On March 2, 1836, Texas declared her independence from Mexico, and on April 21, 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto--the most important military victory in Texas history—Texas actually became a Republic all unto herself and remained so for nine glorious years.
On the marshy plains of San Jacinto, the victory over Santa Anna and the Mexican Army under General Sam Houston and the Boys can be credited not only to the Texas Army on land but also to the forces patrolling the Gulf of Mexico—the first Texas Navy.
The Texas Navy was established on November 25, 1835 to protect supply lines between Texas and New Orleans from Mexican naval ships. A tiny fleet of four schooners, named the Independence, Brutus, Invincible and Liberty, were purchased to protect and supply the new Republic. The Navy had its own Commodore, Captain Charles Hawkins, appointed by the Republic’s own president, David G. Burnet.
Commodore Hawkins was born in New York in 1802. At the age of 16, Hawkins enlisted in the United States Navy as a midshipman and began his military career in the Atlantic before transferring to the West Indies. On board a ship in the West Indies, Hawkins met Commodore David Porter, a hero of the War of 1812. Commodore Porter got himself into some mischief after invading a town in Puerto Rico in 1825 and was court-martialed. He resigned, chose to go command the Mexican Navy fleet and recruited the feisty, young sailor Hawkins to join him in the Mexican Navy.
Hawkins spent the next several years as a Mexican naval commander, fighting against Spaniard ships opposing Mexico’s Independence in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mexican Navy soon began to have doubts about American officers serving aboard their ships; these worries caused Hawkins to resign and move to Texas in 1828. Once in Texas, Hawkins worked as a river captain on the Chattahoochee.
Hawkins’ path to the Texas Navy started when he met General Sam Houston in San Felipe. Houston was impressed with Hawkins’ experience and his desire to serve as navy captain to the new Texas Republic. Houston referred Hawkins to Governor Henry Smith, who then sent Hawkins to New Orleans to begin command over the Independence. At the age of 34, as Commander of the Texas Navy, Hawkins sailed the Independence to the Gulf of Mexico to patrol the coast between Galveston and New Orleans.
Meanwhile, General Sam Houston was busy building the Texas Army to defeat Santa Anna near the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou at Lynch’s Ferry. On the afternoon of April 21st, General Sam and the Boys, 700 Texas Freedom fighters, marched double time, in a single line of independence—taking on a professional army over twice their size.
Santa Anna’s army, caught napping, was routed. Most of the enemy was killed or wounded. The rest were captured or disappeared. The victory was stunning. The rest, as they say, is Texas history. But one of the most important factors in that Texas victory, mentioned briefly by some historians, was the maritime activity and success of the first Texas Navy.
Commodore Hawkins and his brave crew of gutsy, scrappy sailors changed the course of Texas history on April 21, 1836. The Texas Navy helped win Texas independence by preventing Mexican ships from supplying Santa Anna, seizing gunpowder on Mexican ships and delivering aid to General Sam Houston’s army. The heroic acts of the first Texas Navy resulted in one of the largest land transfers in world history and gave way to a new independent nation—the Republic of Texas.
Texas still has an “Honorary” Texas Navy. In the 1980s, the Governor of Texas appointed me as an Admiral in the Texas Navy. (Everyone in the Navy is an Admiral.) During my tenure as a judge, I ordered offenders to be “enlisted” in the “Texas Navy.” The probationers were skilled welders, painters, plumbers and electricians. They were required to help in the restoration efforts of the Battleship Texas. This became another effective tool that both served the public and the probationer – a few went on to be hired by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The probationers became a part of the history of the great ship “Texas”. After being dry docked in Galveston in the 80’s, many much needed repairs were made by different organizations and thousands of volunteers – all to help preserve the Battleship Texas.
The Texas Navy is one of the unique historical traditions of our great State.
And that’s just the way it is.