Sunday, September 20, 2009
THE GREAT NAVAL RAID ON LAKE CHARLES
A storm blew into Lake Charles, Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico in early October 1862 like no other storm it has ever experienced before or since. This storm wasn't a hurricane as one might expect. It was a Union Navy raiding party unleashing the wrath of Abraham Lincoln. The raid on Lake Charles was by no means an isolated incident. Before it was over, the war had been brought directly to Southwest Louisiana and local residents had been used as "human shields."
The raid was part of a well coordinated counterattack ordered by Lincoln to reestablish federal control over ports on the Texas and Louisiana coasts. The 16th U.S. President was worried about French incursions into Mexico and a possible alliance between France and the Confederate States of America, which could make the separation of the Northern and Southern states a permanent divorce. Louisiana and Texas had seceded from the Union on Jan. 26 and Feb. 1, 1861, respectively.
Lake Charles, being so close to the Texas border, was much more involved in the coastal war there, than the various campaigns that were fought in other parts of Louisiana.
One of the main Union war strategies was blockading Confederate ports to cut off commerce and war materials from entering the independence minded parts of the Southern states. The big problem posed by Texas was that it bordered Mexico, whose ports could not be blockaded. In addition, the border between Mexico and the Southern Republic was wide open for overland commerce. With shipbuilding facilities, sawmills and a fine inland port, Lake Charles had thrived on a bustling sea trade with Texas and Mexico before the war.
Running the blockade were daring Southern seamen in swift sloops, sleek schooners and seagoing steamships. The Union's main target in its raid on Lake Charles was Captain Daniel Goos' blockade runner the "Dan."
The "Dan" was built in Lake Charles during the summer of 1857. It was a side-wheeler, not large by steamboat standards of the time, but well suited for the Calcasieu River and coastal trade. It was 99 feet long by 23 feet wide and weighed 112 tons. The boat cost $10,000 to build and was designed to tow wind-powered schooners out to sea when there was not enough breeze to fill their sails. It was also used to carry cotton to nearby ports.
Under the command of Captain W.L. Sawyer, the steam packet was a real money-maker in prewar days, churning along in the rivers and coastal areas of the upper Texas and Louisiana coasts.With the secession of Louisiana and the outbreak of war, Goos turned the "Dan" into a very effective blockade runner.
The steamboat first served the Confederacy by transporting troops from Texas to Brashear, modern day Morgan City, from which the soldiers were taken by train to New Orleans and points beyond. The Union blockade was put into effect along the upper Texas and Louisiana coasts on 1 July 1861.
Blockade running was considered very adventurous, romantic, and very, very profitable. It was also vital to the main Confederate war aim of establishing Southern Independence. The Southern belles of Lake Charles made flags for the ships, both as tokens of their admiration and as good luck charms for the Confederate sailors.
By October 1862, the "Dan" was a successful blockade runner having completed two trips to Matamoras, Mexico where it delivered Southern cotton and lumber, and ran back through the blockade vital war materials such as guns, cannons and medicines. This thorn in the side of the Union's West Gulf Blockading Squadron was one of the main targets of when Lincoln ordered the Naval counterattack all along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
Leading the counterattack was Commander William B. Renshaw, who had under his command a squadron of powerful gunboats and marines. The first target in the counterattack was Sabine Pass, Texas. Unknown to the Unionists, Sabine Pass was in the midst of a deadly yellow fever epidemic and only a skeleton garrison was manning the fort there. When the Union naval squadron attacked on 24 Sept. 1862, the Confederate garrison could do little more than spike and bury its cannons and retreat to Beaumont.
Part of the squadron then turned southwest along the coast of Texas and captured Galveston on 4 October 1862. However one of the squadron ships, the U.S.S. Kensington, turned east and steamed to the Calcasieu River where it arrived on 1 October 1862. The commander of the Kensington was a tough, fearless New Englander, Lt. Frederick Crocker. Before the war, Crocker was the captain of a fabled New England whaling ship. He was just the sort of salty, experienced seaman the Navy needed to command its blockaders when war broke out and the peace time fleet was greatly expanded.
Fortunately for the Union Navy, there was a staunch Union supporter, Duncan Smith, who had a home at Leesburg, modern day Cameron. Smith informed Crocker other blockade runners were anchored in the Calcasieu River, including a Spanish ship, the "Conchita." What neither Crocker nor Smith knew was Gen. Benjamin "Beast" Butler, the corrupt, double-dealing Union commander of occupied-New Orleans, was giving out passes to coastwise cotton traders. In effect, he was trading with the enemy. Butler was having the cotton brought back to New Orleans and was taking it into federal custody.
Smith also told Crocker that Lake Charles was undefended with all the military age men away to the war. He told the New Englander there were only a bout 25 old men or young boys in the vicinity who could offer any resistance at all. Crocker prepared for the raid by fitting out the Kensington's launch with a mast and two sloop sails and mounted a six-pounder boat howitzer on it. His picked crew of raiders included two officers and 12 bluejackets appropriately armed like swashbucklers with cutlasses and muskets.
On Friday, 3 October 1862, Crocker began his daring raid up the Calcasieu River. His goal was to capture the "Dan" while burning ferries, landings and other blockade runners he might encounter. At one landing he captured a prize prisoner, Col. Nathaniel Clifton, commander of the Calcasieu Regiment, Louisiana State Militia, and a servant named Napoleon. The Yankee raiders first bypassed Lake Charles and headed straight for Goosport, about two miles up river, where they and been told the "Dan" was being hidden in a bayou.
