Yucatán and Texas seem like unlikely allies. In the early years of the Mexican Republic, though, they were alike in many ways, both poor, neglected states on the outer fringes of the nation. When Centralist government took over in Mexico, both considered their options and decided to secede. Texas declared and fought its way to independence in 1836. Yucatán declared provisional independence in 1841. Mexico refused to accept any of this and used military force in efforts to retake both.
Texians clearly recognized that a victory over Yucatán would free Mexico to turn full military attention back to the north and attack their struggling republic. As an act of self defense, Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar contracted with Yucatán to lend his warships to keep the Mexicans busy. The agreed rent was $8,000 per month, the equivalent of about $200,000 today. The small Republic of Texas Navy effectively harassed Mexican shipping during 1841 and 1842.
But the cooperative arrangement did not go smoothly. The governor of Yucatán, Santiago Méndez, suspended the contract when he ran short of funds or thought reunification with Mexico might be possible. In Texas, when he succeeded Lamar as president, Sam Houston moved to abolish the navy, for reasons historians still do not understand — perhaps cost savings, worry about further antagonizing Mexico, persuasion by British interests, or some kind of personal animosity. Maybe he was intentionally weakening Texas in order to draw in the United States. Some thought he was mad.
Early in 1843, the vessels of the Texas Navy that were still seaworthy were idle at New Orleans as Houston withheld their funds. The Commodore, Edwin Ward Moore, a 33-year-old veteran of the U.S. Navy, was unable to pay his crews or refit for action, and his future seemed bleak. Meanwhile in Yucatán, the situation was desperate. The Mexican Navy was blockading ports as a large land force laid siege to Campeche and prepared to advance on Mérida. Then on February 11, Yucatecan Colonel Martín Peraza arrived in New Orleans with cash money and a plea for renewed help from Moore and the Texas Navy. Moore rallied and on April 19, in violation of direct orders from President Houston, set sail for Yucatán.
The Republic of Yucatán definitely needed Moore’s help. The entire national navy, which was under the command of a former Texas Navy officer, James D. Boylan, consisted of two small schooners, Independencia and Sisaleño, each with a single 18-pound cannon, and five converted fishing boats, scarcely more than canoes, each with a single 6-pounder. Several larger Yucatecan vessels had already been captured by the Mexicans.
Commodore Moore’s fleet was more formidable, although it consisted of only two vessels. The flagship, sloop-of-war Austin, 600 tons with three square-rigged masts, was armed with twenty moderate-sized 24-pound and 18-pound cannons. The brig Wharton, commanded by John T. K. Lothrop, 419 tons with two square-rigged masts, carried sixteen 18-pound and 9-pound guns. All the cannons were mounted in traditional broadside positions. Both ships were understaffed — a total 232 officers and men, 84 short of full complements.
Light winds made for a slow passage across the Gulf, and after a brief stop at Sisal, the Texians arrived offshore Campeche on April 29. They rendezvoused with the Yucatecan flotilla and had a look at their adversary, the Mexican fleet, a few miles to the south off Lerma. It was an intimidating sight.
The Mexican Navy presented Moore with two of the most modern, formidable warships in the world. The 775-ton Guadalupe, at the time the largest iron-plated vessel ever launched, had twin paddlewheels powered by 180-horsepower steam engines. Its shallow ten-foot draft made it perfect for service in Gulf waters. Constructed in British shipyards, it featured the most advanced nautical technology, propulsion, and guns. The armaments included two huge 68-pound swivel-mounted Paixhans guns designed to fire explosive shells, radically new naval weapons. Solid cast-iron cannon balls could cause severe damage, but an explosive shell detonating in a wooden hull was potentially devastating. Shells from the Guadalupe’s Paixhans guns were the size of a volleyball, about 8½ inches in diameter, with a range of up to two miles. She also had four conventional 12-pound cannons.
