The Sinking of the United States Gunboat "Dan"
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, February 5, 1984, p. 1cc.
The pea-soupy fog, that encompassed the Sabine Pass on that fateful night of January 8, 1863, reduced visibility almost to zero, but it could not eradicate the silhouette of the enemy gunboat Dan as it burned fiercely to the waterline. At first, there had been frightful screams of terror as the surprised Bluejackets aboard the steamer raced toward the gunwales and jumped overboard. Gradually the fingers of flame waxed higher and higher, and abetted by the stock of coal and pine knots aboard, or the occasional blast of a bursting gun shell, the inferno expanded until the Dan was aflame from stem to stern. After two hours, the explosion of the magazine shook the neighboring coast line. And as the fiery silhouette surrendered once again to darkness and fog, the skeleton of the gunboat slid to its final berth beneath the shadows of the Sabine lighthouse.
At a safe distance, the perpetrators of the act of war, nine Confederate cavalrymen of Company A, Spaight's 11th Texas Infantry Battalion, sat smugly in their whale boat, scrutinizing the blaze and proud that their third attempt to rid the Pass of the enemy steamer had succeeded. After the final blast, they paddled silently toward the Texas shore and returned their whale boat to its hideaway in the sea cane marshes surrounding Mud Bayou.
Although inebriated with success, the Rebel troopers shared mixed emotions of joy and remorse at the Dan's fate. True, the little gunboat had tormented them, day and night, at every opportunity, but somehow, the steamboat seemed to have been an unwilling partner in the harassment. In happier days before its capture by the Federals, the Dan had carried commodities and lumber along the Calcasieu River, and after the war began, it had run the blockade several times, carrying Confederate cotton to Mexico.
The history of the Dan had begun in 1855 when Captain Daniel Goos, a German immigrant of Biloxi Bay, Miss., resettled on the Calcasieu River of Louisiana, where he built a steam saw mill and shipyard and founded the village of Goosport, two miles north of Lake Charles, La. By 1857, his sash gang of three upright saws was cutting 11,000 feet of pine and cypress lumber daily. A son-in-law, Captain George Locke, soon erected another steam mill at Prien's Lake, south of Lake Charles. By 1860, they were exporting four million feet of lumber annually to Galveston on their schooners Lehmann, Lake Charles, Emma Thornton, and Winnebago.
When Goos moved to Louisiana, there were still a few remnants of the fast-vanishing Attakapas tribe of Indians living on the river. In the summer of 1857, he decided to build a steamer for use as a tow boat and cotton carrier, and he began selecting the choicest cypress and white oak timbers for its hull. On December 15, 1857, the Galveston Tri-Weekly News recorded that:
Later Goos christened the new vessel with his nickname and sent the Dan to Galveston with a load of cotton. Unlike the average river boat, the steamer had a V-bottom, deep-sea hull, and its 5-foot depth of hold gave it an unusually large bale capacity, about 600, for a packet of that size. The "Dan" was a 112-ton sidewheeler, 99 feet long and 23 feet wide.
In 1859, Goos acquired an interest in a cotton seed oil press at Galveston, and the economics of that business soon forced the transfer of the Dan, then under Capt. W. L. Sawyer, to the Brazos River in Texas. For the next year, the steamer transported cotton seed between the Island City and gins at such lower Brazos River towns as Velasco, Brazoria, Columbia, and Richmond.
In April, 1861, when the Civil War erupted across the Southern countryside, all commerce along the Gulf Coast came to an abrupt halt. For the next few months, the Dan served as a troop transport, ferrying Virginia-bound Confederate troops from the Texas ports to Brashier (Morgan) City, La., where the soldiers embarked by rail for New Orleans. But the blockade of the Port of Galveston soon afterward brought an end to such troop movements by sea, and the steamboat returned to its home port of Lake Charles.
When the war quickly stifled the sawmill industry and lumber demand along the Gulf Coast, Goos soon turned to blockade-running as a new means of livelihood. His schooners freighted cotton to Matamoros, Mexico, and returned with gunpowder, muskets, lead, coffee, yard goods, and drugs. Until May 10, 1864, the Calcasieu River was only intermittently blockaded, which enabled him to carry on a thriving and highly-lucrative, if contraband, commerce.
In September, 1862, shortly after the Dan returned to the Calcasieu from its second successful voyage to Matamoros, the Sabine Pass and Lake fell to a Union squadron under Lt. Frederick Crocker, the same Federal commander who, a year later, would surrender to Lt. Dick Dowling. And the history of that period of the war reveals that the Union lieutenant was every bit as bold and daring as the man who subsequently became the hero of Sabine Pass.
