MYTHS OF SABINE PASS' FORT GRIFFIN EXPLODED:
SHRINE OF IRISH CONFEDERATE HEROES
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Port Arthur NEWS, January 24, 1971, as well as EAST TEXAS
HISTORICAL JOURNAL, IX (Oct., 1971), p. 137.
In September, 1863, Confederate Lt. Dick Dowling's Irishmen won their
battle spurs and war bonnets at an unfinished earthen fortress known today as Fort
Griffin. This battle is one of the best-documented events of the Civil War, whose details
are retold and relived almost every year during the "Dick Dowling Days"
celebration at Sabine Pass.
However, Lt. Dowling' fortress is less well-known, and over the past
century has become clouded with myth and legend. With the possibility that its site
someday may be partially restored by the State of Texas, it is also imperative that those
myths be replaced with authenticity.
Since the Civil War Centennial in 1963, many maps and drawings have
appeared in newspapers and magazines, purporting to be Fort Griffin. Whatever may be said
for the skillful drawing and artistic quality, most have been four-sided affairs, being no
more than the artist's conception of what the fort looked like.
The listings of The National Archives do not indicate that Fort
Griffin's battle plans survived. However they do list plans for a "Fort Sabine,"
which, at first glance, one might confuse with an earlier fortification of that name
(about one mile south of the present battleground), which was abandoned by the
Confederates and destroyed by the Federal forces in September, 1862.
The following Confederate maps in the National Archives, all a part of
"Confederate Record Group 77," shows the site of Fort Griffin, and are available
at modest prices of about $6 .00 or more, as follows: Map Nos. Z-54-2, Z-54-11, Z-51-2,
Z-298, Z-54-6, and Z-54-7. Another unnumbered map is a redrawing of Map Z-54-11, and is
labeled "Plan of Sabine Pass, its Defenses and Means of Communication, J.
Kellersberg, Chief Engineer, East Texas District, October 15, 1863," and it shows the
locations and drawings of the fortifications of both Forts Griffin and Manhassett. A
concise copy of it also appears as Plate XXXII, Map 3, in the "Official Atlas of the
The key to defense of Sabine Pass lay in its mile-long oyster reef in
the harbor. It had two passages through it, the Texas and Louisiana channels, through
which enemy gunboats would have to pass. Old Fort Sabine had been located on marshy ground
at the south entrances to the reef, roughly opposite the lighthouse. Fort Griffin was
located on higher land at the present battleground monument, near the two channel exits
from the reef. In Civil War days, there was a prominent point located there where the fort
was located, all of which today has been eroded or dredged away and is now a part of the
Construction work at Fort Griffin probably began in March, 1863, since
it was well under way whenever the lighthouse skirmish took place on April 18. The fort
was designed by Col. Valery Sulakowski, chief engineer of the Military District of Texas,
New Mexico, and Arizona. However, its construction was supervised by Major Julius
Kellersberg, who chose its site and whose German-language memoirs, published in
Switzerland in 1896, describe its building.
Four other engineers on Kellersberg's staff contributed to its
completion. One of them, Lt. Nicholas H. Smith, was responsible for much of the work done
there over a long period of months, and he also won immortality and considerable fame for
his gallant command of two of Lt. Dick Dowling's guns during the Battle of Sabine Pass.
However, fate and coincidence have played a dirty trick on the brave engineer. Historians
have generally confused him with Confederate Lieutenant Niles H. Smith, a native-born
Sabine Pass artilleryman who was not present within the fort, but was aboard the
cottonclad gunboat "Uncle Ben" with his company, B of Spaight's Battalion. After
the war, the latter never denied the error whenever he was mistaken for the other.
Fort Griffin's irregular, sawtooth front was purposely designed to
afford maximum protection to the individual gun crews. Otherwise, all of the fort's guns
and gun crews might have been destroyed at once by a single, large shell exploding within
the parapets of the fort.
One of the popular myths about Fort Griffin was that it was built by
Dowling and the Davis Guards. Kellersberg's memoirs record specifically that he was
dispatched from Houston, along with his staff of engineers and 500 slaves, for the purpose
of building the fort, and two surviving maps indicate even the location of the slave
quarters and the slave hospital. The slaves were also used by Kellersberg and Lt. Nicholas
Smith during the building of Fort Manhassett on the opposite end of Sabine's Front Ridge
in October, 1863.
Another myth holds that Dowling's battle did not occur at the site of
the present-day battleground. There is nothing in published accounts of the battle, maps,
or anything else to support that opinion; in fact, a number of maps verify Fort Griffin's
Likewise there is additional proof that Sulakowski's drawing of
"Fort Sabine" is actually the plan for Fort Griffin. Since the mud fort did not
become "Fort Griffin" until long after Col. W. H. Griffin's Battalion was
assigned there in May, 1863, the writer surmises that Col. Sulakowski labeled his drawing
"Fort Sabine" because it would replace a destroyed fort of the same name. Also,
the six gun emplacements on the map coincide precisely with Lt. Dowling's report of the
battle on September, 9, 1863.
