Sunday, February 14, 2010


By Michael Jones

The Battle of Calcasieu Pass, May 6, 1864, was the only War For Southern Independence battle to be fought in extreme Southwest Louisiana. It brought together two determined foes - Union gunboats bent on “purchasing” stolen livestock and recruiting men - and a scrappy band of Confederates determined to expel the invaders.

One Confederate survivor of the battle, Captain Joseph A. Brickhouse, said years later, “While I would not pluck one feather from the plume of fame worn by Dick Dowling, yet I must say that the Battle of Calcasieu Pass and the victory achieved was in every way equal to that achieved by Dick Dowling and his immortal heroes of Sabine Pass.”

The Wave and Granite City received orders on April 15 to proceed to Calcasieu Pass to buy 250 head of cattle and 200 horses from Jayhawkers. The brigands had stolen the livestock from area farms. The Wave arrived on April 24 with gold for the purchase. It bombed an abandoned Confederate fort at the mouth of the river and was led to anchorage two miles upstream, opposite the home of Duncan Smith, a Union sympathizer. Smith was on board the vessel and acted as guide.

The Granite City arrived two days later and anchored around a bend, about 300 yards from its companion ship. Many of its crew were experienced gunners and survivors of the Hatteras, which had been sunk the previous year by the C.S.S. Alabama. Granite City disembarked 27 Union infantrymen brought along to round up the livestock. To secure the area, the sailors and soldiers destroyed the bridges over Mud and Oyster bayous and posted pickets around the perimeter.

All of this activity was communicated to the Confederate garrison about 40 miles west at Sabine Pass, Texas, by some unknown Southern “Paul Revere.” The local Confederate commanders quickly assembled a force to expel the invaders. The commander of the district, Brigadier General Paul Hebert, in Houston, was alarmed the Yankee gunboats might be the advance scouts of an invasion force and he ordered an attack.

The Confederate strategy was simple. Advance at night under the cover of darkness and launch a surprise attack. The artillery was to open fire at 1,000 yards, while the infantry and dismounted cavalry advanced to the shore line and open fire on the sailors as they try to man their guns on the ships. The cannons would then move in closer and finish off the vessels.

On the afternoon of May 4, the foot soldiers crossed the Sabine and commenced their 38-mile march to Calcasieu Pass. The artillery departed Fort Manhassett at Sabine Pass and was ferried across Sabine Lake and into Johnson Bayou on the Louisiana side. Traveling at night on May 5 to conceal their movements, the soldiers rebuilt the bridge over Mud Bayou and by 4:30 a.m. May 6 had reached their destination.

Aurelia LeBoeuf Daigle was a 15-year-old girl at the time of the battle. Her family’s farmhouse was right in the middle of the carnage. For the rest of her days she recalled how the Confederate soldiers had taken over her house and used it as a hospital.

Her parents, Louis and Pauline LeBoeuf, were scratching out an existence on the rough terrain when events they had no control over overwhelmed them and drove them from their home.

The Union ships had made the mistake of letting the Jayhawkers man the picket posts. When the Confederates approached in the darkness, the Union pickets faded away into the marsh, intent on saving themselves and not giving any warning to the waiting prey.

As the sun peaked above the misty horizon that morning the serene dawn was shattered with the roar of Confederate artillery. On the vessels, the blue-jackets came tumbling out of the hammocks. As they rushed on deck to man their heavy naval artillery, they were met by blistering musketry from the gray-clad sharpshooters. Nevertheless the courageous sailors manned their guns and returned fire with deadly accuracy. The Confederate artillery was caught in a deadly cross-fire between the two ships. One of the Southern artillery pieces was quickly hit. Three artillerymen lay severely wounded. Their cannon was demolished.

Lt. Charles Welhausen of Creuzbaur's battery commanded two 12-pounders and saved his cannons by ordering them moved in closer, thus avoiding the cross-fire from the ships. The Confederate sharpshooters were completely exposed on the open marsh. They began falling when the veteran Union gunners zeroed in on them. But despite their exposed position, the infantrymen bravely kept peppering the gunboat decks.

While the Southerners were taking their licks, the Northerners were also receiving punishment. The Granite City’s wheel house was demolished and a cannonball tore into the ship’s hull. Sixteen shells penetrated the vessel’s hull near the water line. No glutton for punishment, Lt. Lamson was to call it quits after he had fired 30 rounds. A white flag was hoisted and a boat lowered to take on the victors. Col. Griffin and his men boarded the ship and took charge. The blue-jackets were seen throwing pistols, swords and guns overboard. Griffin later learned that they had also thrown overboard dead bodies with weights attached to them.

Lt. Loring on the Wave, a tenacious fighter, was far from ready to throw in the sponge. Confederate artillerymen tried to shift one of their remaining pieces after Lamson’s surrender but it became stuck in the mud. The remaining two, however, turned their full fury onto the Wave. Although unable to bring all guns to bear due to being anchored, Loring’s gunners continued to wreak havoc among the Confederates with their 32-pound bow gun. Five of Griffin’s men were cut down and victory was tilting to the Union sailors.
It looked as though the gunboat was going to be able to get up enough steam to escape. But Maj. Felix McReynolds of Griffin’s battalion and Lt. Welhausen were credited with saving the day for the South by bravely rallying their men when things looked darkest. However, throughout the affair, one Confederate stood full length above the prairie, calmly loading and firing. His total disregard for the enemy fire completely unnerved the Yankee gunners and they later were eager to know who the intrepid marksman was that their bullets could not touch.
The Confederate gunners sent shells through the Wave’s pilot house, engine room and boilers. Then Brickhouse’s gun scored a direct hit on the gunboat’s 32-pounder, splitting the full length of the barrel. A white flag was soon seen flying from the mast. The warship had taken 65 direct hits. Perhaps stalling for time, Loring hesitated in putting over a boat for the victorious boarding party. To show he meant business, McReynolds told his men to fire a warning shot and to prepare to reopen fire. With this, the gunboat’s skipper lowered the boat and surrendered. The crew jettisoned valuables, including the ship’s safe which contained gold to pay for the livestock. The Army detachment, which was camped on shore, surrendered without firing a shot.
On May 8, ignorant of the battle, Union transport Ella Morse came up the river to meet with the other ships. But when it got close, the Granite City, now manned by Confederate gunners, opened fire. Southern sharpshooters on both banks shot up its decks. The transport carrying a detachment of the 2nd New Orleans Infantry (Union) reversed course and headed back into the Gulf. The ship’s pilot was wounded.
Two days later, not knowing about the capture, the Union blockader New London sent Ensign Henry Jackson and six men up the pass in a launch to deliver a message to the Granite City. Ensign Jackson saw the Confederate flag flying over the Granite City. Thinking it was some kind of sick joke; he borrowed a musket and fired at the flag. But Confederate sharpshooters returned fire and instantly killed Jackson. The six crewmen were added to the prisoners.
Lt. Col. Griffin reported that eight of his men were killed in action and 13 wounded. Later, two of Creuzbaur's artillerymen, one of Daly’s cavalrymen and one of Spaight’s infantrymen died of wounds. The Union casualties never have been fully accounted. Lamson admitted to 10 wounded on the Granite City, and two later died. Loring said he had 24 wounded on the Wave, four of whom later died. The Confederates also took a total of 174 prisoners, 16 cannons, the stolen livestock and a large quantity of food on which the weary gray-clad infantrymen delightedly feasted. To their disgust, Creuzbaur's artillerymen were sent back to Sabine Pass before they could join in the feast. Wounded from both sides were taken to Lake Charles and from there to Goosport where they received the best of care in Capt. Daniel Goos’ home.

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