Fasten the mizzen mast! Splike the nimrods and be quick about it, mates. Why this nautical mood? Because Sept. 17 is (or was, depending when you are reading this) Texian Navy Day! What’s that? Pilgrim, back in Newark you knew Texas had an army – the Alamo, San Jacinto and Salvation — but the Republic of Texas also had a navy. In fact, we had two and it’s a reason we don’t celebrate Diaz y Seis. Well, some don’t. To re-tell the tale: The Republic of Texas created a navy which fought the Mexican Navy up and down the Gulf. President Sam Houston, being an army man, hated the navy and refused to pay its costs. He once declared the entire Texas Navy to be pirates and called on other nations to arrest the lot. By the time Houston left the presidency for the first time, in 1838, the Texas Navy was down to one unsailable ship, two lieutenants, two midshipmen, a doctor, two pursers, two seamen who were both deserters from the U.S. Navy, and the ranking lieutenant was cashiered “in consequence of a repeated inebriety.” Texas’ next president, Mirabeau Lamar, liked the navy and restored funds to build a fleet.
This brings us to the night of Feb.11, 1842, on the Mississippi River off New Orleans aboard the Texas Navy Schooner (TNS) San Antonio. The ship had rescued the crew and passengers from a sinking American ship, touched in at Galveston briefly and was ordered to go to New Orleans to let off the shipwreck survivors and pick up supplies. So it did. Ah, New Orleans, every sailor’s heart beat faster at the prospect of a night on Bourbon Street. The ship pulled in, and began loading supplies. Beef (a dime a pound), bread (a nickel a loaf) and potatoes (a dollar a bushel). That’s all. The diet on Texas ships was inexpensive to the taxpayers, but not too varied for the crew. It is now night, when the ranking officers set off for the bright lights of the big city, leaving the crew aboard for the very good reason that, once ashore, most would never come back. A man can stomach only so much beef, bread and potatoes.
Some passing boatmen slip aboard a few bottles of booze for the crew. Down in the hold the sailors imbibe and start griping. Topside, Marine Sgt. Seymour Oswald accosts Lt. M. B. Dearborn and demands shore leave for himself and some friends. No soap, or gruel, Sergeant. They get into an argument and Marine Lt. Charles Fuller, the ranking officer still on board, pops up on deck to see what’s happening. Things are getting touchy, so Fuller resorts to the usual solution to shipboard problems: he calls out the Marine guard, Sgt. Oswald, commanding. It usually works, putting the cause of the problem in charge of the solution. Only somebody forgot to tell Sgt. Oswald. He begins passing out weapons, not only to the Marine guard, but to his fellow sailor mutineers. He keeps a Colt pistol and a tomahawk (the Texas Navy was uniquely prepared for Indian attacks). Under the guise of reporting that the guard is ready, Sgt. Oswald approaches Fuller. Oswald cracks the officer smartly on the head with a tomahawk. Fuller grabs his own pistol, Oswald fires his. The Marines rush topside. So do the mutineers. Bang. Stab. Shoot. Fuller falls dead and the crew attacks his body with cutlasses and muskets. Two midshipmen, Alden and Odell, rush to protect Fuller and are promptly wounded. Lt. Dearborn is “knocked down the cabin hatch and the companion drawn over him.”
Oswald and his cronies lower a couple of boats and head for the fun, but the battle has attracted the notice of sailors aboard a nearby U.S revenue cutter, the Jackson. The U.S. sailors investigate and find poor Lt. Dearborn down below, yelling for help. The U.S. sailors and the New Orleans police quickly round up the Texas mutineers and toss them in jail. When the San Antonio finally leaves port, it only has two of the mutineers aboard, International extradition snags between the U.S. and the Republic keep the others in jail. The captain decides not to hold the court martial immediately since the sight of crewmen dangling from the yardarm might put a damper on his recruiting in New Orleans (the ship had some unexpected vacancies). Fuller is also left behind — buried in the Girod Street Cemetery.
President Sam Houston is upset when he receives the news. (“This subject is the first in my recollection which has occurred in any port of a foreign nation.”) and finally gets most of the other mutineers back to Texas, although the ringleader, Sgt. Oswald, has escaped and is never heard from again. The head of the Texas Navy, Commodore Edwin W. Moore, gathers all concerned and puts them aboard the good ship TNS Austin, and heads for the high seas. The state’s case is hampered by the fact that the San Antonio and its entire crew disappeared in the Gulf. In any event, Moore convenes the case. Frederick Shepherd, after some questioning, turns state’s evidence. He gets off but is killed three weeks later in a battle. Benjamin Pornpilly, who died in prison, had already confessed his part in the mutiny. F. Williams is let off with 50 lashes while William Barrington and Edward Kenan get 100 each. But Pvt. Antonio Landois and Cpl. William Simpson of the Marines and Seamen James Hudgins and Isaac Allen are sentenced to the yardarm. On April 26, 1843, at high noon, they were strung up. Prayers were said over each of the departed, who were then buried at sea. As for Lt. Fuller, his body stayed in New Orleans until 1936 when he was brought to the Official State Cemetery in east Austin. New Orleans needed the Girod Street Cemetery. They had to widen Girod Street.
Ashby mutinies at email@example.com