Fort Manhassett
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Manhassett

FORT MANHASSETT:
A FORGOTTEN CHAPTER IN THE HISTORY OF SABINE PASS, TEXAS

By W. T. Block

This is a revision of an article first published in Port Arthur NEWS, August 2, 1970, and later reprinted in EAST TEXAS HISTORICAL JOURNAL, IX (Oct. 1971), pp. 145-147.
Less than a month after this article was first published in the NEWS, the writer and others dug up about 200 six-inch cannon balls and shells at Redoubt A on August 29-31, 1970--W. T. Block, Box 62, Nederland, Tx. 77627.

At a point six and one-half miles southwest of Sabine Pass, on the beach road to Sea Rim State Park, a stretch of salt grass prairie extends northwestward from Highway 87 to Knight's Lake. Looking across this duck hunter's paradise today, it would take a super-imaginative mind to conjure up the mental vision of a bustling Confederate fortress on this site, garrisoned by several hundred men. Of course, there is today a Texas State Historical Marker to mark the site (that is, when it isn't being used as a duck hunter's target or stolen), but prior to January 8, 1972, there was no marker there to assist with that mental illusion.

In the fall of 1863, this was the site of Fort Manhassett, or rather the five separate redoubts of the fort -- a hurriedly and newly-constructed string of fortifications, and a key cog in the new Confederate defense plan of Sabine Pass. One result of the Battle of Sabine Pass was that Confederate authorities discovered from a Union prisioner that Federal troops had planned a diversionary assault to the rear of Sabine Pass, which would have landed infantrymen at Redfish Bayou, connecting the gulf with Knight's Lake (now silted over). In retrospect, it is now an obvious fact that had the Federals bypassed Fort Griffin, avoiding the frontal assault that failed, and landing troops instead at Redfish Bayou with the purpose either to attack Fort Griffin from the rear or march direct on Beaumont over the railroad right-of-way, the world might never have heard of Dick Dowling.

Over a century ago, Lt. Dick Dowling's immortal artillerymen in 40 minutes blazed their way into the hearts of all Southerners during the Battle of Sabine Pass, and won one of the only two gold medallions authorized by the Confederate Congress.[1] They likewise shot the remainder of the war, that is, all but that 40 minutes, at Sabine Pass into historical oblivion. Eventually, everything about Fort Manhassett had to be reconstructed from the 128 volumes of "War of the Rebellion" and from maps in the National Archives, for the very existence, location, and purpose of the mud fort were soon forgotten and lay buried in the dust bins of history.

After the fall of Vicksburg about July 1, 1863, Secretary of State Seward pressured Union General Benjamin Butler of New Orleans to initiate offensive action along the Texas coast. One thing he hoped for was to warn France that its invasion of Mexico was unacceptable and would have to be dealt with summarily. Also, the seizure of Sabine Pass and its rail and river routes would choke off blockade-running there, drive a wedge between Texas and Louisiana, choking off suppies to Gen. Richard Taylor's army; and open a rail route for the invasion of Houston and Galveston from the rear. However, the marksmanship of Sabine's Irish defenders crushed Union hopes, and sent Gen. Nathaniel Banks' invading force scuttling in retreat to New Orleans.

In the spring of 1970, the writer discovered a letter in the 128 volumes of A Compilation of The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in The War of The Rebellion (hereinafter cited as "Official Records, Armies"), in which his grandfather, a German immigrant named Private Albert Block, described "Fort Manchassee" (name badly garbled) at Sabine Pass.[2] However, no one at Sabine Pass had ever heard of any other Confederate fort there, other than Fort Griffin. One senior citizen named Percy Toups told the author that the main Confederate fort (as told to him by oldtimers of World War I days) there had been located at the west end of the Sabine Ridge, but that all knowledge of the fort and its location had disappeared. Only after the writer located Major J. Kellersberg's map of Sabine Pass in "The Official Atlas of The Civil War" and days of trudging through the marsh and prairie seven miles west of Sabine Pass was he able to locate all five of Fort Manhassett's former redoubts.[3]

