Padre Island During the Civil War
Photo from the 13th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment web page.
During the Civil War, the Union blockaded the passes between the local barrier islands to disrupt the export of cotton from the Confederacy and to prevent salt from the Laguna Madre reaching the southern forces. Union troops occasionally landed on the island to secure fresh meat from the herds of free roaming cattle or by hunting deer. Occasionally, southerners would endeavor to transport cotton across Padre Island and load it onto ship standing off shore in the Gulf, but with Union warships patrolling just beyond the horizon, this was always a precarious occupation at best.
Only one small skirmish occurred on northern Padre Island. The engagement was so small that the local newspapers referred to it as "The Affair on Padre Island". The Padre Island National Seashore Historic Resource Study (James W. Sheire, 1971) gives the following detailed account of the action, however, as will be seen, this account conflicts with others in minor ways. Among other resources, Sheire used The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies for his account of the engagement.
"In December, 1862, the war came to Padre Island. Early in the month Confederate Capt. John Ireland and seven men crossed Corpus Christi Bay to Corpus Christi Pass in order to check the depth of the bars on both ends of the pass. The depth measured three and half feet at one bar and five feet at the other, i.e. the pass was too shallow to allow any ships to use it. While checking the depth, Ireland and his men observed a Union bark, Arthur, which apparently was looking for them. Beaching their boat on Mustang Island, Ireland spent an hour watching Arthur's movements. At noon the Confederates returned to their boat, the Queen of the Bay, with the intention of returning to Corpus. No sooner had they pushed off from Mustang than they discovered that Arthur had succeeded in putting overboard two launches which were closing fast on the Queen. Quickly realizing that he would not be able to escape the launches, Ireland beached his boat on Padre Island. The Confederates hastily grabbed some baggage and some weapons and took up a position in the sand dunes. When the Union launches closed to within two hundred yards of the beached Queen, the rebels opened fire. The Union force returned the fire, but realizing that they were exposed in their open boats, while the Confederates enjoyed the cover of the dunes, they turned away and landed on the other side of Corpus Christi Pass on Mustang. In their haste to get out of range of the Confederate sharpshooters, the Yankees failed to secure or anchor their launches. No sooner were they safely under cover than the two boats came loose from the beach and drifted across the pass towards the Confederate position. Seeing his good fortune Captain Ireland waded out to one of the launches and secured it. When he looked into the boat, he discovered why the northerners had been so anxious to find cover. Two men lay at the bottom of the launch, one dead and the other wounded. Meanwhile the other Union launch, which had also broken away from Mustang, was drifting towards the gulf. Jack Sands quickly jumped into the captured Union launch, rowed out into the pass, and pulled it in. With the two Union boats in their hands, the Confederates reboarded the Queen of the Bay, pushed off from Padre, and headed back to Corpus. The 22 stranded Union soldiers watched them sail away and, badly embarrassed, wondered how they would get back to the Arthur. Back in Corpus, Captain Ireland proudly reported that his party had captured two launches with full equipment, one double-barrel shot gun, three holster pistols, four percussion muskets, four cutlasses, and one bayonet. The affair of Padre Island, as the official records call this minor engagement, was an insignificant rebel victory, but it did much to boost Corpus morale."
The following much briefer account is given at NavalHistory.com and is part of their history of the USS Sachem. However, it does add a few details either not in the Sheire account or that conflict with it. Note that it states that the Union vessel involved is not the Arthur, but the USS Sachem. According to the same article, the Sachem was a screw steamer that was being used as a tender for the Arthur, which was a bark blockading Aransas Pass at the northern end of Mustang Island. Therefore, it is likely that the Confederates mistakenly identified the Sachem as the Arthur in their reports. NavalHistory. com states that it takes its accounts of the actions of individual ships from the Dictionary of Naval Fighting Vessels, published by the Department of the Navy from 1959 to 1993.
"On the night of 6 December, Sachem captured a small, unidentified schooner manned by three men and laden with salt. The prisoners told of an armed Confederate schooner which had left Corpus Christi to sound the channel at Corpus Christi Pass. Two boats from Sachem got under way the next morning to intercept the Southern ship. They caught sight of their quarry some 28 miles further and gave chase. After pursuing the schooner, Queen of the Bay, about 8 miles, the boats forced her ashore. The Confederates abandoned their ship and opened fire on the Union boats from the shore, killing three men and wounding three others including the commander of the boat party, Acting Ensign Alfred H. Reynolds. The Federal sailors then left their boats and retreated overland 30 miles to rejoin Sachem at Aransas Bay."
The briefest account can be found at US Naval Landing Party, which is the website for U.S. Naval Landing Party, an organization of Civil War Reenactors, and is taken from Civil War Naval Chronology 1861-1865, published in 1966 by the Naval History Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department. It provides a few details in neither of the above accounts, but maintains the same basic story.
"Confederate steamer Queen of the Bay, Captain H. Willke, CSA, sounding Corpus Christi pass, was chased by boats under Acting Ensign Alfred H. Reynolds and Master's Mate George C. Dolliver from USS Sachem. Captain Willke ran Queen of the Bay aground on Padre Island , deployed his men, and took Union boats under fire. Reynolds, seriously wounded, was compelled to land on nearby Mustang Island and abandon his boats to the Confederates before retreating overland 30 miles to rejoin Sachem at Aransas Bay, Texas."
A list of casualties and personnel involved (on both sides) in the Affair of Padre Island is available at CORPUS CHRISTI PASS, TEXAS.
The following November (1863) Union forces captured Brazos Island near the southern tip of Padre Island. On November 18, a large body of Union troops including the 13th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment sailed up to Corpus Christi Pass and landed on Mustang Island, moving on to assault the Confederate garrison at Aransas Pass, about thirty miles away across from the northern end of Mustang Island. After minor skirmishing, the Union forces prevailed. The forces pushed on north to Matagorda Island, but soon had to be withdrawn to participate in campaigns elsewhere in the Gulf.