A Highway Patrol boat policing the Texas-Mexico border is part of the "Texas Navy," claims a chain email sent to us February 19, 2012.
Alongside several pictures of a gun-carrying powerboat, the email says Texas is bringing new force to bear on drug cartel violence on the border. Falcon Lake will "soon be safe" as the Department of Public Safety launches "our first Naval vessel of this century," it says.
It also claims, "When Texas joined the Union as a sovereign nation in 1836, we retained the right to have a Navy to ward off the Mexicans."
Did Texas keep, at statehood, the right to have its own navy?
First, about that gunboat: The craft pictured is part of the DPS’ Tactical Marine Unit, created in 2011. Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville region Commander Jose Rodriguez told us by telephone that it’s one of six shallow-water "interceptor" boats the state is buying for the marine unit -- which is not referred to as a "navy," he said. DPS says the fleet will patrol the Rio Grande, border lakes and Intracoastal Waterway.
Second, let’s clear up a date error: Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 (the 176th anniversary of the decisive battle will be April 21, 2012) but didn’t join the United States until 1845.
In between, the Republic of Texas was an independent country, complete with a president, Congress and embassies in Paris, London and Washington.
The republic also had a navy -- two, in fact.
The Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas says that to guard supply lines from New Orleans, Texas’ provisional government passed an "Act and Decree Establishing a Navy" on November 25, 1835.
The first Texas Navy was four schooners purchased in January 1836 -- and all gone by mid-1837, according to the Handbook:
- The Liberty: Sold because Texas couldn’t pay its repair bills.
- The Invincible: Crew arrested and charged with piracy in New Orleans, but released. Hit a sandbar and sank while fighting Mexican navy.
- The Independence: Captured by Mexican navy.
- The Brutus: Ran aground, but not until after it had claimed Cozumel island for the Republic of Texas. Might have been nice.
That sounds dire, but Jeff Hunt, director of the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin and an adjunct history professor at Austin Community College, told us the sailors acquitted themselves well in combat, considering their lack of resources.
In 1839, the Handbook says, Texas commissioned ships for a second navy. President Sam Houston thought the expense was extravagant and tried to sell the fleet in 1843.
"The people of Galveston, incensed at the thought of selling the navy, attended the auction and by force prevented the submission of bids. Thus the navy was returned to the Republic of Texas. Nevertheless, the cruise ending in July 1843 marked the end of the operative career of the Texas Navy, as a truce with Mexico came that summer and the United States undertook to protect Texas until her annexation."
When Texas became part of the United States, its ships were ceded to the U.S. Navy via the Treaty of Annexation, Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States and Texas’ 1845 Constitution.
Historian T.R. Fehrenbach, author of "Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans," told us by email, "Texas did not retain the right to have its own navy under the annexation treaty." None of the three documents mentioned a right to have a state navy.
Nor did seceding 16 years later change the terms, Fehrenbach said.
"One thing that is often overlooked is that according to a (U.S.) Supreme Court decision, Texas was never considered out of the Union, merely staging a rebellion that failed, so all of the provisions of the 1845 document (annexation treaty) were retained as valid," he said.
Then again, we noticed the state’s 1866 Constitution briefly mentions a state navy: "The Governor shall be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of this State, and of the militia, except when they shall be called into the service of the United States."
That constitution "was obviated by the current one," Fehrenbach said. "Nothing in it is applicable."
Texas’ current constitution, adopted in 1876, and its statutes make no mention of a Texas Navy other than to declare the third Saturday in September "Texian Navy Day," honoring the Republic’s two fleets.
Curiously, Texas governors have for decades granted purely honorary "Texas Navy" commissions. Governor’s office spokeswoman Steffany Duke told us by email, "According to official records in both our office and the state archives, it appears that these ceremonial commissions date back to the late 1950s."
The Texas Navy historical society says on its website that one of the first admirals was Hollywood dancer Ginger Rogers, commissioned by Gov. James V. Allred in 1936 (the year that the Dallasite starred as a sailor’s sweetheart in "Follow the Fleet"). The society, although sometimes called the state’s "Third Navy," is a purely historical group, created by Gov. Price Daniels in 1958.
Modern Texas’ naval military force is the 230-member Maritime Regiment, created in 2006 as part of the Texas State Guard. Brig. Gen. Robert Bodisch told us by telephone that his regiment is an emergency force trained in search and rescue, cadaver recovery and other crisis responses. While it is part of the Texas Military Forces, he said, it’s not a navy, which would comprise full-time professional troops.
We found no evidence that Texas retained the right to its own navy on joining the United States. The email’s central claim isn’t just incorrect, it’s ridiculous. Pants on Fire!