A recent acquisition by The Texas Collection sheds new insight on the capture of the Texas Navy’s Invincible, one of four schooners employed by Texian forces in their fight for independence from Mexico. A letter written by an officer of the U.S.S. Warren – a United States Navy ship tasked with capturing the Invincible in April of 1836 – is now part of The Texas Collection’s important holdings of pre-Republic of Texas materials. The story of the Invincible and the full transcript of the letter are detailed below.
The Invincible and the Pocket Incident
The Invincible’s history as the flagship of the Texas Navy is short – it entered service on March 12, 1836 and wrecked at Galveston on August 27, 1837 – but she played a key part in two events that would spawn international incidents between the Republic of Texas, the United States and the United Kingdom. It is her involvement with an American-owned brig called Pocket that ties in with The Texas Collection’s letter.
Fresh off the destruction of a Mexican naval ship called the Bravo, the Invincible spotted Pocket as it approached Galveston, an important port city and a key location for the Texians to control if they hoped to defeat the Mexican forces under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Suspecting the Pocket was involved in running supplies to Santa Anna’s forces, the Invincible – under the command of Captain Jeremiah Brown – captured the ship and led it to Galveston. There it was discovered that Pocket was indeed smuggling supplies to the Mexicans in hope of supporting their efforts to take Galveston. General Sam Houston seized the supplies and reinforced the Texian forces with them.
The captain of Pocket, Elijah Howe, made his way to New Orleans, where he lodged a complaint with the merchants there whose supplies he had been charged to carry to Texas; they, in turn, wrote to Commodore Alexander J. Dallas of the United States Navy in Pensacola, Florida. Dallas, under pressure from the merchants and eager to keep Texian interference in the Gulf of Mexico to a minimum, dispatched the U.S.S. Warren to Texas to detain the Invincible.
The letter acquired by The Texas Collection is postmarked May 5, 1836, four days after the events its writer details in its first page. The writer is the Warren’s Second Lt. James F. Miller of Salem, Massachusetts. Miller was the son of James Miller, a brevet brigadier general in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812 and the first territorial governor of Arkansas. Second Lt. Miller’s letter is addressed to his sister, Catherine, who also lived in Salem.
Miller writes in dramatic fashion of coming upon the Invincible, “a nice large … schooner of six guns with one long 18 [inch gun],” as it was anchored alongside a sand bar. After determining the ship was indeed the Invincible, the Warren’s crew was assembled along with their “cutlasses, pistols, tomahawks and boarding pikes” in anticipation of boarding the Texian vessel. At sunset, the Invincible attempted to leave the sand bar, but the Warren’s small boats followed and, under a heavy, dark sky, three of her boats reached the Invincible and the ship was boarded without incident. The boats returned to the Warren at 1:00 AM with the Invincible’s commander officer and gunner aboard to ensure no trickery would be undertaken by the Texian crew. The next morning, May 2, the Invincible was put underway to New Orleans under the escort of the Warren.Lt. Miller estimated the Invincible to be a good ship worth “$15 or $20,000” if she were to be condemned by the United States authorities as a forfeiture of war – which Warren doubted would happen. His suspicion would prove to be correct, as ultimately the Texas government would pay the United States $11,750 to settle the Pocket incident. The Invincible would go on to defend the Texas coast from Mexican vessels for another year until she ran aground outside Galveston during an engagement with the Mexican ships Vencedor del Alamo and Libertador.
Miller was very pleased with the Warren and its role in the capture of the Invincible, writing, “So the poor old rotten Warren has immortalized herself at last. She has had glorious luck in every way.” This reference to the Warren’s success is his last reference to the Invincible incident in the letter; from there, he shifts gears into recounting his opinions of the Warren’s captain, a man named Taylor, whom he describes as being, “in a stew, as usual.” He writes of the difficulties of keeping the watch in a storm – “I was as perfectly soaked as ever a sponge was” – and the ongoing question of his possible promotion. He also writes of the disappointment brought about by the departure of a fellow officer, William Du Pont, “the very beau ideal of a perfect gentleman – a gallant, high-minded chivalric officer.”
