for the US Navy he had a scene of the Battle of Campeche engraved on the barrel. These are very valuable collectibles nowadays. The engraving is just visible in this picture of this specimen (selling for $1975.00 ):
Youtube has a nice short video, History of the Texas Navy. A much more complete description of the battle, along with the minutes from the contemporary records, is at The Texas Navy’s website of the battle.