Fort Griffin
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MYTHS OF SABINE PASS' FORT GRIFFIN EXPLODED:
SHRINE OF IRISH CONFEDERATE HEROES

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Port Arthur NEWS, January 24, 1971, as well as EAST TEXAS HISTORICAL JOURNAL, IX (Oct., 1971), p. 137.

In September, 1863, Confederate Lt. Dick Dowling's Irishmen won their battle spurs and war bonnets at an unfinished earthen fortress known today as Fort Griffin. This battle is one of the best-documented events of the Civil War, whose details are retold and relived almost every year during the "Dick Dowling Days" celebration at Sabine Pass.

However, Lt. Dowling' fortress is less well-known, and over the past century has become clouded with myth and legend. With the possibility that its site someday may be partially restored by the State of Texas, it is also imperative that those myths be replaced with authenticity.

Since the Civil War Centennial in 1963, many maps and drawings have appeared in newspapers and magazines, purporting to be Fort Griffin. Whatever may be said for the skillful drawing and artistic quality, most have been four-sided affairs, being no more than the artist's conception of what the fort looked like.

The listings of The National Archives do not indicate that Fort Griffin's battle plans survived. However they do list plans for a "Fort Sabine," which, at first glance, one might confuse with an earlier fortification of that name (about one mile south of the present battleground), which was abandoned by the Confederates and destroyed by the Federal forces in September, 1862.

The following Confederate maps in the National Archives, all a part of "Confederate Record Group 77," shows the site of Fort Griffin, and are available at modest prices of about $6 .00 or more, as follows: Map Nos. Z-54-2, Z-54-11, Z-51-2, Z-298, Z-54-6, and Z-54-7. Another unnumbered map is a redrawing of Map Z-54-11, and is labeled "Plan of Sabine Pass, its Defenses and Means of Communication, J. Kellersberg, Chief Engineer, East Texas District, October 15, 1863," and it shows the locations and drawings of the fortifications of both Forts Griffin and Manhassett. A concise copy of it also appears as Plate XXXII, Map 3, in the "Official Atlas of the Civil War."

The key to defense of Sabine Pass lay in its mile-long oyster reef in the harbor. It had two passages through it, the Texas and Louisiana channels, through which enemy gunboats would have to pass. Old Fort Sabine had been located on marshy ground at the south entrances to the reef, roughly opposite the lighthouse. Fort Griffin was located on higher land at the present battleground monument, near the two channel exits from the reef. In Civil War days, there was a prominent point located there where the fort was located, all of which today has been eroded or dredged away and is now a part of the shipping channel.

Construction work at Fort Griffin probably began in March, 1863, since it was well under way whenever the lighthouse skirmish took place on April 18. The fort was designed by Col. Valery Sulakowski, chief engineer of the Military District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, its construction was supervised by Major Julius Kellersberg, who chose its site and whose German-language memoirs, published in Switzerland in 1896, describe its building.

Four other engineers on Kellersberg's staff contributed to its completion. One of them, Lt. Nicholas H. Smith, was responsible for much of the work done there over a long period of months, and he also won immortality and considerable fame for his gallant command of two of Lt. Dick Dowling's guns during the Battle of Sabine Pass. However, fate and coincidence have played a dirty trick on the brave engineer. Historians have generally confused him with Confederate Lieutenant Niles H. Smith, a native-born Sabine Pass artilleryman who was not present within the fort, but was aboard the cottonclad gunboat "Uncle Ben" with his company, B of Spaight's Battalion. After the war, the latter never denied the error whenever he was mistaken for the other.

Fort Griffin's irregular, sawtooth front was purposely designed to afford maximum protection to the individual gun crews. Otherwise, all of the fort's guns and gun crews might have been destroyed at once by a single, large shell exploding within the parapets of the fort.

One of the popular myths about Fort Griffin was that it was built by Dowling and the Davis Guards. Kellersberg's memoirs record specifically that he was dispatched from Houston, along with his staff of engineers and 500 slaves, for the purpose of building the fort, and two surviving maps indicate even the location of the slave quarters and the slave hospital. The slaves were also used by Kellersberg and Lt. Nicholas Smith during the building of Fort Manhassett on the opposite end of Sabine's Front Ridge in October, 1863.

Another myth holds that Dowling's battle did not occur at the site of the present-day battleground. There is nothing in published accounts of the battle, maps, or anything else to support that opinion; in fact, a number of maps verify Fort Griffin's exact location.

Likewise there is additional proof that Sulakowski's drawing of "Fort Sabine" is actually the plan for Fort Griffin. Since the mud fort did not become "Fort Griffin" until long after Col. W. H. Griffin's Battalion was assigned there in May, 1863, the writer surmises that Col. Sulakowski labeled his drawing "Fort Sabine" because it would replace a destroyed fort of the same name. Also, the six gun emplacements on the map coincide precisely with Lt. Dowling's report of the battle on September, 9, 1863.

