Yellow Jack and the Texas Navy

Although yellow fever can now be prevented by an effective vaccine, in the 19th century it was a recurring and serious problem in the southern United States and the Caribbean. Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne viral disease varying widely in severity, exhibiting everything from flu-like symptoms to severe hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever. Many of those infected died. At the time of the Republic of Texas, the variability of the symptoms made the disease difficult to distinguish from other illnesses, and even today a positive diagnosis is only possible through laboratory testing.

Yellow fever, or “yellow jack” as it was commonly known, was a perennial matter of concern on the Texas coast, with isolated cases appearing almost every year in the early-to mid-19th century, with more serious outbreaks occurring on a regular basis. The first recorded appearance of yellow fever at Galveston occurred in 1839, followed by outbreaks in 1842, 1844, 1845, 1848, 1853, 1854, 1858, 1864, and 1867. The epidemic of 1844 was a severe one, with more than 10% of the city’s population falling in, and many deaths. During the 1853 outbreak, more than 500 island residents died. During the 1864 epidemic, at least 259 deaths in Galveston were attributed to the disease, a figure that represented nearly ten percent of the town’s military and civilian population at the time. The majority of the dead were civilians, and over a quarter were children ten years and under. Visiting ships were most often assumed to be the source of outbreaks on the island, although the yellow fever epidemic that swept Galveston in 1867 appears to have started at Indianola, down the coast, arriving there on a vessel from Veracruz, Mexico. When it appeared in Galveston a few weeks later, a quarter of Galveston’s 22,500 inhabitants fled inland to avoid the epidemic. Disease burned through the population that remained, taking around a thousand lives on the island, and another 3,000 in other parts of the state.[1]

yellow-fever-1867-granger
Citizens crowd the Central Wharf at Galveston, fleeing the raging yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

Yellow fever is a terrible disease, horrible to endure and difficult to witness in others. Transmitted by mosquitoes, it typically incubates for three- to six days before symptoms appear. Some of those infected do not show symptoms at all, and those who do often experience relatively mild symptoms of fever, aches, headache, loss of appetite, and nausea — all of which are common symptoms of other illnesses, that made yellow fever difficult to diagnose in the 19th century. These symptoms generally disappear in a few days, but in some cases are followed by a much more severe illness, that includes high fever, damage to the liver and kidneys, jaundice, and abdominal pain and vomiting. Blood pools in the stomach from internal hemorrhaging, that patients often throw up in a dark, congealed mass. This symptom gives yellow fever its Spanish name, vomito negro – “black vomit.” About half the patients who enter this more severe phase of the illness die within 7 to 10 days.[2]

In the early 19th century, no one yet understood that yellow fever and other diseases were transmitted by mosquitoes. There was some understanding among those who had studied it, like Galveston’s Dr. Ashbel Smith, that yellow fever was connected somehow with general cleanliness in a community and especially with draining stagnant pools of water.[3] But any real understanding of the disease or how to prevent it would only come at the end of the century with the recognition of the mosquito as its carrier, or vector, through the work of Cuban physician Carlos Juan Finlay, and U.S. Army surgeon Major Walter Reed.[4]

The officers and seamen of the Texas Navy had to deal with the dangers of yellow fever and other infectious diseases just as those on shore did. By the early 19th century, mariners generally recognized that the health of the ship’s company was improved when there was little contact with the shore. After a few weeks at sea, after general illnesses ran their course on board, further illness was significantly reduced. If fresh provisions and drinking water could be maintained, along with antiscorbutic to prevent scurvy, so much the better. The British had demonstrated this effectively during the blockade of the French coast during the Napoleonic Wars, when they remained on station off Brest and other ports for months at a time, with relatively little sickness within the fleet. It was on shore, where officers and sailors encountered strangers, volumes of alcohol of dubious quality, malarial fevers, and venereal diseases, where sickness and death often lay.

