how much Texas history has occurred on horseback it isn’t surprising
to learn that one of the Republic’s greatest naval victories was achieved
by 20 or so armed and mounted rangers known to history as the Texas
This little-known band of Texas patriots, under the command of Maj.
Isaac Watts Burton, is believed to be the only Marine unit in history
to receive a tomahawk as standard issue and perhaps the only one to
capture three ships while riding horses and without firing a shot.
The “soldiers at sea” in this instance had been dispatched to the
Texas coast by Gen. Thomas J. Rusk, who feared that Mexican troops
might land on the Texas coast. This was in June of 1836, three months
decisive victory at San Jacinto but the Mexican army was still
in Texas. A Mexican insurrection was very much on the minds of the
new Texas government.
While patrolling an area between the mouth of the Guadalupe River
and Mission Bay, Burton got word of a suspicious vessel sailing into
Burton and his rangers hurried to the area and issued distress signals
to the ship, a schooner named Watchman, which may have also run aground
on a sandbar. The rangers did not respond when the ship hoisted American
and then Texan colors, but responded to the Mexican colors.
Thinking the signals came from distressed Mexicans, the captain of
the Watchman and four of his sailors rowed ashore in a small boat
to aid their countrymen. Imagine their surprise when about 20 Texans
on horseback emerged from their hiding places to capture them.
Five of the Rangers assumed the uniforms of the captured Mexicans
and, accompanied by a dozen compatriots, rowed back to the Watchman.
The crew, thinking the boat contained five of their men and a dozen
or so distressed Mexicans, permitted them to come aboard. The ship
was seized without a fight.
This tactic turned out to be as fortuitous as it was clever. The Watchman,
though American-owned, was loaded with provisions for the Mexican
Figuring this would not be the last such ship to sail along the Texas
coast, Burton and his men waited. The Watchman was still at Copano
Bay when two more ships loaded with supplies for the Mexican Army
were sighted. The Watchman’s captain was persuaded (gently we’re sure)
to lure those ships ashore, where the Horse Marines again captured
the crews and seized the ships.
On July 28, the Kentucky Gazette published a letter describing
the incident. “On yesterday, news came of the capture of three Mexican
vessels by a troop of horses – these you will call ‘Horse Marines’
I suppose.” The letter was written by Edward J. Wilson of Kentucky,
who had come to Texas to fight in the battle for independence.
Burton’s rangers, the original horse marines, are sometimes referred
to as members of the Texas Marine Corps but they were volunteers and
not officially part of the corps. They made quite a sight when they
sailed with the ships into Velasco
with their beloved horses on board, making Wilson’s “Horse Marines”
an apt description.
The three captured ships along with supplies valued at $25,000 were
later taken to Galveston.
Texas kept the cargo and gave it to the Texas army but all three vessels
were owned by Americans and were returned to their owners.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
September 7, 2009 Column