Crocker's objective was to sever all communications between Texas and Louisiana by burning all boats, bridges, and ferries on the Neches and Sabine Rivers. And when a Union sympathizer at Cameron, La., informed him of the Dan's return to the river, Crocker decided to seize the packet in furtherance of his plan. Accompanied by only fourteen men, his eighty mile, six day raid up the Calcasieu is without precedent in the Civil War annals of Texas and Louisiana.
His informant also advised that the Lake Charles area, except for about 25 overage males, was stripped of all Confederate personnel, the Calcasieu Regiment of State Militia having been assigned to the defense of Central Louisiana. On Oct. 3, Crocker's detachment started up the river in a single-masted sloop with a 6-pound boat howitzer mounted on its prow. He soon encountered an anchored Spanish blockade-runner, the Conchita, whose captain had gone to Houston, seeking permission to buy cotton. Unknown to the Confederates, the Conchita carried a "pass," bearing the signature of Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, to buy cotton along the coast and return it to Federal-occupied New Orleans.
Upon nearing Lake Charles, Crocker was fortunate to capture a prize prisoner, Col. Nathaniel Clifton of the Calcasieu Regiment, who was home on furlough. Ascending to Goosport, he found no steamer, for Goos had been forewarned of the raid, and had hidden the packet upstream. Sailing inland beyond Clendenning's Ferry, Crocker located the Dan in a large bayou and captured the steamer without firing a shot.
According to one published account, some unidentified and latter-day "Paul Revere" of Lake Charles was saddened that the Federals could penetrate so deeply into Confederate territory without meeting resistance of any kind. On the night of Oct. 5, he rode all night over a circuitous, 35-mile route, alerting 25 armed farmers who returned to Lake Charles to resist Crocker on his return voyage.
After capturing the steamboat, the Union lieutenant transferred his cannon to the bow of the Dan and, with his sloop in tow, started downriver. Upon reaching Goosport, he found a newly-arrived blockade-runner, the Mary Ann, at anchor and burned it. In his official report, Crocker wrote:
When the Rebel "Paul Revere" and his farmers reached the banks of the Calcasieu River, they found that a militia officer, Col. W. W. Johnson, had arrived and taken command. And as the packet steamed into view, they soon recognized Clifton, the Dan's pilot, and others who had been tied at exposed positions near the helm. Johnson ordered the farmers to hold their fire, allowing Crocker and his raiders to escape down the Calcasieu without a single shot being fired.
Before reaching the gulf, the lieutenant burned two more vessels. The Conchita's captain and crew, fearing arrest, had abandoned their ship, and Crocker set the Spanish schooner ablaze. Near the mouth, he captured another blockade-runner, the Eliza, and burned it as well.
After returning to Sabine Lake, he armed the Dan with a rifled, 30-pound Parrott cannon and a crew of fifty Bluejackets. And for the next three months, the little steamer strutted up and down the Lake and Pass at will, harassing the Rebel troopers and Sabine's civilians alike. The Dan on one occasion tried to cross the bars of the Sabine and Neches rivers, but discovered that the passages had been blocked by sunken clam shell barges.
The principal assignment of the Rebel horsemen was to keep the range cattle driven inland from the Pass to preclude their use by the Federals as a food supply. As a result, the Dan often docked at Johnson's Bayou, on the Louisiana side of the Lake, where a large number of Union sympathizers sold meat and vegetables to the Bluejackets. On another occasion, the Dan discovered Companies A and E of the 11th Texas Battalion encamped near the burned-out Taylor's Bayou bridge. The gunboat lobbed a number of explosive shells into their midst, scattering Confederate troopers in all directions.
At sundown of Oct. 20, 1862, thirty of the Rebel cavalrymen were concealed on the banks of the Sabine Pass near Wingate's Sawmill when the Dan came steaming upstream. The Confederates fired a number of carbine volleys at the gunboat, but soon retreated when the Federals began peppering them with canister shot.
In retaliation, the Dan's crew came ashore the next day and burned $150,000 worth of Sabine Pass property, including the sawmill, planing mill, and the palatial residences of D. R. Wingate and John Stamps.
Determined to rid themselves of the vexatious Rebel horsemen, fifty of Crocker's men returned a few days later with their boat howitzer. They marched through Sabine City twice en route to and from the cavalry post, five miles west of the town, where they burned fourteen barracks and stables and drove the troopers away with their canister shot.