But the balance of the letter involves Miller’s telling his sister that he is anxious to learn more of the disposition and thoughts of a girl back home named Emily. This would turn out to be Emily Fox, whom Miller would eventually marry in 1837, albeit for a very short time before her early death in 1846 at age 36. Miller spends a good deal of his letter telling his sister that he believes Emily “possesses peculiar qualities for an Officer’s wife.” It is obvious that he is making a case to Catherine that Emily will make a good addition to the Miller family, and he tries to enlist his sister into his efforts to assuage Emily’s “doubt or fear” about his commitment to someday marrying Miss Fox. It also appears that Catherine herself is harboring some doubts, as Miller writes, “I hope my explanation will restore her entirely to your former good opinion. She truly deserves it.”
Miller closes the letter with entreaties familiar to anyone who has read many 19th century letters, including a plea for more letters, a request to send his love to those back home, and a bit of ship’s gossip: “Mr. R. received your note and desires his Brother to acknowledge it, which he never did. That affair has not been forgotten about here – and I am pained to see or fear it is not forgotten when most it should be.”
The Miller letter from the Warren is, in many ways, a prototypical 19th century letter written by a man engaged in a military life: descriptive, longing, focused on minutiae, centered on the “folks back home” and, occasionally, witness to an historic occurrence. For researchers and patrons of The Texas Collection in 2018, it offers a rare glimpse into the mind of someone present in a pivotal moment in the life of the Texas Navy, adding depth and perspective to an important moment in the pre-Republic of Texas era.
Enhanced Digital Images of the Miller “Invincible” Letter
The images below were made by the Digital Preservation Services team, operating state-of-the-art digitization equipment in the Baylor Libraries’ Riley Digitization Center. They have been enhanced to bring the original color of the ink forward in an effort to enhance legibility.
You can read an edited transcript of the Miller letter below. The text sticks to the original as much as possible, but some abbreviations have been expanded and punctuation marks such as commas and semicolons have also been added for easier reading. You will also notice several places where the text is illegible or otherwise missing; these are noted with [?].
Miss Catherine Miller
Care of Gen’l. Miller
My Dear Kate,
Your long, kind good letter of the 7th April has this moment been [received]. We sailed from here on Thursday morning at daylight at an hour’s notice. As of the next morning we were off the mouth of the Mississippi going 10 miles an hour. At 1 PM we anchored; blowing a gale of wind. A nice large anchored schooner of six guns with one long 18 was just aside of the Bar. Officers and men volunteered: cutlasses, pistols, tomahawks – boarding pikes. Men mustered. A spyglass was levelled at the said schooner. At sun set she attempted to get under weigh. Instantly our boats swung overboard – men mustered – everything arranged[.] At dark, a thick cloudy night. 3 boats arrowed to the truth. 55 men [and] six Officers shoved off in silence – two hours’ anxious suspense – in the direction of the vessel aforesaid. A false fire – a blue light & two rockets – announced to us all was secured. At 1 AM our boat returned with the commanding Officer (1st Lt.) and gunner of the Texian Schooner Invincible. The next day we dispatched her under command of my first mate [Commander] Ridgely as Port master to New Orleans with her 2nd Lt and 46 men via [?]. At midnight Saturday evening we got out of the Mississippi and have [at] the moment anchored. We pounced upon them like a hawk. She had taken an American vessel down at Texas and taken out her cargo. It is very doubtful whether she can be condemned. If she should she will sell for $15 or $20,000. So the poor old rotten Warren has immortalized herself at last. She has had glorious luck in every way. And I should be very happy if Capt. Taylor could be easy and satisfied. As we have been short of Officers having lost [?] I have been acting Lt. [and] keeping watch. Last night I had the first [watch] from 8 to midnight and it never rained or poured down harder since the world began. The Capt. [is] in a stew as usual. He kept the deck with me. And when I came down at 12 [I] was as perfectly soaked as ever a sponge was. This evening the first thing I heard was the Capt. I worked up my [coordinates] and placed it on the chart just before land was made. It proved right perfectly although the Capt. would believe anything else – doubt every thing – but my patience was fairly threadbare and I used pretty plain language to him. After an hour, the first thing we saw to know was the flag staff at the Navy Yard. The Capt. was himself again[;] he was “perfectly satisfied.” I told him I hoped he would now trust me until he had some cause to doubt that a chart 37 miles wrong had made the only single bad landfall of 8 or ten &c.
