SABINE PASS AND GALVESTON WERE SUCCESSFUL BLOCKADE-RUNNING PORTS
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 5, 1984.
Source: 2 articles, "A Tribute" and "Capt. Henry Scherffius,"
Galveston Daily News, Nov. 26, 1894 and many other sources.
One of the most colorful chapters of Civil War history, yet rarely
written about, is the story of blockade-running to and from the Texas seaports. Galveston
was the focal point of such commerce in Texas, as well as each Texas river which empties
into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite a five-ship flotilla of Union Navy blockaders off the
port of Galveston for most of the war, Confederate vessels entered and exited there, as
well as at Sabine Pass, with the clock-like frequency of passenger trains.
As early as July 2, 1861, the Federal steamer "South
Carolina" began blockading Galveston, after which the fame of Sabine Pass, where no
permanent blockade was established until September, 1862, grew steadily. By 1862, much of
the gunpowder entering Texas came through that port. And in fact, it was the Confederate
sea captains, due to their bragging at Havana, Cuba, of the ease of entry at Sabine Pass,
who accounted for the first blockader that arrived.
In July, 1862, Major Julius Kellersberg, the Confederate chief engineer
for East Texas, wrote that : ". . . the Pass at Sabine is certainly a very important
port, and in fact, the only port from where we receive our powder and other
articles." Shortly afterward, Lt. Frederick Crocker, the Federal blockade commander
at Sabine estuary, reported that: ". . .the importance of Sabine Pass to the Rebels
has been entirely underated by us."
The first blockade-runner at Sabine was Captain Henry Scherffius, an
immigrant German, who was already engaged in the Orange export lumber trade at the
outbreak of the war. In antebellum days, the Sabine Pass had two channels, divided by a
shallow oyster reef, and two treacherous mud flats at Texas and Louisiana Points. And only
the most experienced of pilots, one of whom was Scherffius, could expect to navigate
there, especially at night, without running aground.
When the war began, export commerce ended abruptly in Southeast Texas,
as Texans hurriedly enlisted and left for Virginia. Late in April, 1861, Scherffius
ferried the first company mustered in Tyler County from Sabine Pass to Brashear (Morgan)
City, La., aboard his schooner "Clarinda." The vessel belonged to Sims and
Bazile, lumber manufacturers of Orange, who because of invasion rumors, proposed to
dismast the schooner and hide the hull in Cow Bayou until the emergency subsided. As a
counter proposal, the captain offered to sail the "Clarinda" to Vera Cruz,
Mexico, with a load of cypress lumber and trade for a cargo that would yield the highest
profits, to be shared equally by the captain and the owners.
On August 29, 1861, he cleared Sabine bar with 35,000 feet of lumber.
Upon reaching his destination, he was delayed for one month by the slow grinding of the
Mexican bureaucracy, but five days after leaving there, he was back at the Sabine estuary
with a profitable cargo of merchandise, ". . .his achievement making him the hero of
all this portion of the coast." One of his adveraries at Vera Cruz was the United
States consul, who sought to libel his vessel in an admiralty court. Hence, Scherffius,
using one of his full bag of Confederate tricks and ruses, promptly converted the
"Clarinda" to British registry and flew the English flag.
Successful blockade-runners soon learned to employ every skill and
guise in their bag of tricks to avoid capture. For example, anywhere from two to ten
cotton schooners would attempt to clear the Sabine bar simultaneously, some headed east
and some headed west. This ruse usually guaranteed the escape of all but one of them
because the blockade fleet could afford to keep steam up on only one vessel at a time, and
sailing ships at anchor always had sails furled. Confederate captains often sailed at high
tide of a dark night or in a fog bank, turned their shallow-draft schooners east or west
to hug the coast, and then escaped when the first opportunity arose.
Of eight incoming vessels arriving at Sabine with gunpowder and other
munitions during the summer of 1862, the first seven were of English registry, as follows:
steamer "Victoria," from Havana; schooner "Rambler," from Havana;
schooner "Henrietta," from Belize; schooner "Tampico," from Tampico;
schooner "Henry Colthirst," from Belize; schooner "Stingray," from
Kingston, Jamaica; schooner "Governor," from Campeachy, Mexico; and the
Confederate States schooner "Sara Jordan," also from Belize.
The "Victoria" also brought yellow fever to Sabine Pass, and
the epidemic rampaged for 2 1/2 months, killing 100 soldiers and civilians. As a result
the town was evacuated, and no sailors wanted to land or go ashore there that fall. The
"Tampico," although flying the British flag, was owned by Sabine and Beaumont
merchants, usually hauling cotton only from the latter town.
