Company B
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Versatility Was Proud Boast of Area Civil War Outfit

By W. T. Block

Reprint from The Port Arthur News, Sunday, October 11, 1970

(W. T. Block, a third generation descendant of one of the company of soldiers engaged in the Battle of Sabine Pass, has written a tribute to this company’s part in the battle, he is assistant postmaster at Nederland and a teaching fellow at Lamar Tech in history. Block holds a degree in history from Tech and has done extensive research into the Battle of Sabine Pass history. He recently discovered new facts about the battle and has written two previous articles for The News. His latest work is entitled "Area Confederate Unit Men were Versatile Fighters.")

Was Jefferson County’s Company B of Spaight’s 21st Texas Infantry Regiment the most versatile unit of the Civil War? Quite possibly.

As Confederate marines, Navy gunners, infantry and coast artillerists, it fulfilled a wide range of military duties, both on land and afloat up to 30 miles at sea.

In addition, Company B held the longest record of service at Sabine Pass of any Confederate unit, the only one to participate in all four military engagements in which the Sabine garrison took part.

The 21st Regiment was formed by combining Col. Ashley Spaight’s battalion with Col. W. H. Griffin’s battalion in November of 1864. B Company had been a part of Spaight’s command which originated as the "Moss Bluff Rebels" organized in South Liberty County on Aug. 24, 1861.

Spaight’s other units included the Beaumont-based companies commanded by Capts. George W. O’Brien and A. W. Junker. The battalion’s executive officer was Maj. F. C. McReynolds, the first commandant at Fort Manhassett and an early patentee of five sections of land at Sabine Pass.

Company B was ably commanded by Capt. K. D. Keith throughout the war. Often detailed elsewhere, Keith sometimes relinquished command to his capable subordinate, Lt. J. O. Cassidy.

After December, 1862, B Company’s special assignment was manning the pop-gun artillery (usually three 12-pound smoothbore cannons) aboard the Confederate cottonclad Uncle Ben. This 135-foot Sabine river steamer remained near Sabine Pass throughout the war, assuming a vital role in the supply line and in two of the military engagements.

Keith’s rebels underwent their baptism of fire at Fort Sabine (three-fourths mile south of Fort Griffin) on Sept. 24, 1862. On that date, U.S. Navy Lt. Frederick Crocker brought a squadron, consisting of two schooners and a screw-steamer, into Sabine lake to depredate the area.

Most of Keith’s gunners were convalescent or furloughed due to a yellow fever epidemic. Their shots falling short, the 30 effectives could do little but shake their fists in defiance, while Crocker’s long-range guns pummeled their position.

As dusk neared, Capt. Keith spiked and buried the fort’s four guns and evacuated the stores and hospitalized patients to Beaumont. Crocker’s squadron camped out at Buck Ridge, near Johnson’s bayou, while his launches engaged in a three-week orgy of pillage and burning. When Crocker ignominiously surrendered his sword to Lt. Dick Dowling one year later, the event had special meaning to Keith’s veterans aboard the Uncle Ben.

Revenge came first at sea on Jan. 21, 1863. Earlier Company B had been ordered to Orange along with the Davis Guards to man two newly-outfitted cottonclads, the Josiah Bell and the Uncle Ben. Gen. J. B. Magruder had just driven the Union forces from Galveston.

The rebel steamers put to sea on a calm day. The Davis Guards and sharpshooters from Aycock’s company and Pyron’s regiment manned the 180-foot Bell. Dowling’s main battery was a six inch Columbiad rifle with which he hoped to outshoot the gunners aboard the 900-ton blockader Morning Light.

Keith’s men aboard the Uncle Ben steamed after the USS Velocity, a former Confederate, schooner captured offshore by Crocker during his earlier foray.

The blockaders hoisted all sail in an effort to outrun the pineknot-burning steamers. Dowling opened up at a range of two miles, and, displaying unerring accuracy, knocked out thc Morning Lights No. 2 port gun, killing and wounding all of the gun crew. As the Bell moved in closer, the sharpshooters picked off the Morning Light’s gunners until they fled in panic below deck. Unable to continue the fight, the blockader surrendered.

Keith’s men aboard the Uncle Ben displayed equal tenacity. As gunners and sharpshooting marines, they pecked away at the Velocity’s gun crews until the schooner hoisted a white flag. Without a prize crew, Keith’s rebels had to double as sailors in order to bring the schooner back to Sabine.

The following September, Company B could do little but remain idle during Dowling’s 40 minutes of glory. Still aboard the Uncle Ben, Keith’s boys steamed up the channel to draw the Union fleet's fire, but had to retreat to Sabine Lake when the USS Sachem’s shells began passing overhead.

To have closed for battle with the long-range Yankee guns would have been suicide. Instead, the Uncle Ben had to be content with towing the disabled Sachem back to the Texas shore. The fruits of victory may have tasted many grains sweeter to Capt. Keith’s veterans. Having never known defeat, Dowling’s Guards were unable to make the comparison.

One more engagement marked Company B’s career before the war ended. As sharpshooting infantry, they accompanied Col. W. H. Griffin’s men, Capt. Creuzbauer’s battery of artillery, and Capt. Andrew Daly’s cavalry on March 6, 1864 to Calcasieu Pass where the Confederates caught two Union gunboats at anchor. The ironclad Granite City and the tin-clad Wave were awaiting coal while a Union army detachment was ashore rounding up cattle and recruiting Northern sympathizers for service in the Union navy.

At daylight, Creuzbauer’s gunners opened fire from behind a mesquite-covered levee while Keith's men rained torrents of minie balls on the Union sailors. After an hour and 40-minute battle and 16 holes near her waterline, the Granite City surrendered. The Confederates quickly boarded her and turned the fire of the ship’s brass howitzers on the Wave. Soon holed like a sieve, the tinclad hoisted a white flag.

While suffering 22 casualties, Col. Griffin’s troops inflicted a like number on the Union sailors, captured two gunboats, 16 guns and 175 prisoners. These were the fifth and sixth Union vessels to fall victim to the Sabine Pass garrison in the course of 16 months.

As soldiers and sailors, steamboat marines, artillerists, and infantrymen, Capt. Keith’s rebels would have found few, if any, equal their versatility as fighters. They suffered one defeat and shared in three victories that captured six ships, 45 guns and 650 prisoners for the Confederate cause. Their valor helped keep East Texas free from Union occupation and fed supplies from blockade-runners to the hard-pressed Rebel armies in Louisiana.

However, the course of the war was settled on the fields of Virginia. On May 20, 1865, five weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Keith’s veterans joined the Davis Guards in lowering Fort Griffin’s Rebel emblem, and, disillusioned and embittered, the men of Company B went home to sow their crops.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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