And last not least her pure devoted now undisguised furious attachment to me. Are not they enough? At the age of 30 somebody says & truly views characters, experience and revulsion. The common pleasures of life have [been] tasted to the full & begin to fall. We have reduced the visions of youth to the sobering test of reality. We no longer chase frivolities or hope [for] chimeras. Perhaps the most useful lessons of this bitter experience is [sic] the true estimate of love. For at first we are too apt to think [a] woman is perfect and we hoping [for] perfection. With how much excellence have we been disappointed [and] discontented[?] Thirsting for the golden fountain of the fable from how many streams have [we] turned away weary and disgusted? Enough. You will say I say so too. We go to Veracruz, Tampico &c in about four or five days. To be gone 6 weeks or two months. Whether we go home in July or October is now the question. Is said confidently that a Bill is before Congress to make a great promotion which will bring me 100 above the fool of Lieutenants!!! Pap & two readings in the Senate
In addition to all my necessary duties I never calculated to be day nurse to the Capt. Will [?] for your letters. All of them have come safe and have made me very happy. I made everybody stare when we arrived last having with your enclosures[:] 13 letters besides papers, &c. We met the St. Louis going out as we came up; when, I cannot say. We expect & hope to go to Veracruz[,] Tampico &c, to be gone till the middle of July [and] return here & stay till [the] 1st [of] October, then go home by the 1st [of] Nov. Will that satisfy you? Verily you have dissected my letter. I will go over it myself. My letter to you and not in any lines, from my recollection of it, imply or express even a wish to go home now or until a year should have elapsed. For reasons too obvious to repeat but which are contained in my last to you. My only reason for doubt was on account of Emily. If she is satisfied I am happy. As to the law or regulation requiring a year’s service – I only know that it is said to be a regulation. But it has never been published or an order. Nor do I believe they can require it or pass over me [for promotion] for want of it. All these considerations aside I would rather be out a year – make a full unbroken cruise – than to return now. For myself I have [at] no moment thoughts of any earlier return than Nov. with [?]. You seem to treat the matter as though I was impatient to return.
Receiving as I did Emily’s letter containing precisely such an answer as I expected, and the information that the ship would stay out till Nov.[,] I was completely happy. You name an agreement with Aunt Fox[;] I know of no agreement I have made; [I] have complied with no conditions. I only know that Emily wished her mother to keep the matter on her mind carefully till I returned from sea longer or shorter – six months or six years “tous le meme chose.” You say my promotion was another condition[.] This is entirely new. You know more of the matter than I do. Yet there is no consummation more devoutly to be wished than that same matter of promotion. There is no one on the list who can be made more exquisitely happy than your Brother. Yet if I should return in Nov. & find a certainty of promotion as I think it will be – I hope the “two families” will not be so unkind as to “scout the idea” of marrying “under such circumstances.” I hope to be at home in Nov.[,] promotion or no promotion – money or no money – having then made a full cruise. My promotion will be secured if it could be retarded by my going now. But if the promotion this year should happen to reach me they cannot [?] me. I shall be promoted. Again I cannot remain exposed to so much and such eternal & incessant annoyance. My delightful happiness is broken up nearly. Wm. Du Pont [is] the man who fills my heart and presents to my mind the very beau ideal of a perfect gentleman – a gallant high minded chivalric officer – has left us all in mourning – his good cheerful hearty laugh is no longer heard. The Capt. thought he was a demigod and placed as he should complete confidence in him. We could take care of him together. Some others have left; whether they will return or not no one knows. It was a gloomy day when he left here last. Our success, I suppose, will give the papers a chance to abuse the Warren. But has given us a letter short.
Therefore as soon as my promotion is entirely secure – and I can have made a full cruise to entitle me to remain on shore a short time at least – I shall return “next spring perhaps” or sooner if the ship goes. It is now said to be certain that we shall go home in Nov.; that will complete the year.
