Our number 2 spot may come as a bit of surprise to any traditional Texas historians – as far as I know, this battle doesn’t technically have a name due to being a prolonged series of small engagements. So in the interests of both convenience and pride, I am hereby naming the second-most important battle in Texas history as the Battle of the Gulf of Mexico.
The battle was fought and won by the ships and men of the First Texas Navy during the Texas Revolution. Without their daring and resourcefulness, Texas would have been quickly overrun by Santa Anna’s forces and reduced to a depopulated wasteland.
Selecting a starting date for the Battle of the Gulf is a bit tricky. Should we begin it with the first militaristic engagements? The first full-scale battles? Or should we wait for the Texas government to officially commission them as a formal Navy. And what about the privateers?
To simplify things, the Texas Navy Association has thoughtfully provided a timeline of the naval activities during the Revolution. The first shots fired by a Texan vessel at a Mexican warship occur on September 1, 1835, over a month before the official start of the Revolution’s first battle. This seems to me as the best place to begin the official battle.
Over the next six months, the ships of the Texas Navy swept the entire Mexican merchant fleet from the Gulf of Mexico, devastating their economy and preventing their government from sending reinforcements or supplies to assist Santa Anna’s army in Texas (he was busy with some old fort called the Alamo, or somesuch). A fairly large amount of captured Mexican supplies actually wound up with the Texan army.
Denied their war materiel, the Mexican army could only hope to sustain itself by living off the land. This proved nearly impossible due to the twin problems of an unusually rainy spring and the Fabian retreat tactics (burn everything) of Sam Houston’s Texan army. With dwindling supplies, the entire Mexican army was forced to throw in the towel and retreat (there was also a battle near the San Jacinto River, but to me it seems to have been rather inconsequential).
The Texas Navy and associated privateers continued to raid Mexican shipping and protect the Texas coastline for the next year and a half. But all good things must end. Several ships were captured or seized by debt collectors. The final engagement of the Battle of the Gulf took place on August 27, 1837 (making the battle last almost exactly two years). Mexican warships attacked the two remaining Texas naval vessels off the shore of Galveston Island, causing them to run aground. That was the end of the First Texas Navy.
Despite losing its final engagement, the Battle for the Gulf of Mexico was a strategic victory for Texas. Without the naval activities, Mexico would almost certainly won the land war of the Texas Revolution, preventing the Republic of Texas from existing on anything more substantial than a few pieces of paper. As thanks for this service, the same textbooks that spend a full chapter on each land battle of the Texas Revolution give the First Texas Navy approximately 2-3 sentences of their attention. Ah, history!
Tomorrow: The thrilling conclusion to our countdown of the greatest battles in Texas history!