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by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Hurricanes do terrible things - they kill and they destroy property.

But some good can come from them. In 1933, a devastating hurricane slammed into the Lower Rio Grande Valley, doing considerable damage to Port Isabel and Brownsville. On the plus side, the storm (they didn't get names back then) exposed the long-buried remnants of a Civil War supply base and hospital on Brazos Santiago, a stretch of sand just south of Padre Island.

Visitors found intact Army-issue shoes, swords, guns, and bottles lying on the sand as if they had just been dropped by some wool-clad Union soldier.

Sixty-six years later, when Hurricane Bret struck midway between Corpus Christi and South Padre Island on Aug. 22, 1999 it not only poured copious amounts of rain on parched South Texas, it did some interesting archeological work. In displacing tons of sand on the beach of Brazos Santiago, the storm uncovered the remains of what is believed to be a Mexican naval vessel destroyed by the Texas Navy in 1836.

The shipwreck is still visible today at low tide, an approximately 70-foot long, elliptical array of sea life-infested wooden ribs protruding above the sand. Fortunately, only the local salts know the precise location.

It seems all but certain that the spot is the last resting place of the hulk of the General Bravo, a Mexican war ship originally christened as the Moctezuma. She was only a two-masted schooner displacing some 100 tons -- nothing in comparison to the warships of Britain, France and the United States -- but what she did and then what she later failed to do makes her one of the most important vessels in Texas history.

In 1835, as Mexico struggled to keep its grasp on its independent-minded province north of the Rio Grande, the Moctezuma's commander received orders to prevent any duty-free commerce through Texas ports. In other words, she was to suppress what Mexico considered smuggling.

The Moctezuma did her job quite effectively. In stopping and searching Texas-based vessels as well as ships under other flags, the schooner played a big role in adding to the growing Texan hostility toward Mexico. The Mexican warship, wrote one young attorney, "aroused the indignation & resentment of the whole people." The attorney was William Barrett Travis.

Once the revolution began, the Moctezuma, by this time renamed the Bravo, went into service supporting the movement of troops into Texas. As the Bravo operated around the mouth of the Rio Grande, the Texas schooner-of-war Invincible sailed south from Velasco under the command of Jeremiah Brown.

Commissioned on March 12, 1836 only six days after the fall of the Alamo, Brown soon had a bit of a misunderstanding with his boss, Commodore Charles E. Hawkins, that left Brown clapped in irons at Matagorda.

That unpleasantness behind him, Brown set sail to patrol the Gulf of Mexico off the port of Matamoras to prevent Mexico from re-supplying or reinforcing its troops in Texas. On Easter Sunday, April 3, the Invincible attacked the Bravo.

Brown splintered the vessel with cannon balls and left it beached and ablaze near what is now Boca Chica, Texas.

When one of his Texas tars yelled down from the rigging "Sail, ho," the captain brought the Invincible about to bear down on another approaching vessel. This ship proved to be the American-flagged brig Pocket. Brown captured the ship and found the barrels of flour and other items listed on its manifest included hidden kegs of gunpowder and other war material intended for the Mexican Army.

With a Texas crew sailing the Pocket, Brown made for Galveston with his prize. Had the badly needed Mexican supplies reached their Army, it could have continued to fight even after Houston's April 21 victory over General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Since the Mexicans outnumbered the Texans even after Sam Houston's victory over part of the Army, most historians believe Mexico eventually would have prevailed.
Historian Jonathan W. Jordan, author of "Lone Star Navy" (Potomac Books, 2006) doesn't equivocate in his assessment of Brown's engagement off Matamoras: "The Texas Navy, as much as the Battle of San Jacinto, saved Texas, and thereby altered the history of the American west."

Had the Bravo been able to protect shipping from Mexico to the Texas coast, the Mexican national government would have succeeded in re-supplying the army it had sent there to put down a rebellion.
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Though she lies within sight of South Padre Island's high-rise condominiums and hotels, the wreck of the Bravo is hard to reach even in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Even so, souvenir hunters who only charitably might be called amateur archeologists have combed the site with metal detectors and even removed small pieces of the surviving wood as keepsakes of the revolution that assured Texas independence from Mexico.

Slowly, hopefully before her timbers disappear altogether, the historic vessel is being reburied by Gulf of Mexico as wave action replaces the sand washed away by Hurricane Bret. Then, her maritime grave unmarked, the Bravo will wait until the next hurricane exposes it again.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
November 28, 2006 column
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