The United States schooner Henry Janes commanded by Lewis W. Pennington was ordered by the Commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Admiral David Farragut, to take up a position outside the bar at the mouth of Sabine Pass, Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The Henry Janes mission was to prevent passage of vessels, foreign and confederate, from engaging in commerce to benefit the southern war effort. The Janes arrived off Sabine Pass on Sunday morning, September 21, 1862.
Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. the Henry Janes was joined by the steamer Kensington, Frederick Crocker commanding and the Rachel Seaman with Quincy A. Hooper as commander. These vessels were under orders to blockade and/or destroy the battery at Sabine Pass. Pennington's orders were to blockade only, however, Crocker and Hooper persuaded Pennington to join them in an attack on the battery. Pennington was easily persuaded, as he was a northern sympathizer who formerly was attached to the Sabine Pass area. The group wanted to cross the bar with the two smaller launches, Henry Janes and Rachel Seaman, and destroy the fortification on the Pass. The Janes was armed with a large mortar. With only eight feet of water over the bar at high tide, the Kensington could not cross as she was too large. The Henry Janes drew 8 feet 7 inches and was promptly stuck in the mud. After a dozen hours of hard labor and five skiffs assisting, the Janes was freed. An attack was carried out on the Confederate battery at the Pass on September 24, 1862. The battery, over a mile below the town of Sabine Pass, was Fort Sabine. By 7:00 p.m. that evening, the Confederates had evacuated their position, as the Union mortar and cannon fire was too much to bear. The first battle at Sabine Pass was a Union victory. Three days later (September 27) Commander Pennington visited the town of Sabine Pass. Only 40 people were left. Most had evacuated because of yellow fever. "My being well acquainted with the remaining citizens; they conversed freely with me." He soon learned the rebels were expecting reinforcements of up to 3000 infantry and cavalry. After some discussion with James G. Taylor, a northern sympathizer, Pennington decided to destroy a railroad bridge that crossed Taylorís Bayou not far from the pass. James G. Taylor a local resident who lived on Taylorís Bayou later wrote of how he convinced Pennington and the others to attack and destroy the bridge. Taylor also wanted them to raid up the Neches and Sabine Rivers. Taylorís Bayou was only a short distance away as it emptied into the lower part of Sabine Lake.
The evening of September 27, 1862, at 9:00 p.m. Lewis Pennington assembled two cutters, small boats capable of being rowed. Masters Mate Z. Predmore and 17 men on one and a cutter from the Rachel Seaman with 8 men commanded by Masters Mate John Somers. They quickly rowed from Sabine Pass to Taylorís Bayou in Sabine Lake and arrived at one o'clock a.m. September 28. On the way, they passed an abandoned battery for two guns at a bridge over Mud Bayou.
Pennington and his raiding party entered Taylorís Bayou and landed at the railroad bridge. The most common crossing of Taylorís Bayou was located at the foot of West 7th Street, Port Arthur, Texas just 200 feet from the back corner of the now Chevron's main office building (formerly Gulf main office building). At this site was a ferry crossing for many years. Jefferson County Commissioners Court authorized a second bridge built to replace the ferry in 1898. This portion of Taylorís Bayou was filled in about 1912 when a more direct route was dug by Gulf Oil to link their new dock to the Port Arthur Canal. The bridge was moved to its current location on Hwy.87 by 1916.
Predmore with 15 men surrounded a nearby house and Somers boarded two small vessels just up the bayou. Three prisoners were taken and mail meant for Sabine Pass was found. Pennington reported the two vessels were worthless and for some reason did not burn them. He torched the railroad bridge himself and reported it completely destroyed. They were on land about five hours with no opposition by Confederate forces.
The U.S.S. Kensington was dispatched to the Rio Grande by Captain Frederick Crocker. James G. Taylor the local resident and union sympathizer was enlisted as a pilot on the Kensington. Taylorís family still resided in the area. He later claimed there was a $10,000 reward offered for his arrest. Most locals would have shot him for nothing. Taylor died mysteriously in 1864 according to county records. During this period he was captured but somehow managed to escape. On October 2, 1862 three of the cutters from the Henry Janes went up to Taylorís Bayou and picked up two local families, Kirkpatrick and Davis, who asked for union protection.
