In the 1880s, battleships were in their infancy, and while the goal of heavy armament and armor was defined, the ships’ form was not. The Texas was authorized on 3 August 1886 in parallel with the armored cruiser Maine (Armored Cruiser No. 1, later Second Class Battleship No. 2). Her two single 12-inch gun turrets were mounted en echelon—the port turret slightly forward of amidships, the starboard one slightly aft. This gave both guns end-on fire. A 12-inch-thick armored redoubt encircled the turrets, together with the central conning tower.
The Texas, of British design but constructed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, was long in gestation, taking six years to complete after keel laying. Decidedly second class at her commissioning in 1895 (first-class centerline armed battleships were already in production with many more and more powerful main guns), she remained the most formidable battleship in the U.S. arsenal for only three months. At that point, the Indiana (Battleship No. 1), had been launched after just four years.
Early on, the Texas earned a reputation as a jinxed ship and the nickname “Old Hoodoo.” Her hull was found to be weak and required additional reinforcement and thicker bottom plating beneath her engines. Further, a burst pipe caused her to sink at her New York Navy Yard mooring. The moniker appears to have disappeared in the wake of her performance just three years later, on 3 July 1898, when she played a significant role in the destruction of the Spanish cruisers Vizcaya and Cristobal Colon during the Battle of Santiago.
After the Spanish-American War, the battleship cruised with the North Atlantic Fleet until she went out of commission on 3 November 1900. She was recommissioned for six years from November 1902, serving mostly reserve duty at Norfolk. After a brief decommissioned period from January to 1 September 1908, the Texas was activated as a station and receiving ship at Charleston, South Carolina. To free the name for a new battleship Texas (BB-35), she was renamed the San Marcos on 3 February 1911.
During the subsequent 34-day period, the battleship proved her worth. In March 1911, she was anchored in shallow Chesapeake Bay waters near Tangier Island, Virginia. There she was shelled by the battleship New Hampshire (Battleship No. 25) and sank in 30 feet of water on 22 March. Lieutenant R. S. Edwards wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1917, “The [all-or-nothing] scheme of protection is based on the data furnished by the firing at the San Marcos.” This protection relied on very heavy armor on the waterline and other sensitive points and dispensed with thin topside and secondary-battery armor. All U.S. battleships after the Nevada (BB-36)—the first laid down after the San Marcos tests—were so designed.
In 1938, Lieutenant Commander Radford Moses, one of about 200 officers to inspect the ship before and during the tests, recollected them for Proceedings:
We fired a few minutes and then inspected her again to obtain the first data. We continued firing for three days as the San Marcos rested easily in the mud, examining her frequently and conducting various trials and tests. At the end of the third day we were all deaf even though wearing ear protectors and usually cotton in addition. . . .
At first glance Ripley [of “Believe It or Not” fame] would be interested in one of these photographs, which shows . . . the nose of the [7-inch] shell rest[ing] peacefully on the iron handrail above the point of impact. (True to the tradition of American naval humor one of our boat’s crew found the nose and poised it here, as he said, “to puzzle the ‘highbrows’ in the Bureau of Ordnance.”)
The San Marcos was stricken from the Navy Register on 11 October 1911 but continued to be used as a static target through the end of World War II. In 1959, much of her remaining upper works were destroyed and the remainder pushed down into the mud of the Chesapeake Bay. As Lieutenant Commander Moses aptly noted, “It is even possible that the old Texas did more for naval progress in those 3 days than in the previous 16 years!”