A second British-built Mexican steamship, of wood construction, was even larger and more powerful. The Moctezuma, also a side-wheeler, had two 280-horsepower engines, two of the 68-pound Paixhans guns, and six conventional 32-pounders. Its 1,100-ton displacement, although not exceptional by historic standards, made it a monster for Gulf waters. Both vessels were steam frigates, and though designed to be powered by engines were also equipped with two masts and a sail plan called an auxiliary brigantine rig.
Either of these Mexican warships was more than a match for the entire Texas-Yucatán fleet. But there were more — Águila, a heavy 7-gun schooner, and Regenerator, a well armed converted merchant steamer. And even more, three captured from the Yucatecans — the brig Mexicano (formerly named Yucateco) with 12 guns; Imán, a brig with 7 guns; and Libertad (ex-Campechano), a 3-gun schooner. At that time, this was the most powerful and advanced fleet ever assembled in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sailing and gunnery on both Guadalupe and Moctezuma were under the direction of experienced British officers and sailors on long-term leaves from the Royal Navy. What was Great Britain’s interest in these matters? For an answer we have to look briefly at international politics. Britain at the time was concerned about the growing powers in the region, potentially threatening Britain’s dominance of maritime trade. A weak Texas was a potential trading partner and would be unlikely to challenge Britain’s lucrative trade with Mexico. Britain had recognized the Republic of Texas and viewed its potential union with the United States as very undesirable. London was on none too friendly terms with Washington. Heated negotiations were underway over the region known as the Oregon Country or Columbia District. Disagreements about the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick were coming close to a shooting war. In short, Britain found it in her interest to frustrate expansion of U.S. influence by pushing the limits of neutrality in aiding Mexico.
Despite his large disadvantage in numbers and armament, Commodore Moore chose to attack at once, on April 30, the morning after his arrival. Coincidentally, and perhaps still unknown to the combatants, the war had just taken a turn in favor of independent Yucatán, since an invading Mexican army had surrendered to Yucatecan forces on the outskirts of Mérida a week earlier.
To take advantage of their longer guns, the Mexicans tried to keep their distance, but both Texas vessels managed to connect with some broadsides. For some reason, the British gunners proved much less accurate than the Texians. As was typical of sea battles at the time, most shots missed, and the Paixhans shells more often than not failed to explode as intended. A Paixhans shell hit Austin, passed within inches of Commodore Moore, tore away some rigging, crashed through the aft cabin, and flew overboard without exploding. Another 68-pounder hit Wharton, killing two seamen and wounding four, but the damage to the ship was not incapacitating. At mid-morning, the Texian and Yucatecan vessels came together, loudly cheering each other. A running battle ensued, and the forces exchanged mostly ineffective salvos before drawing apart. The light and variable winds would seem to have favored Mexico’s steamers, but the advantage went unexploited. By noon the squadrons had separated out of firing range, and Yucatán-Texas fleet headed for port in Campeche. Moore’s flagship Austin briefly ran aground on a shoal, and the Yucatecan gunboats bravely moved in for protection. The Mexican vessels stood off and anchored five miles to the south and west. It had been a short engagement but altogether a good day for the Texians.
The Mexican side counted 22 killed and about 50 wounded. They had performed so ineffectively, despite overwhelming superiority, that the fleet commander, Francisco de Paula López, an elderly veteran of the Spanish colonial navy, was relieved of command, arrested, and court-martialed. The commander was not entirely to blame. The Captain of Moctezuma, Richard Cleaveland, had died of yellow fever the night before the battle, and many others were sick. Guadalupe also had a new captain, E.P. Charlewood, who soon resigned, citing lack of support by the Mexican officers. The mixed British-Mexican crews probably had communication problems. The British were mercenaries, perhaps less willing to risk their lives than the Texians and Yucatecans. But Moore’s superior seamanship and enthusiastic support by his crews deserve major credit.
