CIVIL WAR COMES TO JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS:
THE ROAD TO GETTYSBURG, 1861-1863
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from BLUE & GRAY MAGAZINE, IV, No. 1 (Sept., 1986), pp.
10-18. Copyrighted by W. T. Block in 1976-Source: A direct quote from W. T. Block, A
HISTORY OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS FROM WILDERNESS TO RECONSTRUCTION, Chps. 14 and 15.
The outbreak of the American Civil War in the spring of 1861 had an
immediate impact on Jefferson County's commerce, which had reached its antebellum summit.
The Texas and New Orleans railroad had been completed to Orange, Texas, and the Eastern
Texas Railroad was rapidly approaching Beaumont from Sabine Pass. By January, 1861, the
locomotives and box cars for the lines were also arriving at Sabine Pass, then called
Sabine City, in additions to rails and crossties. The town's population had reached about
1,500 persons, and four of Sabine's firms, Eddy and Adams, Craig and Keith, C. H.
Alexander, and John McRae, were shipping cotton at the rate of 20,000 bales annually. At
least eleven steamboats, which in two weeks of February, 1861, brought 2,047 bales of
cotton to the coast for trans-shipment, plied on the Sabine and Neches waters.
According to the shipping statistics, the county's economy had become
increasingly geared to export. More than three hundred vessels cleared the Sabine
customhouse in 1859. Between Feb. 1-8, 1861, eleven schooners and steamers, three of which
carried railroad iron, arrived to freight the county's commerce abroad. Between March
21-27, a steamship, six steamboats, and six schooners docked at Sabine, and twenty vessels
cleared the harbor for distant points.
Despite the county's vulnerability as an export center, a majority of
its citizens supported the secession movement which spread throughout the lower South in
the winter months of 1860-1861. The county's delegates in the state convention, William
and Thomas J. Chambers, were active secessionists, the latter serving as chairman of the
committee which drafted the Texas secession ordinance. The ordinance, adopted by a 166-8
vote of the convention, was submitted to the voters of the state for their ratification in
a popular referendum on Feb. 23, 1861. In this election, the voters of Jefferson County
endorsed the secession ordinance by a 256-16 vote. As a result of a statewide majority who
favored separation, the state convention severed Texas' ties to the Federal union and set
up the machinery for the state's defense. By March 6, 1861, sixty-eight men from Jefferson
County had arrived at Galveston, where they enlisted for six months of duty in the Texas
State Troops. Thus, Texans came under the fourth government in twenty-five years.
When hostilities began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12,
1861, many activities, including city government, came to an abrupt halt in the county.
There was widespread belief that only the first enlistees would see any active
campaigning. Beaumont's town council made its last entry in its minute book on April 9, as
Mayor A. N. Vaughn and others prepared to enlist. A Beaumont youth, William A. Fletcher,
hurried to complete a roof for fear of missing an opportunity. He joined Company F, Fifth
Texas Infantry (of John Bell Hood's Brigade) at Lynchburg, Texas. Later, as his unit
passed through Beaumont en route to Virginia, Vaughn, George W. O'Brien, and Jefferson
It was soon apparent that Jefferson County ( and particularly, Sabine
Pass) would have to bear the burden of its own defense. All available resources of the
infant Confederate States government were needed to field armies in Virginia, the
Misissippi River valley, and at strategic points along the coastline. With business at a
standstill, Sabine's citizens established a Committee of Safety under David R. Wingate and
Kosciusko D. Keith. On April 20, a 102-man militia company, known as the "Sabine Pass
Guard," was organized under the Act of Feb. 15, 1858. On May 4, 1861, Captain Joseph
Hebert enlisted a 55-man cavalry company, the "Jefferson County Mounted
Rangers," at Beaumont. However, neither company entered active service in its
Desiring guns and a fort with which to defend their city, Sabine's
Committee of Safety could locate only two wheeled, Mexican field pieces, which had been
captured in 1847. In May, 1861, the committee selected a site for Fort Sabine (one mile
south of present-day Sabine Pass State Historical Park), and the town's citizens and
slaves began construction of its dirt and log fortifications. On May 17, the Jefferson
County court ordered that $600 be disbursed to D. R. Wingate and John T. Johnson as its
agents "for the purpose of purchasing and securing such arms and munitions of war . .