Preparations were begun on October 14, 1862 for another attack on Taylorís Bayou. As it turned out, the expedition led by Louis A. Pennington of the mortar schooner Henry Janes was a complete failure. The railroad bridge was not damaged when he attempted to burn it. By this time Confederate forces had returned to the bridge some two to three hundred strong. They came on railroad cars from Beaumont.
Union Captain Crocker installed a twelve pound Parrot gun from the Rachel Seaman and a 12-pound howitzer on the Dan. The Dan was a Confederate steamer recently captured on the Calcasieu. He also mounted a 30-pound Parrot gun he had removed from the Kensington. With the schooner Velocity in tow, the Dan moved out toward Taylorís Bayou from Sabine Pass. The Velocity was a British schooner recently captured at the pass. This was on the morning of October 15. As they crossed Blue Buck bar to enter Sabine Lake, the towed vessel, Velocity, grounded. Captain Crocker took 25 men and moved on with the steamer Dan. The Confederates were behind the railroad embankment and an additional force of cavalry and what appeared to be field artillery were farther back on the prairie. The Confederate units were led by Capt. George W. O'Brien from Beaumont, Texas. Crocker opened fire with his Parrot gun. No fire was returned. In fact, the Confederates must not have had artillery since none was returned during the entire battle. The Howitzer fired a projectile with a delayed fuse. Shrapnel forced the home troops to break just as a train of railroad cars from Beaumont arrived with reinforcements. Some of the rail cars were hit and all the opposing southern forces moved out of cannon range.
Crocker dispatched two boat crews to the bridge. One commanded by Masters Mate Janvrin of the Rachel Seaman and the other by T. W. O'Connor a second assistant engineer from the Kensington. They completely destroyed the railroad bridge over Taylorís Bayou, and burned some buildings, which had been used as barracks along with the two schooners Pennington had failed to burn. These were the Schooners Stonewall and Lone Star. As they were busy burning these structures, a Confederate cavalry charge led by George O'Brien a Beaumont resident was made, but cannon fire from the steamer Dan drove them back again. The Dan had come up too close to the bayou and ran aground on the bayou bar. After the battle, the Dan and the schooner Velocity had to be towed clear of the bars.
Acting Commander Lewis W. Pennington appeared to let his familiarity with the locals get in the way of his official duties, as he failed his mission completely, however Pennington survived to accept the surrender of Sabine Pass on May 25, 1865 when the war ended. One year after the battle, Confederate Chief Engineer Valery Sulakouski made plans to build a redoubt or fortified structure to hold four field pieces on Taylorís Bayou to be placed between the railroad bridge and the mouth of the bayou at the lake. There is evidence these structures were built as they are marked on a field map. While excavating to build the grain elevator in 1898, a six-pound cannon ball was found. Likely, left from the battle in 1862.
President Abraham Lincoln ordered a complete naval blockade of all shipping commerce to and from the rebelling coastal states. This was one of his first official acts of the Civil War on April 19, 1861. Many civilian vessels were purchased and placed on blockage duty. The Western Gulf Blockading Squadron was assigned to Rear Admiral David G. Farragut.
Neches and Sabine river trade through Sabine Pass, Texas was in Farragut's area of responsibility. Early in the war, Federal efforts were concentrated on larger areas of commerce. Blockading efforts were lax at Sabine Pass. During this period trade vessels were in and out almost daily. After some months, the federal lighthouse keeper at Sabine Pass advised Admiral Farragut of the ease rebel traders had moving goods through the pass. Farragut then assigned three blockading vessels to the Pass. The ship Morning Light armed with eight 32 pound cannons and one rifled Butler gun. The schooner Velocity with two twelve pound howitzers and the Rachel Seaman, a heavily armed gunboat.