On July 8, 1862, the Union blockader "Hatteras" arrived from
Havana and patrolled offshore from Sabine Pass for about ten days before moving on to
Galveston to the blockade fleet there. The next December, the C. S. S. raider
"Alabama," while sailing without running lights and attempting to run into the
port of Galveston for fuel, was discovered by the "Hatteras," the only Union
vessel with steam up. The "Alabama" retreated 20 miles offshore, and in a
freakish, one-sided, night battle, the "Hatteras" was sunk in 13 minutes by the
Confederate States steamer.
From July to September 20, 1862, Sabine's Confederate collector B. F.
McDonough wrote: ". . . There are vessels of the enemy off the bar occasionally
during this time. There never were more than one vessel at a time. Sometimes they remained
a few hours and in two or three instances a day or two. There were intervals of from one
to four weeks during which no vessel of the enemy appeared in sight."
During the epidemic, and until the burning of the Union gunboat
"Dan" at Sabine lighthouse on the night of Jan. 8, 1863, the Sabine Pass and
Lake were under Federal control. Thereafter, the Sabine blockaders, never more than two
ships at a time, were usually of such deep draft that they were forced to anchor five
miles beyond the bar. The time needed to hoist sails or get up steam always slowed them in
their pursuit of victims. The smoke or sparks emitted by the stacks of blockade-running
steamers always foretold their presence before they were in sight; hence, a small, fleet
schooner with a favorable wind always had the best chance for escape.
After his first voyage, Capt. Scherffius learned that cotton was in
much greater demand in Mexico than lumber, and thereafter he left Sabine Pass with 125 or
more bales of the fluffy, white commodity on each voyage. During the next two years,
although fired upon on several occasions by the blockade flotilla, he escaped 13 times,
sometimes sailing to Vera Cruz or Tampico if he sailed to the west, or on other occasions
to Havana; Kingston, Jamaica; or Belize, British Honduras.
On his thirteenth voyage, he was doggedly pursued by a blockader for 48
hours. During a thunderstorm, he ran the "Clarinda" aground near the Aransas
Pass lighthouse, set fire to his schooner, and he and his crew escaped to Corpus Christi
in their yawl boat.
In September, 1862, there were thirteen blockade-runners, eight
steamers and five schooners, loaded with 2,000 bales of cotton, docked in Jefferson and
Orange counties, awaiting favorable conditions to escape the coast. During that period,
there is also the unpleasant story of those blockade-runners who failed to escape the
clutches of their pursuers. Earlier in the war, D. R. Wingate of Sabine Pass lost one of
his lumber schooners, loaded with cotton, to the Union navy near Cuba. In 1862, he bought
the steamer "Pearl Plant" and with 500 bales loaded aboard, attempted to run the
blockade. Instead, to avoid capture, he had to run his steamer aground in the soft mud at
Texas Point, after which he and his crew burned the boat and cargo before wading ashore.
When the blockader "Hatteras" arrived, it soon captured the
schooner "Sarah," loaded with molasses and sugar, as it attempted to enter the
Sabine estuary. During the same week, the blockader also seized the steamer "Indian
No. 2," loaded with flour and bacon, and the outgoing schooner, "William,"
loaded with cotton.
Two months later, Lt. Frederick Crocker, the new Sabine blockade
master, promptly captured four British Schooners, the "Dart,"
"Velocity," "Adventure," and "West Florida," all attempting
to enter at Sabine Pass. Crocker was mystified when the "West Florida's" master
presented a "cotton pass," purportedly signed by Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler
of New Orleans, which allowed the schooner to buy cotton along the coast and return it to
Federal custody in New Orleans. Instead, Crocker sent the blockade-runner under a prize
crew to Pensacola, Fla., for adjudication in the prize court of Admiral David Farragut.
Eventually, by order of President Lincoln, Gen. Butler was ordered to discontinue the
issuance of such "passes."
A week later, during a daring foray 80 miles up the Calcasieu River
with only 14 men, Crocker burned the cotton schooners "Conchita," "Mary
Ann," and "Eliza," and captured the steamboat "Dan," which he
converted to a Union gunboat for patrolling Sabine Lake.
During December, 1863, an incoming vessel, the schooner
"Rosalee," was trapped by a blockader, and during a 24-hour chase, jettisoned
180 forty-pound kegs of gunpowder overboard in an effort to outdistance its pursuer.
Failing the chase, the captain drove his schooner onto the beach a few miles west of
Sabine, and when the blockader lowered a whaleboat, the skipper lighted a fuse, and while
wading ashore, blew up his ship and cargo.
After the loss of the "Clarinda," Capt. Scherffius returned
to Orange after the Battle of Sabine Pass, and the captured steamers "Clifton"
and "Sachem" were in an Orange shipyard, undergoing conversion to
blockade-runners. By 1864, Scherffius' fame as a successful blockade-runner had spread
throughout the South. When T. W. House, Sr., a Houston cotton broker, bought the
"Sachem" at a public auction, he promptly employed Scherffius and assigned him
as the "Sachem's" new master. The captain quickly renamed it after his old
schooner, the "Clarinda."
