By William “Doc” Halliday
Sabine Lake is a 90,000 acre salt water estuary formed by the confluence of the Neches and Sabine Rivers. Sabine Pass is the natural outlet of Sabine Lake into the Gulf of Mexico. It borders Cameron Parish, Louisiana and Jefferson County, Texas. The former city of Sabine Pass, Texas is now a suburb of Port Arthur, Texas.
The Confederacy constructed a major fort there in 1861. The principal Confederate defense force at Sabine Pass during the early months of the war had been Spaight’s Texas Battalion. In the early morning hours of September 25, 1862, Union forces under the command of Acting Master Frederick Crocker attempted to enter Sabine Pass. As Crocker and his forces made their way through the inland passage towards Beaumont, the Confederates attacked.
When the Union squadron approached Fort Sabine, Crocker ordered his ships to begin an artillery bombardment of the enemy position. Confederate forces numbering thirty infantry and artillerists manning their artillery, additionally supported by thirty cavalrymen, were unable to effectively return fire as the outdated guns were unable to reach the Union fleet. The commanding officer, Major Josephus S. Irvine (CSA), ordered his artillery spiked and then retreated during the night. Without a significant military presence, the town of Sabine Pass, surrendered the following day. This became known as the First Battle of Sabine Pass. On October 8, 1862, Galveston, Texas was captured. At that point, the Union controlled much of the Texas coast.
In November of 1862, Confederate General John Bankhead Magruder came to Texas with the intention of altering the direction of the war in this area. Magruder was an early Confederate hero in Virginia, and was assigned the difficult task of expelling the Union forces from Sabine Pass and Galveston. Another unit, Capt. F. H. Odlums’ Co. F, of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, was sent to Sabine Pass in December of 1862.
Magruder’s efforts were soon successful. He recaptured Galveston Island on January 1, 1863 and then turned his attention to Sabine Pass. The two units manned artillery aboard two old gunboats referred to as cottonclads. The gunboats were the Uncle Ben and Josiah Belle, which the Confederates used to break the blockade on Jan. 21, 1863, by chasing two Union sail ships, the Morning Light and Velocity, for 30 miles at sea and capturing them during a battle.
The decks of the two Rebel ships were stacked with cotton bales. Riflemen were placed behind the bales and the ships steamed towards the two Union ships, the Morning Light and the Velocity. Some of the riflemen became seasick and had to be removed, but the voyage continued. The Confederates chased the Union ships into open water, and the sharpshooters injured many Union gunners. Both Union ships soon surrendered. Magruder’s victory reopened the Texas coast for Confederate shipping.
January 21, is the anniversary of the recapture of Sabine Pass, Texas, and the opening of that important port for the Confederacy when two Confederate ships drove away and captured the two Union ships.
The Union intended to recapture Sabine Pass. They planned revenge by capturing Sabine Pass, Beaumont, and Orange. They hoped to capture all the cotton and ships in port, as well as to burn railroad bridges and ferries on the rivers. Then they planned to attack Houston along the railroad to the west of Beaumont, and then starve Galveston Island into submission. However, the effort was thwarted when less than 50 Confederates inside the fort there held off a much larger Union force.
After that embarrassment to the Federal forces, Union Gen. Benjamin Butler of New Orleans was determined to capture Sabine Pass by sea, but he had to await the seizure of Vicksburg before enough shallow draft gunboats were available. About Aug. 1, 1863, Gen. Butler began massing four gunboats and 19 troop transports at New Orleans in preparation for the battle.
About 6:00 am on the morning of September 8, 1863, a Union flotilla of four gunboats and seven troop transports steamed into Sabine Pass and up the Sabine River with the intention of reducing Fort Griffin and landing troops to begin occupying Texas. As the gunboats approached Fort Griffin, they came under precise fire from just six cannons. The Confederate gunners at Fort Griffin had been sent there as a punishment. To break the day-to-day tedium, the gunners trained firing artillery at range markers placed in the river. Confederate engineers drove marker posts in the oyster reefs 1,200 yards distant from the fort to mark the guns’ maximum range, and during the month of August, Lt. Dowling used a sunken schooner as a target as he sharpened his artillerymen’s gunnery prowess to the peak of perfection.
Their practice paid off. Fort Griffin’s small force of 47 men, under command of Lt. Richard W. Dowling, forced the Union flotilla to retire, and captured the gunboat Clifton and about 350 prisoners. Further Union operations in the area ceased for about a month. The heroics at Fort Griffin—47 men stopping a Union expedition—inspired other Confederate fighters.
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