The Texas Navy, of course, rarely operated offshore for an extended period. Most of its operations were along the Texas coast and, for lack of funding and supplies, its ships were often left sitting in the harbor at Galveston or Matagorda, where they were nearly as susceptible to disease and illness as the Texian settlers on land. New Orleans, that was visited regularly by Texas Navy vessels for resupply, recruiting, and repair, was also a regular source of illness. (Many will recall that the first Commodore of the Texas Navy, Charles Hawkins, died of smallpox in a New Orleans boardinghouse in early 1837.) Various factors, including the low, marshy terrain, overcrowding, and the continual coming and going of both seagoing vessels from foreign ports and steamboats from the interior of the United States, all contributed to an almost nonstop churn of disease and illness in the Crescent City. Yellow fever appeared almost every year, with a full-blown epidemic every few years; between the first recorded epidemic there in 1817 and the Civil War, yellow fever killed more than 40,000 New Orleanians. Yellow jack was almost entirely eliminated in the city during the four years of U.S. military occupation in 1862-65, but it returned with a vengeance immediately after the war, and continued to plague the city for the rest of the century.[5]

1852
“New Orleans from the Lower Cotton Press,” 1852, by J. W. Hill. This view captures what the Crescent City must have looked like a few years before, when vessels of the Texas Navy visited for supplies, repairs, and recruiting. Library of Congress image.

Cornelius C. Cox, a midshipman aboard the Texian steamer-of-war Zavala, probably contracted yellow fever brought aboard that ship during a call at New Orleans in the summer of 1840. Decades later he wrote that another midshipman, whose name he could not recall, had signed on aboard the ship at New Orleans before they sailed for the Yucatán coast. While anchored at the Texians’ rendezvous in the Cayos Arcas, about 90 nautical miles off the Mexican coast, both Cox and the other young man became incapacitated with yellow fever. Zavala’s commanding officer, John T. Lothrop, had them placed on cots in the main saloon of the steamer and given every medical attention available on board. Cox wrote that “I do not know if I took the fever from [the other midshipman], but I do recollect that I was sick, and that we lay together in the saloon of the steamer, and that the young man died at my side.”[6]

Bridgeman; (c) David Brangwyn; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“The Burial at Sea,” by Sir Frank William Brangwyn, 1890. Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) via The Athenaeum.

Worse was soon to come that fall. In an attempt to build an alliance with Yucatecan rebels fighting against the central government in Mexico City, Commodore Edwin Moore took his Texian squadron roughly a hundred miles up the Tabasco River to San Juan Bautista. The city was held by a Centralist garrison, but under siege by the rebels under General Juan Pablo de Anaya. Moore had his flagship Austin, the Texian schooner San Bernard, and a Yucatecan brig towed 100 miles up the river to the town by Zavala. The 600 Centralist soldiers surrendered on November 20 without Moore having to fire a shot, but the Texian casualties of the campaign were just beginning. The same night as the city capitulated, Edward Thornton of the sloop-of-war Austin got drunk and admitted to a plan for mutiny. Thornton was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to be flogged, but the man died of yellow fever on January 4, 1841 before the sentence could be carried out.[7]

The wretched Thornton was to be the first of many to follow. Although he had achieved an easy victory, Moore and his squadron were stuck at San Juan Bautista. He and Anaya had made an agreement that the Navy would be paid $10,000 for its assistance, along with reducing the Navy’s debt of $15,000, all to be paid within 20 days of the capture of the city. Anaya paid the first $10,000 promptly, but began stalling after that, and tried to get Moore to leave with only the partial payment. Moore knew that if he did, he would never see the rest of the money, so the squadron sat immobile for weeks in the Tabasco River off the city, surrounded by the tropical jungle and swamps.

In early December, about two weeks after the Texian squadron had arrived at San Juan Bautista, cases of “tropical fever” began appearing among the crews. In the absence of proper diagnostic tools, it was difficult to distinguish between specific ailments that had similar symptoms, but certainly yellow fever was first and most feared among them. The ship’s surgeon aboard Austin, John Burrows Gardiner, wrote that while he had only had 10 minor cases in November, on December 5, 1840, “sickness broke out suddenly and with great violence.” Over the next few weeks, Gardiner recorded 22 cases of tropical fever and 86 cases he diagnosed as influenza, the majority of which were intestinal flu. Disease spread quickly through the ship, infecting officers and seamen alike. Before the epidemic was over, Gardiner noted that he was surprised that any of the crew escaped illness. Moore himself became ill, and his steward, Samuel Edgerton, died three days before Christmas. Eventually Moore had to seize and hold hostage two Yucatecan vessels before Anaya finally rounded up the money to pay the Texians. After more than a month in the fetid climate of San Juan Bautista and the Tabasco River, Moore and his squadron finally steamed back down the river into the Bay of Campeche with only 30 able-bodied men to work the three Texian vessels. At least 25 men aboard the sloop-of-war Austin alone died of illness between August 1840 and January 1841, and most of the rest had been seriously ill.[8]