In port, the citizens of Campeche greeted the Texians as their saviors. They contributed armament from Campeche’s ramparts, adding two long-range 18-pounders to Austin and a single, long-range 12-pounder to Wharton. Then two weeks of calm winds frustrated Moore. He repaired his ships, tended the wounded, made a few tentative feints, and waited for his chance.
Finally, on May 16, the breeze came up, and at dawn the Texas and Yucatán forces sailed out to confront the enemy. Some of the Mexican fleet — Regenerator and most of the sail contingent — had departed to deal with evacuation of the defeated troops from Telchac Puerto, leaving Guadalupe, Moctezuma, and Águila at the Campeche front, still substantially the superior force. The Mexicans, under a new commander, Tomás Marín, stood out to sea toward the southwest, with the Texas vessels pursuing. Austin and Wharton chased the enemy for some fifteen miles as the steamers held position to windward. At 10:00, the wind died, leaving the Texas vessels scarcely able to manoeuver, and the Mexican steamers headed toward them. At two miles distance, their shots began to damage rigging.
The Yucatecan vessels followed inshore but for unknown reasons failed to join the fight. The officers may have been reluctant to set their small vessels against the huge Mexican guns, since a single hit could destroy them.
With the sea breeze freshening, both Austin and Wharton caught up with the enemy and were able to engage at closer range. The Texians hit hard. They disabled one paddlewheel on Guadalupe and shot away her flagstaff, to great cheers. Austin went forward quickly while Wharton lost position and lagged behind. Moore ran between the Mexican frigates, firing broadsides at both with effect. With the wind failing, the Mexicans found their range and Austin began taking serious hits, causing injuries and major damage to sails and rigging. Austin took seventeen hits, some from the big 68-pounders, causing much damage throughout the ship. Taking on water, the magazine flooded, in danger of losing masts, and the crew exhausted, Austin limped back to anchorage at Campeche at 3:00 in the afternoon. The Mexican fleet abandoned the field and eventually went to anchorage off their base at Isla del Carmen.
In port, Austin counted three dead. Wharton was essentially undamaged, but two crewmen had died when an improperly managed gun exploded. The Texians had a total of 22 wounded.
On the Mexican side, the numbers are variously reported. The best guesses are that Guadalupe had 47 dead and 64 wounded, and Moctezuma had 40 killed, including the captain, and more than 20 wounded. The disproportionate casualties and final flight of the Mexican forces despite their superiority are unaccountable.
Both sides claimed victory. The Mexican government even struck a medal commemorating “a great naval victory.” In fact, although the battle was tactically inconclusive, it was a clear strategic victory for Texas and Yucatán. The British mercenaries all departed on June 14 when their enlistments expired, leaving Mexico with no one capable of maintaining the steamships or manning the Paixhans guns. Mexico never again attempted to invade Texas or blockade the coast. The siege of Campeche was lifted, and Yucatán was able to maintain its fundamental independence for another five years.
The government of Yucatán paid for repairs on Moore’s fleet and provided resupply of provisions and gunpowder. They terminated the rental contract, since the Mexican Navy was no longer a threat. The Texians returned to Galveston, where they were welcomed as heroes. Vindictive and quarrelsome President Sam Houston had Commodore Edwin Ward Moore tried on multiple charges including disobedience and treason. He was exonerated and paid in full for his service. Houston had all vessels of the Texas Navy placed in ordinary and allowed to rot. The two Mexican steamers fled to Havana during the war with the United States and transferred to British ownership.
History records the Battle of Campeche, on May 16, 1843, as the only time that sailing vessels ever defeated steam-driven warships in combat.
By Robert D. Temple
Visitors strolling beside the sea along Campeche’s beautiful malecón might have a look at the historic cannons mounted there and imagine a horizon of sails, black plumes rising from the Mexican steamships, and thunder and clouds of white smoke from distant cannon fire in the deadly battles of 1843.
The author thanks George McClellan for suggesting this subject and recommending several useful references.
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