The Capt. has just returned and we are to go to sea immediately. That is in a week or ten days; when, nobody knows or cares. At least I don’t. I had rather be at sea than here except to get letters. This time you have “done well”; letters have come to me to my heart’s content. I have always had reason to grumble – at least thought I had – but if your letters continue to come as they have come I will not say one crude word. Did I quote Emily’s answer to me[?] I think I did. Less I mistake I will do so now – “You ask if you shall come home for a few months or stay away if necessary and from I shall think you cool & calculating in not running home for an hour or two. My Dear James I shall always be glad to see you cool and calculating. It is to me the strongest proof of the steadiness of your love. Stay away to the last doubtful day but above all do not waive rank on my account or for any consideration. Your “little Emily” whom you so justly accuse of being ambitious will never willingly waver rank to anyone. But so long as you do not sacrifice duty to love she will never sacrifice love to ambition.”
I wrote you in my last how perfectly [missing] was with this decided answer. Such [is] precisely as I wished. If I had been so extre- [missing] -ious and thoughtless of my duty and intense as you seem to think I was I should [missing] asked no questions, or opinions but given myself up to exultations at the prospect [missing] returning so soon. I am saved the trouble of deciding or of effecting a transfer of waiving rank. You name Emily’s doubt or fear, if she has any &c, and state the nature of them that she thinks or pray I should get indifferent & think that I might have got someone younger – more beautiful & accomplished “& so on.” An intimacy of 7 years with her I should [think] sufficient to have discovered my error if it was her beauty of accomplishments which formed the attraction. I have had the vanity to believe that there were those of far more beauty & more accomplishments of the ornamental kind and [damaged] within my reach. Not a mere suspicion, rather, of which I speak: but intimacy in common acquaintance in many instances was sufficient to convince me that congeniality of temper & disposition was wanting or some other objection would arise sufficient to effect a cure. With Emily I have made & can make no mistake in that matter at least. I cannot do better than repeat my reasons of preference for her over all others. The perfect congeniality of temper & disposition, the entire perfect purity, and firmness of her principles – which I have known and studied so long and without hearing one word or action to disapprove. She possesses peculiar qualities for an Officer’s wife. The most fastidious, the most suspicious or jealous could never for a moment hesitate in reproving the most entire confidence in her judgement & prudence.
My last letter contained certain explanation concerning certain letters, notes & “so on.” Upon more reflection I remember reading your note to my Riley to Bartlett and his taking perhaps to read over again and keeping [it] against my wishes. As I did not think it of any consequence – as to the others – it was never seen or heard of by anyone and it was entirely forgotten until you named it to me. I was pained at some of your remarks censuring her for I had done her a wrong – and she suffered in your estimates. I hope my explanation will restore her entirely to your former good opinion. She truly deserves it.
Your love to her I shall give truly cordially. I am glad you send the message before getting any “confessions.” I am not quite so careless of letters as you may think[.] Mr. R received your note and desires his Brother to acknowledge it, which he never did. That affair has not been forgotten about here – and I am pained to see or fear it is not forgotten when most it should be. I shall perhaps write again before leaving. Write to Emily as often as you can. Love her and me as you have done and we will all be happy yet. Love to all who deserve it at my hand. I see nothing of a letter from Guss or Bessy.
Our bill before Congress proposes one Admiral, two Vice Admiral, two Rear Admirals, 10 Commanders, 50 [?] Captains, 75 Master Commanders. How many Lieutenants I don’t know but it will require 120 promotions of P. Mid to make up even the present number. I have not met with the Concord nor shall I till August.
You can see the “Invincible” letter in the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections here. The Finding aid for the James F. Miller papers can be found here. For an excellent write-up about the Texas Navy, see Jonathan Jordan’s Lone Star Navy: Texas, the Fight for the Gulf of Mexico and the Shaping of the American West.
In support of our colleagues at The Texas Collection and their upcoming event, The Brazos River and the Baylor Achives, we’re reposting a link from last year that shows the awesome power of the Brazos River in flood stage from 1908. We encourage you all to attend this excellent event next week, and don’t forget to check out The Texas Collection’s web site for more information!
