The Battle of Campeche

Matt Springer, of Texas A&M, via his blog Built On Facts is sending me large numbers of visitors so I thought I would share a small part of the history of Texas, and the Texas navy.
Texas Navy schooner Austin

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 Republic of the Rio Grande lasted from January 17 to November 6, 1840. It included territory south of the Rio Grande in what is now northeastern Mexico. Its president was Jesús de Cárdenas.

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 ):
Colt Navy Revolver showing battle of Campeche engraving

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.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Battle of Campeche

  1. Doug

    Hi Carl,

    How sad it was that Texas ignored the Union views of Sam Houston and decided to join the CSA confederacy in 1861, which in the end was less powerful than the federal government of the USA.

  2. Hey, that’s really cool.

    One thing that strikes me as very interesting from the point of view of a Texas transplant is the way history is looked at here compared to my home state of Louisiana. Both states put a lot of focus on their histories and heritage, but Texas focuses more on its self-reliance and history as an independent nation. Louisiana’s view of its own history is more “And then if you thought that was weird, holy crap wait till you hear what happened next”.

    Huey Long by himself generated way more screwy history per capita than most states ever thought about.

  3. William Battersby

    Hi,

    I was most interested to read this account about the battle. I am researching an aspect of Royal Naval history of the 19th century and I have quite a lot of information about Messrs. Charlewood and Cleaveland. Did you know that they were close friends, and close friends of also Commander James Fitzjames, who was third in command of, and lost on, the ill-fated Franklin Expedition? Or that they, with Fitzjames, had been part of a team which sailed two iron steamboats on the Euphrates, one of them as far as the Gulf, in the 1830’s? They took the ships in pieces across Syria from the Mediterranean coast – on the backs of camels and in ox-trains!

    Amazing peope who deserve to be better remembered.

    William

  4. William Battersby

    PS, forgot to say, please email em and I’ll send you a detailed biography of both these officers

  5. William Battersby

    ‘em’ should read ‘me’…

  6. carlbrannen

    William,

    This is fascinating information and I hope that you will add a link to your research or book, or blog, or whatever, when you finish it.

    By the way, I’m reading one of those cheap books on history entitled “The Mammoth Book of How It Happened, Naval Battles”. It has amazingly poor illustrations; sailing ships moving directly windward, horribly botched example of using both sides of a sailing ships guns to rake the enemy, confusion between NNW and WNW, etc. I’m sure you’ll do better.

    Carl

  7. William Battersby

    Carl,

    Thanks for all your most interesting information too. I’ll keep you posted. If you want a REALLY wacky read try this book: ” Narrative of the Euphrates expedition carried on by Order of the British Government during the years 1835, 1836 and 1837″ By Francis Rawdon Chesney, 1868. You should be able to find it on google books.

    You’ll find plenty of references to Captains Charlewood and Cleaveland in it. Don’t take everything Chesney says at face value!

    Best regards,

    William

  8. Eileen Jordan

    to William Battersby

    My husband,Francis Jordan, is a direct descendant of Admiral Charlewood through his paternal grandmother.We have an original book of the Euphrates expedition with General Chesney when Charlewood would only have been 21.His youngest daughter, Nora, was born when he was in his 60s and my husband remembers going to her funeral in France when he was a child.
    I would be very interested in receiving any information about our intrepid ancestor.

  9. William Battersby

    Hi Eileen,

    Would you mind contacting me directly so I can provide you with more information? Try william [AT] battersbyfamily . com and I’ll email you back. If you are in the UK can you come to my book launch at Trinity House in the City of London on 27th July at 6:00 pm. The book is the biography of James Fitzjames and Admiral Charlewood features extensively in it.

    Hope to be in direct contact soon.

    William

  10. John Carmichael

    To Eileen Jordan and William Battersby,
    I’ve been browsing the Battle of Campeche and come across your entries regarding Admiral Charlewood. As he is my 3* gt. grandfather I would be most interested in any information you can forward to me.
    kind regards

  11. Hi folks,

    I’m in touch with other descendants of Charlewood, as well as with descendants of Cdr. Richard Cleaveland, RN. It seems to me that Cleaveland died of yellow fever the day before the second battle of Campeche. I suspect that Cleaveland and Charlewood captained the two steamers at the first battle but not the second.

    If anyone is interested in this fascinating event or would like to share ideas or information, do please get in touch with me.

    Best regards,

    William

  12. Eileen Jordan

    Hi William

    I am trying to contact you on the email address you gave me but am not having much success. Mine is ejordan@francisjordan.co.uk.
    I too have lots of Charlewood information and items with the family crest on. Hope we can ger in touch soon
    Eileen

  13. Hello Eileen et al

    I’ve been reading all these messages about the Texas Naval battle with Mexico at Compeche Bay in 1843. We of course know about the Texas commanders but nothing at all about the British commanders of the two Mexican warships, and your information is very informative.

    Now how about this tidbit: Jon Jordan who wrote the book Lone Star Navy is going with the Texas Heritage Society on Oct 5 this year to the Yucatan. I will be surprised if he’s not your relative.

    We will visit Merida, a Mayan ruins preserve called Kiuic owned by Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, and hope to find an historian in Campeche City to talk to us about the naval battle in 1843.

    Hewitt Clarke
    Texas Heritage Society, Houston
    HewittClarke@pdq.net

    two A small group from the Texas Heritage Society is planning a trip to Yucatan on Oct 5, 2010. Jon Jordan who wrote the fine book Lone Star Navy

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