Lighthouse
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THE SKIRMISH AT SABINE LIGHTHOUSE:
GRAY STONE SENTINEL OF THE LOUISIANA SWAMPS

By W. T. Block

Published first in Beaumont Enterprise, date unknown,
reprinted in Block, Frontier Tales of The Texas-Louisiana Borderlands, pp. 125-128.
Source: OFFICIAL RECORDS, NAVIES in the WAR OF THE REBELLION, Series 1, Vol. XX, pp. 147-153.

THIS IS THE 3RD INSTANCE OF A CIVIL WAR BATTLE IN CALCASIEU PARISH, LA., DURING THE CIVIL WAR. FIRST WAS THE UNION DASH UP THE CALCASIEU RIVER IN 1862 TO CAPTURE THE STEAMER "DAN;" THE LIGHTHOUSE SKIRMISH WAS SECOND; AND 3RD, THE BATTLE OF CALCASIEU PASS AT LEESBURG ON MAY 6, 1864. THE LATTER RESULTED IN THE CAPTURE OF TWO UNION GUNBOATS AND 177 BLUEJACKET PRISIONERS.

To the transient visitor at Sabine Pass, Texas, perhaps the most impressive landmark is the abandoned light house. Now sightless after 95 years of continuous illumination to the world's mariners, it still stands stately and forlorn amid the muskrat beds and marsh recesses which surround it and characterize the terrain of extreme southwestern Cameron Parish, Louisiana.

If the gray stone sentinel of the swamps had a voice, there are a hundred tales that it could relate --- of the dozens of hurricanes which have buffeted its foundations, the cannonballs that struck its walls, and even a live, 65-ton whale which once was towed past it by a tug boat.

Perhaps the least known item about it is the account of a Civil War skirmish which occurred within its shadows. Although both Federal and Confederate soldiers were killed in the affray, the miniature battle was of no particular significance except that it thwarted Union plans and hopes to retake Sabine Pass before Fort Griffin was built or to use the lighthouse as an espionage base.

For Southeast Texans, the year 1863 had opened on a note of optimism. On January 1, the new and aggressive Confederate commander at Houston, Gen. John B. Magruder, had recaptured Galveston Island and Bay from the Federals. On Jan. 8, Confederate soldiers at Sabine Pass had burned the sidewheeler "Dan," the last Union steam gunboat in Sabine Lake, as she lay at anchor at the lighthouse. And on January 21, the Rebel cottonclad gunboats "Uncle Ben" and "Josiah Bell" fought the two offshore Sabine blockaders and captured them after a one-hour battle at sea. For the first time in four months, both Sabine Lake and Galveston Bay were free of Federal occupation.

The lighthouse story began on April 13, 1863, when Captain Charles Fowler, his pilot, his mate, and another Confederate soldier decided to go fishing in Lighthouse Bayou, or, as the records state, "on reconnaissance." Fowler was master of the cottonclad gunboat "Josiah Bell' and chief of Rebel marine operations in Sabine waters (note: the 'Confederate navy' in Texas was known as the "Texas Marine Department," made up entirely of Army personnel and Confederate army artillerymen).

He was also particularly obnoxious to the Union blockade flotilla, the steamers "New London" and "Cayuga," which had replaced two ships lost to Fowler in an earlier battle. The new blockade commander, Abner Read, was to prove only slightly less aggressive than his earlier counterpart, Lt. Frederick Crocker, who had captured Sabine Pass without a fight in September, 1862.

At the moment the Confederate cottonclads were up to no particular mischief, moored serenely as they were to the pilings in Sabine's Texas Channel. But they did flaunt their presence in the safety of the Pass and enkindled a certain and consuming passion for revenge among the Bluejackets offshore, as the prow of each cottonclad grinned its figurative defiance.

In addition, Commander Read had visions of capturing the shallow-draft Confederate gunboats and using them to nab 13 blockade-runners, 5 steamboats and eight schooners, which were then loading cotton at the Sabine-Neches ports. He also hoped to destroy all ferries on both rivers and to burn the Texas and New Orleans Railroad bridge over the Neches at Beaumont.

For more than a month, Read had sent a daily reconnoitering party by whale boat to the lighthouse, where they observed, through telescopes, Confederate troop movements ashore and construction activities at a site that would later become Fort Griffin.

It was Captain Fowler's failure to return from Lighthouse Bayou which first caused Col. W. F. Griffin of Sabine Pass to suspect that something was amiss. Unknown to him at the time was the fact that Fowler's party had been surprised and captured at the lighthouse by a Federal patrol. Griffin's suspicions were further confirmed on April 14, when a Confederate engineer observed light reflections from the supposedly-abandoned marsh sentinel, and two days later, a Union whale boat was seen rowing inland in the Pass.