Hidden In Plain Sight: A Springtime Brazos Flood, 1908
(Originally posted July 26, 2012)
For residents of early twentieth-century Waco, the Brazos River was a study in contrasts. It provided a reliable source of potable water for myriad daily uses, but its temperamental nature made it prone to violent floods that damaged property and took lives. The Brazos could be both savior and destroyer, a source of community pride – embodied in the suspension bridge built across it in the 1870s that still stands today – and of widespread destruction.
This panoramic view of the Brazos in flood stage was captured on May 24th, 1908. It is actually a series of five individual photos that were printed and pasted together onto a cardboard backing to create the appearance of a single, panoramic photograph. That approach accounts for the somewhat distorted and disjointed nature of the image when viewed as a whole. But owing to the technology available at the time, it is an effective way to capture a stunning view: the Brazos River at a flood stage level of 36 ft. 8 in. – the “highest ever recorded” according to a note written on the print.
Notes on the print also reveal the image was captured by a photographer from The Kodak Place who mounted the steps to the top of the Crow Brothers Tower to capture the scene. The Crow Brothers were long-time Waco launderers who had taken up residence in the former courthouse at 2nd and Franklin Avenue.
The scene captured by our anonymous photographer on May 24th is one of great devastation. The focal point of the photo is the river itself: a shining path stretching the entire length of the scene, it is easy to note how the Brazos has surmounted its banks and intruded into the city itself, especially east Waco along Elm Street. This low-lying region of the city contained a mix of industrial and residential buildings in 1908, much as it does today. Wacoans unlucky enough to find their dwellings on this side of the river repeatedly bore the brunt of the destruction left behind after one of the Brazos’ many floods.
A closer look at the various bridges across the river give some context for just how high the river had risen on this particular date. First up (from left to right in the photo) is the “iron” bridge (today’s Washington Street bridge), built less than a decade prior to the date of this photograph.
Next is the suspension bridge, a sight familiar to residents of Waco since the 1870s. Although its facade was covered with stucco and “updated” in the 1970s as part of the American bicentennial celebration, its iconic towers and unsupported span are instantly recognizable. Also visible in this photo are ads on the bridge’s downtown side for the Miller-Cross Company and the Sanger Bros. dry goods and clothing store.
Finally, this view of two railroad trestles a bit further down the river shows two important links in the city’s commercial viability being seriously threatened by critically high water levels.
The photo below – of another Brazos River flood, this one in December 1913 – gives us a closer look at flood waters lapping the bottom of a railroad trestle as dozens of spectators risk being swept away for a chance at a first-hand perspective. Water levels for this flood were nearly identical to those from the 1908 flood pictured in the panorama above.
While nature’s destructive power is the central player in this panorama, it also bristles with small details about a prosperous Texas town at the dawn of the twentieth century. Scanning the image, we see the names of local businesses on buildings, signs and fences, including:
- The Morning Star Lunch Room
- Pippin & Fuston, Horses and Mules
- T.J. Cunningham
- Louis Lipshitz (A family name associated with a present-day business located on Elm Avenue)
- Riverside Livery Stable
- D. June Machinery Co.
- Industrial Cotton Oil Co.
Advertisements for Miller High Life beer, Lawrence Barrett and Mild Havana Cigars and the National Biscuit Company (now known as Nabisco) can also be spotted in the image.
Lastly, in the center foreground of the image is a single railcar sitting on a siding. It bears the name “Missouri Kansas and Texas,” the well-known “Katy” railroad with a major presence in Waco for decades.
While the obvious occasion of this series of photos was the record-breaking flood, the wealth of detail available to modern viewers helps us construct a better mental image of what Waco looked like on a late spring day during one of its most productive decades. And though the Brazos would continue to flood until engineers built a series of dams decades later, the people of Waco continued to rebuild after each one, proving their tenacity in the face of great difficulty.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this closer look at another of the panoramic treasures from the holdings of the Texas Collection. There are dozens of large format photos in the collection, with more being digitized and added online regularly, so be sure and check out http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu for more great photos.
Images enhanced for online presentation. Digitized from original prints housed in the photographic holdings of the Texas Collection. Visit The Texas Collection online at http://www.baylor.edu/lib/texas for more priceless Texana.