As far back as March, 1863, Major Julius Kellersberg, the Confederate chief engineer for East Texas, arrived at Sabine Pass with equipment, a company of engineers, and 500 slaves to begin constructing a new Fort Griffin to replace the abandoned Fort Sabine. By September 1, only one week before the battle, all but the rear or north side of the fort had been completed. In fact, due to a severe shortage of officers before the battle, one of Major Kellersberg's subordinates, Lt. Nicholas H. Smith, was placed in command of two of Lt. Dowling's 32-pound guns, winning for Smith a share of the glories that followed that battle. Soon afterward, most of Kellersberg's men and slaves were put to work building entrenchments and breastworks that were to become Fort Manhassett.[4]

It seemed apparent that Gen. Magruder feared a combined land assault on Sabine Pass from both the Louisiana and Texas coasts as well as a naval attack. Whether or not he knew that his garrison had just captured two of the only five available inland steam gunboats capable of navigating the Pass' shallow channels is not clear, but he may have extracted this information from captured Federal prisoners.

On September 10, 1863, two days after the battle, he advised Gen. Richard Taylor in Louisiana that ". . . the Federal fleet has disappeared and is supposed to have gone to the Calcasieu River . . ," information that Union prisoners of war had volunteered. He asked Taylor to transfer Gen. Alfred Mouton's brigade from Vermilionville to Niblett's Bluff, near Lake Charles, and in turn Magruder sent Colonel Augustus Buchel's 1,000 man Second Texas Mounted Rifles into Southwest Louisiana to halt any possible Federal encroachment along the coast east of Sabine.[5]

For the first two years, Sabine Pass had been a chief target for Confederate neglect. Early in 1863, Magruder foresaw its strategic importance, both for blockade-running and a possible invasion point, and ordered the construction of Fort Griffin there by his chief engineer for East Texas, Major Julius Kellersberg (whose October, 1863, map of Sabine's defenses survives as does his memoirs published in Switzerland in 1896).

On September 4, 1863, four days before the battle, Magruder ordered Kellersberg to construct Fort Manhassett to guard the Pass' western land approach. Gen. John Magruder's fear of a renewed attack at Sabine Pass was so obsessive, that he transferred 3,600 men, 36% of his entire command to Jefferson County, Texas, by September 30, 1863.[6] Because of that fear, the adjutant general at Sabine wrote to Gen. Kirby Smith in Shreveport on September 22 that: ". . .we are anticipating a landing of the (Federal) troops on the beach, with a view to turning the forts. In case of the renewal of the attack, the approaches to the town are being rapidly fortified, under the direction of Col. V. Sulakowski. . .A large force of Negroes are at work on the entrenchments. . ."[7]

Fort Manhassett was to consist of five "redoubts, redans, and lunettes" (obsolete military vernacular for fortifications), facing Redfish Bayou, and scattered out over a half mile of land between Knights Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. This site was considered to be the only area west of Sabine Pass where the enemy could land troops on the beach, and not become bogged down in inpenetrable sump or marsh lands. On October 5, 1863, Col. Sulakowski order Major Kellersberg by letter to build:

". . .The line of redoubts that at present will be limited to two redoubts and two redans. After the above works are complete, and Negroes can be spared, a line of breastworks will be thrown up. . .6 feet high and 8 feet across. It is intended to prevent the enemy from deploying his forces after landing and keeping him within a narrow space within range of the fort. . ."[8]

Throughout all of October, 1863, Major Kellersberg kept all his available engineers and slaves at work, building the fort and related activities. Situated as it was in an area of treeless plains and marshes, it appears that that locality had no name at first until September 29, when the Federal collier "Manhassett," carrying 300 tons of coal, ran aground in the mouth of Redfish Bayou during a storm. And it likewise appears that since the site became the "place where the Manhassett wrecked," it became equally logical to transfer the name of the ship to the name of the fort (writer's supposition only).[9]

