Calcasieu Pass Victory, Heroism Equal Dowlings
By W. T. Block
Reprint from The Port Arthur News, Sunday, January 3, 1971.
In 1909, Joseph Alexander Brickhouse, a Beaumont, Texas Confederate veteran, expressed regret in his memoirs that the Battle of Calcasieu Pass had been lost to posterity. He wrote one of the two or three eyewitness accounts that have survived.
Brickhouse, an ordinance officer, was stationed at Fort Manhassett in 1864. His unit, Capt. E. Creuzbauers Battery of Texas artillery, was part of the Sabine Pass contingent that engaged and captured two Union ironclads at Cameron, La., on May 6, 1864.
Creuzbauers battery, mostly Fayette county, Texas, immigrant Germans, was recently eulogized in Judge Paul C. Boetels book, "The Big Guns of Fayette."
"While I would not pluck one feather from the plume of fame worn by Dick Dowling," Brickhouse remarked, "yet I must say that the Battle of Calcasieu Pass and the victory achieved was in every way equal to that achieved by Dick Dowling and his immortal heroes at Sabine Pass.
"We fought in the open prairie, bringing on the attack with four small pieces of artillery and less than 300 infantry, poorly armed, attacking two such boats as the Granite City and the Wave and capturing them after an action of less than two hours and 40 minutes duration.
The names of Capt. Charles Wellhausen and Maj. Felix C. McReynolds and their men deserve to be written in letters of gold and placed high upon the monument of fame erected to the memory of Southern heroes."
Although 20 or more Union and Confederate dead lie buried somewhere on the salt grass prairies near it, Cameron, La., like Fort Manhassett, has no historical marker to commemorate its Civil War heritage. The battles historical obscurity (that Brickhouse feated) survives instead.
Cameron parish as a political entity was not organized until after the war ended. Its geographic confines became, in a sense, a no-mans-land, neglected by the Confederacy because of its inaccessibility, and prized by the Union navy as a source of supply and, as this story relates, a coaling point.
An earthwork fortification at the Pass was abandoned by the Confederates shortly after it was built. For much of the war, a single cavalry company of 30 horsemen patrolled infrequently from Johnsons Bayou to Grand Chenier, and 10 days before the battle, even this force was withdrawn.
Although the parish furnished many fighters for the Confederacysoldiers at Sabine Pass, men like Isaac Bonsall of Cameron, who died a hero at Vicksburg, it involuntarily furnished refuge as well to scores of "Jayhawkers," who hid out in the isolated canebrakes and cheniers.
The Jayhawkers were a motley assortment of disgruntled Northern sympathizers, draft-dodgers, and deserters (many of them from Texas), who peddled stolen beef, horses, and supplies to Union blockaders. Confederate cavalry battled sporadically with these brigands, but with only partial success.
On March 7, 1864, Capt. W. J. Howerton, a cavalry officer on the Calcasieu, notified Sabine Headquarters by letter that a detachment had encountered "the nest of jayhawkers, and that force is capturing and killing them off, hanging the scoundrels . . . Some nine or more have been captured, a good many more killed, and they were then hemmed in a place called Tussans Cove, and fighting."
On another occasion, a cavalry lieutenant expressed fear that the 200-man Jayhawker band would pirate the gunpowder cargoes of two blockade-runners in Mermentau river before troops could arrive to unload them.
The regard which the Union navy held for Camerons isolated recesses is aptly expressed in the sealed orders given to the gunboat Wave when that ship sailed from New Orleans on April 15, 1864, bound for Calcasieu river. They informed the vessels master, Lt. Benjamin Loring, that he was being sent there "to assist the army in getting stock, and to pick up recruits for the navy," presumably from among the Jayhawkers.
On April 24, after a delay in Vermillion bay, Loring brought his vessel opposite Calcasieu Pass, and fired a number of shells into the old fort. Upon receiving no response, he steamed about two miles upstream and anchored.
Two days later the Granite City arrived and anchored 300 yards downstream from the Wave. Its master, Lt. C. W. Lamson, had aboard a U. S. Army detachment of 27 men, whose assignment was to round up livestock brought in by the Jayhawkers.
