One hundred fifty years ago this evening, on the night of Dec. 1, 1862, the citizens of Galveston came very close to experiencing the destruction of their city. It all started with one man: Thomas Barnett.
Barnett was described by those who knew him as a “bold and daring man.” Others referred to him as “one-armed Tom” because of the arm he had lost in the Mexican War. Because he knew Galveston well, Barnett had been assigned to scout duty by the Confederate commanders. His job was to go to the waterfront at night, survey the enemy positions and report them to his military superiors the next day. On the night of Dec. 1, Barnett went to the waterfront as usual. But this night turned out to be very different from his previous scouting trips.
As he approached The Strand area, Barnett was carrying a shotgun in his remaining arm. He was also apparently well-fortified with spirits for his scouting assignment. As news reports today might hint, it was strongly suspected that “alcohol may have been involved.” On this night, that decision almost cost Barnett his city and his life.
Galveston was in the possession of the Union, the Federal Navy having captured the city in early October. But the Union presence remained almost exclusively a naval one. The infantry forces assigned to Galveston would not arrive for several more weeks. There were, however, a few Union marines acting as sentries along the waterfront. On this occasion, Barnett did not move with the stealth that his job required and was unlucky enough to be challenged by one of the understandably nervous sentries to identify himself.
Barnett told the sentry undiplomatically to go to the nether regions and matters went from bad to worse. The two exchanged several off-target shots. Barnett later claimed that he had only fired his shotgun once.
This noise, however, drew the attention of the Federal gunboats in the harbor, which became convinced they were being attacked and began firing randomly into the darkened city. The gunboats continued pouring shot, shell and canister into the city for about half an hour, at which point they realized they were not actually being attacked and ceased fire.
After first firing at the sentry, Barnett ran away and found cover behind a nearby foundry. He then ran through the streets of the city, dodging the fire of the Federal gunboats. He was soon joined by others. Families with children, turned out of their beds by the explosions, ran screaming through the streets to get out of the way of the shot and shell. Some did not stop running until they got to the beach.
The next morning found military officials from both sides trying to figure out just what had occurred during the chaos of the previous evening. Some buildings and homes, particularly those near The Strand, had been heavily damaged by the bombardment.
Near the waterfront, pieces of shot and shell were found lying in all directions. One shell, which had failed to explode, was discovered by curious citizens to contain 175 round balls. They shuddered as they imagined the injuries that might have been caused by the shrapnel if that shell had exploded in their vicinity. Miraculously, none of the citizens had been injured during the bombardment. One news report in Houston however, decided to take a sensational approach, later reporting that “one woman had her clothes torn off, but escaped injury.”
Acting Mayor George Grover (whose house at 1520 Market still stands today) complained to the Federal naval commander about the bombardment and eventually received a formal apology. Things went back to normal for the month that remained before the Battle of Galveston brought the city back into Confederate hands.
And what of Thomas Barnett, who had provoked the frightening incident?
The people of Galveston continued to regard “one-armed Tom” affectionately and allowed him to serve for many years after the war on the Galveston police force.