The steamer is believed to have made two successful voyages during the
summer of 1864. On Sept. 14, the Galveston "Tri-Weekly News" noted that the
vessel was loaded with cotton at Sabine and awaiting a favorable opportunity to escape the
coast. A week later, Scherffius put to sea with 500 bales. Alerted by sparks emitted from
the ship's funnel during the night, one blockader took up the chase, but the saucy
"Clarinda," its fire boxes red hot and its steam drum ever in danger of
rupturing, soon outdistanced its pursuer. Capt. J. B. Marchand, chief of the Galveston
blockade fleet, immediately dispatched two gunboats to the Mexican coast with orders to
await the return voyage of the "Clarinda" and recapture her.
Upon arrival at Vera Cruz, Scherffius sold his cargo, accepting in
payment a gold sight draft on Baring Brothers of London. When he learned that the two
gunboats were offshore from the city, awaiting his sailing, he then sold the
"Clarinda" to a British firm, accepting another L8,000 pound gold draft as
payment. He returned overland to Houston and delivered both drafts to House, who
immediately rewarded him with another command.
Earlier in the war, the Confederacy had ordered three fleet,
iron-hulled steamers from Laird Shipyards of Liverpool, England, for use as Texas
blockade-runners, only two of which reached Galveston before the war ended. The
"Lark" arrived in December, 1864, and the "Wren" one month later. On
its last return to Galveston about April 1, 1865, the "Wren," loaded with
gunpowder, muskets, and shells, was fired upon by every gun in the blockader flotilla, but
made it into the bay without mishap.
House also gave command of the "Lark" to Scherffius, who was
unloading cotton at Havana when General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 12, 1865, at
Appomattox Courthouse, Va. After the sale of the second "Clarinda," the captain
never returned to Orange again, except as a visitor. He continued in House' employ, and
was president of a Houston bank when he died on Nov. 22, 1894.
Beaumont's best-known blockade-runner was the British schooner
"Tampico," which belonged to Otto and C. H. Ruff, merchants of Beaumont, and
Charles H. Alexander, the largest cotton merchant at Sabine Pass. Unfortunately, surviving
Confederate records only cover the summer of 1862, but the incoming
"Tampico"" was one of those listed, arriving with gunpowder on August 11th.
According to court house records, the "Tampico" must have
made six or seven voyages, carrying cotton, before its loss. When Otto Ruff, who was
one-third owner, died of yellow fever in October, 1862, his estate consisted of $4,410 on
hand from the "Tampico's" previous voyages; $5,787 in cotton credits owed by the
firm of Diomicio Camacho of Mexico; and one-third of the cargo of the "Tampico,"
which was then at sea. On a subsequent voyage in April, 1863, the Beaumont schooner was
captured offshore from Sabine Pass with 112 bales aboard.
Another sad loss was that of the captured gunboat "Clifton,"
converted to blockade-runner. In March, 1864, the "Clifton" ran aground at Texas
Point with 600 bales aboard and had to be burned when capture was imminent.
There were other blockade-runners from Orange, Texas. Alexander Gilmer,
a sawmiller, ran cotton abroad until his schooner was captured off Sabine Pass by the U.
S. S. "Hatteras" during the fall of 1862. Dennis Call, Sr., a pioneer merchant
of Orange, was another who made a few successful voyages, eventually wrecking his
cotton-laden schooner off the Campeachy coast of Mexico. He barely escaped with his life.
Capt. Gus Pavell, a long-time cotton broker at Pavell's Island,
Louisiana, the delta island in the Sabine River, was another who had an illustrious
career, escaping capture for two years before quitting the sea in January, 1864. When he
died of yellow fever at Galveston in 1867, his old blockade-running schooner
"Sophia" was still floating serenely at anchor at Pavell's Island, a part of the
inventory of his estate.
As already stated, the Beaumont and Orange blockade-runners had mixed
results at the end of the war. Wingate, Call, and Gilmer were bankrupt by 1865, but later,
each recouped his fortunes in the sawmilling, merchandising, and shipping businesses.
However, Scherffius and Pavell were among those who lined their pockets with gold coins
and were financially secure for the remainder of their lives.
When one considers that all of the Confederacy's cotton and probably 95
percent of its munitions were ferried by blockade-runners, their role in the Civil War
becomes apparent. A successful schooner master was almost as valuable as any general.
Hence, Scherffius, Pavell and other successful practitioners of the blockade-running trade
helped the Confederate States to survive for four long years against astronomical odds.