The First Battleship Texas (1892)

In service only for just under 20 years, the first battleship bearing the name Texas was built in the Norfolk, Virginia navy yard being the first battleship, or arguably one of the first battleships, of the United States Navy. The funding for the Texas was part of the military appropriation act that authorized the Maine (a cruiser, but also referred to as a battleship), the Baltimore (a cruiser), the Vesuvius (also a cruiser) and the Cushing (a torpedo boat). The Texas had armor plating of 12 inch thick steel over the bulkheads, turret conning tower and redoubt (a protecting reinforcement, also of steel), six inches of steel protecting much of the rest of the ship. To a certain extent, the ship was derivative, built from designs purchased from Britain, before the days when both design and construction were unique and American.

Her hull was laid down on June 1, 1889 at the Norfolk Navy Yard. Critics of the design included assertions that the hull would not have sufficient buoyancy to support fuel (coal), armor and guns. There were several accidents during her construction, which is not all that unusual, but she was deemed ready to be launched in June, 1892. She was powered by two three cylinder steam engines built by the Richmond Locomotive works. She had four boilers, two shafts and screws. Her armament included two 12 inch guns, six 6 inch guns, four five-barrel revolving guns and four 14 inch torpedo tubes. She was 308 feet long and had a beam of 64 feet and could achieve a speed of just under eighteen knots.

Selected to attend the launching as “sponsor” was Madge Williams (granddaughter of Sam Houston) accompanied by her mother Maggie Houston Williams. A newspaper article from 1911 described the 1892 launching as follows, “At 10:50 the men of the Richmond Locomotive Works marched into the yard, preceded by the Richmond Light Infantry Blue Band. At 11:00 the last shoes were knocked away and the last wedges driven home. At 11:15 the saws started; at 11:19 a creaking warned of what was coming, and at 11:19 3/4 the last tie broke and the monster started.” Miss Williams drew back the bottle of champagne and released it declaring, “I christen the Texas.”

After the launch, the Texas received her guns and was placed in commission the following year. The ship’s military service has been accounted for as being less auspicious than others and she acquired the title of being a “hoodoo” ship, somewhat jinxed and ill fated. Within five years, she had suffered at least eight accidents, including running aground twice, breaking down another two times, a number of explosions on board and the like. Both 12-inch guns being fired simultaneously once caused the gun mounts to break away from their foundations, shattering the decks. However, the ship still served admirably during the Spanish American War.

In 1898, the Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. Whether or not the calamity was due to hostile actions of Spanish origin, it was the catalyst for the beginning of the Spanish American War. The conflict was relatively short compared to some others, but The Texas joined its sister ships in support of the United States Army.

On July 3, 1898, at Santiago de Cuba on the southern coast, a number of Spanish ships had been confined by a blockade of the U. S. North Atlantic Fleet. Cuban Governor-General Ramón Blanco y Erenas ordered the Spanish commander to break through the U. S. blockade, under the command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson. As the Spanish fleet attempted their escape, the Texas and her sister ships including Brooklyn, Iowa and Oregon circled the harbor. The Spanish ships failed to outrun the American vessels but in the maneuvers to block the Spanish exit, the Brooklyn and Texas had experienced a near collision. Two Spanish ships (Viscaya and Colón) escaped for a short time though they were later caught, but the rest were destroyed or disabled. During the battle, the Texas had engaged the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa with the American ship’s 12- and (according to various sources) 8-inch guns, setting the Spanish ship ablaze and leading its captain to beach her. By the time that the battle ended, the Spanish had lost every ship, had suffered 323 fatalities, 151 wounded and 1,720 captured. On the United States’ side there was one fatality and none of the ships had suffered any significant damage. The war ended the following year.

Image credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division and considered to be in the public domain.

Partly owing to her design and the long period between her concept and commissioning, the Texas fairly quickly became considered obsolete. She was not thought worthy of preservation, and met her end over the two days of March 21 and 22 of 1911 by being used as a target for more current long range guns in firing practice. By that time, construction of the later and more famous battleship Texas had been planned. The older ship was renamed the San Marcos to allow the former name to be used again. As the San Marcos, she was sunk in Chesapeake Bay and what remained of the wreck was again used as a gunnery target during World War II. In 1959, the rest of the ship was demolished and removed as it was considered a hazard.

Madge Houston Williams Hearne was still a college student at the time of the 1892 launching of the Texas. She was descended from Sam Houston, but became well known around Texas on her own. She was born in 1872 to Maggie Houston and her husband Weston Lafayette Williams. When Madge was a little girl, she attended Baylor Female Academy in Independence, Texas and later went on to graduate from Baylor University after it was relocated to Waco in McLennan County. There she met Roy White Hearne, and the two were later married at Independence Baptist Church by the same minister, Rufus Burleson, who had baptized her famous grandfather Sam Houston in a nearby creek many years earlier. Roy Hearne later served under Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish American War. He went on to reach the rank of Brigadier General and serve as commandant of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Brig. Gen. Hearne died in 1917 and is buried in Bremond, Texas. Madge survived him another forty-one years before she died in 1958 and was buried in Houston. Mrs. Hearne was very active in the Daughters of the Texas Revolution. She was a director (and at one time the only female director) of the San Jacinto Museum and was considered instrumental in the founding of the Sam Houston Museum in Huntsville.

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4 thoughts on “The First Battleship Texas (1892)”

  1. Did they assign hull numbers to “ironclad” ships in those days? I noticed you didn’t associate a hull number with the first USS Texas. I built a model of the second USS Texas (hull number) BB-35 that served on both World Wars. I have pictures, but they can’t be shared here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not find a hull number, Ernie. There are a lot of photos out there of the ship. Are you considering making this one of your next models? If I can help you with more information, please let me know.


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