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The Flag of the United States of America

The 1st Battle of

Sabine Pass

(September 24-25, 1862)

by Tim NesSmith

The Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America

 

 

On the morning of April 12, 1861, the street of Charleston echoed with cannon fire as South Carolinians bombarded Fort Sumter into submission.  Over the next two weeks, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to be raised (April 15) and for a blockade of Southern ports to be put into place (April 19 and April 27).  The War Between the States—long avoided by a series of successful compromises—had at last, inevitably begun.

 

The blockade presented problems for the Union in that the Navy had fewer than fifty (50) ships at hand in 1861 while the Confederacy had more than 3,500 miles of coastline to patrol.  That particularly thorny problem was solved that June when the Blockade Strategy Board was created by the Navy to develop a plan to implement the blockade.  The Board decided to focus only on major ports of entry in the South, specifically those which could be entered by vessels with a draft of twelve feet or more.  This would buy the time needed to purchase and convert or build from scratch those vessels needed to extend the blockade more fully to the smaller ports.

 

Far to the south, local residents of Sabine Pass, Texas, grew worried.  Located on on small, narrow pass of the same name that led from the Gulf of Mexico into Sabine Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, this town had become a thriving commercial center.  A railroad spur lead from the town to nearby Beaumont and from there westward to Houston.  The Sabine River lead northward into the interior of both states.  While not high on either the Union or the Confederacy's lists of military targets, the town fathers correctly surmised that the river and the railway could serve as the launching point for an invasion of both Texas and Louisiana.

 

 

A map showing the area of Sabine Pass and the southwestern Louisiana coastline.

A map showing the area of Sabine Pass and the southwestern Louisiana coastline.

 

 

With this in mind, the town's people constructed an earthen fort in May and June of 1861 on Sabine Pass to guard against any hostile incursion.  To the east, the mouth of the Mississippi River had been under blockade since May 26 by USS BROOKLYN, with USS POWHATAN joining her on May 30 and USS MASSACHUSETTS soon thereafter.  Fort Sabine was completed just weeks before the first Union warship, USS SOUTH CAROLINA, arrived off of Galveston to the west to begin blockade duty on July 02, 1861.  The war had now come to Texas as well.

 

Calling Fort Sabine a "fort" was generous at best.  An irregular half-moon shaped mound of dirt, its embankments measured ten feet in height at its highest point.  Its armament amounted to only two 18-pounder cannons and two old, small cannons from the Mexican War.  A new unit called the Sabine Pass Guards was organized to man the post.  Even with these preparations, the Confederates realized that their defenses were woefully inadequate should the Union make a determined effort to close the pass to traffic.  As fate would have it, however, almost no military action occurred in western Louisiana or eastern Texas during the first year of the war.  Other than the extremely loose blockade of Galveston, business continued as normal.  Blockade runners not able to call upon Galveston simply moved east to Sabine Pass and off-loaded their arms, munitions, and supplies to the rail head for shipment into the interior and took on loads of cotton for shipment to Mexico or New Orleans (via Berwick Bay or numerous shallow bayous or inlets or via Lake Pontchartrain).

 

In April of 1862, Union Flag Officer David G. Farragut moved up the Mississippi River to capture New Orleans.  With the fall of that city, the blockade of the river was lifted, freeing up several vessels that had previously been tied up monitoring traffic out of the Mississippi's many passes and outlets.  Some of these vessels moved westward to stations along the Louisiana and Texas coastlines.

 

In September of 1862, Acting Master Frederick W. Crocker aboard the steamer USS KENSINGTON received orders from recently promoted Rear Admiral Farragut to blockade Sabine Pass and, if possible, to gain control of it.  To assist him in this endeavor were the schooner USS RACHAEL SEAMAN and the mortar schooner USS HENRY JANES.  On September 23, the three vessels arrived off of the pass and late in the afternoon, after a quick conference to determine strategy, the SEAMAN and the JANES attempted to cross the bar while the KENSINGTON remained offshore.  Unfortunately, the JANES ran aground in the mud of the bar and stuck fast.  Seven hours' worth of work failed to dislodge her before the tide ran out, leaving her immobilized throughout the night.

 

Dawn on September 24 found the JANES still grounded.  In spite of his inability to maneuver, Acting Master Lewis Pennington (her captain) opened fire on Fort Sabine with his howitzer.  Acting Master Quincy Hooper of the RACHAEL SEAMAN soon followed with a barrage of his own.  The garrison at Fort Sabine returned fire, but shots from both sides mostly fell short.

 

Frederick W. Crocker, USN

Acting Master Frederick W. Crocker, USN

Original photo from the Military Order of the

Loyal Legion of the United States.

Obtained from Sabine Pass:  The Confederacy's Thermopylae by Edward T. Cotham, Jr.

