The Charles E. Hawkins Squadron is named for Charles Edward Hawkins (c. 1802-37), who served as Commodore of the Texian Navy during the period of the Texas Revolution in 1836 and 1837.
Hawkins was born in New York in about 1802, and first was warranted as a Midshipman in the U.S. Navy on March 4, 1818. In July he sailed aboard U.S.S. Guerierre on an extended cruise in European waters, that took him first to St. Petersburg in the Baltic on a diplomatic mission, and then to the Mediterranean until Guerriere’s return to the United States at Norfolk in October 1819. It must have been a singular introduction to the naval life for a young man like Hawkins. One of his gunroom messmates aboard Guerriere was Charles Wilkes, who would later command the famous United States Exploring Expedition in 1838-42, and still later trigger an international crisis by seizing two Confederate diplomats from a British steamer on the high seas in 1861.
Guerriere remained at Norfolk until November 8, 1820, when she was placed “in ordinary” (i.e., in reserve status) there. In late 1820 or early 1821, Hawkns was assigned to the 74-gun ship-of-the-line U.S.S. Washington, moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. About that same time, on March 8, 1821, Hawkins married a woman named Mary R. DeHart in Manhattan. Whether or not Mary is the same Mrs. Hawkins to whom Charles was married to eight years later later in Key West, or under what circumstances their marriage ended, is not clear.
Hawkins’ new assignment could not have been more different from his days sailing the Mediterranean two years before. Washington‘s keel had been laid during the War of 1812 but was completed too late to see action in that conflict. After a period serving as the U.S. squadron’s flagship in the Mediterranean, Washington returned to New York where she remained for the rest of her career, rarely (if ever) putting to sea again. Hawkins probably chafed at the dull routine of life spent aboard a stationary, inactive ship, riding to her moorings in harbor for years — “grounding on her own beef bones,” in the parlance of the day. At one point Hawkins took a year’s furlough, without pay.
There were few opportunities for action or advancement in the U.S. Navy in the 1820s, the one exception being the West Indies Squadron, that had been having some success in suppressing piracy around Cuba, Hispañola, and Puerto Rico. Sometime in 1824 Hawkins obtained a coveted berth aboard the new flagship of that squadron, U.S.S. Constellation, under Captain Lewis Warrington, who continued the work of hunting down pirates begun by his predecessor in command, David Porter. (Porter had been relieved and subsequently court-martialed for using some heavy-handed tactics against the local Spanish authorities in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, in retaliation for a slight against one of his officers.) While serving in the Caribbean, Hawkins began learning the tactical operations that would serve him for the remainder of his career, along with (quite likely) a disdain for Spanish colonial rule in the region. By early 1825, Hawkins was serving aboard the small, 51-ton schooner Ferret, one of the small warships well suited to working close inshore among the bays and reefs of the Caribbean. Hawkins was appointed as Acting Master, a position of significant responsibility, that suggests his navigational and seamanship skills were particularly strong. Unfortunately, his service aboard Ferret was short lived — the schooner was blown onto a reef and capsized in a sudden gale near Matanzas, Cuba on February 4, 1825, and the vessel filed with water and began to sink. The strongest swimmers among the crew assembled a raft and made for shore. The remainder clung to the wreck all night, before being picked up by U.S.S. Jackal the following day. Five crew members had drowned during their ordeal. Most of Ferret‘s crew returned to Norfolk, along with the recently-relieved Commodore Porter, aboard the frigate John Adams; for reasons that are not clear, Hawkins remained behind at the settlement at Key West, then still known as Thompson’s Island. Hawkins followed in another vessel a short time later, landing at Baltimore sometime before the end of March 1825. Hawkins found himself once again assigned to New York, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
During the course of 1825, the Navy was roiled by the controversy over Commodore Porter’s actions at Fajardo, his subsequent relief from command of the West Indies Squadron, and pending court-martial. While the new administration of President John Quincy Adams would have been happy to end Porter’s career — Adams had been the chief architect of the Adams–Onís Treaty, that ceded Florida to the United States from Spain, and was determined to maintain good relations with that nation and its colonies — Porter had considerable sympathy among his fellow naval officers. Porter’s court-martial resulted in an official censure that was little more than symbolic, but the injury to his pride at the hands of the U.S. Navy was more than he could bear. He accepted an offer to command the naval forces of the Republic of Mexico, that was continuing its long, drawn-out struggle against its former Spanish rulers.