The first armament of Fort Manhassett is unclear, but it certainly appears to have been cannons removed from Fort Griffin, that had been replaced by heavier weapons captured aboard the U. S. S. "Clifton" and "Sachem." Major Felix McReynolds, the executive officer of Griffin's Battalion, was placed in command of the fort, and the first troops to be stationed there on October 15th consisted of Nichols' Battery of artillery, two companies of infantry from Col. W. F. Griffin's Battalion, and two troops of cavalry from Col. DeBray's Regiment. In the Inspector General's report of the same date, he observed that:[10]

". . . Seven miles west (of Sabine Pass). . .is erected a system of redoubts and redans. . .chiefly for field guns. . . .They are well-built and evince skill and ingenuity. . . .Too much reliance it seems to me is placed upon the. . .impassable nature of the marsh, which, if succeeded in passing, the forts are turned and rendered useless. . ."

At the peak of the invasion scare in October-November, 1863, Fort Manhassett's garrison of mixed artillery, cavalry, and infantry are estimated to have reached about 500 men. By late November, 1863, when the Federals successfully invaded South Texas near Brownsville, many of Fort Manhassett's and Fort Griffin's troops were transferred to other points in Texas. In December, 1863, Fort Manhassett appeared for the first time under that name in Confederate troop strength reports. Ten officers and 266 men, probably about one-third of them from Nichols' Battery, were still stationed there.[11]

By March, 1864, Nichols' Battery had been transferred to Hempstead, Texas, and in turn, Creuzbauer's Battery was tranferred from Virginia Point to Fort Manhassett to replace it.[12] Judge Paul C. Boethel's book, The Big Guns of Fayette, outlines in considerable detail the trials and tribulations of marsh living for Capt. Creuzbauer's battery of German-speaking immigrants from Fayette County, mostly entailing their struggles with the marsh "gallinippers" (ie: the bat-sized mosquitoes with barbed-wire fangs, indigenous only to Sabine Pass). Surely, one equally undesireable assignment came to Creuzbauer's Battery at Fort Manhassett when Col. Griffin ordered them to train one of the infantry companies of Griffin's Battalion into an artillery company. The battery, then at only half-strength because of a temporary assignment elsewhere, was further weakened due to desertions. In August, 1863, seven Frenchmen, deserters from the Emperor Maxmillian's army , crossed the Rio Grande River and enlisted in Creuzbauer's Battery. In April, 1864, the same seven stole a boat, deserted again, and surrendered to the Federal blockade fleet off Bolivar Point, taking with them ten percent of the battery's effective strength.

On May 6, 1864, Major McReynolds of Fort Manhassett led Creuzbauer's Battery and several infantry companies in a daylight attack on the United States gunboats "Wave" and "Granite City," which were at anchor in the Calcasieu River at Leesburg (now Cameron), Louisiana. In a ninety-minute, see-saw battle, Creuzbauer's Battery fired 65 shells into the gunboats, and in turn. suffered four of their own killed and four more wounded during the affray. Some of the weapons captured aboard these vessels were soon to be used to increase Fort Manhassett's armament to fourteen carriage-mounted and wheel-mounted cannons. That was the last battle action that any of the men from Fort Manhassett would ever see. One of the battery's last assignments before leaving Fort Manhassett in August, 1864, was to build and mount several barbette carriages (gun mounts) for some of the 24-pounder brass Dahlgren howitzers captured aboard the U. S. S. "Granite City" at Calcasieu Pass.[13]

After August, 1864, artillery Company B of Spaight's 11th Texas Battalion was transferred from Fort Griffin to Fort Manhassett, and they would remain there until the war ended. Things remained very quiet at Sabine Pass, but the town retained its importance as a blockade-running center because of the ease with which skilled mariners (that is, pilots who were thoroughly acquainted with the Sabine estuary sand bars and mud flats) could run the blockade. In November, 1864, Griffin's and Spaight's Battalions were merged into the 21st Texas Regiment and were soon transferred to Houston. Co. B, however, was redesignated at Co. I of Bates 13th Regiment, but remained assigned to Fort Manhassett's guns until May 24, 1865.[14]