While advancing through the town, the Bluejackets took Captain John Dorman's horse and cart, upon which they mounted their cannon. Upon their return, however, they had not expected to encounter the "heroine of Sabine Pass," Kate Dorman, who was waiting to meet them. And after all, as the Federals were soon to learn, how do chivalrous victors go about subduing a 4-foot, 10-inch woman, who stood ten feet tall in bravery? A published account in the Houston Telegraph of Nov. 5th fortunately preserves the story as follows:
For the next two months, while Co. A was stationed at Camp Spindletop near Beaumont, hostilities along Sabine Lake were relatively quiet, for the cavalrymen had neither the means to combat the gunboat, nor any desire to provoke the burning of the town. For most of them, Sabine Pass was their home. To better the odds, First Sergeant H. N. Connor (whose diary of the war survives) solicited $500 from his fellow horsemen, went to Houston, and bought gunpowder, solid shot and a six-pound wheeled cannon which he promptly dubbed "Aunt Jane." But although a comfort to have in their midst, "Aunt Jane" could not wholly even the odds, for the 30-pound Parrott gun on the Dan had five times the range and rifled firepower as well as a supply of explosive shells.
In desperation, Connor suggested to his commander, "Capt. Marsh, gimme eight good men and I think we can get rid of the gunboat for good. We'll burn her. We still got our whale boat hid out in Mud Bayou. The Dan docks every night at the lighthouse. All we need is a dense fog, a washpot full of charcoal, and a good supply of lighter pine torches."
Equally possessed with a burning passion for revenge, Marsh discussed Connor's plan with his officers, Lts. R. E. Bolton, Tom Jackson, and John Jones, and all agreed that the plan was feasible. Marsh sent a cart and mule to A. J. Ward's sawmill in Beaumont, where the driver selected a load of the most rosiny lighter pine timbers. Later the troopers split the boards into splinters, or kindling wood, about thirty inches each in length, and bound the fifty torches at each end with baling wire.
December having arrived, the foggy nights along the Sabine Pass were becoming quite frequent. And the Federals were becoming skittish, for an informant ashore had warned that the Rebels were equipping two steamboats at Orange with cannons and cotton bales. The U. S. schooner Rachel Seaman had sprung a leak, and on Dec. 5, Lt. Quincy Hooper moved the schooner to an anchored position offshore, leaving only the Dan available to guard the inner Pass.
When a dense fog set in on Christmas Eve, Connor and his companions embarked in the whale boat on the choppy waters of the Sabine Pass. In the center of the boat was an open kettle of live coals and a supply of pine-knot torches. With dawn already in the offing, the Confederates were nearing the Dan's anchorage when, suddenly, a choppy wave broke over the whale boat's side, drenching the charcoal embers in the kettle.
The second attempt to burn the gunboat also failed. On the night of Jan. 1, 1863, the date of the Battle of Galveston, the nine troopers rowed the full length of the Pass, but could not locate the enemy steamer. During that morning, extensive cannonading, indicating a battle in progress (the battle of Galveston), could be heard from the west, and the Dan's commander, anxious if possible to learn the outcome, had anchored offshore that night instead of at the lighthouse.
After sundown on January 8, 1863, a Confederate horseman rode up to the sea cane hideout on Mud Bayou, bearing the news that the Dan was back at its lighthouse berth and a thick fog bank had settled over the outer Pass. Connor and his companions loaded their gear aboard the whale boat, taking care to cover the kettle of charcoal with a metal lid, and shortly after midnight, they moved stealthily out of the bayou. It seemed like a perfect night for such activity, one almost devoid of all sound except the gentle movements and rhythm of the oars and the friendly murmurs of the lake.
With almost no visibility to guide them, the Rebel warriors paddled down the Louisiana Channel until, suddenly, the outline of the Dan loomed hazily before them. So successful had been their approach that no alarm was sounded until many flaming torches were already strewn over the decks. Working with clock-like precision under the protection of a sidewheel paddle, the Confederates tossed the bundles of pine splinters aboard as rapidly as they could blaze them. And as stealthily as they had arrived, they paddled away into the mists to watch the result of their handiwork, their thirst for revenge adequately requited.
Whatever else may be said for the burning of the gunboat Dan, the Sabine Pass remained in Confederate hands thereafter until the war ended. Two weeks later, Connor and his men fought in the offshore battle that temporarily broke the blockade at Sabine and captured two war ships. During 1863, they campaigned in more than 20 battles and skirmishes in central Louisiana. But despite a variety of wartime service, and until the end of their days, that fleeting moment when the nine troopers littered the gunboat's decks with flaming torches was to remain their proudest achievement.