The old Sabine Pass lighthouse in Southwest Louisiana was the scene of a deadly skirmish between Confederate and Union forces on 18 April 1863. In the bloody confrontation, four Union sailors were killed outright, another received a mortal wound, two others received non fatal wounds and six were captured. One Confederate was killed.
The stage was set for the showdown by Commander Abner Read of the U.S. Navy blockading gunboat "New London." Read was planning to launch a surprise attack on a Confederate fort under construction on the Texas side of the pass. He also wanted to capture two enemy gunboats, "Uncle Ben" and "Josiah Bell" which were anchored there.
The Union naval commander sent daily scouting parties by whale boat to the lighthouse to make contact with a Union spy who was using the 80-foot-tall structure as an observation platform. The spy, whose identity never was revealed, had been keeping track of the progress of construction on the Confederate fort.
The commander of Confederate forces in the area was Lt. Col. William H. Griffin of the 21st Texas Infantry Battalion. Griffin was a West Point graduate and an aggressive and experienced military officer. He first discovered that his activities were being spied upon on April 10, 1863, when Captain Charles Fowler, commander of the Confederate gunboats, and three other men disappeared while scouting Lighthouse Bayou.
They had been taken by surprise by a Union patrol. The Confederates then started noticing light reflections coming from the supposedly abandoned lighthouse. Then on 17 April, they spotted a Union whaleboat rowing inland.
The next morning, Griffin dispatched a detachment under Captain Samuel
Evans across the pass to the Louisiana side. Upon arriving, the grayclad soldiers deployed underneath the lighthouse keepers residence and waited for their chance to attack.
According to the usual routine established by the Union blockader, two whaleboats, one from "New London" and the other from "Cayuga," also a blockading gunboat, were soon seen rowing to shore. Commander Read and Captain D.A. McDermot of the "Cayuga" were leading
Three unsuspecting Federal bluejackets approached the lighthouse and the
hidden Confederates demanded their surrender. These three were taken captive but the rest of the landing party began a fighting retreat back to their boats. The Confederates opened fire.
Four of the sailors were killed by the musketry. A fifth, McDermot, was mortally wounded and captured. Commander Read was among the wounded. He lost an eye during the fusilade, but escaped capture. One of the boats escaped, but the Confederates took the other, along with six prisoners.
Read and two others made their way back to the "New London," but the
plan to capture the pass was abandoned. The only Confederate death was Lt. E.T. Wright, who was killed instantly during the skirmish.
Lt. Col. Griffin filed a dry, concise report of the action. "Last night I placed 30 men, in the lighthouse under Lieutenant Jones, of Griffin's battalion. Today at 11 o'clock, 13 Federals came up to the lighthouse in two small boats. We captured six men, including Captain McDermot, of the 'Cayuga,' who was mortally wounded, and the captain's gig. The other boat escaped with three men. Four were killed in the water. Second Lieutenant Wright, of CompanyD, Griffin's battalion, was killed, gallantly leading the men. No other casualties."