 

 

Sabine Pass was rife with an extensive series of oyster shell reefs, resulting in narrow channels for vessels to navigate once they crossed the bar from the Gulf.  After five hours, Pennington finally managed to free the JANES from the mud but now the reefs and shallows made maneuvering difficult.  By late afternoon, the ships finally closed to within 1˝ miles of the fort.  Here, they opened fire once more until around 7:00 p.m.

 

A map of Sabine Pass and the surrounding area.

A map of Sabine Pass and the surrounding area.

CLICK PHOTO FOR HIGHER RESOLUTION IMAGE.

 

Fort Sabine did not return fire during this second bombardment.  Major Josephus S. Irvine, CSA, was in command of the fort at this time.  His garrison included only about thirty men due to a severe outbreak of yellow fever in the area.  Another thirty cavalrymen were in the area, about three or four miles distant.  The Union Navy had unknowingly attacked at just the right time when the local population was at its lowest ability to defend itself.  With this second bombardment, Irvine had his men take shelter and wait it out.  When the firing ceased, Irvine spiked the guns and ordered a withdrawal under cover of darkness.  A rainstorm helped to cover their retreat.

 

All of this was unknown to Crocker, of course.  Spurred on by the fort's silence, he ordered three small boats armed with howitzers to move upriver beyond the range of the garrison's guns, land, and capture it.  But in the rain and the darkness, the boats were unable to find a clear path through the reefs to shore.  Just before dawn, the landing parties gave up and retired to their ships.

 

Daybreak on September 25 saw no sign of activity in Fort Sabine.  Crocker ordered three shots fired into the embankments and received no response.  Going ashore under a flag of truce, he found the fort abandoned.  He promptly moved inland to demand the town's surrender but was met en route by a delegation who surrendered the town and informed him of the epidemic in the surrounding area.

 

Sabine Pass was the first major city in Texas to fall into Union hands.  From here, the Union sailors made brief forays into the interior, usually to destroy something of potential military value.  It also served as a staging area for raids to nearby rivers and inlets.  Before the month was out, Crocker would take the KENSINGTON east to the Mermentau River in southwest Louisiana, where he found a small dirt fort there unfinished and abandoned.  On September 27, Hooper and Pennington sent three boats and a party of thirty-three men northward up Sabine Pass a distance of twelve miles to destroy a railroad bridge near the mouth of Taylor's Bayou.  They set fire to the bridge and departed, but a local resident was able to extinguish the flames and save the bridge.

 

Word had not yet spread far that the Union Navy now controlled the pass and toward the end of September, Crocker and the KENSINGTON captured the British schooner VELOCITY attempting to run the blockade and find safe haven at Sabine Pass.  The RACHAEL SEAMAN captured the schooner DART in a similar fashion during this time.  The Calcasieu River in southwest Louisiana was a base of operations for a similar blockade runner, the DAN.  On October 03, Crocker took KENSINGTON east again and proceeded upriver in his launch to capture her.  Crocker returned to Sabine Pass to learn that the railroad bridge at Taylor's Bayou was still intact.  Arming the DAN, he moved up Sabine Lake where he shelled a cavalry unit and an approaching train, providing cover to two small boat crews who went ashore and finally destroyed the bridge.  On their way back south, the expedition burnt a set of barracks and two small schooners.  Later in October, Rear Admiral Farragut promoted Crocker to the rank of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant "for gallant conduct" in the Sabine Pass and Calcasieu Pass operations.

 

To the east, Union forces were beginning to close Berwick Bay to Confederate traffic with the advent of their campaign down Bayou Lafourche.  To the west, Union forces had captured Galveston on October 08, 1862.  The noose of the blockade was beginning to tighten.  But the important beachhead gained by Lieutenant Crocker and his men was undone later that month through faulty intelligence.  Rumors in the countryside convinced Union spies that large Confederate forces in the area were preparing to attack the blockade ships at Sabine Pass.  As such, the captain of the RACHAEL SEAMAN withdrew his ship across the bar and back into the Gulf, abandoning the city and Fort Sabine.

 

For the moment, Sabine Pass and the lake and river were back in Confederate hands.

 

 

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Sources used in the compilation of this article:

The National Park Service—Heritage Preservation Services—American Battlefield Protection Program.

The Naval Historical Center.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Secretary of War.  31 vols. 

          Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office (1899-1908).

Sabine Pass:  The Confederacy's Thermopylae, Edward T. Cotham, Jr.  University of Texas Press (2004).

"Sabine Pass in the Civil War", William T. Block, Jr.  East Texas Historical Journal, Vol. IX, No. 2, ppg. 129-136

          (October, 1971).

"Singeing General Taylor's Beard:  Lieutenant Frederick Crocker's Daring Calcasieu Raid", William T. Block, Jr. 

          Frontier Tales of the Texas-Louisiana Borderlands (Nederland, 1988).  www.wtblock.com

The State of LouisianaDepartment of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.

The State of TexasTexas Parks & Wildlife Division.


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