Uncle Joe Chasteen
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'UNCLE JOE' CHASTEEN WAS SABINE'S WALKING HISTORY BOOK

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, Feb. 5, 1984.
Based on Chasteen's memoirs in the Confederate veteran's column of Galveston "Daily News" in 1899.

During the 1920's, whenever any of the thinning ranks of the old Confederate soldiers gathered at Beaumont, you could wager your suspenders that old "Uncle Joe" Chasteen would be in their midst. Already well into his nineties, the passage of time had marked his visage with silvery hair and chin whiskers, but his mind was still as keen as a buffalo skinner's dagger. He could still reel off his tales of Sabine Pass, of Dick Dowling's heroic gunners, and yarns of "the Confederate war" with the clarity of a tape recorder and a zest and memory undimmed by the years.

At his death, it was generally believed that he was the last survivor of the Rebel defenders of the Battle of Sabine Pass. Although not one of Dowling's immortal "forty-seven," he nonetheless witnessed all of the Irish artillerymen in action. As a lieutenant of Company F, 21st Texas (Griffin's) Battalion, he and 20 of his men entered Fort Griffin at the moment that battle ended.

Born Joseph M. Chasteen on August 1, 1832, "Uncle Joe" grew up in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., and migrated to Texas in 1855. In 1862, when Col. W. H. Griffin mustered the 21st Battalion, Texas Volunteer Infantry, in Tarrant County, Chasteen was one of the first enlistees and was soon elected lieutenant of Company F under Capt. Charles Bickley.

On New Year's Day of 1863, Chasteen led his platoon during the Confederate attack on Kuhn's Wharf during the Battle of Galveston, an action so thoroughly successful that 400 men of the 42nd Massachusetts Regiment surrendered intact.

Beginning in March, 1863, the companies of Griffin's Battalion were gradually transferred to Sabine Pass to replace the troops of Col. A. W. Spaight's 11th Texas Battalion, five companies of which were quickly dispatched to Louisiana to help stem the tide of the Federal invading force that was advancing in the Bayou Teche sector near Opelousas. Thereafter, despite pestilence, war, and storms, "Uncle Joe" clung to the (Sabine) Pass with the tenacity of a boat barnacle, that is, until his old age forced his removal to Beaumont.

Shortly after his arrival at Sabine, Chasteen met a local belle, Mary Elizabeth Vosberg, whom he wooed and later wed on November 19, 1863. Theirs being an ideal marriage from the beginning, "Aunt Molly" Chasteen was destined to share with "Uncle Joe" his joys and sorrows for the next 65 years. Once when he was asked what the civilian populace was doing on the date (Sept. 8, 1863) of the memorable battle, "Uncle Joe" quickly responded:

"Why, as I recall, Neal McGaffey killed a beef and cut it up and sent it around to the ladies to cook. Everybody was asked to bake bread, biscuits, or cake, or anything they could. Increase Burch had a fine sweet potato patch; he began to dig potatoes and cook them. Mrs. Kate Dorman got into her buggy and with Mrs. (Sarah) Vosberg (Chasteen's future sister-in-law) accompanying her, they delivered food to the fort during the thick of the battle. By the time the battle was over, the soldiers met these ladies with refreshments and ate their first meal of the day. Everything was done to honor those brave men by the citizens of the Pass, and not only then, but for as long as they remained at the fort."

Late in August, 1863, some companies of Col. Griffin's battalion had been threatening mutiny, and to placate them, were in the process of being transferred to the frontier west of Fort Worth. The official reason given was that Comanche Indians were menacing the troops' homes and farms on the frontier, but others said that Griffin's overbearing demeanor and stringent discipline were the causes for the mutiny. Only two companies, one being Chasteen's, were still waiting at Beaumont for rail transportation to their new assignment. Thereafter, "Uncle Joe's" experiences, as reflected in his own memoirs of 1899, are best related in his own words:

"On the night of Sept, 7, 1863, cannonading was heard at Beaumont from the direction of Sabine Pass. We got orders about dark to go to the Pass, as it was under attack by the Federal navy."

"We went aboard the steamer "Roebuck," a transport that ran down the Neches River to Sabine. We were ordered to stay there (Beaumont) until the train came in from Houston. The train brought Colonel Leon Smith (of the Texas Marine Department). The boat was ordered to depart; it was then 10 or 11 o'clock at night. We dropped down to what was then known as Kidd's Landing (Smith's Bluff near Nederland) and there, Smith got off and took a horse or mule by land to the Pass."