Lt. Loring brought with him from New Orleans a man named Smith and his sons, along with six or seven other Union sympathizers, whom Union dispatches refer to as "refugees." Smith, who resided at Cameron, and his group were assigned to various picket duties. In addition, they acted as "go-betweens" between the warships and the Jayhawker elements and as recruiters for the Union navy.
The navy bluejackets quickly destroyed the bridges over Mud and Oyster bayous, the only route over which Confederate troops could travel. The vessels stationed pickets at several points, and, seemingly content with the security precautions they had taken, settled down to await re-coaling, livestock, and Jayhawker enlistees for their navy.
News of the shelling of the fort and of the gunboats arrival reached Sabine Pass via loyal residents living near Cameron. Col. H. W. Griffin wired Houston immediately for instructions, fearing that Union plans were much more sinister than they actually were. He envisioned the gunboats as the vanguard of a full-scale attempt to outflank Sabine Pass (where the Davis Guards still manned Fort Griffin), and to take Beaumont and Houston via Lake Charles and Nibletts Bluff, Louisiana.
The reply from General J. B. Magruders Houston headquarters came back quickly and precisely, "Attack the small force at Calcasieu at once, and disperse, defeat, or capture the expedition!"
Col. A. W. Spaight, at Nibletts Bluff, sent three companies of his infantry as part of the attack force. A fourth, Company B. of Spaights battalion, was already at Sabine. Command of these units, plus three companies of Griffins Battalion, was given to Maj. Felix McReynolds, commandant at Fort Manhassett.
McReynolds 200-plus infantrymen crossed the Sabine Pass channel on the afternoon of May 4 and began the 38-mile trek to Calcasieu. Capt. Creuzbauers battery of 49 men and four small field guns, two 12-pounders and two 6-pounders, left Fort Manhassett after dusk to escape detection by blockading vessels offshore (half of his men and horses were on detached service). They boarded a steamboat at Sabine and shortened their journey by debarking at the head of Johnsons bayou.
The attack force, about 300 in all, was spearheaded by a company of Lt. Col. Andrew Dalys cavalry. At midnight on May 5, it was delayed about one hour while work to span the bayous with pontoon bridges continued. At 1:30 a.m. on May 6, Col. Griffin and his troops reached the Pass and there awaited the daylight needed to begin the attack.
By prior arrangement, Creuzbauers gunners were to open fire at 1,000 yards and to cover the infantrys advance to the banks of Calcasieu Pass. As soon as the sharpshooters muskets could he trained on the ironclads gun crews, the artillery planned to advance another 500 yards so that their cannon fire could take greater effect. The riflemen found no cover along this stretch of the Pass except to lie in prone positions on the salt grass prairie.
Surprise was complete, but the Confederate gunners could only get off 10 rounds before the enemys return fire began to arrive. The first shells from the 24- and 32-pounder Union guns took devastating effect, and two gunners on one field piece fell with the first burst. Gun No. 3 was soon knocked out with four wounded, two mortally.
At this point, the battle seesawed between victory and defeat. With gun No. 3 disabled and the horses of gun No. 4 dead, the burden of battle fell upon the infantrys musket fire while the bigger guns moved forward. Brickhouse describes Wellhausen and McReynolds as "two of the bravest officers who ever drew swords, (who) rallied their men in such terms as no one who heard them will ever forget."
The Union gun crews faltered as well before the crossfire of 200 Confederate muskets. As Creuzbauers 12-pounder guns resumed fire, one cannonball tore away the Granite Citys helm, and a shell exploded inside of her hull. Already puffs of smoke emitted from the stacks as both gunboats struggled to get up steam and escape.
At this point, Lt. Lamson aboard the Granite City had had enough although he had fired only 30 rounds (he had panicked and fled headlong before Dowlings withering fire the year before). Lamson hoisted a white flag and then lowered a boat so the Confederate commander could come aboard.
Col. Griffin marveled at the carnage aboard Lamsons gunboat. The deck of the Granite City was littered with blood, splinters, and the severely wounded, but nowhere did he note any dead combatants aboard the vessel. The explanation literally "came to the surface" in the aftermath of the conflict.
Lt. Loring, aboard the Wave, had no intention of following Lamsons example. The ironclad was his first command, and he still hoped to get up steam, hoist anchors, and escape.
