THE COTTONCLAD GUNBOAT "UNCLE BEN:" COTTON-CARRYING WORKHORSE OF THE SABINE
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, October 24, 1974
As daylight illuminated the lower Neches River on September 9, 1863, a frontier settler of Port Neches observed a "rickety old cottonclad," the Confederate gunboat "Uncle Ben," weaving its way slowly among the serpentine curves of the river south of Beaumont, Texas. The vessel carried a boat load of uninvited guests, Union prisoners-of-war of the 75th New York Volunteers, who had surrendered to Lieutenant "Dick" Dowling at Sabine Pass on the previous day.
The steamer had traveled all night on the 50-mile journey from Sabine Pass to Beaumont. One of her paddle wheels was broken, reducing the speed to about 3 miles an hour. The "Uncle Ben's" pilot could steer only "by keeping the helm hard a-starboard" (compensating for the broken paddle wheel by keeping the rudder to starboard).
The three hundred or so Confederates in Jefferson and Orange counties had been dazed by the unexpected defeat-turned-victory. Only a handful of soldiers could be spared to guard the Federal prisoners bound for imprisonment at Camp Groce, near Hempstead, Texas. During the long night, groups of Union prisoners surveyed a plan to overpower their Rebel guards, but abandoned any attempt in the face of the old gunboat's state of disrepair. The Sabine River sidewheeler had known happier days in the cotton trade. Before the war, scores of people often lined the river banks at such cotton-shipping points as Belgrade, Salem, East Hamilton, Sabinetown, or Belzora whenever the old cotton steamer loosed its loud and shrill steam whistle. Its arrival often meant new merchandise in the stores, mail, newspapers, or gold coins returning from a cotton crop sold in New Orleans or Galveston.
Its sailing brought both tears and happiness. Friends waved farewells from the saloon deck, and newlyweds, arm in arm, often departed on a honeymoon to Galveston.
Built in 1853, the 135-foot steamboat found both its cradle and grave in the turbulent Sabine River. The only known picture of the "Uncle Ben" was one drawn by a Union war correspondent which later appeared in the "Harper's Weekly" for Oct. 10, 1863, but the pictures outlined almost no details of the vessel. Drawn during the Battle of Sabine Pass, the artist depicted the steamer only as a sidewheeler with twin stacks.
Little is known about the "Uncle Ben" prior to 1857, the year that its builder and owner died. A former Georgia riverboatman, Captain Robert S. Patton was a pioneer navigator of both the Sabine and the Angelina-Neches watercourses, for he shipped Nacogdoches County cotton from Pattonia and Smith County cotton from Belzora. Between 1846 and 1850, his sternwheeler "Angelina" was captained by his brother, Capt. Moses L. Patton, and made frequent trips from Pattonia to Sabine Lake. R. S. Patton devoted much of his business career to breaking the monopoly of the Red River merchants at Natchitoches, La., who dominated the East Texas cotton trade, and whose high river-shipping and wagon-freighting costs absorbed half of the value of each bale.
The Patton brothers settled at Pattonia on the Angelina, 15 miles south of Nacogdoches, during the middle 1830s, and began keelboating cotton to Sabine Lake. In 1846 they built the steamer "Angelina" at Pattonia, which averaged about five voyages a year, carrying cotton to the coast and returning with lumber and assorted freight for Nacogdoches merchants.
In an effort to garner the cotton trade of Northeast Texas, Robert Patton built a river port on the Sabine River, between Tyler and Longview, that he called Belzora in 1847. At first he keelboated from Belzora aboard the "T. J. Rusk," a flatboat complete with wheel house and rudder, but lacking an engine. Later he installed a steam engine and changed the name to "General Rusk" (not to be confused with a deepsea steamship of the same name), which began its brief career on the Sabine in Jan., 1851. Since steamers could reach Belzora only when the upper Sabine River was at flood stage, Patton was often forced to keelboat cotton to Fredonia, Upshur County, or other river ports farther downstream.
