Edwin Moore : A Texas Pirate

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edwin moore

Edwin Ward Moore was a great many things in life. An officer in the United States Navy, A commodore in the Republic of Texas Navy , and was even labeled a Texas pirate by Sam Houston himself. He was the only commander to ever lead wind driven wooden sailing ships in successful combat against steam powered Ironclad vessels. In anything, Edwin Moore was not a man that was afraid of a challenge.

Edwin Moore was born July 15, 1810 in Alexandria Virginia. He was a student of the Alexandria Academy and a fellow classmate to Famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Following in the footsteps of many in his family, Moore pursued a career in the military.

At the age of 15, he was accepted into the United States Navy. He was first stationed onboard the USS Hornet as a midshipmen followed by service on Fairchild and Delaware. During these early postings, Moore extensively traveled the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. After 5 years of sea duty, Moore was stationed at the Gosport Naval Yard (Modern Day Norfolk Naval Shipyard), where he served for almost another five years.

texas pirate

Moore was finally promoted to lieutenant and sent back to sea aboard the sloop-of-war USS Boston.  It was on Boston that Moore distinguished himself as a capable officer. In 1836, he was credited as being instrumental in saving the ship during a fierce hurricane. Despite Moore’s bravery and capability at sea, recognition was slow. Following the War of 1812, promotion in the US Navy was almost nonexistent. Veterans of that conflict were given preference over younger officers, no matter how capable. Moore was likely beginning to get tired of the slow ascent of his career at this point. However, events would soon arrive that led Moore to take destiny into his own hands.

In 1836 that the USS Boston captured a Texas Privateer named Terrible off the coast of New Orleans. Boston escorted the ship to Florida to have the Texan crew charged with piracy. Contact with this crew got Moore intrigued with serving under the Texas flag. Over the next three years, Moore mulled over his options. He also began openly discussing his ideas with other crewmembers on the Boston. Finally, in 1839, Moore was accused of attempting to recruit US sailors to enlist in the Republic of Texas Navy. However, before charges could be brought up, Moore promptly resigned from the Navy and made his way to Texas. By the end of 1839, Moore had not only managed to join the Texas Navy, but also got himself commissioned as the commander of its naval forces.

Texas was still attempting to get Mexico to recognize its Independence. To strengthen its position, the Republic of Texas acquired a small fleet of six vessels. They offered command of these vessels to Moore, no doubt influencing his decision to resign from the US Navy.

Over the course of three years, Moore sailed up and down the Mexican coast, raiding coastal towns and attacking Mexican shipping. He allied with the Mexican state of Yucatan which was also in rebellion against Mexico. Texas and the Republic of Yucatan signed a treaty of cooperation. The Republic of Yucatan essentially leased the Republic of Texas Navy to protect its coastlines from Mexican ships. In return, the Republic of  Yucatan paid Texas about $8000.00 a month. Moore successfully prevented a blockade and captured several Mexican towns on the coast. However, despite the adoration of the citizens of Texas, Moore would  earn himself an enemy from none other than the President of Texas, Sam Houston.

After becoming President of Texas in 1841, Sam Houston set to work dismantling the Yucatan treaty. He was also largely against the Texas Navy and ordered them to return home where they could be sold. Moore took his fleet and arrived at Galveston, Texas to a hero’s welcome. When it was learned that the ships were to be sold, the citizens of Galveston rioted, preventing their sale.

Following the riots, Moore collected his ships and sailed out of Galveston. Having come too far to stop, Moore defied Houston and sailed for the Yucatan coast. He reinstated the Yucatan Treaty and again went to war against Mexico. His greatest Triumph would come about a year later.

In 1843, Edwin Moore would find himself leading the renegade Texan ships in the Naval Battle of Campeche. A series of battles fought from April 30th to May 16th, the battle would become one of the most interesting battles in naval history.

republic of texas navy

On April 30th, Moore and his small fleet encountered the Mexican fleet comprised of the Ironclads Guadalupe and Moctezuma along with the steamer Regenerator and several smaller ships. Guadalupe and Mocteczuma were 1200 ton steam driven ironclads. These arships were British built and captained by British officers. They carried the latest guns, able to fire high explosive shells. At the time, they were the most advanced warships in the Gulf of Mexico.  Moore’s flagship, the Austin, was roughly 600 tons and armed with 20 cannons. He was accompanied by the brig Wharton of 400 tons and seven small Yucatan ships. Severely outgunned, It seemed that Moore was destined to fail. However, that was not to be.

If Moore had shown anything, it was that he was unrelentingly persistent. He had known of Mexico’s new ironclads and thought that he could defeat them if he could separate them. However, with both of them bearing down on him, Moore realized it was now or never.

Over the next two hours, the two fleets ran alongside one another exchanging broadsides. Mexican gunnery appears to be extremely poor as Austin was only hit once during the fight. On the other hand, the Texan and Yucatan ships scored several hits. The Ironclad Moctezuma was hit several times, losing her captain and several crewmembers. The ferocity of the attack surprised the Mexican fleet and they retired from the fight. The departure of the Mexican fleet allowed Moore to take his ships into Campeche to resupply and rearm. Knowing that the Mexican Ironclads were waiting offshore, Moore upgraded his firepower by bringing heavier guns aboard his ships.

naval battle of campeche
The location of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.

On May 16th, the Texan fleet left Campeche on a favorable wind and attacked the Mexican Ironclads. The gunnery of the Ironclads was better this time and Austin took heavy damage during the attack. However, her gunners continued to pump broadsides into the ironclads. It is thought that as many as 180 Mexican and British sailors lost their lives in the battle. The mounting casualties were enough that the Mexican Ironclads were forced to withdraw, bringing the Naval Battle of Campeche to an end. For the first and only time in history, wooden sailing ships had prevailed over steam driven ironclads.

Despite the incredible victory, Moore learned that he did not redeem himself to Sam Houston. Houston labeled Moore as a pirate along with his renegade crew. Houston even requested that should they be encountered, they immediately be captured and executed. Moore decided that enough was enough. He resigned to turn himself in and fight Houston in court. On July 14, 1943 the Texan ships returned to Galveston and Moore immediately demanded a trial. While Houston might have been furious with Moore, the people of Texas saw Moore as a hero. The citizens of Galveston gave the returning Texan ships a impressive welcome and lavished much praise upon Moore.

This adoration of the public might have been what saved Moore. During the court-martial hearings, Moore and his crew were eventually acquitted. Moore and his lieutenant were forced to resign their commission. Moore protested this order and less than a year later, the Texas government decided that Moore would receive his commissions.

Moore would never again command ships, though he did continue to have a presence in the maritime industry. In 1850, Moore worked to convince the US Navy to recognize the ranks of the officers in the Texas Navy. This led to the US Navy granting Moore and his comrades five years of US navy back pay. Moore later developed businesses in Galveston and New York City. It was in New York City that Moore died in 1865.

During the last years of Moore’s life, he made it a point to fight Sam Houston, even during his time as a US Senator. Moore remained a thorn in Houston’s side until the very end.

Want to read more amazing stories of sailing ships? Check out Matthew Wright’s article on a little known naval skirmish in the Hellhole of the Pacific. You can also read this amazing story of a sailing ship that plied the waters during World War I.

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Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.

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