When the Civil War started, it took awhile to get organized on both sides of the conflict. Many of the local folks were mustered into fighting units and moved out of the area. The locals also formed units to fight in defense of the area. Both sides were itching to engage the other in battle. As the blockades began to slow the movement of goods through Sabine Pass, local troops were busy planning an engagement.
General J. Bankhead Magruder, Confederate States Commander in Texas assigned Leon Smith to outfit steamers in Galveston and Orange, Texas for an assault on the federal blockaders off Galveston and Sabine Pass, Texas. It appears that both attacks were planned to coincide with one another, but the group at Orange, Texas was delayed by numerous problems.
Steamboats Josiah Bell and Uncle Ben were piled high with cotton bales as armament, thus to become known as "cotton-clads". The thick, heavy bales of cotton served as excellent protection for the local forces who were eager to engage the enemy. The southern force consisted of men from companies A, B, C, D, E, G and I of Pyron's Regiment, Company F, Cooks Regiment of heavy artillery and men from Liken's Battalion. The force actually had 100 men from Pyron's Regiment, 48 from Cook's Regiment and almost 200 from Liken's (Spaight's) Battalion and a few citizens from Orange.
Preparations were begun in early December, 1862 with Captain Charles Fowler in charge of the planned attack. Fowler, acting as a naval officer was in charge of the operations with Major O.M. Watkins as head of the troop on board both vessels. As it turned out, Major Watkins was often drunk and had many problems with the men. He jailed many of them for little or no reason. On December 28, 1862, Captain Fowler, intervened and released all who were jailed. If he had not intervened, the operation would have been canceled. The men were eager to follow Fowler as he was much admired by all.
On January 10, 1863 all was ready. The Josiah Bell and the Uncle Ben moved out of Orange, Texas, down the Sabine River to the mouth of the river at Sabine Lake. Earlier, barges loaded with shell were sunk at the mouth of both the Sabine and Neches Rivers. The Ben and the Bell were not able to move into the Lake. They reached the obstruction only to be delayed another week while they worked to remove as much as they could. On January 17th, a heavy gale from the east with very high winds blew in. As a result, the tide was two feet higher than usual and the Uncle Ben was able to steer around the obstruction. This took about three hours. By 8:00 p.m. on January 18th the Bell cleared the obstruction and both were anchored in Sabine Lake.
Within one hour, at about 9:00 p.m. the worst northerner of the season blew in and everyone and everything was wet and cold. The meal on board was wet and wormy. They had no beef. Because of the heavy winds, supply boats could not reach the group. The gale lasted all day on January 19th.
The next day, the weather improved so that a detail of men could move out on the prairie and kill a few beeves. The group then moved across the lake and toward Sabine Pass to be ready to battle the blockaders on the next morning, January 21, 1863.
Just four days before the big battle, events occurred that probably made it possible for the Texas forces to be victorious. Master C.W. Lamson of the gunboat/steamer Rachel Seaman, a blockader off Sabine Pass, sent a message to Commodore H. H. Bell whose flagship was blockading off Galveston that his vessel was leaking so badly in her upper works in rough seas so as to damage his ammunition and injure the health of his crew. The message was delivered by the schooner Velocity which returned to Sabine Pass with the order for the gunboat to make for Pensacola to have the necessary caulking done. When the Rachel Seaman moved out, this left only the ship Morning Light and Schooner Velocity on blockade duty. The ship Morning Light was an impressive sailing vessel of 937 tons and length of 172'. She was 34.3 across the beam and drew 19' of water. She was armed with eight thirty-two pound guns weighing 7000 pounds each and one rifled Butler gun. The Light was built at Kensington near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and her outer hull was lined with copper to above the water line. She was launched August 15, 1853. The schooner Velocity at 87 tons was originally a British blockade runner captured by the USS Kensington off Sabine Pass and armed with two Dahlgres guns and returned for blockade duty. To describe the Velocity the federal Commodore H.H. Bell said, "she is a miserable little craft, badly found, and scarcely able to keep the sea."