In January, 1865, the report of Sabine Post listed two companies still in garrison at Fort Manhassett, Co. I (artillery) of Bates Regiment and one company of Ragsdale's Battalion.[15] In March, 1865, there were still two companies of men there, as well as six guns on barbette carriages and six wheeled brass howitzers and two wheeled field pieces (captured during the Mexican War), a total of fourteen guns. Fort Manhassett also maintained a beach picket consisting of twelve men, whose assignment was to watch for any enemy infiltration of the beaches surrounding them.[16] On April 20, there were still five companies assigned to Sabine Pass, about half of whom were stationed at Fort Manhassett. On May 5, nearly a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, there were still 156 men at Fort Manhassett and 205 men at Fort Griffin, indicating that there had been no wholesale desertions at Sabine Post during the closing days of the war.[17]

On May 24, 1865, Fort Manhassett's contingent of soldiers, consisting principally of Co. I of Bates' Regiment, threw all their powder, cannon balls, shells, and artillery that could be moved into the entrenchments and covered them with dirt. Then disillusioned and embittered, they lowered their Rebel emblem, marched away to Beaumont, and were discharged the following day. Fort Manhassett was to win one final distinction. J. T. Scharf, in his History of the Confederate States Navy, stated that long after Gen. Lee's surrender, "only the two forts at Sabine Pass were still defiantly held."[18]

Despite fourteen Sabine Pass Confederates killed and many other wounded at the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, the last year of the war at Sabine Pass was easy compared to the blood which flowed on the battlefields of Virginia and Georgia. It is true that Confederates at Sabine Pass received no pay for many months, but the money would buy nothing anyway. About the only Confederate ration available was inedible and soured corn meal. The soldiers were forced to "live off the land," which meant killing ducks, geese, and edible water fowl in the nearby marshes and catching fish with seines on the nearby beaches and in Knight's Lake. For some reason, all the prairie cattle at Sabine Pass had been driven inland or killed out during the final months of the war, and in April, 1865, Confederate cavalry from Sabine Pass were hunting cattle at Johnson's Bayou, across the Pass in Louisiana. It is assumed that a nominal number of Fort Manhassett soldiers died of pneumonia, flu, typhoid, tuberculosis, snake bites, and other health hazards during the final months of the war.

On March 25, 1864, Union naval Lieutenant L. W. Pennington, a Sabine Pass turncoat, came ashore and found both forts deserted and the guns of Fort Griffin spiked.[19] No mention was made of the guns of Fort Manhassett, some of which weighed between 5,700 and 10,000 pounds (the 24 and 32-pound cannons), and the writer believes that some of them, especially the wheeled Dahlgren brass howitzers, are still buried there. Between August 29-31, 1970, the author and members of the Sabine Pass Lions Club dug up about two hundred 24 and 32-pound shells and cannon balls at Redoubt A, alongside of Highway 87, about 6 1/2 miles west of Sabine Pass. No attempt has been made to excavate at the four other forts. The redoubts of Fort Manhassett lay on private property belonging to Beaumont's Hebert Estate.

Major Kellersberg's "Map of Sabine Pass" shows Fort Manhassett on the south shore of Knight's Lake.[20] Fort Manhassett's "Redoubts A, B, and C" were constructed along the front edge of the western defense line, facing Redfish Bayou, with "Flank Defenses 1 and 2" built at the rear. The forts were built on the points of equilateral triangles, 1,200 feet apart, across that western edge of Sabine Pass' Front Ridge. Each was surrounded by earth embankments and entrenchments, as well as protective "abatis" works (felled timbers with sharpened ends). Built along a line between Knight Lake's south prong and Highway 87, the embankments are virtually reduced to ground level. Yet it is unbelievable, but quite true, that the outline of these forts is still quite visible due to a particular type of high weeds that grow on them and which contrast sharply with the short, salt grass which covers the prairie surrounding the sites. The writer trudged all around them at first without realizing that the WEEDS ATOP THE FORTS bore the exact same outline at the quadrangular and triangular sides of the redoubts and redans as shown on Major Kellersberg's map.

