Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Battle of Campeche

The Battle of Campeche is a little known, yet quite important naval battle between Texas and Mexico that took place in May of 1843.  The Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto had taken place in 1836 gaining Texas the independence that was sought, but Mexico still was not satisfied and failed to recognize Texas as an independent entitity.  Texas was heading towards statehood which would be gained in 1845.

Commodore Edwin Ward Moore had been waging a campaign against Mexican fishing vessels in the Gulf and disrupting commerce, because it was mistakenly thought in Texas that Mexico was planning some type of amphibious assault in order to retake the rebellious province.  He could not fully retrofit and rearm his ships when he put in at New Orleans. The government of Texas refused him any more funds and subsequently ordered him back to Texas so that the fleet could be scrapped or sold.

Moore was against this idea and allied himself with the Yucatan government, who at the time was in open rebellion against the tyrannical central Mexican government. The Yucatan government reportedly paid Moore $8,000 a month for his services. Moore, now fully funded, set sail to lift the Mexican naval blockcade of the port of Campeche.

The Mexican Navy was much better funded and prepared.  They had recently contracted with England for a pair of state of the art warships.  Montezuma, was a wooden-hulled ironclad. Guadalupe was twenty feet shorter at 183 feet, but she had a special distinction. She was the first iron-hulled steam warship in the world. That combined with her two explosive shell firing Paixhan guns made everything else afloat obsolete.

The Texan/Yucatan navy was massively outgunned.  Moore encountered the much stronger Mexican squadron on May 16, which included the Guadalupe and the Montezuma, commanded by British officers and manned by both British and Mexican seamen. After approaching the Mexican fleet with extreme caution and trepidation, Moore engaged the Mexicans and British and created mass chaos. After three hours of broadsides both sides withdrew after sustaining considerable damage and casualties. The Texans suffered the most physical damage to their ships, while the Mexicans and British suffered more casualties.

Moore sailed the sloop-of-war Austin between the Guadalupe and Montezuma, where they could not fire without endangering each other. The Austin got off 530 rounds before the Mexican ships could disengage.   Guadalupe suffered 47 killed and lost one of her paddles. Montezuma lost 40 men, including Captain Cleveland of the Royal Navy.

The Battle of Campeche marked the first time exploding shells had been used in a naval engagement. It is also the only time steamers where ever defeated by sailing ships.

It was an important battle that has been mostly lost to history.  The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 overshadowed the Battle of Campeche.