. for the garrisoning and defense of the fort at Sabine Pass." Two months later, the
county court appropriated an additional $1,400.
On July 3, 1861, K. D. Keith and Samuel Adams rode to Galveston, where
they obtained two 18-pound guns and twenty-five solid shot to be used at Fort Sabine. The
town's Committee of Safety bought all of the available gunpowder in the county, and
Sabine's women sewed flannel into cartridge bags to be filled with powder. Soon afterward,
two 32-pound guns were obtained at Houston to complete the mud fort's armor.
In July and August, 1861, the three-month enlistments of the two
militia companies expired. Most of the Sabine Pass Guard were reenlisted for one year into
two units, an artillery company mustered by Captain James B. Likens, a Sabine Pass
attorney, and a cavalry company, the "Ben McCulloch Coast Guard,' captained by Dr.
James H. Blair. Later. Captain Likens visited General Paul O. Hebert's headquarters at
Galveston, where he obtained authorization to raise the Sixth Texas Infantry, a battalion
of three companies. Blair's unit (captained by O. M. Marsh, a West Pointer, after 1861)
became Company A. After Likens' promotion to battalion commandant, the artillery section,
which became Company B, was commanded by Increase R. Burch for the remainder of the
enlistment year, and thereafter, by K. D. Keith. Members of Joseph Hebert's old company
drifted away to join other units bound for the warfront.
For those who relished frontline action, garrison life at Sabine Pass
was dull. Between September 14 and 21, 1861, the cavalrymen of Company A built barracks on
the Front Ridge, about five miles west of the town. In October, they were armed with 120
carbines, acquired in Galveston. On one occasion in November, a three-masted Federal
schooner ventured near enough to shore to shell Company A's beach pickets, but no other
action occurred in 1861. The recruits of Company B were likewise bored and soon tired of
close order drill. E. I. Kellie reported in his memoirs that "we drilled on the
prairie about six months," after which, "six of us (who were) under age, who
wanted to see a fight, packed our duds . . . went up to Jasper," and joined another
In December, 1861, George W. O'Brien returned to Beaumont, following
his discharge from the Fifth Texas Infantry due to impaired health. After his recovery, he
enlisted and soon commanded, in March, 1862, a force of Beaumonters, who became infantry
Company E of Likens' Battalion. During the same month, the battalion of state militia was
inducted into the Confederate Army. A month later, Likens was authorized to raise a
cavalry regiment and was soon replaced as commander of the new 11th Texas Battalion by
Lieutenant Colonel Ashley W. Spaight.
During the ensuing months, the headquarters of Spaight's Battalion was
usually maintained at Beaumont or Sabine Pass, except for periods of field duty at
Galveston, Houston, Niblett's Bluff, La., (opposite Ballew's Ferry), or in Central
Louisiana. Because of its strategic position on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad,
Beaumont gradually became a transportation and quartermaster depot, known as Beaumont
Post, along the supply line between Houston and the Confederate armies fighting in Central
Louisiana. Until the late fall of 1862, the railroad operated all the way to Orange.
Thereafter, the Orange County trackage became inoperative in the marsh area near Beaumont,
and the Beaumont-Niblett's Bluff connection was maintained by steamboat.
During the first year of the war, both the Confederate authorities and
the Union's West Gulf Blockading Squadron tended to ignore the Sabine Pass. Except for a
brief period in August, 1861, when a Union frigate anchored offshore, blockade-runners
could expect to enter the Pass or escape it with relative ease. However, blockaders took
up a permanent position there after July, 1862, and the risk of capture was greatly
enhanced. The Federal blockader "Hatteras" arrived on July 8 and soon captured a
number of small vessels, including the "Sarah," which had 75 barrels of molasses
and 2,000 pounds of sugar aboard. The blockader's master reported that Confederate sea
captains at Havana had bragged that the Pass was not blockaded, and that he "had come
to make the blockade effectual."