The Texas homemade naval expedition was in luck. Not only did the gunboat Seaman leave the day before the battle but mother nature smiled upon them on the morning of the battle by providing only a very light breeze. At 6:00 a.m. on the morning of January 21, 1863 the steamer Josiah Bell in the lead with the steamer Uncle Ben in her wake came out of Sabine Pass and into view of the Yankee blockaders. The blockader Morning Light broke out all sails and ran. By 8:00 a.m. the cotton-clads were 20 miles offshore giving chase with the yanks only 2 miles in front. A breeze began to pick up but not near enough to make a difference. The Bell and the Ben were using pine knots to fire their boilers and could make 7 miles an hour compared to 5 miles an hour for the Light and Velocity. The Bell fired first with her 64 pound rifled gun named "Annie". The gun crew was from Company F under command of Richard W. Dowling. While running, the Light fired round after round from its big 32 pounders. It was not easy to maneuver in a position to fire on a trailing enemy and run at the same time. She fired 80 rounds, some making contact, but little damage was done.
Lt. Dick Dowling was given credit by the enemy for making some excellent shots. One shot destroyed the Light's main yard. One destroyed a quarter boat on the port side, one landed square on deck amid the main rigging and another struck the #2 gun on the port side, killing one and wounding the remainder of the gun crew. This proves that you cannot run and fight at the same time. It might have been a different story if the Morning Light would have pulled up and positioned her big guns on the Josiah Bell. The Uncle Ben was not much help in the battle. Her guns were not effective. She gave chase to the Velocity and each exchanged a few rounds. The Ben only got off three rounds. The fight lasted a little over two hours.
The Morning Light commanded by Capt. John Dillingham realized he was losing the battle. He positioned sharpshooters in the riggings and pikes in place ready to repel boarding. The Josiah Bell was piled high with cotton bales and the southern soldiers fired volley after volley of small arms from position higher than the deck of the Light. They drove the Yankee sharpshooters out of the rigging and cleared the enemy decks with constant small arms firing. As the enemy cleared the decks, they threw their small arms over the side, and Captain Dillingham struck his flag. The men on the Josiah Bell were not accustomed to the rules of engagement at sea and continued firing for some time before realizing the Morning Light had given up. The Texas homemade navy captured 109 of the enemy, which to their surprise included 29 Negro sailors. An estimated $100,000 worth of ammunition and other stores were part of the prize.
The first naval battle, off Sabine Pass, of the Civil War ended some 30 miles in the Gulf. The distance from Galveston was probably near 40 miles. It was feared by southern forces that the battle could be heard by the Yankees near Galveston since the wind and seas were calm. They thought the Federal fleet would show up at any time. The victorious confederate forces did not have skilled seaman available to handle the captured prize Morning Light. Nor did they have artillerist to handle guns mounted on ship carriages. It was obvious from the beginning that the Morning Light would eventually be destroyed. Another problem that concerned them was the shortage of fuel wood for the Bell and Ben. Wood for these vessels was supplied by Negro wood cutters at Nebletts Bluff on the Sabine River about 50 to 60 miles from Sabine Pass.
The Morning Light could not be moved over the bar so the only hope was to tow her in as close as possible and remove from her such things as would be of the most value and be ready to destroy her at the approach of the enemy. After being towed up near the bar, the prisoners and wounded men were removed to the Josiah Bell. The Bell then left for Sabine Pass as the Ben had already left towing the captured schooner Velocity.
