Captain Keith
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Capt. K. D. Keith

Confederate Hero and Sabine Pass Pioneer

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Port Arthur NEWS, January 2, 1974.
Sources: W. T. Block (editor), "The Memoirs of Captain Kosciuszko D. Keith," TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, X (Nov., 1974), 41-64, written by K. D. Keith; K. D. Keith, "Military Operations, Sabine Pass, 1861-1863," in BURKE'S TEXAS ALMANAC AND IMMIGRANT'S GUIDE FOR 1883, Houston: No Date.

There is apparently no end in sight to the great volume of writings that the War Between The States will inspire. New books are printed each month, and some monthly historical, illustrated periodicals are devoted entirely to that subject. In fact, two of these have devoted almost all of one issue to the Battle of Sabine Pass alone. The "Civil War Times Illustrated" of December, 1973, devoted two articles and many photographs to that battle. In its September, 1986, edition, "Blue-Gray Magazine" devoted five articles and 47 photos, maps, and plates, almost the entire issue, to the same battle.

It is not easy to analyze the causes for the continuing interest in that century-old conflict, particularly since all the Civil War veterans have been dead for many years. Certainly, the war's fratricidal nature, which pitted brother against brother and even father against son, must be paramount among the causes. In fact, the tales of brother against brother are endless, a dilemma which even many Jefferson County combatants experienced.

Capt. Charles Fowler, commander of Confederate gunboats in Sabine lake, was captured by a Union patrol near the Sabine lighthouse on April 10, 1863. After arriving at a prison camp in New York, he discovered that five of his brothers were in the Union Army. Judge Tom Russell of Beaumont, one of the defenders of Vicksburg, fought for six weeks during the siege against one of his five brothers who were in the Federal Army. One of the saddest of the fratricidal accounts involved Major Albert Lea, the Confederate chief engineer for South Texas. Lea commanded a section of the Confederate artillery at the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863. Upon boarding the "Harriet Lane," a prize Union gunboat disabled and surrendered in Galveston Bay, Lea found his only son Edward, a Union naval lieutenant, mortally-wounded. The son died in his father's arms. Major Lea was a well-known railroad builder in the Mid-West in those days, and the town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, is named for him.

Many fratricidal cases involved men of general or admiral rank. Admiral Samuel Dupont, who commanded the Union blockade fleet off Charleston, fought against his own brother, a Confederate general in charge of harbor defenses. Sen. Crittenden of Kentucky had four sons who were officers of general rank, and three of them were killed in the war. Two were Union soldiers and two were Confederates.

Kosciuszko Dewitrt Keith, a Sabine Pass cotton merchant before and after the war, did not share this dilemma, but he did share an unusual experience. As captain of Company B, Spaight's 11th Texas Battalion, he commanded the only company that was destined to defend Jefferson County, Texas, while remaining within its borders throughout the war (although a small detachment of it was sent to Matagorda Bay to man artillery aboard the gunboat "John Carr.") In November, 1864, when the 21st Texas Regiment was organized, Keith and his company became Company I of Bates' 13th Texas Regiment, but his men remained in garrison at Fort Manhassett, Sabine Pass, until the war ended.

K. D. Keith was born at Bainbridge, Georgia, on September 15, 1831, the son of John W. and Adeline Reviere Keith. While en route to Texas, the parents died during a yellow fever epidemic at Mobile, Ala., in 1853, after which the six children, all but one being minors, moved on to Jasper County. Beginning in 1856, Keith ran a store in Beaumont for W. A. Ferguson of Jasper. In Sept., 1857, Keith bought a half-interest in the firm of Otis McGaffey and Co. of Sabine Pass, and after a whirlwind romance, he married McGaffey's daughter Mary Jane three months later.

With the outbreak of war, Keith enlisted in the 120-man militia company known as the "Sabine Pass Guards," but this company was never mustered into Confederate service in its original form. In July, 1861, its members reorganized into two companies of Col. J. B. Likens (later Spaight's) Texas Battalion. Capt. J. H. Blair mustered a company of cavalry, whereas Captain I. R. Burch, owner and captain of the steamboat "Sabine," organized artillery company B. When Burch resigned his commission soon after, Keith was elected as the company commander.

Unlike Galveston, where a United States ordnance depot existed, Sabine Pass was ill-prepared to defend itself. Two field cannons, captured in the Mexican War, were on hand, but the citizens of the town needed much larger guns if a naval attack were to be repelled. Keith was a member of the Committee of Safety, which built old Fort Sabine, about one mile south of the present state park, and a sawmiller, David R. Wingate, donated logs and rough lumber to build the fort and adjoining barracks. Keith rode to Galveston, where he was able to obtain two 18-pound cannons and a supply of solid shot (cannon balls), which he soon shipped to Sabine Pass. Later, he obtained to 32-pound guns in Houston to complete the mud fort's armament.

Both the Federals and the Confederacy seemed to have held Sabine Pass in low esteem during the early months of the war, and when the Union Navy finally took some note of its importance in Sept., 1862, Sabine was already well-established as a blockade-running seaport for cotton and munitions.