*and Louisiana Points (on each side of the estuary), blockade-running
at night was especially risky for anyone except the most experienced of pilots. In 1862,
David R. Wingate purchased the steamer "Pearl Plant" and attempted to escape the
Pass with a load of cotton. To avoid capture, Wingate ran his steamboat aground at Texas
Point, after which he and his crew burned the vessel and cargo and waded ashore.
In December, 1863, an incoming vessel, the schooner
"Rosalie," was trapped by a West Gulf blockader, and during a 24-hour chase,
jettisoned 180 forty-pound kegs of gunpowder in an effort to outdistance its pursuer. The
captain beached the "Rosalie" a few miles west of Sabine, and when the Union
gunboat lowered a whaleboat, the skipper set his schooner ablaze.
As early as Oct., 1861, a letter published at Houston sought to
enlighten authorities concerning Jefferson County's, and particularly Sabine Pass'
defenses, noting that , "that point seems to be overlooked and the means of defense
against invasion so poor and inadequate." Nevertheless, it was July, 1862, before
Col. X. B. DeBray, the commandant of the Houston Sub-Military District, ordered a military
inspection of the county's defenses. He sent Major Julius Kellerslberg to Sabine, where
the latter reported the defenses to be "in a dilapidated condition," the
inadequate fort subject to two-foot overflows of tidewater, the guns, on "unwieldy
truck carriages," as being too small and without "fuses for shells, nor
port-fires ... gunner's level, tangent scales, pass-boxes . . . etc." Kellersberg
added that the "pass at Sabine is certainly a very important point, and in fact, the
only port from where we receive our powder and other articles."
Three months later, DeBray chided the Confederacy's Trans-Mississippi
Department headquarters for failing to act on his recommendation to improve Jefferson
County's defenses. DeBray added that Sabine "has proven to be our most important
seaport," and that a current disaster--a successful invasion by a Union naval
squadron--could have been averted if adequate-size armaments had been provided. However,
the colonel's upbraiding was pointless. A concurrent disaster, an epidemic of yellow
fever, had already caused about fifty deaths in the seaport and the evacuation of all but
a small handful of the town's civilians and convalescent defenders.
The yellow fever epidemic began about July 1, 1862, when the British
steamer "Victoria," outbound from Havana carrying munitions, ran the blockade
and docked in Sabine Pass. Although it was known that the vessel had sick crewmen aboard,
it aroused no concern until a Sabine youth named Hartsfield, who had visited aboard the
ship, became ill and soon died. Between July 15 and August 15, all five members of the
Hartsfield family died, and the disease's epidemic nature became apparent. Mrs. Sarah
Vosburg, who had nursed the Hartsfield family and similar cases at New Orleans, quickly
recognized the virulent symptoms of yellow fever, but the Sabine Post surgeon disagreed
with her diagnosis.
By Sept. 1, the disease was decimating the ranks of the two military
companies. As of that date, all but fourteen men of Company A, Spaight's Battalion, and
sixteen of Company B had contracted it. Six members of the former company had died,
followed by several of Company B, and Lieutenant R. J. Parsons of the Sabine Post command.
Col. Spaight, who was on court martial assignment in Houston, sent Dr. George Holland to
investigate, and Dr. A. J. Hay, a yellow fever specialist, and a team of nurses to Sabine
to attend the afflicted soldiers. Holland reported that by Sept. 1, twenty-five of sixty
ill soldiers had died, and that the disease had reached Beumont and Orange, where eight
cases had been reported. Despite their own infirm circumstances, the soldiers had to nurse
the civilians, and not even sufficient labor to dig graves could be obtained. Capt. Keith
stated that, "our principal business was to bury the dead."
Colonel Spaight immediately furloughed his battalion and ordered all
personnel evcuated except convalescent patients and a few soldiers (former sailors), who
had no homes and chose to remain; the majority of civilians had fled two weeks earlier.
Order No. 205 of the Houston Sub-Military District quarantined Sabine Pass, cutting off
all communications and supplies from the interior. On Sept. 15, a delegation of the town's
residents sent a protest of the quarantine to Col. DeBray, noting that less than five
days' supplies were on hand and none could be expected until the epidemic subsided. On
Sept. 15, Houston citizens contributed $695 to purchase supplies and medicines for the
stricken city. The epidemic was abating at Sabine by the first of October; however, there
were still some afflicted residents as late as Oct. 20.