Col. Sulakowski showed the following guns as being mounted on carriages
at the fort: two 32-pounder long-iron smoothbores; two 24-pounder long-iron smoothbores;
and two 32-pounder brass howitzers (short-barreled cannons), which were also unrifled.
Confederate cannons in Southeast Texas were never so numerous that their movements cannot
be traced with ease. The 24-pounders had been removed from old Fort Grigsby at Port Neches
in July and remounted at Sabine Pass. Earlier, the two brass howitzers had been mounted in
a shellbank fort on the Sabine River south of Orange, Texas, and these were also removed
when that fort was abandoned in July, 1863. The other guns, the long-iron 32-pounders, had
been spiked and buried at old Fort Sabine the previous year. Kellersberg had dug them up,
rebuilt them at the Confederate foundry in Galveston, and had just returned them to Sabine
Pass only two weeks before the battle.
Fort Griffin's battlements had sloping, outer walls 16-feet high. The
rampart at the top of the embankments was 20 feet wide along the sawtooth front and 10
feet wide along the west wall. The fort was triangular in shape, with a west wall; a north
wall or "stoccado," which was still unfinished as of the date of the battle; and
the sawtooth front, with six guns facing toward the south and southeast.
The fort was 100 yards long along the north and west walls, not
including the V-shape protrusion on the west wall. No explanation for this projection is
offered on the map, leaving the reader to assume that it was for the possible rear defense
of the fort. The sawtooth front was probably about 150 yards long, being the hypotenuse of
a right triangle. There were also three large, wooden cisterns installed at Fort Griffin.
In Civil War Days, all drinking water was carried from Orange or Johnson's Bayou, La., and
half of the travel time of the small steamer "Dime" was devoted to that
The fort's casemates (where the gun carriages were mounted) dropped
five feet below the level of the ramparts, allowing only room for a man's head to see
above them and for the gun barrels to project seaward through the embrasures. According to
the plan, the fortress had spaces for six bombproofs (where munitions were stored) and
magazines, of which only four were to be completed. They were each eight feet high, eight
feet wide and 30 feet long, built into the sawtooth front of the fort beneath the guns.
When forces of the United States Navy occupied Fort Griffin on May 25,
1865, Union Lieutenant L. W. Pennington reported in a dispatch that the roofs of the fort
and bombproofs consisted first of layers of railroad iron, covered by layers of cypress
logs, all overlaid with dirt to a thickness of several feet.
A variety of shoring timbers may have been used in the fort's
construction. There is a good indication that there was a large supply of saw logs
available, even though the sawmills and all sawn lumber had been burned in 1862. Col. A.
W. Spaight reported in a dispatch that ship timbers from the grounded and burned Union
blockader "Morning Light" had also been used. After September, 1862, when the
railroad bridge over Taylors Bayou was burned, the last 10 miles of railroad iron and
crossties were useless, and much of these were also removed and utilized in the fort's
building. In October, 1863, a letter from Col. Sulakowski to his engineers at Sabine
ordered them to cut timber along the ship channel for use in the outer fortifications,
this at a time when Fort Manhassett was also being built. The writer interprets this to
mean that by October, all saw logs, crossties, and other available timbers had been used
Fort Griffin probably remained in some state of construction until the
war ended, for Gen. Magruder's fears of a second invasion attempt were never stifled.
Sulakowski's letter also outlined sufficient work to keep the engineers and slaves
occupied for many months to come. The letter ordered Major Kellersberg to complete an
additional magazine, more embankments and ditches, rows of "torpedoes"
(primitive land mines) in the ground, outer fortifications, completion of the five
"redoubts" (forts) at Fort Manhassett, a planked wagon road, some railroad
construction (which was never completed), and construction of a four-gun redoubt at
Taylor's Bayou (near Texaco Island). This small Confederate fort near Port Arthur appears
on n 1864 map as having been completed, although its name and exact location are unknown.
Fort Griffin was used in Reconstruction days by the Union troops that
occupied Sabine Pass, but after 1870, its destruction came about rapidly. Apparently the
railroad iron and crossties were returned to the rebuilt rail trackage. The sawmills were
never rebuilt, so it is unknown what happened to saw logs and other timbers. These were
probably utilized by the town's residents for the rebuilding of docks and wharfage. Also
the earliest building of the Sabine River jetties began in the late 1870's, and some of
the fort's timbers, etc., may have gone into its construction. Hence, the old fort that
had served the Confederacy so well in wartime was destroyed to service a peacetime economy
Sources: Maps in Record Group 77, of the National Archives, as well as
letters in "War of the Rebellion-Official Records of the Union and Confederate
Armies," 128 volumes, particularly, Series I, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 298-99, 318-321.