THE TALE OF TWO OLD CANNONS:
SABINE HISTORY WRITTEN IN GUNSMOKE
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Port Arthur NEWS, August 29, 1970,
as well as EAST TEXAS HISTORICAL JOURNAL, IX (Oct. 1971), p. 147.
Source: Kellersberg's German language memoirs published in Zurich, Switzerland in 1896 and
translated into English by his great granddaughter of Austin.
Quite often, Jefferson County joins the citizenry of Sabine Pass,
Texas, during their annual celebration of "Dick Dowling Days" around the Labor
Day weekend. Amid the shrimp fries and pageantry, the legends that surround the old
Confederate heroes are often recirculated. One of them, the legend of two old cannons that
wrote half of that Civil War chapter in gunsmoke, is virtually unknown and may be of
interest to the reader.
In the spring of 1863, the Confederate chief engineer for East Texas,
Major Julius Kellersberg, arrived at the seaport city with orders to construct Fort
Griffin. Upon arrival, he found the village largely deserted, its two sawmill industries,
railway station, roundhouse, many residences and supply of sawed lumber having been burned
the previous October by the Federal naval forces.
For a new fortress site, Kellersberg chose a point where the ship
channel made a near right angle turn. This location would permit the new mud fort's guns
to traverse across a broader arc of about 270 degrees. He brought with him from Houston a
work force of about 500 conscripted slaves and a staff of Confederate engineers. For
construction material, there was a supply of saw logs, crossties, railroad iron, and
oyster shell available, but no armament or munitions. The site of old destroyed Fort
Sabine had been at that point where the Sabine channel split into the Texas and Louisiana
channels, divided as it was by the shallow oyster shell reef, but the new fortress site
would be where the channels exited a mile farther inland.
All that were available were two old field guns, of 6-pound and
12-pound size, left over from the Mexican War and much too small for coastal defense
against invading Union warships. Kellersberg was aware that two 24-pound long iron guns
were mounted at Fort Grigsby at Port Neches, Tx., and another pair of 32-pound brass
howitzers were available at the shellbank fort on the Sabine River, 12 miles south of
Orange; the engineer arranged for their transfer to Sabine Pass.
An old fisherman told Kellersberg about two 32-pound long iron guns
that had been buried a year earlier when Fort Sabine had been abandoned. The engineer had
seen these cannons during an inspection the previous year, but knew as well that they had
been spiked before the fort was abandoned. He feared that they had been damaged beyond
repair, and was also aware that if his new installation were to be defended properly, he
must acquire larger weapons, although he knew that none were available at that moment.
Together the fisherman and Kellersberg went to the site of the old
fort, where the former showed the engineer the place where the cannons were buried. After
some probing, they located the buried weapons as well as a large supply of 32-pound solid
shot cannon balls. As he had feared, the damage to the guns was considerable. Each had
been spiked with round files; the trunnions (swivels) had been cut away, and one barrel
had been wedged with a cannon ball. As one who had interspersed wooden dummies ('quakers')
with real artillery among Galveston's beach defenses, Kellersberg was reluctant to throw
them away, and at the first opportunity he took them to the Confederate foundry in that
At home in Galveston, his chief, Col. Valery Sulakowski, advised
strongly against trying to repair the rusted weapons. Still reluctant to dispose of them,
the engineer consulted with the foundry's chief machinist. The foundryman attacked the
problem with tremendous vigor. Day and night, he and Kellersberg hurried to complete the
repairs for reports had already reached Gen. Magruder's headquarters that the Federals
were expected to turn their attention to the Texas coast.
Repairs to the big guns required molding special 16-inch iron rings and
stretching them over the barrels while they were heated and still glowing red. Then a
groove one-half inch deep and one and one-half inches wide was twisted into each barrel
over which each of the threaded wrought iron rings was stretched. The greatest hazard lay
in boring the grooves too deep, which might weaken the barrels' ability to withstand the
concussion, causing them to explode when fired.
Shortly afterward, Major Kellersberg loaded the repaired cannons along
with a supply of shells and solid shot on the train bound for Beaumont. While en route to
Sabine, he gave each gun two coats of paint in order to save time. Two days later, the
smoothbore weapons were mounted on gun carriages in Fort Griffin and placed in firing
position on the fort's parapets along its sawtooth front. The cannons survived the test
firings, and Kellersberg drove white markers near the end of the Texas and Louisiana
channels on each side of the oyster reef to indicate the guns' maximum range.
When the engineer returned to Galveston, his fears were not dimmed
completely, and he recorded in his German-language memoirs that he spent many sleepless
nights afterward. He knew that, in the din and heat of battle, the cannons probably would
not be accorded even the minimum precaution of swabbing out to dampen any surviving sparks
(which proved to be true). When the U. S. S. "Sachem" steamed up the Louisiana
channel on September 8, 1863, the fire of the repaired weapons was concentrated on the
gunboat because of their greater range and accuracy.
These guns were commanded by Lt. R. W. Dowling personally, and on one
occasion he narrowly missed death when a Union cannon ball knocked the elevating screw
from one of them. From one of them, gunner Michael McKernan fired the well-aimed round
that exploded the "Sachem's" steam drum. At the end of 40 minutes, both the
"Sachem" and the "Clifton" lay helpless wrecks, aground and engulfed
in steam from their ruptured boilers.
At 5 o'clock A. M. on the morning of September 8, Maj. Kellersberg
received a telegram at his Galveston home that the Federal fleet had attacked Sabine Pass,
and that he should report immediately to Houston. He commandeered a hand car, and with the
aid of four slaves, he covered the 48 miles of trackage to Houston in time to leave with
Magruder's staff on the train for Sabine.
En route, his fears remained that the repaired gun barrels may have
exploded in the ensuing battle. However, his fears proved to be groundless. Upon arrival,
he found two mangled gunboats, captured cannons and stores, and about 320 Federal
prisoners, ample testimony indeed to the quality of his and his foundryman's craftsmanship
as well as to the Irish gunners' marksmanship.