It was on Sept. 24, 1862, at a time when Sabine's defenders were
unprepared to resist, that three Federal vessels under Lieutenant Frederick Crocker
appeared off the Sabine bar, and for the succeeding three months the Union navy controlled
Sabine Lake and its inlet. However they generally avoided the town because of the rampant
This period of history reveals the presence of some local defectors and
Northern sympathizers, and particularly an unnamed Union spy in Sabine Pass who remained
unmolested throughout the war. The best known of the defectors to the Union navy included
L. W. Pennington of Sabine, who was believed to have surrendered his ship to the Federals
at the outbreak of the war. Besides commanding the mortar schooner "Henry Janes"
off Sabine in 1862, Pennington survived to accept the town's surrender on May 25, 1865.
(The milder term "defector" is used rather than "traitor," because
Texas had many German immigrants and Northern-born residents who hardly considered
non-allegiance to a revolutionary government as traitorous.)
James G. Taylor, a New York-born ship captain who settled in Jefferson
County in 1839, was arrested by Confederate authorities at Sabine on Sept. 29, 1862.
However, he escaped to a Union vessel in the Sabine Pass and soon commanded the offshore
gunboat "Velocity," a captured blockade-runner. The Confederates placed a
$10,000 bounty on Taylor's head, whereas his wife and children remained in the county
throughout the war, and one son served in the Confederate army.
Captain Henry Clay Smith of Orange, whose steamboat "T. J.
Smith" was confiscated by the Confederates, was another who lived a charmed life. He
and Taylor piloted two ill-fated Union gunboats into Sabine Pass in Sept., 1863, as is
subsequently related, and both men escaped capture. Other defectors included the John D.
Kirkpatrick and Davis families, who were granted asylum by the Union navy on Oct. 2, 1862.
In conjunction with his stab at Sabine Pass in 1862, Lt. Crocker's
squadron had captured four British schooners, the "Adventure," "Dart,"
"Velocity," " and "West Florida," offshore from Sabine. During
two forays to Louisiana, he burned three schooners in the Calcasieu River and captured the
steamboat "Dan," which he fitted out as a gunboat on Sabine Lake. On Sept. 24,
the Union vessels crossed the bar and began shelling Fort Sabine. With less than 25 men
from two companies fit for duty, the fort, under Major Josephus Irvine, returned the fire,
but the range was too great.
At nightfall, Capt. George W. O'Brien arrived from Beaumont with thirty
men, all of whom were former convalescent soldiers at Camp Spindletop. Capts. Keith and
O'Brien proposed to remain and fight, but Major Irvine ordered the guns spiked and buried,
all stores removed, and the Confederate soldiers evacuated on what was to be the last
train to leave Sabine Pass during the Civil War. On Sept. 26, Crocker's men came ashore,
destroyed the fort and barracks, confiscated John Stamps' and D. R. Wingate's residences
and the latter's sawmill as Federal property, but offered the sawed lumber to the populace
as firewood. The following night, a raiding party burned the railroad bridge over Taylor's
Bayou, and subsequently the railroad depot, one mile north of Sabine City, on which
occasion the Davis and Kirkpatrick familiesof Sabine were granted asylum by the Union
Despairing of defending Sabine successfully, Col. Spaight, upon his
return from Houston, reassembled his battalion at "Cowpens," near present-day
Nederland. He ordered his cavalry to reconnoiter the enemy's movements and drive the range
cattle inland from the Pass to preclude their use by Crocker as a food supply. O'Briens'
company camped near the railroad tracks at Taylor's Bayou, while Keith's artillerists of
Company B were sent to Grigsby's Bluff (Port Neches) to defend the Neches River. On Oct.
2, the colonel sent an urgent appeal to Houston for guns and Major Kellersberg's services
to fortify the Neches and Sabine Rivers.
