- Lone Star Navy: Texas, the Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shaping of the American West
Lone Star Navy is a whale of a good book! Jonathan W. Jordan combines superb writing with technical expertise and contextual understanding to produce a volume that is as stimulating as it is satisfying. The author tells the story of the Texas Navy from the haphazard use of armed merchantmen in the earliest stages of the revolt against Mexico to the scrapping of the last Texan ship—the once-proud sloop-of-war Austin—by the U.S. Navy in 1848.
A lawyer by profession but an historian by passion, Jordan makes a brilliant case for the relevance of his saga of now-forgotten naval exploits to the most important issues of the intervening years: the outcome of the Texas Revolution and the very survival of the fragile Texas Republic. By the end of the book, the reader is ready to agree with Jordan's conclusion (p. 309) that if the Texas Navy has been forgotten, it is because it "was a victim of its own success."
By heading off trouble before it reached their home shores, by meeting the enemy in obscure ports and faraway waters, the thin line of wooden vessels under the ensign of the Lone Star more than once prevented successful Mexican invasions of Texas. There was no naval equivalent of the Alamo (a desperate and glorious defeat) or San Jacinto (a desperate and glorious victory), because (p. 309) "the Navy, at minimal cost to its nation, won the kind of strategic victory that makes these more colorful deeds of arms unnecessary."
One citizen of the Texas Republic who would fervently disagree with Jordan's conclusion was Sam Houston, who saw the navy as emblematic of both the profligate expenditure that threatened the government with financial ruin, and the kind of headstrong insubordination that he blamed for the revolutionary disasters at the Alamo and Goliad. In both of his presidential terms, Houston fumed as he watched [End Page 428] his own cabinet officers, naval commissioners, and commandants use the ships of the Texas Navy to make both war and foreign policy in direct defiance of the orders of the constitutional commander-in-chief. But the cautious and conservative General Houston, argues Jordan, never understood two basic points about navies: that they can be strategically much more effective by operating far from home than by clinging to the nation's coastline, and that a navy is not like a militia, which can be called up when needed and equipped on the cheap.
Houston emerges from Jordan's book as a more dangerous threat to the Texas Navy than the Mexicans ever were. Surely Houston hated few men as thoroughly as he despised the intrepid and insubordinate Commodore Edwin Ward Moore, and the feeling was mutual. In between Houston's two terms as president, Commodore Moore was hired and given a monumentally expensive navy by Houston's other archenemy, president Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, whose expansive diplomacy also provided Moore with a wealthy patron and ally in the form of the rebel Mexican state of Yucatán. For much of the early 1840s, the Texan ships protected the rebellious peninsula from Mexican invaders, while Yucatecan silver kept afloat the navy of a bankrupt Republic.
Marred only by an ungainly system of documentation that makes difficult the identification of sources of specific information, Lone Star Navy bristles with insights and revelations. Its most controversial argument may be that a reversal of naval fortunes on the Gulf of Mexico in early 1836 would have allowed a re-supplied Gen. Vicente Filisola to gain victory at a "second San Jacinto" (p. 310)—thus reversing the fortunes of Gen. Sam Houston and suffocating the infant Texas Republic.