Col. Sulakowski showed the following guns as being mounted on carriages at the fort: two 32-pounder long-iron smoothbores; two 24-pounder long-iron smoothbores; and two 32-pounder brass howitzers (short-barreled cannons), which were also unrifled. Confederate cannons in Southeast Texas were never so numerous that their movements cannot be traced with ease. The 24-pounders had been removed from old Fort Grigsby at Port Neches in July and remounted at Sabine Pass. Earlier, the two brass howitzers had been mounted in a shellbank fort on the Sabine River south of Orange, Texas, and these were also removed when that fort was abandoned in July, 1863. The other guns, the long-iron 32-pounders, had been spiked and buried at old Fort Sabine the previous year. Kellersberg had dug them up, rebuilt them at the Confederate foundry in Galveston, and had just returned them to Sabine Pass only two weeks before the battle.

Fort Griffin's battlements had sloping, outer walls 16-feet high. The rampart at the top of the embankments was 20 feet wide along the sawtooth front and 10 feet wide along the west wall. The fort was triangular in shape, with a west wall; a north wall or "stoccado," which was still unfinished as of the date of the battle; and the sawtooth front, with six guns facing toward the south and southeast.

The fort was 100 yards long along the north and west walls, not including the V-shape protrusion on the west wall. No explanation for this projection is offered on the map, leaving the reader to assume that it was for the possible rear defense of the fort. The sawtooth front was probably about 150 yards long, being the hypotenuse of a right triangle. There were also three large, wooden cisterns installed at Fort Griffin. In Civil War Days, all drinking water was carried from Orange or Johnson's Bayou, La., and half of the travel time of the small steamer "Dime" was devoted to that activity.

The fort's casemates (where the gun carriages were mounted) dropped five feet below the level of the ramparts, allowing only room for a man's head to see above them and for the gun barrels to project seaward through the embrasures. According to the plan, the fortress had spaces for six bombproofs (where munitions were stored) and magazines, of which only four were to be completed. They were each eight feet high, eight feet wide and 30 feet long, built into the sawtooth front of the fort beneath the guns.

When forces of the United States Navy occupied Fort Griffin on May 25, 1865, Union Lieutenant L. W. Pennington reported in a dispatch that the roofs of the fort and bombproofs consisted first of layers of railroad iron, covered by layers of cypress logs, all overlaid with dirt to a thickness of several feet.

A variety of shoring timbers may have been used in the fort's construction. There is a good indication that there was a large supply of saw logs available, even though the sawmills and all sawn lumber had been burned in 1862. Col. A. W. Spaight reported in a dispatch that ship timbers from the grounded and burned Union blockader "Morning Light" had also been used. After September, 1862, when the railroad bridge over Taylors Bayou was burned, the last 10 miles of railroad iron and crossties were useless, and much of these were also removed and utilized in the fort's building. In October, 1863, a letter from Col. Sulakowski to his engineers at Sabine ordered them to cut timber along the ship channel for use in the outer fortifications, this at a time when Fort Manhassett was also being built. The writer interprets this to mean that by October, all saw logs, crossties, and other available timbers had been used up.

Fort Griffin probably remained in some state of construction until the war ended, for Gen. Magruder's fears of a second invasion attempt were never stifled. Sulakowski's letter also outlined sufficient work to keep the engineers and slaves occupied for many months to come. The letter ordered Major Kellersberg to complete an additional magazine, more embankments and ditches, rows of "torpedoes" (primitive land mines) in the ground, outer fortifications, completion of the five "redoubts" (forts) at Fort Manhassett, a planked wagon road, some railroad construction (which was never completed), and construction of a four-gun redoubt at Taylor's Bayou (near Texaco Island). This small Confederate fort near Port Arthur appears on n 1864 map as having been completed, although its name and exact location are unknown.

Fort Griffin was used in Reconstruction days by the Union troops that occupied Sabine Pass, but after 1870, its destruction came about rapidly. Apparently the railroad iron and crossties were returned to the rebuilt rail trackage. The sawmills were never rebuilt, so it is unknown what happened to saw logs and other timbers. These were probably utilized by the town's residents for the rebuilding of docks and wharfage. Also the earliest building of the Sabine River jetties began in the late 1870's, and some of the fort's timbers, etc., may have gone into its construction. Hence, the old fort that had served the Confederacy so well in wartime was destroyed to service a peacetime economy as well.

Sources: Maps in Record Group 77, of the National Archives, as well as letters in "War of the Rebellion-Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies," 128 volumes, particularly, Series I, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 298-99, 318-321.

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