Kellersberg, the chief military engineer for East Texas, arrived at
Beaumont the following day with men, 100 slaves, and equipment. He built Fort Grigsby at
Port Neches, so that its two 24-pounder guns could sweep across a prominent bend in the
Neches River. He constructed a fortification and installed three 32-pound howitzers on a
shell bank near the Sabine River delta. As a further precaution against the Federals
ascending the rivers, the engineer sank 80-foot barges loaded with clamshell on the bars
of both the Sabine and Neches. By Oct. 18, Kellersberg could report that the river
defenses had been completed, that the guns at Fort Grigsby "could knock anything out
of the water that could cross the bar." Thus, Crocker's vessels in Sabine Lake and
Pass would have difficulty if they attempted to penetrate the interior of Texas.
Except for the shelling of Capt. O'Brien's company, encamped at
Taylor's Bayou, by the steamer "Dan" on Oct. 15, hostilities in Sabine Lake were
relatively quiet until the night of the 20th. Capt. Keith at Grigsby's Bluff learned that
Crocker was buying meat and vegetables from Union sympathizers at Johnson's Bayou, La.,
and sent one of his men to spy on their movements. Keith was warned that Crocker's staff
of officers planned to attend an all-night dance there. Keith took twenty men of Co. B in
an effort to trap them, but the Union officers managed to escape.
On Oct. 20, Lt. R. E. Bolton led thirty of Company A's cavalry to the
Sabine Pass, where they remained concealed on the bank near Wingate's sawmill at Sabine
City. When the gunboat "Dan" approached, towing the "Velocity," the
Confederates fired four carbine volleys at the crowded decks of the vessels. The cavalry
retreated inland when the "Dan's" artillerists fired canister shot at them. In
retaliation, the "Dan" shelled Sabine City. A patrol camp ashore and burned
Stamps' and Wingate's spacious dwellings, the sawmill and planing lmill, and about 700,000
feet of rough lumber stacked nearby, a loss estimated by Sgt. H. N. Conner of Co. A at
$150,000. Determined to rid themselves of the vexatious cavalrymen, fifty of Crocker's men
came ashore with a "light boat howitzer." They marched through Sabine City twice
en route to and from the cavalry barracks west of the town, where they burned 14 barracks
and stables and drove the Confederate troopers away with their cannon. While advancing
through the town, the Bluejackets took Capt. John Dorman's horse and cart, upon which they
mounted the cannon. One account of the ensuing confrontation with Dorman's wife stated
"Mrs. (Kate) Dorman, who witnessed the act, became perfectly
enraged, and being one of the bravest women in the Confederacy, gave them just such a
tongue-lashing as only a brave woman would dare do. She shook her fist at them and told
them she hoped our boys would kill the last one of them before they got back, and if she
had twenty-five men, she could take them and their cannon with them
After the enemy
retired to their gunboat, they gave Dorman his horse and cart again, and told him if he
didn't keep his damned wife's mouth shut, they would hang him
Mr. and Mrs. Dorman
have a large (the Catfish) hotel in the place, and the Yanks declare that if she does not
apologize for what she said to them
they will burn it. She declares that she will see
them in the lower regions first, and they may burn it if they choose
After the events of Oct., 1862, Spaight's cavalry and Company E were
based at "Cowpens," near Smith's Bluff, and at Camp Spindletop, south of
Beaumont. Company B remained at Fort Grigsby, while the remaining infantrymen guarded the
railroad bridge at Beaumont, as well as the railroad, port, and government-owned cotton at
Orange. The succeeding two months were relatively quiet except for cavalry scouting at
Sabine. It was less so at Galveston, where Union ships occupied the island and bay in
On Nov. 29, 1862, Major Gen. J. B. Magruder arrived at Houston, direct
from the war in Virginia, to command the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The
aggressive commander wasted no time in driving the Federals from Galveston Bay and Island
on New year's Day. The change of command decidedly altered the Confederacy's attitude
toward Jefferson County, the plans of which included the breaking of the blockade at
Sabine Pass and the building of a fort capable of defending the seaport city.
