THE BATTLE OF SABINE PASS - ITS CAUSES AND EFFECTS
By W. T. Block
Greetings and a special welcome to all of you today from the Lions' Club and from all the people of Sabine Pass, as well as myself, W. T. Block of Nederland. Before proceeding with the Battle of Sabine Pass, please permit me to refresh your memories with some of the particulars that preceded the battle, as well as some of the causes.
Galveston Island had been recaptured by the Confederates on Jan. 1, 1863, and thereafter the Federals hoped for revenge by capturing Sabine Pass, Beaumont, and Orange. They hoped to capture all the cotton, steamboats and schooners in port, as well as to burn railroad bridges and ferries on the rivers. Then they planned to attack Houston along the railroad to the west of Beaumont, and then starve Galveston Island into submission.
The principal Confederate defense force at Sabine Pass during the early months of the war had been Spaight's Texas Battalion. Another unit, Capt. F. H. Odlums' Co. F, of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, was sent to Sabine Pass in Dec., 1862. And the two units manned artillery aboard two old cottonclad gunboats, the Uncle Ben and Josiah Belle, which Confederates used to break the blockade on Jan. 21, 1863, by chasing two Union sail ships, the Morning Light and Velocity, for 30 miles at sea and capturing them during a battle. After that embarrassment to the Federal forces, Union Gen. Benjamin Butler of New Orleans was determined to capture Sabine Pass by sea, but he had to await the capture of Vicksburg before enough shallow draft gunboats were available. About Aug. 1, 1863, Gen. Butler began massing four gunboats and 19 troop transports at New Orleans in preparation for the battle.
Between March and August, 1863, Confederate engineers built the new Fort Griffin on this site. Co. B, the artillery company of Spaight's Battalion, was still assigned as gunners on the cottonclad Uncle Ben, whereas Capt. Odlum, Lt. Dick Dowling and their Davis Guards were transferred to the new Fort Griffin to man the four 32-pound, 6" guns and two 24-pound, 5" guns in the fort. Co. F was made up almost entirely of Irish immigrant longshoremen, or "dockwallopers," of Houston and Galveston. Confederate engineers drove marker posts in the oyster reefs 1,200 yards distant from the fort to mark the guns' maximum range, and during the month of August, Lt. Dowling used a sunken schooner as a target as he honed his artillerymen's gunnery prowess to the peak of perfection.
Beginning in May, 1863, Gen. "Prince John" Magruder of Houston began a systematic reduction of Confederate forces at Sabine Pass, and that at a time that he knew an attack at Sabine Pass was perhaps imminent. Several companies of Spaight's Bn. were transferred to Opelousas, La., where Gens. Nathaniel Banks and W. B. Franklin led an invasion up the Bayou Teche. Then Magruder sent Col. Griffin and his battalion from Galveston to Sabine Pass. When Comanche Indians began attacking the homes west of Fort Worth of Griffin's soldiers, the battalion threatened to desert or mutiny unless they were sent back to Tarrant County to subdue the Indians. Magruder foolishly sent 5 companies of Griffin's Bn. back to Fort Worth, and only Lt. Chasteen's Co. F was still in Beaumont awaiting a train. And when the sound of cannon fire at daylight on Sept. 8 was heard from the direction of Sabine Pass, Lt. Chasteen put his company aboard the steamer Roebuck and started for Sabine Pass.
By Sept. 7, Gen. Ben Butler's armada had arrived offshore from Sabine, and the steering lights of the vessels could be seen that night by the Confederates ashore. Lt. Frederick Crocker, who had successfully captured Sabine Pass a year earlier, commanded the gunboats Clifton, Sachem, Arizona, and Granite City, and altogether there were about 5,000 men aboard the 4 gunboats and the 19 troop transports that accompanied them. On the morning of Sept. 8, Capt. Odlum has gone aboard the gunboat Uncle Ben, after telling Lt. Dowling that he could spike the guns and retreat if he so chose. Lt. Dowling remained the only officer in the fort, so he asked Confederate Surgeon George H. Bailey and Confederate engineer Lt. Nicholas H. Smith each to take charge of a battery of two guns at the fort, although neither man had had any artillery experience.
At daylight on Sept. 8, the 4 Union gunboats entered the Pass and fired about 20 shells at the fort without receiving any return fire. Many of the rifled cannons on the Union gunboats had 9-inch bores and fired 135-pound shells to a distance of 3 miles. Because no return fire was forthcoming, Lt. Crocker became halfway assured that the fort was deserted. About mid-morning, the Uncle Ben steamed down past the fort. Crocker fired three more shells, all of which passed overhead of the Uncle Ben. The Uncle Ben then retreated into Sabine Lake, since its tiny popguns were only 4", 12-pound guns. My grandfather Block and three of his brothers were gunners on the Uncle Ben.