Cooling his heels back again at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Hawkins probably followed Porter’s case with interest. He would have known Porter from his time with the West Indies Squadron, if not before, and also learned that Porter was openly courting an offer from the new Mexican government to command its navy. When Porter formally decided to accept the Mexicans’ offer, Hawkins decided to go with him. He sailed with Porter for Mexico in the spring of 1826, although he did not officially resign his midshipman’s warrant until October 17 of that year, long after he had entered Mexican service. By the end of the year, Porter had put Hawkins in command of the schooner Hermón.
The little vessel only mounted five guns, but under Hawkins she proved to be one of the most effective and aggressive warships in the Gulf of Mexico. During his time in command of the West Indies Squadron, Commodore Porter had established the first U.S. naval base at Key West. A few years later, as a midshipman in that same squadron under Warrington, Hawkins had helped to dismantle and relocate that base to Pensacola, but he had become very familiar with the anchorage there and, in particular, its proximity to Cuba and its capital at Havana. Over the next two years, Hawkins and Hermón used Key West as a base for making raids against Spanish coastal shipping and bringing in captured prizes and cargoes. For American officials there, Hawkins’ activities under the Mexican ensign were a continual, rolling diplomatic and legal crisis of one incident after another that strained American neutrality toward both Spain and its former colony, Mexico. There was an intensely personal dimension to it, as well, as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, William Allison McRae, allegedly began having an affair with Hawkins’ wife. Their dispute appeared to culminate in an “affair of honor” — that is, a duel — at Key West in February 1829 when Hawkins and McRae exchanged shots, with each man being slightly wounded, but McRae’s illicit liaisons with Mrs. Hawkins allegedly resumed when Hawkins left Key West to make one last trip to Mexico as a commissioned naval officer of that government.
By this time the Mexican government, perennially short of funds, had ceased paying Porter and his officers, and most of them, including Hawkins, resigned their Mexican commissions and returned to the United States. When Hawkins arrived in Key West again in May 1829 after resigning his Mexican commission, he not only learned that McRae had again taken up with his wife, but that McRae, who had represented him in previous legal legal disputes, was now using his knowledge of Hawkins’ business affairs in representing clients suing Hawkins. Hawkins had enough. He ambushed McRae, unloading both barrels of a shotgun into the district attorney on a Sunday evening in late May. McRae died a few hours later. Hawkins turned himself in to local authorities who, fearful for the prisoner’s safety and lacking a proper jail at Key West, immediately sent him to St. Augustine aboard U.S. Revenue Cutter Marion. Hawkins spent the next eighteen months in custody at St. Augustine before being released under circumstances that are not entirely clear.
After his release, Hawkins reportedly served as a steamboat captain on the Chattahoochee River, that forms the border between Georgia and Alabama. By the fall of 1835, Hawkins was in New Orleans, working with the former Mexican General José Antonio Mexia in organizing a filibustering expedition to ferment a coup to overthrow the current, centralist Mexican government. Hawkins helped Mexia recruit American, French, and German colonists with the promise of settling in Texas, an donly revealed the true intent of the expedition when their vessel, the schooner Mary Jane, arrived off Tampico. There was little enthusiasm for Mexia’s cause among the erstwhile colonists, but after Mary Jane ran aground, they had little choice but to go ashore and make an attempt to capture the town. They were quickly defeated. Mexia, Hawkins, and some of the others managed to escape and be rescued by an American vessel; the survivors captured by the Mexicans were executed. After this event the Mexican Foreign Minister, José María Tornel y Mendívil, issued an edict that henceforth all foreign combatants captured on Mexican soil “shall be treated and punished as pirates,” i.e., subject to execution. Santa Anna would later cite the Tornel Decree as justification for his order to execute James Fannin and his men at Goliad.