"The "Roebuck," with us aboard, arrived at Sabine Pass very early on the morning of Sept. 8 . . . . As I had been in the artillery, I was ordered aboard the "Uncle Ben," a steamboat converted into a gunboat by cotton bales piled up for breastworks. This same boat won what is known as the "Morning Light" sea fight in January of 1863."

"About this time, the Yankee fleet was coming in from outside and was very near the fort. I could see no sign of anybody near the fort -- no sign of life. All at once the Davis Guards came up and opened fire on a vessel which proved to be the "Sachem," coming up what was then known as the Louisiana Channel. Another one, which proved to be the "Clifton," was coming up the Texas channel . . . . In a few minutes smoke and steam were rising from these vessels."

"Then the firing was turned on the "Arizona," and the steam rose from her like the others. The "Arizona" put up a flag of truce when she got crippled, then kept backing until she got out of the channel. She was seen to throw overboard horses and provisions and everything. The horses had their halters tied to the fore feet and not one of them lived. They drove axes into (the barrels of) molasses and everything of that kind and threw them overboard. Bacon and flour were the only things that came ashore fit to use."

"The "Uncle Ben" was turned loose, dropped down about three quarters of a mile, and I was ordered into the fort. I jumped off with 20 men and 'double-quicked' into the fort . . . . I had not been there but a few minutes when I saw four men go out from the Louisiana side."

"I asked Lt. Dowling for a boat and some men to go after them. He told me to take as many as I wanted. I did so and captured three; one got away and the men say that he was (Clay Smith) one of the pilots who brought them in . . . ."

"The "Uncle Ben" then towed the steamer "Sachem" up to the wharf, where a pitiable sight met the eyes of those present. A ball went through the steam drum of this vessel, literally cooking the men (with steam). The surgeon was working on the poor creatures; he had emptied barrels of flour and thrown them into it. The skin came off their hands and faces like a mask. One Negro was so white that you would never know that he was black, only for a piece of scalp showing his hair."

For days and weeks, dead men were found on the beach and buried by our men detailed with all due respect for that purpose. It was cruel to see the fate of the horses, all tied up to drown. I did not see one mule, as has often been stated. That the object was complete destruction was in evidence everywhere."

"When I was counting the prisoners on the transport before sending them to Beaumont, one of the men had all the fingers on his right hand shot off but one. I learned that this man had been promoted for bravery at Vicksburg and . . . expect he died, as all those prisoners were sent to (Camp Groce at) Hempstead, and many died from bad water, hardships, and climate. They were almost all from Maine . . . ."

"After the battle, two of the Davis Guards were walking along the beach, in search of whatever they might find, when the body of a Negro came drifting down with a life preserver on it. One remarked, 'There goes another dead man!'"

"The other paused and said, 'Be Jeez, we will see if he is a dead man,' and got him by the feet. When the head went under, he began kicking pretty lively. They brought him up to the fort, and when he was examined to see what was on him, we found it was the head of a gunner on the starboard side of the "Clifton." This man was head cook or steward on the "Clifton" and had a wife and nine children in New York. Dick Dowling kept him (the Negro) with him as cook till the war ended."

Chasteen's memoirs are much too long for verbatim reproduction here. Their accuracy is attested to by many sources as well as by the lady, Margaret Watson, who transcribed them. Throughout the Civil War era, Mrs. Watson resided at Sabine Pass, where her husband, Sam, was an artilleryman, and after 1863, he became second engineer aboard the Confederate States blockade-runner "Clarinda," formerly the captured Union gunboat "Sachem."

In his report of the battle , Smith commended Chasteen and the men of Griffin's Battalion for gallantry and assistance in the capture and dispatch of the prisoners of war.

Joe and Molly Chasteen endured many hurricanes during the 1870s. On the night of October 12, 1886, the night that Sabine Pass died, a monstrous storm devastated the seaport city, drowning 86 people, and the Chasteen's were lucky to survive with only their clothes on their backs. But like the other true Sabine Pass nestors, they were soon sifting through the debris, seeking the wherewithal with which to rebuild their home.

In 1925, after his removal to Beaumont, he received a good write-up in the book, THE STORY OF BEAUMONT, along with his picture. Time and age finally claimed old "Uncle Joe" Chasteen as he neared the century mark. With his passing, Jefferson County had lost its last "walking history book" about the Civil War era at Sabine Pass.

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