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Sea Captain Harby

Texas in the mid-19th Century showcased an unfolding drama of warfare, tragedy, romance, and inspiration. During this time, the dominance of Spanish Catholicism began to wane as Protestant groups populated the frontier. Brush arbor meetings led to the growth of free-standing churches appearing across the Texas landscape.

People of the Jewish faith also came to Texas. In 1857, sea captain Levi Charles Meyers Harby arrived in Galveston to take command of the U.S. Revenue Service cutter Henry Dodge. He brought with him his wife Leonora, and their children Henry, Rebecca, and Jacob.

The South Carolina native loved the sea. By the time he arrived in Galveston, Levi had already served as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. While fighting in the War of 1812, Levi was captured while serving as an officer on the seized British ship Providence, and incarcerated at Barbados.

Later, Harby served as a naval officer with the West Indies squadron, and may have fought in South America under General Simón Bolívar during the Bolivian war for independence. He was highly regarded internationally as an able sea captain, naval tactician, and artillery specialist.

During the Civil War, Harby resigned his commission with the U.S Navy and fought for the Confederacy. He is remembered for his participation in the Battle of Galveston Bay where he was serving as the artillery commander on the guns on the CSS Neptune. Though the Confederates re-captured Galveston Bay, the CSS Neptune was sunk during its battle with the Harriet Lane. Eight of his 15 gunners died in battle, but 70 year-old Levi Harby survived.

The Harby family cared much for their Jewish faith and were active in Galveston community affairs. Leonora was an acclaimed Torah scholar and had studied the writings of Rebecca Gratz of the Hebrew Sunday School Society. It was Leonora who organized the first Jewish Sunday School in Texas, and the Ladies' Hebrew Benevolent Society of Galveston.

On Dec. 3, 1870, Levi Harby died in Galveston and was buried in the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery. Leonora died Nov. 2, 1888, and was buried next to her husband.

Being committed to the Hebrew faith, Levi most likely quoted the Shema liturgical prayer twice daily, with his right hand over his eyes. The Shema was a liturgical Jewish confession of faith consisting of these three scriptural texts: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41.

The English translation of the Shema is: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed is His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might. These words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.”

It is fitting that on the tombstone of sea captain Levi Charles Meyers Harby you will find inscribed these words: “And with my last breath on the threshold of death, I proclaim my faith in Israel’s God.”

May we proclaim this same testimony of faith.


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