New Chapter in History of Sabine Pass Written
By W. T. Block
Reprint from The Port Arthur News, Sunday, August 2, 1970.
At a point six miles southwest of Sabine, a stretch of salt grass prairie extends northwestward from Highway 87 to Knights Lake. Looking across this duck hunters paradise today, it would take a super-imaginative mind to conjure up the mental vision of a bustling Confederate fortress on the site, garrisoned by several hundred men.
In the fall of 1863, this was Fort Manhassetta newly-constructed string of five fortifications, and a key cog in the Confederate defense plan for Sabine Pass.
Almost 107 years ago, Dick Dowlings artillerymen in 40 minutes blazed their way into-the hearts of all Southerners, and won one of the only two gold medallions authorized by the Confederate Congress. They likewise shot the remainder of the war at Sabine into historical oblivion.
Today much of it must be reconstructed from the archives where the very existence, location, and purpose of Fort Manhassett have lain buried in the dust.
After the fall of Vicksburg, Secretary of State Seward pressured General Nathaniel Banks to initiate offensive action along the Texas coast. He hoped to warn France that its invasion of Mexico was unacceptable and would be dealt with summarily. Seizure of Sabine and its rail and river routes would choke off blockade-running there as well as the flow of supplies to the Rebel armies in Louisiana. The marksmanship of Sabines Irish defenders crushed Union hopes, however, and sent Banks force scuttling homeward in retreat.
Dowlings victory did not make Sabine Pass "queen for a day" for the eyes of Texas and the Trans-Mississippi department remained focused upon it for the succeeding three months. Maj. Gen. J. B. Magruder of Galveston, commander of the Texas-New Mexico-Arizona district, seemed obsessed with fear that the Federals would strike again at Sabine, and could not believe that so large a force would retreat permanently after the first affray. By October, 1863, he had increased Sabines small garrison up to 2,300 men in strength, more than 20 per cent of the forces under his command.
It seemed apparent that Magruder feared a combined land assault on Sabine Pass from both the Louisiana and Texas coasts as well as a naval attack. Whether or not he knew that his garrison had just captured two of the only five available vessels capable of navigating the Pass shallow channels is not clear, but he may have extracted this information from Federal prisoners.
On Sept. 10, 1863, he advised General Richard Taylor in Louisiana that "the (the Federal fleet) has disappeared, and it is supposed has gone to Calcasieu," information which Federal prisoners had volunteered. He asked Taylor to transfer Gen. Moutons Brigade from Vermillionville to Nibletts Bluff, near Lake Charles and in turn sent Colonel A. Buchels 1,000-man First Texas Mounted Rifles into Southwest Louisiana to halt Federal encroachment along the coast east of Sabine.
For the first two years, Sabine Pass had been a chief target for Confederate neglect. Early in 1863, Magruder foresaw its strategic importance and ordered the construction of Fort Griffin there by his chief engineer for East Texas, Major Getulius Kellersberger (whose October, 1863, map of Sabines defenses survives as does his memoirs published in 1967).
On Sept. 4, 1863, four days before the battle, Magruder ordered Kellersberger to construct Fort Manhassett to guard the Pass western land approach. It took its name from a Union coal schooner, the USS Manhassett, which beached and foundered near the spot while the fort was being built. Five weeks later, the fort, nearing completion, was garrisoned and armed with two 32-pound howitzers. Later, its defenses were strengthened to include six guns as well as some brass howitzers, two on wheels, captured aboard the USS Granite City during action at Calcasieu Pass.
At the peak of its importance in October and November of 1863, Fort Manhassetts garrison may have numbered from 400 to 500 men. In December, 1863, after more than half of the Sabine forces had been dispatched southward to meet the new Federal menace at Brownsville, the forts complement still numbered 10 officers and 266 men, two more than were then stationed at Fort Griffin.
After that date, its strategic importance waned although the morning report from Sabine headquarters for May 10, 1865, still reported 5 officers and 146 men in garrison there. Ten days later the fort was abandoned as Confederate forces dispersed to their respective farms.
On May 25, 1865, U. S. Navy Lieutenant Pennington spiked the five 10" guns at Fort Griffin and hoisted the Stars and Stripes above both forts, making them among the last in the Confederacy to lower the Rebel emblem. What happened to the probable 12 to 14 artillery pieces at Fort Manhassett remains a mystery since their disposition is not reported in either the Union or Confederate dispatches of that period.
Kellersbergers map describes the forts as "Redoubts A, B, and C" constructed along the front of the defense line, and "Flank Defenses 1 and 11" were at the rear. The forts were 1800 feet apart and built at the points of equilateral triangles across Sabine Ridge. Each was surrounded by earth embankments and ditches as well as "abatis" works (felled timbers with sharpened ends).
Four of them, all except Redoubt C on the shores of Lake Knight. had a total of 10 gun platforms. It is Redoubt A through which highway 87 passes, and where more than 50 cannonballs and shells were dug up by road machinery about 1928.
Today, Forts Griffin and Manhassetts batteries are silenced and infested with mosquitoes. Somehow, this writer still cannot walk among their hallowed mounds without hearing the echoes of cannonfire and the reverberation of that Rebel yell that sent a Federal fleet scurrying to safety 107 years ago.