In 1926, the shelled road to McFaddin Beach made a horseshoe bend around Redoubt A without anyone knowing why. In the same year, while road machinery was in the process of straightening out the curve, workers dug up 50 cannon balls without anyone knowing how the ammunition came to be there. And in 1970, two hundred more were found there.

Today, the batteries of Fort Manhassett have been silenced for more than a century, but the area is still as infested with mosuitoes, moccasin snakes, and alligators, much as it was in Civil War days. Somehow, the writer can rarely walk around those hallowed mounds without still hearing the faint echoes of Rebel yells or the reverberations of cannon fire that once sent a Federal fleet scurrying for the safety of the open sea over a century ago.

Endnotes

1 A Compilation of The Official Records of The Union and Confederate Navies in The War of The Rebellion, (Washington, D. C.: 30 Vols., 1894-1927), Ser. I, Vol. XX, pp. 555-561; Frank X. Tolbert, Dick Dowling at Sabine Pass (New York: 1962), entire book.

2 Official Records, Armies, (Washington,D. C.: 128 Vols., 1880-1901), Ser. I, Vol. XLVIII, Part 2, p. 426.

3 Map 3, Plate XXXII, in The Official Atlas of The Civil War; Major J. Kellersberg, "Plan of Sabine Pass, Its Defenses, and Means of Communication," October 15, 1863, a redrawing of Map Z-54-11, Record Group 77, Confederate Records in the National Archives.

4 Julius Kellersberg(er), Erlebnisse Eines Schweizerischen Ingenieurs in Califorien, Mexico, und Texas Zur Zeit Des Amerikanischen Burgerkrieges, 1861-1865 (Zurich: German language;Juchli and Beck, 1896), pp. 67-69, copy owned by the writer. The writer also owns an English translation, translated by Kellersberger's great granddaughter, Helen Sundstrom, formerly of Austin, but now of Minnesota.

5 Letter, Gen. J. Magruder to Gen. R. Taylor, Official Records, Armies, Ser. I, Vol. XXVI, Pt. 1, p. 218.

6 Official Records, Armies, Ser.I, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 280-281.

7 Ibid., Letter, Yancy to Smith, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 247-248.

8 Ibid., Letter, Sulakowski to Kellersberg, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 298-299.

9 Ibid., Letter, Gen. Magruder to Gen. Boggs, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 270, 289.

10 Ibid., Letter, Inspector General Alston's Report to Gen. Kirby Smith, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp. 318-321.

11 Ibid., Abstract of Fort Manhassett, Sabine Post, Vol. XXVI. Part 2, p. 563.

12 Official Records, Armies, Series I, Vol. XXXIV, Part 3, p. 800; Special Order No. 16, Artillery Headquarters, Galveston, March 5, 1864.

13 Paul C. Boethel, Big Guns of Fayette (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1965), pp. 43-68.

14 "History of Spaight's Texas Regiment," 1881, File 2G276, A. W. Spaight Papers, University of Texas Library in Austin; Official Records, Armies, Series I, Vol. XLVIII, Part 2, pp. 1284, 1298.

15 Official Records, Armies, Series I, Vol. XLVIII, Part 1, p. 1356.

16 Ibid., Vol. XLVIII, Part 2, p. 426.

17 Ibid., Vol. XLVIII, Part 2, pp. 1284, 1298.

18 J. T. Scharf, History of The Confederate States Navy (New York: Rogers and Sherwood, 1887), p. 529.

19 W. T. Block, "Sabine Pass in The Civil War," East Texas Historical Journal, IX, No. 2 (October, 1971), p. 133.

20 J. Kellersberg, "Military Map of Sabine Pass," October 15, 1863, accompanying the report of Major J. P. Johnson, in Official Records, Armies, Series I, Volume XXVI, Part 2, p. 1033; also appearing as Map 3, Plate XXXII, in The Official Atlas of the Civil War, showing all five forts and the armaments of Fort Manhassett.

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