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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

The Horse Marines

by Clay Coppedge
Clay Coppedge columns & bio
Considering 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 Horse Marines.

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 after Texas’ 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 Copano Bay. 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 Army.

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

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