During most of the day, Lt. Dowling kept all of his men out of sight in the "bomb proofs" under the fort, although each gun had been primed and loaded, and a good supply of powder, sewed up in flannel pockets, and cannon balls lay stashed beside each battery. During that time, only Dowling remained above ground with his spy glass, or small telescope, and about 2:30 PM, he saw black smoke pour out of the invaders' smokestacks as the Union gunboats steamed forward toward the fort. Dowling then ordered each of his men above ground, and the aim of each of the six Confederate guns was pinpointed on the 1,200-yard markers in the oyster reefs.
For some reason, the Sachem led the advance up the Louisiana channel on the east side of the oyster reefs, and the Clinton was a little behind in the Texas channel. The lead gunboats continued to fire at the fort, but Dowling allowed no return fire as long as the boats were out of range. As soon as the Sachem passed the 1,200-yard marker, the fire of all six guns were concentrated on the Louisiana channel until a cannon ball pierced the Sachem's steam drum. Immediately the Sachem was shrouded in a cloud of steam as many crewmen and soldiers, some of them burned to the bone, jumped overboard, and the Sachem, a hopeless wreck, soon ran aground on the Louisiana shore.
After that, all Confederate guns were aimed at the Clifton in the Texas channel, which very soon suffered a similar experience and went aground on the Texas shore, its steam drum also billowing clouds of steam under pressure. Again many crewmen and soldiers were cooked to the bone. One Rebel cannon ball went bouncing down the Clifton's deck and cut off the head of the Clifton's starboard gunner. The gunner's head was later found floating in the Pass, which resulted in my writing a story entitled "The Headless Yankee Gunner of Sabine Pass."
As soon as the two gunboats blew up and went aground, the rest of the Union fleet suddenly became very homesick for New Orleans. In their haste to turn around and gallop home, the gunboats Arizona and Granite City ran aground and had to be pulled off the mud flat. The transports Suffolk and Continental collided while fleeing, but sustained very little damage. To lighten their loads, the feet of 200 horses and mules were tied together before they were thrown overboard. Altogether, 200,000 rations, 50 wagons, artillery pieces, many kegs of gunpowder, and barrels of corn meal and flour were thrown overboard during the fleet's mad scramble for New Orleans.
As soon as Lt. Crocker raised a white flag on the Clifton, Lt. Dowling had another terrible dilemma. He had only 47 Confederates in the fort, who luckily had not sustained a single scratch, but were worn out from the reloading and firing of 135 cannon balls during the 40 minute battle, always without the minimal precaution of scrubbing out the cannon barrels. Two Confederate guns were hit and knocked out during the battle. Dowling had to run down to the Clifton and accept Lt. Crocker's sword and surrender. But he dared not expose the fact that there were only 47 men to accept the surrender of 350 prisoners, who might easily have overpowered their captors. Luckily, though, the Uncle Ben soon steamed back into the Pass and towed the disabled Sachem back to the Texas shore. In command on the Uncle Ben was Lt. Niles H. Smith, thus meaning that two different men named Lt. N. H. Smith played a part in the victory. About 4 PM, the steamboat Roebuck arrived from Beaumont, carrying Lt. Joe Chasteen and the Confederates of Co. F, Griffin's Bn., and the additional Confederates on hand made it possible to secure the capture of so many prisoners.
The next day, about 50 or more dead soldiers and sailors, which included 22 liberated slaves, whose names are unknown, were buried at Mesquite Point on Sabine Lake. During the battle, the Confederate "heroines of Sabine Pass," Kate Dorman and Sarah Vosburg, drove a buggy down to the fort and delivered coffee, doughnuts and a gallon of whiskey to the weary and grimy soldiers.
The Confederates at Sabine Pass had hardly had time to savor and appreciate their victory, but others quickly did, as the story of the "Alamo in reverse" battle was carried back to Houston and Galveston, and eventually back to the Confederate Congress in Richmond, Va., who quickly ordered that a special Davis Guard medal be cast for each of the men in the fort. The battle had saved Upper Texas from Union occupation until the end of the war and allowed East Texas to continue shipping cotton through the blockade and to act as the bread basket for all the Confederates fighting in Louisiana.
Within a short time, Lt. Dick Dowling was promoted to major in command of all Houston recruitment. But despite his great victory at Sabine Pass, the outcome of the great war had to be decided on the fields of Virginia. Each of the Davis Guards could only watch in horror and disgust as General Lee surrendered all Confederate forces at Appomattox Court House. But there was still another disaster which soon faced the Davis Guard soldiers. During the great yellow fever epidemic of 1867, which killed 3,000 people in Harris and Galveston counties, the beloved Dick Dowling and about half of his Sabine Pass veterans fell victim to the "yellowjack," after having survived the agonies of gunpowder and exploding shells at the battle at Sabine Pass.
However, the death of each of those men will never be in vain as long as there is a Sabine Pass, Texas, to remember them. Its citizens will always cherish the memories of those 47 valiant men, who stood so bravely in the face of death and against such astronomical odds to keep East Texas free of a Federal occupation army. I thank you for your kind attention.