On Dec. 5, 1862, Quincy A. Hooper, the commander of Sabine's Federal
forces, was notified by his Sabine City informant (the active 'unnamed' spy) that General
Magruder planned to lift the blockade with two armed, cottonclad steamboats. The following
day, Hooper moved the leaking "Rachel Seaman" across the bar and anchored
offshore, leaving only the steamboat "Dan" to guard the inner Pass. However,
another assailant, Co. A's unforgiving cavalrymen, were also stalking the little
sternwheeler. After two previously unsuccessful attempts, First Sergeant H. N. Connor and
nine of his troopers rowed up to the "Dan" in a dense fog on the night of Jan.
8, 1863, and swiftly applied the torch to the vessel. Within two hours the steamer, which
was anchored at the Sabine lighthouse, had burned to the waterline.
On Jan. 10, 1863, Captain Keith's company was ordered from Fort Grigsby
to Orange, where the steamers "Josiah Bell" and "Uncle Ben" were being
outfitted as cottonclad gunboats. Major Oscar M. Watkins had been transferred from Houston
to command the expedition to break the blockade, whereas the navigation of the vessels
(who had civilian crews) was assigned to Captain Charles Fowler, chief of Confederate
marine operations in Sabine Lake. Co. B's artillerists were detailed to man the two
12-pound guns on the "Uncle Ben," and a single 64-pound rifled cannon on the
"Josiah Bell" was assigned to Capt. F. H. Odlum's Company F of the First Texas
Heavy Artillery--a unit that was composed largely of immigrant Irish longshoremen and
included a red-haired young Lieutenant named Dick Dowling, who were destined for fame as
will be seen. Capts. O'Brien's and Marsh's Cos. E and A came aboard to serve as
sharpshooters on the "Uncle Ben," and smaller groups from Spaight's Battalion
and another unit accompanied the artillerists on the "Bell."
Early on Jan. 21, the plucky gunboats steamed out of the Sabine Pass to
engage the blockaders "Morning Light" and " Velocity," which were
armed with twelve guns, nine of which were of 32-pound size. Fortune favored the
cottonclads, for the waters were calm and the breeze was insufficient to fill the
blockaders' sails. Nevertheless, a thirty mile chase ensued before the slow steamers came
within gun range. As the distance narrowed to two and one-half miles, four shells from the
"Bell" exploded on the "Morning Light," and later, both Union vessels
surrendered when the sharpshooters' musketry forced the gun crews from the decks.
Prize crews brought the captured ships to Sabine estuary, but the
900-ton "Morning Light," because of its size and draft, was anchored offshore on
the orders of Major Watkins, who had remained intoxicated throughout the affray. Both
Keith, an experienced pilot, and Capt. Peter Stockholm, the senior bar pilot, pleaded that
the prize ship, with the aid of the steamers, could be kedged through the soft mud of the
Sabine bar, but Major Watkins, using "language unfit to write," denied them the
opportunity to try. Capts. Keith and Odlum asked permission to place artillerymen, who
could defend the vessel, aboard the "Morning Light," but again Watkins refused,
allowing only cavalrymen to remain on the ship. Captains Keith, Odlum, and Stockholm
concluded that if "General Magruder were so foolish as to send such a thing as that
[Watkins] to command, the whole thing could go!"
Other than nine guns at stake, the large ship carried a very extensive
magazine of gunpowder and shells, and four hundred tons of badly-needed pig iron as
ballast. Although the Confederates managed to transfer some of the gunpowder and shells to
the "Uncle Ben," the "Morning Light" had to be burned when the Federal
gunboats "Cayuga" and "New L:ondon" hove in sight the following day.
As the Civil War in the Sabine Pass evolved into a series of reprisals
and counter-reprisals, the new blockade chief, Commander Abner Read of the "New
London," was to prove as aggressive as Lt. Frederick Crocker. Read's lookouts could
see the gunboats "Bell" and "Uncle Ben" floating serenely at anchor in
the safety of the Pass, the cottonclads' prows figuratively smirking as a result of their
recent triumph. In March, 1863, Read's spy in the abandoned lighthouse could detect a
veritable beehive of construction activity at a new fortification site farther inland.
The year 1863 proved to be the crucial one in the Confederacy's fight
for survival. Within a two-months period, General Robert E. Lee won the last of his great
victories at Chancellorsville and suffered his greatest defeat at the battle of
Gettysburg. A simultaneous Union triumph at Vicksburg partitioned the South and freed a
large Federal army and fleet of warships for service elsewhere. It was this reservoir of
soldiers that supplied Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks in New Orleans with the forces he needed
for the invasion of Texas.