Although competing against four riverboats on the Angelina-Neches and three others on the Sabine River, Patton's steamer "Uncle Ben" carried one-third of the 15,000 bales of cotton exported at Sabine Pass in 1857. During five successful voyages, two of which covered the 800 river miles to Belzora, the steamboat averaged 1,000 bales on each trip to Sabine Pass.
After Patton's death in 1857, his estate sold the sidewheeler to John G. Berry of Sabinetown. He in turn sold the "Uncle Ben" for $8,000 to Charles H. Ruff and Otto Ruff, brothers of Beaumont, and C. H. Alexander, Sabine's largest antebellum commission merchant.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the steamboat was chartered by the Confederate States government for use as a transport and tender. By December, 1862, the new owners had realized $17,362 in charter fees. The Confederacy then purchased the "Uncle Ben" outright, for a new Confederate commanding general in Texas had some aggressive plans of his own.
In Nov., 1862, Gen. John B. Magruder arrived at Houston to command the Military District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He soon planned the recapture of Galveston Island from the Federals (which occurred on New Year's Day) and the breaking of the blockade at Sabine Pass. Magruder sent the steamers "Josiah H. Bell" and "Uncle Ben" to the Levingston shipyard at Orange, Tx., where they were outfitted as gunboats, a task superintended by Capt. Charles Fowler, the chief of Confederate gunboats in Sabine Lake.
To protect the gun crews, Fowler installed a double wall of oak beams on the vessels and filled the interior space with cotton bales. He then mounted two 12-pounder smoothbore field guns on the "Uncle Ben" and a single 64-pounder rifled cannon on the "Bell." The civilian crews remained aboard both boats. Unfortunately, Magruder entrusted the blockade battle to an arrogant and inefficient inebriant named Major O. M. Watkins, who remained intoxicated throughout the entire offshore battle.
For artillerists, the general ordered Capt. K. D. Keith's Company B of Spaight's Battalion from Fort Grigsby at Port Neches to Orange on Jan. 15, 1863. Captain Odlum's Co. F, First Texas Heavy Artillery, was ordered aboard the "Bell," and other units from Spaight's Battalion and Pyron's Regiment were asssigned aboard both vessels to serve as sharpshooters. And on January 21, both gunboats, their stacks belching black pine knot smoke, steamed out of the Sabine Pass to engage the blockade ships, the "Morning Light" and "Velocity."
A thirty mile chase at sea ensued with the Union ships unable to fill their sails due to the slight or non-existent breeze. As the slow steamers came within range, Lt. Dick Dowling and the "Bell's" gun crew scored four direct hits on the "Morning Light." Soon the Confederate sharpshooting musketeers forced the Union artillerists from the decks, and both blockaders surrendered. The three guns of the Rebels were hardly a match for the Bluejackets, for the "Morning Light" had nine 32-pound guns aboard, and the "Velocity" had three 12-pound cannons. Capt. Keith's gunners then doubled as sailors to bring the captured "Velocity" into port.
In the fall of 1865, it appears that the "Uncle Ben" was auctioned to persons unknown, and the steamboat soon returned to the Sabine cotton trade. By then the sidewheeler was approaching a relatively old age for the river boats of that era. During one of her many successful voyages made during the post-bellum years, the "Uncle Ben" struck a snag and foundered in the river near East Hamilton. And apparently, the hull was considered a total loss from the beginning for no attempt was ever made to raise it. Thus was ended what was perhaps the most illustrious career of any vessel in the history of East Texas steamboating.
The loss of the "Uncle Ben" in 1867 was a blow to the Sabine River trade, but other steamboats soon replaced her. All that remains of the old cotton boat today is her bell, which hangs in the high school in Center, Texas. Each peal tolls the submission of the sternwheelers to the rails which replaced them, a regretable but necessary step in the progressive march of humanity, but nonetheless, an epoch fondly recalled by the oldtimers who patronized them.