On the other hand, the arbitrary nature of yellow fever also worked to the Texians’ advantage on at least one occasion two years later. When Moore and the Texians were back in the region in the spring of 1843, in the campaign that led to the Battle of Campeche on May 16 of that year, they were facing two British-built steamships, Montezuma and Guadalupe. Those vessels’ officers and crews were mostly British citizens, including officers on furlough from the Royal Navy. But just as the Texians had suffered from tropical fevers in the Tabasco River in 1840, the British too were subject to an epidemic aboard ship, including many cases of yellow fever. Captain Richard Cleaveland, R.N., of Montezuma was counted among the dead. Cleaveland’s friend, Captain Edward Philips Charlewood of the steamer Guadalupe, wrote years later that

the vomito was now on board, in its worst type; men were taken ill one day, and dead in two days afterwards. About sixteen had already died, when, to my great concern, our only doctor was taken ill, and died very rapidly. I now felt we were in a very serious position, the prospect being that our crew would be annihilated. Not one had recovered whilst the doctor was alive; what would it be now? In my difficulty, I considered it desirable to try a native doctor, and had one sent on board. He appeared to be an intelligent man, and at once set to work to examine the state of affairs. In about an hour’s time he came to me, with a long face, and counting on his fingers, began in his broken English — “Capitan, there are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 men who have taken calomel; all these shall die, but I shall save all the rest.” And he was strictly true to his word; all of the nine whom our English doctor had dosed with calomel died.[9]

Charlewood distinguished between milder cases of yellow fever and its severe phase, that he referred to as the vomito, almost as though they were separate illnesses. Charlewood also swore by the treatment prescribed by the local physician, that seems to have been equal parts laxative and superstition:

The Mexican doctor’s treatment was curious. Directly anyone had a decided attack he was put to bed, and a tumblerful of the following mixture given to him, a tablespoonful of castor oil, a little salt and lime juice, and then the tumbler filled to the brim with olive oil. It was seldom any other dose was required; but the patient had to abstain from shaving, or wetting his face or any other part with water for weeks. This was by far the worst part of the cure.[10]

In fact, Charlewood attributed his friend Cleaveland’s death to not following instructions about not washing; he wrote that “when Cleaveland came out [to Mexico], the vomito soon got on board, and he was attacked. A Mexican doctor treated him, and he became convalescent; but the prohibition to abstain from wetting his person was too much for his cleanly habits. He washed his feet one morning, and that same evening he was dead.”[11]

It was in this weakened condition, with crews reduced by disease, recovering from purgatives, and reeking after weeks of not bathing, that the Mexican squadron met Moore and his ships in the famous action of May 16.[12]

guadalupe-nmm
The British-built paddler steamer Guadalupe. National Maritime Museum of the U.K.

Commodore Moore’s cruise on the Yucatecan coast in 1843 and the Battle of Campeche marked the end of the Texas Navy as an operational fighting force. At the insistence of President Houston, Moore was relieved of his command and charged with a raft of offenses ranging from neglect of duty and embezzlement to treason and murder; he was acquitted the following year of all but for counts of disobedience of orders, for which the court martial declined to impose any punishment. The surviving ships were laid up, and the Navy’s property sold off at public auction. But yellow jack would take one last, deadly swipe at the Texian sailors. In 1844 the surveying steamer USS Poinsett, commanded by Lieutenant Rafael Semmes, brought the disease to Galveston from Veracruz, and it swept through settled parts of the Republic. As noted earlier, an estimated ten percent of Galveston’s population fell ill, with many fatalities. Among those who died in the epidemic were Downing Crisp, who had taken command of the laid-up Texas flagship Austin, and John T. Lothrop, who had commanded Zavala four years earlier during the Texas Navy’s first campaign to assist the Yucatecan rebels, and helped Midshipman Cornelius Cox to recover from the disease. Both men had served with the Navy almost through its entire existence, and might have had long, distinguished careers had the Navy and Republic survived in the decades that followed. Lothrop was buried with his sword on his chest, “as if, even in death, he would save its bright blade from blot or blemish.”[13]

