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Don’t Mess with the Texas Navy

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Texas Sloop of War Austin, di_05062

Texas Sloop of War Austin, di_05062
Letter from Edwin Ward Moore to Denis Prieur, 1842

Letter from Edwin Ward Moore to Denis Prieur, 1842

The Texas Navy’s existence was brief and patchy, punctured by internal power struggles between the Lone Star State’s founding fathers, naval conflict with Mexico and a chronic lack of funds. It’s therefore surprising that it only endured the one mutiny. Perhaps that’s because it was brutally—albeit retroactively—suppressed.

On February 11, 1842, the San Antonio was anchored near the mouth of the Mississippi. Senior officers were ashore on business, but the bulk of the crew was confined to quarters—it was feared they would desert if allowed to disembark to New Orleans. No crew members were allowed off the boat, but it appears a quantity of liquor made its way on board and provided the instigation that turned miffed sailors into murderous insurgents.

The conflagration began when shipman Seymour Oswald angrily demanded shore leave from acting captain Lieutenant Charles Fuller. Fuller refused, and, sensing intransigence, called for the guard to force compliance from Oswald and his fellow tipsy quarrelers. Unfortunately for Fuller, Oswald was commander of the guard, and he duly obliged. After a short skirmish, Fuller had a hatchet in his head, and Oswald’s men had their shore leave. However, the leave was rather brief—they were quickly intercepted by federal agents and imprisoned in New Orleans.

In this 1842 letter, Edwin Ward Moore, first commodore of the Texas Navy, writes to Denis Prieur, the mayor of New Orleans, demanding that the prisoners “be delivered unto me in order that they may be tried by the laws which they violated . . . the laws governing the navy of Texas.” The letter is a fascinating example of the young republic engaging in military diplomacy with a foreign neighbor—the United States of America.

“There is no principle of international law more fully established than that of the extension of jurisdiction of a nation to her vessels of war in foreign parts,” writes Moore assertively, perhaps sensing that things may not go his way. And yet he also appeals to Prieur’s sense of shared values, stressing not only Texas’s rights as a republic, but also how the prisoners had “so flagrantly violated the laws of [both] Texas and of humanity.” At the time, Texas annexation to the Union was the one of the hottest topics in American politics. Moore’s letter fits somewhere in the maelstrom of that historical process: Texas as both ally and other, frontier and republic, independent political entity and state-in-waiting.

Moore’s anxiety to apprehend the mutineers proved to be justified. At least one prisoner (and therefore a witness) died in jail. Oswald escaped. However, in the spring of 1843 the remaining prisoners were turned over to Moore and confined on his flagship sloop-of-war the Austin. Preserved at the Texas State Archives, the diary of sailor Alfred Walke elaborates upon the grim fate of those extradited. Between April 21 and 26, 1843, they were all court-martialed at sea. Three were sentenced to between 50 and 100 lashes with the dreaded “cat o’ nine” whip. Four others were hanged on board the Austin, their bodies left hanging long enough for all Texas sailors to see. Only one survived, Frederick Shepherd (named in Moore’s original letter), because he testified against the rest.

According to Walke’s diary, those hanged “appeared to believe they would be pardoned & did not evince much fear” when brought out for execution. “But now the truth flashed upon them & they knew they had to pay the Penalty of their crimes & commenced praying eagerly & piteously for Pardon.” As for Moore, he was declared a pirate by Sam Houston for refusing to dock his fleet at Galveston. (He feared Houston would auction off his navy to raise revenue for the republic.) Moore was eventually acquitted and awarded a pension of five year’s pay by the U.S. Congress. As for Shepard, he was killed in battle three weeks after his acquittal at the Battle of Campeche. As for Oswald, he was never heard of again.