Placed in charge of the Morning Light was a trusted young officer named Lieutenant Eugene Aiken with a small crew. Aiken was ordered to burn the Light if she would be lost to the enemy. When the Bell and Ben reached Sabine Pass, all the prisoners and some of the captured arms were unloaded. Not having sufficient wood for fuel to use on the Bell, they rounded up 6 axes and began cutting up the wharf to be used for fuel. Some wood from a transport docked nearby was removed to the Bell. By this time, it was late in the evening on the day of the battle January 21, 1863. Fearing the coming of the Yankees, the Bell started back to the Morning Light and grounded on a large oyster reef in the pass. The Josiah Bell was a side-wheel steamer of 182 feet in length. She drew only 4'6" of water but could not get off the oyster bed. After moving wood to the Uncle Ben, the Ben was used to return to the Morning Light. It was not possible to remove the eight 32 pound long cannons from the prize. Each cannon weighed 7000 pounds and equipment was not available for the job. The only things that could be removed were a very large quantity of gunpowder, shells and small arms. After loading up all they could carry, they moved out for Sabine Pass, unloaded and restocked wood for fuel and promptly returned to the Light. The Josiah Bell still grounded on the reef. The Uncle Ben was not very seaworthy and lacked sufficient power. The Gulf began to get very rough and she could not even operate on the lea side of the big ship Morning Light so she returned only partially loaded. This left only the captured Velocity which was very small at 87 tons. Most of the men became seasick as a number of trips were made the next day (January 22). The captured prize was not completely unloaded but darkness came and as they were leaving a light from a steamer was spotted some distance and bearing down on the Morning Light. Remember, the Bell was still stuck on the reef. Lt. Aiken was left aboard to burn the captured ship.
Darkness and Yankee error saved the Morning Light for another day. The vessel seen bearing down was a Federal blockader, the 1,275-ton, well armed side-wheel steamer Tennessee. She was commanded by a recently assigned Master named J.D. Childs. Childs had been placed in command only two days before in New Orleans. The Tennessee reached the Morning Light about 7:30 p.m. on January 22. She stopped less than 200 feet out and Childs yelled "What ship is that?" was answered (by Aiken), "The Morning Light". Childs, "send a boat, I wish to communicate." was answered, "we have no boat". Childs could see a boat hanging to the stern and he asked again. The reply, "we have no boat nor crew". Childs, "where is Captain Dillingham?" answer, "Captain Dillingham is a prisoner on shore and this vessel is in the hands of the Confederates". With this reply, Childs ordered his vessel hard to starboard and full speed ahead, Captain Childs saw no one aboard the Morning Light and after getting some distance away called a meeting with his officers and two other ship captains not part of the crew but traveling to Galveston. He took a vote about attacking the Morning Light. All but one voted to continue on to Galveston. This is probably a rare time when the democratic process was substituted for a Captain's responsibility on the high seas. A court of inquiry later conducted regarding what appeared to be a cowardly action. The Tennessee was armed with one 20 pound Parrot gun, one 24 pounder, one 12 pound howitzer and one 12 pound howitzer mounted on a field carriage. Four guns to a side were available. With steam up in her boiler, the enemy dead in the water, she would have had little trouble reclaiming the Morning Light.
The Confederates were lucky again. The Tennessee arrived at Galveston at 3:00 a.m., the next morning, January 23. After reporting to Commodore H.H. Bell, he being some upset, dispatched gunboats New London and Cayuga to recapture or destroy the Morning Light. They moved out by 6:30 a.m. The Morning Light was spotted while they were still some distance away and they saw a steamboat leave her and move into the pass. About the same time they witnessed dense smoke coming from the captured ship. The confederates had spotted the Yankees coming. They arrived at the Light about 3:00 p.m. The ship was completely on fire. Some sail material was saved. While along side the burning ship, flames were tall enough to reach the top most masts; four of her big guns were discharged by the heat. Three guns fired on the port side and one fired on the starboard side. The latter gun had already fallen through the deck into the hold when it discharged. The shell came out just above the copper lining that covered the entire bottom of the vessel. All powder must have been removed since these were the only explosions. The Federals saw that seven guns were still on deck when they arrived and witnessed them fall through the burning deck into the hold. The wreck of the Morning Light, showing nothing but her stern and stem ports and a large iron water tank when she went down, lies on the outer edge of the bar in 17 feet of water. Bearing from the lighthouse while positioned over the wreck northwest distance about four miles. It was off the Texas Point below the wreck Clifton. The Morning Light was loaded with 410 tons of pig iron used as ballast when she went down.
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