war of words that could have escalated into real violence broke out in the spring
of 1840 between the Texas Navy and a Galveston
set the scene, the generally busy, generally underrated and sometimes controversial
sea arm of the Republic of Texas had found itself becalmed. The glory days
of the 1836 revolution had played out four years before and at least for the moment
fleet did not have to worry about Mexico
trying to regain its lost province because that nation vigorously sought to put
down a rebellion in the Yucatan peninsula.
Texas Congress, ever mindful of not spending too much public money (the Republic
didn’t have much if any to spend) had passed a bill in February 1840 semi-mothballing
the Texas fleet. President Mirabeau B. Lamar, of course, still had the authority
to use the young nation’s ships of the line as he saw fit.
But while he
watched the revolution in Mexico,
Lamar did not see fit to use the navy in February, he did not see fit to use it
in March and he had not yet seen fit to use it in April when H.R. French fired
the first volley at the Texas Navy in the April 10 edition of his newspaper, The
Galvestonian. What French did was report an outrageous incident that had reportedly
occurred aboard the Austin, the Navy’s heavily armed 600-ton flagship.
that morning, the editor received a short note from one E. Kennedy, who held the
rank of first lieutenant aboard another Navy vessel, the Texas.
having thought proper to publish in your paper this morning, upon the testimony
of an irresponsible person, an article most insulting to the officers of the Texas
navy generally, but most especially so to those of the Ship Texas—as the 1st Lieutenant
of the Ship Texas, I call upon you sir to correct your statement, otherwise, I
shall be under the necessity of holding you personally responsible for the obnoxious
Though the communication seems polite enough to the modern reader,
in so many words, particularly “holding you personally responsible” the officer
was threatening the editor either with an informal butt-kicking on behalf of the
officers and gentlemen of the Texas Navy or a more formal challenge to a duel.
To his credit, French published Kennedy’s letter in the following day’s
newspaper. But the editor also unlimbered his journalistic guns and made ready
First, he raised the flag of freedom of speech and government
“We hold this fact to be self-evident,” he wrote, “that
the people have a perfect right to know everything with regard to the proceedings
of officers of government, be they good or be they bad, and as a public journalist,
it is our right, as well as duty, to place them before the public.”
the editor wrote, while he had no intention of besmirching anyone, “we are determined
not to be bullied by any man, or any set of men….”
Parsing words like
a politician but with the skill of a clever wordsmith availing himself of the
services of a good lawyer, French noted that since Kennedy had not “seen fit to
deny said statements himself,” he would not correct anything.
all bluster, the editor repeated that he had not intended to insult the entire
officer’s corp of the Texas Navy. “No man can consider himself insulted unless
he was party to the affair,” French wrote.
French went on to say that
his information had come from a man he presumed to be an officer serving on the
Colorado, another Texas warship then in port. And while not naming that man, French
alluded to the fact that someone had already revealed his identity to the other
for posterity’s sake, no where in the cannon blasts of verbiage published in the
April 11, 1840 issue of The Galvestonian did editor French or anyone else repeat
the details of the alleged incident aboard the Austin. The only clue is French’s
mention that he had heard from an officer at the Navy Yard that “the whole affair
was a hoax, got up by the officers themselves, for their own purposes.” If that
proved to be the case, French continued, “We have but assisted in propagating
the hoax and the originators of it have nothing to complain of.”
hunt continues, but so far, the April 10 edition of The Gavlestonian containing
the original account of this carefully unrepeated incident has not been located.
Given that the officers and sailors of the Texas Navy clearly were men of action
easily bored by inaction, and further given that alchohol in that era was almost
universally used and abused, whatever triggered the incident may possibly have
originated in a bottle – or several of them.
Cox - March
8, 2012 column
Texas Towns | Columns
| Texas People