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A EULOGY TO CATHERINE MAGILL DORMAN (1828-1897)

By W. T. Block

Officers and members of Jefferson County Historical Commission, the Texas Historical Commission, the Dick Dowling Lions Club, ladies and gentlemen:

Around Labor Day of each year, Sabine Pass celebrates its Confederate holiday, Sept. 8th, in memory of those 47 Irish defenders of this city, that defeated a large Federal armada, who suddenly grew quite homesick for New Orleans in 1863. Scrappy Kate Dorman, whom we honor here this morning, is by no means as well-known as Lt. Dick Dowling, but to the Federal troops who did have occasion to encounter her, she left an indelible imprint on their memories.

Believe me when I say that I thoroughly enjoy keeping the memory of this dear lady alive among us, because perhaps 95% of the Texas historical markers of the antebellum period commemorate men only. Ten thousand markers could not adequately reconstruct the harshness of life for those pioneer Texans, but it was doubly harsh for those pioneer women who came to Texas. One only needs to read the early Texas county mortality censuses to learn how often the young women sacrificed their lives during child birth.

It was in 1970 while writing my Masters thesis on Jefferson County history, that I first became interested in Civil War Fort Manhassett here, where some of my ancestors had served. At the same time, I visited this cemetery only to find it long abandoned, overgrown with weeds, and many tombstones were flat on the ground and broken in two. But no scene here broke my heart more than to find Kate Dorman's tombstone, broken and flat on the ground. A week later, my two teenage sons and I hauled sand, gravel, and cement from Nederland and remounted Kate and her husband's gravestones horizontally in a concrete slab that hopefully will withstand the ravages of time in the future. While you are here, please note too how many other historical markers that the Jefferson County Commission has sponsored in this cemetery, and that once more, local families are burying their dead here.

Kate Dorman was a very diminutive woman, only 4 feet, 10 inches tall, but she compensated for her lack of stature with sheer guts, determination, and an acidic tongue. Wherever bravery was concerned, she stood fully ten feet tall, and she played second fiddle in that field to none of Sabine Pass' soldiers, even the immortal Dick Dowling himself.

For many years, many of us thought that Kate moved from Georgia to Sabine Pass about 1846, because her young daughter that died in 1848 is buried here. It is now apparent that Kate disinterred the body of her child and brought it to Texas with her. Bill Quick has now determined that Kate married Arthur Magill in Columbus, Ga. in 1844, and that they resettled in Sabine Pass about 1851.

About 1852, Kate and Arthur Magill built the Catfish Hotel, adjacent to the waters of the Sabine Pass, and the hotel also had a wharf on its east side where steamboats could dock so their crews could eat dinner. The Catfish Hotel became one of Jefferson County's best-known landmarks, second only to the lighthouse. In 1860 there were 24 permanent guest living there.

Beaumont attorney T. J. Russell once wrote that: "...Arthur Magill was there and was owner...of the Catfish Hotel, situated at the edge of the Pass... Magill died... (and) his widow afterward married Capt. John Dorman. McGill left two daughters, the older of which married Dr. Powhattan Jordan of Beaumont. The younger daughter Laura married Major Felix McReynolds, (who was executive officer of Griffin's Battalion and commandant of Fort Manhassett)...."

During the 1850's, Arthur Magill was chief engineer aboard the mail packet T. J. Smith, but he was killed on Nov. 2, 1859, when that steamer's boiler exploded. Kate's second husband, Capt. Dorman, was master of the Neches River cotton steamer, Doctor Massie.

A great tragedy struck Sabine Pass in July, 1862, when a virulent yellow fever epidemic was imported on a blockade runner. Very quickly, about 90% of the population here, about 1,000 persons, deserted the town, but Kate Dorman and two friends, Sarah Vosburg and Sarah Ann King, did not leave. Instead, they turned the Catfish Hotel into a hospital, where they nursed at least 200 sick and dying persons during the four-months epidemic. I estimate that about 100 Sabine Pass civilians and 40 Confederate soldiers died during the pestilence, and their bodies now occupy what appears to be vacant spaces in this cemetery. Only about 30 men of two Confederate companies escaped the plague, and "their principal business was to bury the dead..."