Until 1863, Jefferson County's defense had been borne by Spaight's
Battalion. After the recapture of Galveston, four companies of Lt. Col. W. H. Griffin's
21st Texas Battalion were transferred to Sabine Pass. Spaight's Battalion, all but Co. B,
was ordered to Galveston, but in May, 1863, Gen. Banks' Union army was advancing in the
vicinity of Louisiana's Bayou Teche, necessitating the transfer of Col. Spaight and five
of his companies to that sector. Co. B remained aboard the "Uncle Ben" at Sabine
Pass and Capt. Odlum's Irishmen were still on the gunboat "Josiah Bell."
In March, 1863, Major Julius Kellersberg was dispatched to Sabine Pass
with thirty engineers and 500 slaves. His instructions were to construct a new Fort
Sabine, a triangular fortification with six gun emplacements and bomb-proofs built into
its saw-tooth front. Kellersberg selected a prominent point farther inland than the old
fort and opposite the channel exits from the oyster reef, a site which would permit the
fort's guns to traverse a 270-degree arc. Work progressed feverishly for four months. For
armament, four guns were removed from Fort Grigsby and from the Sabine River
fortification--guns that had been placed to contain Crocker's vessels to Sabine Lake, no
longer a factor--and the river forts were abandoned. Another battery, the two 32-pounders
which had been spiked and buried at the previous fort, was repaired at the Galveston
foundry and was later test-fired in August, 1863. The new fortification soon became known
as Fort Griffin, named for the commander of the 21st Texas Battalion.
As the initial construction work at Fort Griffin progressed, Commander
Abner Read of the Union blockader New London aspired to recapture Sabine Pass in a
surprise attack and take the anchored gunboats Uncle Ben and Josiah Bell. He planned to
utilize the vessels to destroy Confederate shipping in Sabine waters and burn all ferries
and bridges along the supply routes to Louisiana. In furtherance of his plan, Read sent a
scouting patrol daily bywhaleboat tothe abandoned Sabine lighthouse, the 80-foot height of
which afforded "a fine view of Sabine City and the surrounding country.
Colonel Griffin's first knowledge that the blockaders were using the
lighthouse as an observation post came on April 10, when Captain Charles Fowler, who
commanded Confederate gunboats at Sabine, led a four-man reconnaissance squad to
Lighthouse Bayou, where they were surprised and captured by a Federal patrol. Confederate
engineers noted light reflections emanating from the lighthouse tower, and on April 17, a
Union whaleboat and crew were observed rowing inland in the Pass.
Before daylight on the following day, Col. Griffin sent Captain Samuel
Evans and detachments from Companies C and D to hide under the lightkeeper's residence and
wait for the Federals. Soon, two Union whaleboats and crews, including Commanders Read and
D. A. McDermot, and the defector, James G. Taylor, landed and approached the lighthouse.
An advance party of three Bluejackets surrendered on demand, but the remainder retreated,
firing as they fled to their boats.
Four members of Commander McDermot's crew were killed by a hail of
Confederate musketry and six others surrendered. The mortally-wounded McDermot was
captured and died later in Sabine City. The other whaleboat escaped, although all but one
man aboard were wounded. Taylor suffered an emasculating wound to the groin, Read lost an
eye, and thereafter the blockade commander abandoned his espionage activities and his plan
to recapture Sabine. (The lone Confederate casualty, Lieutenant E. T. Wright of Company D,
was killed instantly during the skirmish.)
As of June, 1863, Captains Keith's and Odlum's companies were still
serving as artillerists on the gunboats "Josiah Bell" and "Uncle Ben."
When Sabine's new fortification, Fort Griffin, was armed with six guns late in August,
Captain Odlum's company occupied the fort and was soon engaged in gunnery practice.
