After more than thirty years, the place names of South Texas feel familiar as my own. Boca Chica, Cavallo and Copano. Carancahua. Tres Palacios. Espiritu Santo. The bays and passes, the long southward slope of the coast, the gritty beaches and wind-bent oaks embrace and hold the history of a rich and complex world.
There are stories and legends, told and re-told by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who lived them. Artifacts of an earlier time lie bleached and scattered like bones across the landscape. Spanish anchors turn up behind plows. French cannons surprise ranch hands in the field. Tiny settlements cling to life, rooted in and named for the explorations of such men as René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, shapers of a land they barely understood.
At the water’s edge, the shadow of Indianola lingers. Wiped off the map by twin hurricanes, the port’s ghostly tide of immigrants ebbs away into forgetfulness. Marvelous ships sleep mired in the bays and the Matagorda lighthouse, that great, silent sentinel, offers relief and guidance to those uncertain of their course.
I love Matagorda, both the island and the light. Walking beneath that great, gray tower I well may have crossed paths with my great-great-grandfather, David Crowley, whose own presence on Matagorda resulted from a remarkable combination of choice and circumstance. Still a young man at age thirty, he’d taken the proverbial advice and gone west. Years later, his 1907 obituary provided a detail or two:
He was in the Rocky Mountain region seeking for gold when the news reached his camp that the flag was fired upon. He said to his fellow gold seekers, “I am going back to Iowa to volunteer. If the flag is going down I’m going down with it.” He returned to Chariton and enlisted in Co. K, 34th Iowa, on August 9, 1862.
According to an itinerary for the 34th Iowa contained within The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,
the men began their Civil War service at Helena, Arkansas, arriving aboard the vessel Iotan as part of the Army of the Mississippi. After an attempt to surprise Vicksburg from the north failed – the so-called Yazoo Pass Expedition – they moved south, to join the Battle of Vicksburg.
After Vicksburg, the Regiment moved south to Carrollton, Louisiana, where it was assigned the task of transporting prisoners through the Atchafalaya swamp. After losing a number of men to disease in the process, they sailed for Texas. By November 5, 1863, the men had arrived at Boca Chica and bivouaced near the mouth of the Rio Grande. Sometime between November 14-16 they marched north from Brownsville to Port Isabel, capturing 39 bales of cotton along the way. (Whether the cotton bales offered resistance is not recorded.) Corpus Christi and Aransas Pass fell in the middle of the month and by November 19th, David Crowley had landed on St. Joseph Island.
Other Union troops soon arrived, joining with the 34th to effect the capture of Ft. Esperanza. Advancing to the north, they crossed over to Matagorda after a brief skirmish at Cedar Bayou, a shallow cut separating the two islands. Under the command of General T. E. G. Ransom, forces reached Fort Esperanza on November 27. After two days the Confederates, outnumbered and outflanked, evacuated the fort after spiking the guns, firing their stores and blowing up their magazines. The fort was occupied and repaired by the Union forces, who used it as their base of operations for future campaigns in the area.
An unidentified soldier from that expedition writes:
On the 22d we crossed Orange Bay, landed on St. Joseph Island, and next morning took our line of march without baggage or transportation. We managed to each carry one or two blankets and three days’ rations. We moved eighteen miles and arrived about sundown at Cedar Bayou, a stream about 100 yards in width, which divides St. Joseph and Matagorda Islands. We were here nearly two days in crossing this stream.
While crossing this bayou, some of us who were not engaged in the work went out hunting deer, and were fortunate enough to kill not less than two dozen; and quite a number of choice beeves, all of which were well relished by hungry officers and soldiers.
The last of our troops gained Matagorda Island about 11 o’clock at night, marched up the beach eight miles, and camped until morning. Next day we marched twenty-five miles, which brought us within ten miles of [Fort Esperanza]…
In any list of significant Civil War battles, Fort Esperanza surely would appear toward the bottom. When it comes to famous encampments, Cedar Bayou, Crowe’s Landing, St. Joseph Island and Pass Cavallo probably won’t be mentioned.
And yet, between his first battle at Vicksburg and his mustering out in Houston, my great-great-grandfather and his regiment fought, camped and marched across the same beaches and dunes I cherish today, helping to secure the very island that has given me so much pleasure.
Ironically, he never had opportunity to see the steady flashing of the Matagorda light – Confederate forces, seeking to gain every possible advantage, had removed the Fresnel lens and buried it in the sand prior to the arrival of Union troops. Nevertheless, as he and his companions went about their business beneath the half-destroyed lighthouse, a different sort of light began to shine as their President, Abraham Lincoln, spoke a few words on November 19, 1863.
News traveled slowly in those days. Camped out on their Texas barrier island the day Lincoln rose to speak in Gettysburg, the troops of the 34th Iowa certainly waited days – prehaps even weeks – to learn of the address. However long they waited to read the President’s words, once David Crowley had opportunity, he was impressed. Precisely how impressed no one knew, until he mustered out of the Army in Houston, returned to Iowa, married and established the farm that would support his growing family.
Having fought to preserve the Union he so passionately loved, David Crowley took the words of Abraham Lincoln as his own. He memorized them, recited them and cherished them, requiring of his children that they do the same. Remembering how her own grandfather recited the address on patriotic occasions and encouraged her to commit it to memory, my mother said, “It was as though he felt personally responsible for keeping those words alive.”
As a schoolgirl, I memorized Lincoln’s words in Civics class and recited them for my parents with pride, feeling their power long before I understood their significance. Today, hearing them again, I only can hope that future generations will pass them on with as much reverence and passion as those who have come before. Like the Matagorda light, they shine into the darkness of history, offering relief and guidance to those uncertain of their course. Still, every light demands a keeper. David Crowley did his part. Perhaps we should do ours.