The defenseless town was paralyzed with fear, but one lone man mounted a horse and rode out to alert the countryside. This unknown Confederate "Paul Revere," rode a circuitous 35 mile route around Lake Charles sounding the alarm and rounding up any men or boys he could find who were capable of bearing arms. He also found Captain Warren W. Johnson, another local militia leader, who took command of this motely force of about 25 home guardsmen. These civilians, like the "Minute Men" of Revolutionary War days, were armed only with old muskets and shotguns.
Captain Johnson's militia company had the improbable nickname of "Calcasieu Invincibles." The captain led his men to the banks of the Calcasieu River where he set up an ambush along the banks. Meanwhile, Crocker found the "Dan" hidden by willow and cypress branches at the west fork of the Calcasieu River, just beyond Clendinning's Ferry. The bluejackets captured the blockade runner without firing a shot. Crocker moved his boat howitzer onto the larger steamboat, and took the launch into tow.
Now headed downstream, the New Englander burned Clendinning's Ferry and set course for Lake Charles. At Goosport, he chanced upon an arriving blockade runner, the "Mary Ann," and set it on fire. Crocker then forced Captain Goos to load several hundred bales of cotton on the "Dan." The Yankee raiders arrived in Lake Charles the night of Saturday, 5 October 1862. Crocker issued a demand upon the sleepy town. He wanted sweet potatoes and beef from the cattle delivered by 5 a.m. Sunday, or else he would level the town with his howitzer. To show he meant business he opened fire on Jacob Ryan's sawmill, which was on the lakefront at the foot of what is now Division Street.
Witnesses later recounted the mill was busy cutting lumber when without warning the raiders entered the lake. From somewhere near the center of the lake the vessel hoisted the stars and stripes and fired a round from the cannon at the mill. The surprised workers scrambled for cover behind piles of lumber as a second cannon shot boomed out. The Yankee skipper fired a total of five shots at Ryan's mill and hit all around it. The ship then sailed up to the wharf where Crocker demanded the beef and potatoes.
Sunday morning dawned and the tribute had not been delivered by the deadline. Crocker sent another message, this time by Clifton's servant, Napoleon, in which he stated if the provisions were not delivered in 30 minutes, he would start shelling the town as sure as there was a "God in Heaven."
Two Lake Charles residents, Captain Maynard and Joe Charles Sallier, went down to the wharf and asked Crocker to hold his fire. They agreed to comply with his demands. Crocker said the women and children would have to come out and show themselves as a show of good faith. With the women and children under the guns of the Yankee raiders, Sallier went for the cattle and Mrs. Jacob (Rebecca Bilbo) Ryan Jr. hurriedly dug up the sweet potatoes and sent them to the dock by a servant.
Crocker then was told by a Union collaborator that a schooner and six armed men were hidden in a wooded cove north and east of the Bilbo property along the lake. The raiders turned their boat howitzer on the wooded area and opened fire.
Apparently, if it was even there, the shelling was ineffective because there were no reports of a schooner being hit. Crocker was also told about the ambush awaiting him downstream. In his own words, in a report dated 12 October 1862, Crocker said, "By the time I had been three days, nearly up the river, and was informed by Union men, plenty of whom I found, that a large party had collected to attack up below; whereupon I seized upon ten or twelve of the inhabitants of the place and posting them around the man at the wheel, who was exposed, made the best of my way down river."
Johnson's "Calcasieu Invincibles" were still waiting on the banks of the river to blast the Yankee raiders when they passed. A lookout alerted Johnson the "Dan" was approaching. The Calcasieu men sighted "pine knot smoke" rising above the cypress forest along the river and tensely readied their muskets and shotguns for action.
But as the steamboat approached, Johnson told the men to hold their fire. To his shock and horror, the captain saw that the only visible persons on deck were his friends and neighbors who were being used as "human shields." Not being under any such restraint, Crocker caught sight of the militiamen on shore and ordered his howitzer to open fire on them. The Calcasieu men ducked for cover. All the Yankee cannon balls fell harmlessly round them and the "Dan" steamed downriver.
On his way back to the Gulf, Crocker encountered another blockade runner, the "Eliza" and promptly burned it to the water line. When he arrived back at Leesburg, he burned the Spanish blockade runner "Conchita," in spite of its cotton trading pass from "Beast" Butler. Word got back to Washingtona bout Butler's nefarious trade, and on 11 November 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, by order of Lincoln, notified Butler he must refrain from issuing "cotton passes" to blockade runners.
Crocker let all of his prisoners go free, except for Colonel Clifton, whom he took back to New Orleans for possible exchange for a Union officer held captive by Confederates. Clifton was paroled by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut at Pensacola, Florida. on 30 October 1862.
The Yankee lieutenant received the highest accolades for his successful raid. Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles recommended Crocker for promotion, saying, ". . . Captain Crocker's entire conduct meets my highest approbation; his energy and management in the whole affair at Calcasieu River is worthy of commendation. . . ."
The salty New Englander was rather arrogant about his success. In his report he bragged about, ". . . teaching the people (of Lake Charles) a lesson they will not soon forget."
Although he might have taught the defenseless people of Lake Charles a "lesson," 11 months later on 8 September 1863 a red-headed Confederate artillery lieutenant taught Crocker a lesson in accurate Southern gunnery. On that day at the Battle of Sabine Pass, Lt. RichardW. "Dick" Dowling of Company F, Davis Guards, 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, defeated a whole Union invasion fleet with just 42 men and six cannons.
Among the Yankee captives was a former New England whaler, Frederick Crocker.