Hawkins landed at Brazoria, where just before Christmas 1835 he offered his services to the provisional Texian government, that sent him on to New Orleans, where commissioners were working to assemble a naval force. The commissioners – Stephen F. Austin, Branch T. Archer, and William H. Wharton – had bought a former U.S. Revenue Cutter, Ingham, and renamed her Independence.
Through the spring of 1836, Hawkins and Independence cruised the Texas coast, making several small captures while sending other vessels, notably Invincible, under Jeremiah Brown, and Liberty, under Jeremiah’s brother William, on extended cruises where they made important captures of supplies that were forwarded along to Sam Houston’s army in the field. Hawkins based his little squadron initially at Matagorda, before moving farther up the coast to Galveston on the advance of the Mexican army. After the Battle of San Jacinto in April, the Texian Navy continued to patrol the coast, keeping a close watch in particular on the anchorage at Brazos Santiago near the mouth of the Rio Grande, where a second Mexican invasion force was widely rumored to be in the process assembling.
By the winter of 1836-37, Hawkins’ little squadron was badly in need of refit and repair, as well as new recruits. He took both Independence and Liberty to New Orleans, where he contracted smallpox. He died in New Orleans on February 12, 1837, and was buried with military honors in the Girod Street Cemetery, near the site of the present-day Superdome. He was only about 34 years old.
Girod Street Cemetery was razed in 1957 and the remains of its white burials removed to the Hope Mausoleum of New Orleans, and its African American burials to Providence Memorial Park of Metairie.
Charles Hawkins was a difficult and flawed man who, according to one person who knew him, “put on a great deal of style, and always appeared in naval uniform. He was a handsome man, and fully conscious of the fact.” Terms used to describe Hawkins included “ostentatious,” “haughty,” and “obnoxious.” “Aristocratical arrogance” was another. He had a quick temper with (perhaps) a cruel streak, and on one occasion had his fellow Texian Navy Captain, Jeremiah Brown, arrested and placed in irons. Hawkins’ hard hand extended to his crews, as well; Samuel W. Cushing, who served aboard the Texian schooner Liberty, recalled “the yells of the poor fellows undergoing the punishment of the cat-o’-nine-tails on board of the Independence. . . which were heard daily” in March 1836, during Hawkins’ command.
And yet, for all his limitations and personal demons, Hawkins was a fighter. He fought pirates in the Caribbean, he fought the Spanish, and he fought the Mexicans, all with much the same vigor that he brought to bear against his personal enemies. He lived hard, and probably did more living in his thirty-four years than most men given twice that long on this earth. Driven inexorably to toward conflict and adventure, Charles Hawkins found his way to Texas in a moment when the fledgling Republic – in fact, not yet a Republic – needed a man of just his sort. As historian James M. Denham summarized it,
Hawkins’s career illustrates the limited opportunities for able seamen in America’s peacetime navy during the early nineteenth century. Because he believed in the two causes for which he fought outside the United States, his decision to leave the American navy must not have been overly difficult. Service in the navies of Mexico and Texas offered talented, ambitious men opportunities the American service did not. Full of self-confidence, Hawkins was unwilling to remain in a navy that held little chance for advancement — especially when opportunities elsewhere looked so bright.
When Texas needed him, Charles Hawkins was there.
James M. Denham, “Charles E. Hawkins: Sailor of Three Republics.” Gulf Coast Historical Review (5)2, Spring 1990, 92–103.
Jim Dan Hill, “Commodore Hawkins of the Texas Navy.” Southwest Review (22)1, October 1936, 41-52.
John Powers, The First Texas Navy (Austin: Woodmont Books, 2006).
The most detailed account of the Hawkins/McRae dispute appears in the August 20, 1829 Pensacola Gazette. Although it was written by William McRae’s brother, and so seeks to salvage the deceased district attorney’s reputation, it openly acknowledges the affair and provides details not published in other contemporary sources.