Even prior to the fall of Vicksburg, it was apparent that an invasion
of Southeast Texas was imminent. In April, 1863, General Richard Taylor's army was slowly
retreating before a superior Union force near Opelousas, La. The surrender of Vicksburg in
July released a large Federal army and several Mississippi River gunboats which could be
utilized for invasion purposes. General John B. Magruder ws sufficiently aware of the
threat, for in July, 1863, he ordered a defense plan for neighboring Orange County to the
east, and on Sept. 4, directed Col. Valery Sulakowski to fortify Sabine Pass "without
the least delay, as it is expected that the enemy will make a demonstration at that point
at an early date
This knowledge notwithstanding, it appears that the general committed a
serious tactical blunder, one which may account for Magruder's overcautious behavior for
the 60-day period AFTER the battle of Sabine Pass. About Sept. 1, the commanding general
ordered Griffin's Battalion to the Northern Subdistrict, and when an invasion attempt was
made at Sabine Pass a week later, four companies of the 21st Battalion were at Millican,
Texas (east of Austin), and only two companies were at Beaumont.
During August, 1863, four companies of the battalion, all of whom were
from the Northwest Texas frontier, were on the verge of mutiny. Apparently, the transfer
was Magruder's effort to placate Griffin's troops. The general reported that the cause of
the mutiny stemmed from Comanche Indian depredations near the soldiers' homes, but it is
probable that the underlying reason was Colonel Griffin's extreme and harsh disciplinary
measures. Both Captain Keith and Sgt. H. N. Connor were highly critical of Col. Griffin.
Keith described him as being "very egotistical and overbearing. He soon got the
guardhouse full of men under petty offenses. Court martial became the order of the
day." (Following the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, La., in 1864, Connor recorded that
Griffin "put seven of the boys in the guardhouse for confiscating" a captured
In August, 1863, Gen. Henry Halleck, chief of staff of the United
States Army, vetoed Gen. N. P. Banks' plan for offensive action against Mobile, Alabama,
in favor of an invasion along the Texas coast. Deferring to his superior's orders, Banks,
in his letter of instruction to his field commander, Gen. William B. Franklin, explained
that Halleck considered "there are important reasons, in addition to those of a
purely military character, for the immediate occupation of some important point in the
State of Texas." Banks referred to a show of strength nearer to Mexico, then occupied
by the French forces of the Emperor Maximilian.
Jefferson County was the logical selection for such an amphibious
operation. Its defenses were known to be considerably less than those of Galveston. It was
also much closer to New Orleans and to Brashear (Morgan) City, La., the Union-occupied
railhead which would supply the Federal expedition.
The command of the naval assault against Sabine Pass was assigned to
Lt. Frederick Crocker, whose squadron had captured the Pass in 1862. In preparation for
the debarkation of the Union's Nineteenth Army Corps, four shallow-draft gunboats, the
"Clifton," "Sachem," "Granite City," and
"Arizona," were detailed to silence Fort Griffin's batteries. Generals Franklin
and Godfrey Weitzel commanded an invasion force of over 4,000 infantry and supporting
artillery aboard twenty-two transports. Franklin's objective was to seize a point along
the Texas and New Orleans railroad (Banks' letter suggested that "Beaumont is
probably the preferable point") and to reconnoiter "in the direction of
As circumstances would have it, when the Federal invasion force
approached Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863, Fort Griffin---still incomplete, with an open
rear wall---was manned by Lt. Richard "Dick" Dowling and less than four dozen
men. That was the situation when the next forty minutes of history was to catapault
Dowling and his Irishmen to the apex of Confederate heroes. A century in retrospect, that
forty minutes has come to stand for an entire four years of Civil War in Southeast Texas.
And it is a sad fact that returning Beaumont veterans who had endured four years in Gen.
Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, who had fought and bled in scores of battles, were
regarded as something less than heroic when compared to the immortal defenders of Sabine
Although not the stuff that heroics are molded from, the remainder of
the war in Jefferson County might soon be forgotten unless retold here. There were
hundreds of Confederate soldiers whose principal job was only to stand and wait, starve
and fight mosquitoes. And lest mankind should forget them too, there were 85 families,
half of the population of Jefferson County, who were on the indigent list and approaching
starvation. There were the wives and children of men away at war, who drews weekly rations
of county-owned beef and corn meal to enable them to keep body and soul together.