At dusk on April 17, 1863, the colonel dispatched two detachments from Companies C and D of Griffin's 21st Texas Battalion to lay a trap for the infiltrators. The Confederates, about sixty in number, took up hidden positions in the high grass as well as beneath the lightkeeper's cottage.

Shortly after dawn, when two of the blockaders' whaleboats were observed rowing toward the lighthouse, the Rebel sharpshooters were unaware that the boats carried three prize occupants, including Read, Commander D. A. McDermut, master of the "New London," and the Sabine Pass defector, James G. Taylor, on whose head the Confederates had placed a $10,000 bounty.

McDermut's boat landed first, and he sent an advance party of three Bluejackets to check out the area. The trio surrendered when the Rebels made their surprise appearance from beneath the lightkeeper's elevated residence. As others of McDermut's crew approached, a general melee resulted, with musket balls whining in all directions. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Bluejackets began a hasty retreat, firing and reloading as they fled. Upon reaching their vessels, McDermut found his whale boat hopelessly mired on a mud flat, and he soon ordered some of his men into the water to try to free it.

Read's subsequent reports described the ferocity of the Confederate attack as being "directed upon the boat of the 'New London,' pouring in volley after volley of rifle balls and buckshot."

While attempting to free their whale boat, four of Com. McDermut's crew were killed while standing in the water. McDermut surrendered the remainder after which he, being mortally wounded, was carried to Sabine City's military hospital for treatment. Read's crew miraculously escaped; however it shared equally in casualties, six of its seven men being seriously wounded. Com. Read was shot through his left eye, and Taylor sustained severe thigh and abdominal wounds.

The lone Confederate casualty at the skirmish was Lieutenant E. T. Wright, who commanded the Company D detachment and died instantly when struck in the head by a "Harper's Ferry ball."

Throughout the afternoon of the 18th, Confederate surgeon James D. Murray and a colleague worked feverishly to save Com. McDermut's life, but in vain. Under a flag of truce, two Union surgeons were allowed to come ashore and embalm the Union commander's body, after which the remains were returned to the offshore ships and eventually to his home in the North for burial.

However, Capt. James Taylor survived to pilot the U. S. S. "Clifton," which was captured the following September at the Battle of Sabine Pass. And again, Taylor made the third of his miraculous escapes from his would-be Confederate captors, whom he hated so much. Like his Unionist counterpart, Capt. Henry Clay Smith of Orange, Taylor was a man of uncomprising Northern sympathies, whereas his wife and children, while hated and humiliated, remained in Sabine Pass throughout the war. Eventually, Taylor's oldest son was conscripted into the Confederate Army. Smith, who piloted the U. S. S. "Sachem," also captured during the battle on September 8, 1863, was a former Sabine River steamer captain who also escaped and lived a charmed life.

As far as is known, the $10,000 bounty on Taylor's head was never paid. On two occasions, he was captured, but each time he managed to escape before his trial and elude his captors. Once he roamed the nearby marshes around Sabine Pass for two weeks before he was able to steal a small boat and rejoin the blockade fleet offshore. However, Taylor died during unknown circumstances in 1864, while his son was wearing the gray uniform he hated so much, but only a probate file, which confirms his death, survives. After the war, H. C. Smith continued his residence in Jefferson County as a farmer in the Taylor's Bayou community.

Following his capture by the Union patrol, Capt. Fowler was shipped to upstate New York as a prisoner-of-war. After a year in prison, he was paroled to one of his brothers who was a colonel and one of five Fowler brothers in the Union army. After the war, Capt. Fowler returned to his old job as captain of the port of Galveston for the Morgan Steamship Company.

In the aftermath of the lighthouse skirmish, Col. Griffin reoccupied the lightkeeper's cottage, using it as a base for cavalry patrols which operated thereafter along the Louisiana shore. For the next five months, there is no surviving record of subsequent Federal incursions at Sabine estuary until the ill-fated invasion fleet arrived on September 8.

While the fight at Sabine Pass lighthouse is dwarfed by its sheer insignificance, it is another among the chapters of Jefferson County's Civil War history which deserves retelling, and another affray which claimed some lives of Union and Confederate foes even if too small to make the pages of history books. At any rate, it hardly deserves total relegation to the dust bin of local history merely because the webs of romanticism have totally encompassed the story of the Battle of Sabine Pass, thus reducing to forty minutes the four long years of Jefferson County's Civil War history.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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