When three Union ships began shelling Fort Sabine on Sept. 24, 1862, only sixteen Confederates had recovered enough from their yellow fever illnesses to man the guns. However, their return fire from their old smoothbore guns fell short, and the Confederates could only mount the parapets and curse the intruders who remained at a safe distance out of range.

After nightfall, Fort Sabine's commander, Major Irvine, received orders to spike and bury the guns, and to retreat inland by train with all available stores. During the next two months, Union ships occupied Sabine Lake and Pass, where they destroyed the railroad bridge over Taylor's Bayou, and they burned the depot, roundhouse, sawmills, and other principal buildings in Sabine Pass.

Keith's company then hastily occupied Fort Grigsby at Port Neches in October, 1862. In January, Keith received orders to move his company to Orange where two Confederate steamboats were being converted to cotton clad gunboats. Company B soon went aboard the "Uncle Ben," a former cotton boat, to man its two 12-pounder cannons, and other detachments under Lt. R. W. "Dick" Dowling went aboard the gunboat "Josiah Bell" to man a 64-pounder rifled cannon aboard that boat.

Early on January 21, 1863, as clouds of pine knot smoke spiraled from the cotton lads' stacks, the Rebels gunboats steamed out to engage the offshore blockaders, the "Morning Light" and "Velocity," both of which quickly hoisted sails and sought to escape. Since only a slight breeze was blowing, the Union Bluejackets were unable to fill their sails, and after a long chase at sea, the slow steamers came within range and opened fire.

Dowling's gun crew on the "Josiah Bell" scored four hits on the "Morning Light," and both ships soon surrendered. The Confederates captured, in addition to the ships, twelve cannons, 177 prisoners, and a large quantity of stores. Capt. Keith's men doubled as sailors to bring the captured "Velocity" into port.

Company B remained aboard the "Uncle Ben" during most of 1863. When a Union invasion fleet entered the Pass on September 8, the cotton clad made a feint southward in the Pass to draw their fire, but hastily retreated to Sabine Lake when large 9-inch shells from the "Sachem" began passing overhead. Because of its 'popgun' size artillery, the "Uncle Ben" was helpless to assist during Lt. Dick Dowling's 40-minute fight to glory. After the battle ended, the Rebel cotton clad crossed the channel to tow the disabled "Sachem" to the Texas shore.

After the battle, Company B joined Dowling's Davis Guards in garrison in Fort Griffin, and for several months they manned the additional guns that were installed there. In 1864, when most Sabine troops became a part of new 21st Texas Regiment, Keith's men were transferred to Col. Bates' command and transferred to man the artillery at Fort Manhassett, a new fort built six miles west of Sabine Pass. They remained there until the war ended, and on May 24, 1865, Keith lowered the Confederate flag at the last Rebel fort to surrender. The following day, they marched to Beaumont and were discharged.

Capt. Keith immediately set to work to recoup his fortunes and rebuild his import-export business, which had been destroyed by the war. He soon entered into a partnership with his brother-in-law, A. N. Vaughn, who was also a discharged ex-Confederate from Beaumont. One of their first transactions was to buy an old Trinity River cotton boat, the "Orleans," and for the next five years the steamboat made many voyages in the Sabine River, carrying cotton to the coast.

Although the volume of cotton exported at Sabine in 1866 (6,000 bales) equaled only one-third of the pre-war volume, both Keith and Vaughn and their only cotton competitor, C. H. Alexander and Co., prospered, the exports reaching 20,000 bales by 1870. The "Orleans" was bringing to the coast around 3,000 bales during each shipping season, and Keith and Vaughn bought an additional 5,000 bales annually from other sternwheelers in the river trade. Such was Keith's financial stature until September, 1871, when a massive hurricane blew in from the Gulf, sank the "Orleans," destroyed the Keith home and business, in fact, everything he owned except his family and the clothes on their backs.

With no insurance and nothing to rebuild with, Keith went to Galveston with only $1.00 in his jeans and found employment there with D. Theo Ayers and Company. During the next eight years, the old Rebel lived intermittently at Galveston and other Texas towns, before settling permanently at Luling, Texas, where he prospered as a hardware merchant until his death in 1909. He is buried in the Luling city cemetery beside the graves of his wife, some of his children, and his parents-in-law, the Otis McGaffeys. At one time in 1896, Keith attempted to write his memoirs, but he had to quit at a point in 1863 because of failing eyesight. He was blind due to cataracts during the last years of his life.

On two or three occasions, Capt. Keith was able to reunite at Beaumont with some of his old ex-Confederate buddies at assemblies of the United Confederate Veterans. On those occasions, some of the old veterans of Company B, Niles H. Smith, Joe Cassidy, and others, were on hand to trade the yarns of yesteryear, and always the name of Captain Keith bore the same luster that it did on that date in 1861 when he was elected captain.

Being so much a part of the old cotton-producing South that he was born and had grown up in, the old Rebel had cast his lot with the Confederacy until its death at Appomattox Courthouse, Va., in 1865. And after bowing to its defeat, he renewed his allegiance to the United States with the same vigor that he once had exercised while fighting against it - once more proud to call himself American.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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