The Texian Navy fought many battles during its short years of existence. Its record in combat, like that of the incipient American Navy two generations before, was mixed. But it’s helpful to remember that for all the successes and victories of men like Jeremiah Brown, Charles Hawkins, John Lothrop, and Edwin Moore, the most challenging opponents they faced were those that were immune to shot and shell — political intrigue, a lack of money, and in some cases, illness. The story of the Texas Navy and the impact that yellow fever had on it is worth remembering.

 

Copyright ©2020 Andrew W. Hall, all rights reserved.
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[1] Charles Waldo Hayes, History of the Island and the City of Galveston (Austin: Jenkins Garrett Press, 1974), 738; Tom Henderson Wells, Commodore Moore & the Texas Navy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1960), 167; Jacy Teston and Mason Meek, “Yellow Fever in Galveston, Texas,” East Texas History, accessed March 22, 2020, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/251. For coverage of the 1864 epidemic, see the Galveston Weekly News of September 21, 1864, and October 26, 1864.

[2] “Yellow fever,” World Health Organization, last modified May 7, 2019, accessed March 22, 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/yellow-fever.

[3] Smith noted that although Galveston was a clean and tidy place generally, “from the overflow of the tides and from occasional rains, there exists at all times, between the levee and the elevated land in the rear, either a quagmire or a sheet of shallow water, three fourths of a mile long, and varying from one hundred to three hundred feet in breadth, exposed to the rays of an ardent sun. In front of this portion of the City, the shipping from twenty-five to fifty craft, ride at anchor. Along on the levee and immediately contiguous to the morass, runs the Strand, the principal business street of the City — Nearly all the stores and buildings on one side of the Strand, are erected in or over the morass, without its having been filled up at all, or but very inadequately. In addition to the mud and moisture suffered to remain beneath, and in the rear of these buildings, the filth which business and population engender, has been permitted to accumulate.” Ashbel Smith, An Account of the Yellow Fever which Appeared in the City of Galveston, Republic of Texas, in the Autumn of 1839, with Cases and Dissections (Galveston: Hamilton Stuart, 1839), 6.

[4] Patrick Feng, “Major Walter Reed and the Eradication of Yellow Fever,” National Museum of the United States Army, accessed March 22, 2020, https://armyhistory.org/major-walter-reed-and-the-eradication-of-yellow-fever/.

[5] Andrew McIlwaine Bell, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2010), 36-37.

[6] Cornelius C. Cox, “Reminiscences of C. C. Cox,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 6, no. 2 (October 1902): 123.

[7] Tom Henderson Wells, Commodore Moore & the Texas Navy (Austin: University of Texas, 1960), 44-45.

[8] Gardiner quoted in Jonathan W. Jordan, Lone Star Navy: Texas, the Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shaping of the American West (Washington: Potomac Books, 2006), 175; ibid., 174-76; Wells, 45.

[9] Edward Philips Charlewood, Passages from the Life of a Naval Officer (Manchester: Cave & Sever, 1869), 75-76.

[10] Charlewood, 76.

[11] Charlewood, 76. Emphasis in the original.

[12] Wells, 148.

[13] Civilian and Galveston Gazette, 31 August 1844, 2; Wells, 167-68. Semmes would later become a household name as commander of the Confederate raider Alabama during the American Civil War.

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One thought on “Yellow Jack and the Texas Navy

  1. This is so very important you should consider sending it to Dempsey and David Wie tzel for distribution to all TNA members. A magnificent posting. Once again you “hit it out of the Park”!!!!! Thank you, Chester

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