In Sept., 1862, while the plague still raged, a Union squadron of 3 ships invaded the Sabine Pass and captured the deserted Fort Sabine. On Oct. 15, 1862, about 50 Federal Bluejackets from the gunboat Dan came ashore here with a 6-pound boat howitzer, and they marched twice through Sabine Pass en route to and from the Confederate cavalry barracks west of town, which they burned. While en route, the Federal patrol took Kate Dorman's horse and cart to mount their cannon on, an event well-recorded in Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph of Nov. 5, 1862, as follows:

"...Mrs. Dorman, who witnessed the act, became perfectly enraged, and being one of the bravest women in the Confederacy, she gave them just such a tongue-lashing as only a brave woman would dare do. She shook her fist at them, and told them she hoped our boys would kill the last one of them before they got back, and if she had 25 men, she could take them and their cannon with them.....

....After the enemy retired to their gunboat, they gave Dorman his horse and cart again, and told him if he did not keep his damned wife's mouth shut, they would hang him.... Mr. and Mrs. Dorman have a large hotel in the place, and the Yanks declare if she does not apologize to them, they will burn it. She declares she will see them in the lower regions first, and they may burn it if they choose.....

Apparently, the Federals had no real intent to encounter the Irish spitfire with the sulphuric acid tongue again. A week later, another patrol came ashore and burned a quarter of Sabine Pass, including all of its shipyards, wood-working industries and several fine residences, but they left the Catfish Hotel and the Irish innkeeper alone.

After abandoning Sabine Pass in Jan., 1863, the Federals returned with their large armada on Sept. 8, and for about 1 hour, naval shells exploded all around Fort Griffin and the Catfish Hotel. Inside the hotel, Kate and Sarah Vosburg labored to cook a pot of stew meat and doughnuts. As the noises of battle finally subsided, Kate hitched her horse once more to her cart, and she and Sarah Vosburg delivered the pot of stew, dozens of doughnuts, coffee, and a gallon of whiskey to the grimy Irish cannoneers inside the fort.

On Sept. 3, 1899, a former Confederate lieutenant of Griffin's Battalion, Joe Chasteen, described that scene in Galveston Daily News, as follows:

"...Mrs. Kate Dorman got in her buggy and Mrs. Sarah Vosburg acompanied her as they carried food to the fort. By the time the battle was over, the soldiers met these ladies with the refreshments....

In 1902, Mrs. Millie Murray, who lived at the Catfish Hotel while her husband was a Confederate physician, recalled that she had:

"...witnessed the devotion of the loving Mrs. Dorman in sending the best dinner that was ever prepared in her hotel down to the fort to cheer the boys.....

During the Civil War, Mrs. Margaret Watson, whose husband was a Confederate soldier, also lived in the Catfish Hotel. On March 11, 1900, Mrs. Watson used the Galveston Daily News to raise funds, so that the only two battle survivors, Michael Carr and P. C. O'Hara of Austin's Confederate Home, could revisit the scene of the Battle of Sabine Pass. Upon arriving in Sabine Pass, Carr and O'Hara loudly inquired, "Where's Kate? We want to see Kate!" But Kate was no longer there. After surviving yellow fever, years of Civil War, and the terrible storm of Oct. 12, 1886, that drowned 86 persons, Kate Dorman passed on to her reward 3 years earlier, on Dec. 24, 1897.

Perhaps the most laudable remarks ever exclaimed about Kate Dorman also came from the pen of Margaret Watson, who extolled the virtues of her heroine as follows:

...During the days of the trials... of the Civil War, Mrs. Kate Dorman stood strong and brave under every difficulty. She was the friend of the private soldiers as well as the officers. She nursed them when sick, gave the best she had to feed them. She was always on hand in the hour of peril to express faith in their success.....

These remarks from the newspapers of long ago leave no doubt that the Kate Dorman we honor here today was truly "the Confederate heroine of Sabine Pass." To me, she represents the very best of pioneer womanhood, that ever crossed the Sabine River to experience the worst harshness that frontier Texas had to offer. Although most of them will never have a marker like Kate, those women of yesteryear were our mothers, our grandmothers and great grandmothers, who lived in log cabins, experienced Indian depredations, kept house, picked the cotton, and gave birth to the children from whom many of us are descended. I am certainly grateful to each of you who took the time to be with us today, and may God ride with you as you return to your homes. Thank you!

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