The Wave lay around a bend in the Pass from the Granite City. Its gun crews rained canister shot among the infantry, killing at least five in Griffins companies. However, one circumstance worked to the Confederates advantage. Having no steam up at first, the Wave was wholly dependent upon current movements in aiming her broadsides.
McReynolds maneuvered his fighters 300 yards nearer to where the Wave was anchored and where a mesquite-covered levee and a cow pen offered some cover. From this point, the Rebel muskets peppered the ironclads decks each time that the blue jackets sought to hoist anchors.
The battle raged on for another hour during which time Creuzbauers gunners hit the Wave with 65 shells. Lt. Wellhausen directed the fire of gun No. 1 which soon scored hits on the wheelhouse and boilers. Perhaps gunner Brickhouse scored the luckiest shot of the day when a cannonball from gun No. 4 struck a 32-pounder howitzer on the Wave and split its barrel full length.
With his decks in shambles, 10 men wounded, and escaping steam everywhere, Lt. Loring had no recourse but to strike his colors. However, he hesitated to lower a boat while his men were tossing side arms, shells, the ships safe and other supplies overboard. When McReynolds threatened to resume fire, Loring hurriedly picked up the boarding party and surrendered his sword to the Rebel major.
That night, the Confederates feasted on captured hams and sardines while 166 Union prisoners tried the less palatable Rebel rations. With two ships, quantities of stores, and 16 guns captured, Griffins victory was only slightly less rewarding than was Dowlings triumph although it lacked the latters Alamo-like quality.
Hostilities resumed on May 10 when a launch from the blockader New London entered Calcasieu Pass to deliver a dispatch to the Granite City. Seeing the Rebel ensign at the ironclads masthead, Union Ensign Henry Jackson thought it some kind of a joke in progress and fired a shot across the ironclads bow. A single shot from the captured steamer killed Jackson, and his six companions in the launch surrendered.
Union prisoners had nothing but praise for a lone, Confederate infantryman whom they said remained standing on the prairie as he rammed his charge and fired his musket. His utter disregard of his person unnerved them"it irritated every man that shot at him."
To this day, the exact total of the battles casualties is unknown. Griffins second dispatch reported eight Confederates killed and 13 wounded, some of whom later died. Loring reported 24 wounded on the two gunboats of whom four later died.
Col. Griffin reported on May 11 that five bodies of bluejackets had floated up on the beach each with weights attached. Since it was thus apparent that Lamson had thrown his dead overboard in the midst of battle it became impossible to determine the Union casualties because between 15 and 20 of them had been thrown overboard.
The battle evidently put an end to Jayhawker depredations upon the Cameron parish citizenry. Nothing more is recorded about them. The 250 cattle and 200 horses sold by them to the Union Navy became a part of the spoils of battle and were eventually shipped to Sabine Pass.
Although the wounded remained aboard the gunboats in Calcasieu Pass and the infantry remained behind to guard the prisoners Brickhouse and his buddies were soon back at Fort Manhassett manning the artillery at the Western terminus of Sabines defenses.
Griffins men had fought their last battle. There was nothing left for them except to wait out the war and to lower Sabines Rebel emblems when defeat finally came.
Griffins Calcasieu veterans included leading Jefferson County citizens of the 1850s. Two from Beaumont included Capt. A. W. Junker, a business man, and Capt. George W. OBrien. OBrien was clerk of Jefferson County court until the war began and later was an early, if not the first, Beaumont newspaper publisher.
Several were Sabine Pass businessmen of the pre-war period who organized Company B of Spaights battalion there in 1861. McReynolds was an early patentee of five sections of land there, and later became executive officer of Spaights Infantry. Capt. K. D. Keith was a partner in Craig and Keith, one of the largest commission mercantile firms at Sabine.
Lt. Niles H. Smith settled at Sabine in the 1830s and jointly with John McGaffey, founded the second town of Sabine Pass in 1845. Others of Company B included Lts. Joseph Cassidy and Joe Chastine who, along with Smith, were lauded by Dick Dowling for their role in his famed battle.
The incident closed when, at Houston, the Confederate commandant reported the Battle of Calcasieu Pass to his superior at Trans-Mississippi Headquarters. It was as precise and matter-of-fact as were his orders to attack, curtly reading "Griffin attacked the enemy at Calcasieu yesterday morning; captured gunboats Granite City and Wave.