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Chapter 10:

The capture of the United States warship Morning Light and schooner Velocity, 30 miles off Sabine pass, January 21, 1863, by Confederates on the two steamboats, the Josiah H. Bell and the Uncle Ben, was one of the most extraordinary and hazardous naval exploits during the war, though of small proportions compared to many other battles. It was described as follows in the general orders, March 11th, of General Magruder:
The commanding general having been prevented by various circumstances from acknowledging the services of the brave Major Watkins, and the gallant officers and men under his command in the recent victory at Sabine pass, takes this occasion to return them his public and official thanks for the accomplishment of a purpose of great importance to us, and their participation in an exploit almost unparalleled in the annals of warfare.

After driving the enemy's blockading squadron from our immediate waters, these devoted and heroic men in their frail boats pursued him some 30 miles to sea, and after a fight of nearly two hours, on an element on which he considered himself invincible, captured a ship-of-war of nine guns and an armed schooner of two guns of the United States navy, forcing their commanding officers to surrender at discretion.

The perseverance, industry and firmness of the commanding officer, Maj. Oscar M. Watkins, of the provisional army, were only equaled by his intrepidity, admirable coolness and skill in battle. Entirely unaccustomed to the sea, his devotion overcame all obstacles. He was ably and heroically seconded by Captains Fowler and Johnson, [98] respective commanders of the steamers Bell and Uncle Ben, by Captains Odlum, O'Bryan, Noland and Aycock, and Lieutenants Dowling and Aikens, of the land forces, and by the engineers, pilots, troops and crews of the expedition.

As there are but few battles to be reported in Texas during the war, and this naval affair was of a remarkable character, it is deemed proper to insert a full description of the preparations for and execution of it, prepared by an accomplished lady, Mrs. M. Looscan, wife of Major Looscan, of the Confederate army, derived directly and personally from the participants in that battle. Its general tenor and minute detail are evidence of correctness, in addition to the high social standing of the lady. It was first published in the Houston Post of May 23, 1895, and is here quoted as supplementary to the report of the commanding general:

Capt. Charles Fowler, whose recent death is deplored by all who love and appreciate the highest type of true heroic manhood, was a prominent actor in one of the most daring naval expeditions of the late civil war. The story of this achievement, of which he was chief director, and in which his inspiration called forth all the dare-devil bravery of his followers, was obtained from the lips of men who were with him, who shared his danger, who admired his courage, and who were ready to risk their lives at his bidding. The engagement to which I refer was the capture of the United States warship Morning Light and schooner Velocity, on January 21, 1863.

Early in December, 1862, Captain Fowler was instructed by Gen. J. B. Magruder, commanding the military district of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, to proceed to the Sabine river and there make selection of two or three steamboats and fit them up as gunboats, for the purpose of attacking the Federal gunboats which were in possession of Sabine pass. Having been vested with full power of impressment of such materials as might be necessary for carrying out the proposed plans in the shortest possible space of time, Captain Fowler selected the steamboats Josiah H. Bell and the Uncle Ben, the former about [99] 180 feet long, and the latter probably 135 feet, both about ten years old, which is about the usual life of high pressure river boats. However, they were the best material at hand, and in fairly good condition for their age. Operations were begun immediately, details of soldiers being employed to transform them into savage looking gunboats. Breastworks were formed by putting heavy 14X14-inch timbers through the decks, fastening them to the floor timbers in the hold, and allowing them to extend up through the boiler deck, thus affording protection to the sharpshooters with which the boats were to be partly manned. Construction progressed slowly, as but few skilled mechanics could be had.

The preparation and equipment of these boats were effected at Orange, which is situated on the Sabine river, and was at that time not reached by any railroad. The Texas & New Orleans railroad, extending from Houston to Beaumont, the nearest point to Orange, was in a very unsafe and at times impassable condition, but as Sabine pass at the mouth of Sabine river was blockaded, the railroad formed the only means of communication with the other portions of the military department of Texas. The Sabine river below Orange and at a distance of about four miles from its mouth, widens into a large basin which is known as Sabine lake; the remainder of the river's course to the Gulf of Mexico is much narrower and also deeper, and is known as Sabine pass. Here the Federal blockading fleet lay at anchor when the fitting up of the river steamboats was begun by Captain Fowler, and it was intended to drive them from their position and capture them as soon as the equipment of the improvised Confederate gunboats was completed. An artillery company, composed entirely of Irishmen, and known as the Davis Guards, was detailed for service on these boats. Captain Odlum was the captain of the company, but under Lieut. Dick Dowling they had seen some service at Galveston in the capture of that place a few days before, and it was under his command that they were later to link their names in immortal bands with that of Sabine pass.

They reported for duty at Orange and assisted in mounting a 6-inch rifle gun on board the Josiah H. Bell. Maj. O. M. Watkins, of General Magruder's staff, also arrived at Orange accompanied by Captain Aycock's company, and others of Pyron's regiment of dismounted [100] cavalry to the number of go or 100. A detachment of Spaight's battalion was likewise detailed for service as sharpshooters on board the boats.

About the last of December, 1862, the Federal fleet abandoned their anchorage at Sabine pass and sailed out into the Gulf of Mexico, beyond the bar, no doubt having been notified of the preparations going forward for their attack. The Bell was commanded by Capt. Charles Fowler, with Green Hall as first officer. The Uncle Ben was under charge of Captain Johnson. The Davis Guards and Captain Aycock's company were assigned to duty on the Bell, the former as artillerymen, and the latter as sharpshooters, and the detachment of Spaight's battalion did similar service on board the Uncle Ben. There was a delay of several days on account of obstructions which had been placed in the channel between the mouth of the Sabine river and the lake for the purpose of preventing the passage of Federal vessels.

The north wind had made the tide very low again, but about noon of the same day the tide rose and floated the Bell and Uncle Ben, and steaming through the lake toward the town of Sabine pass, they arrived at the wharf at about 10 p. m. of the same evening. Here several citizens of the place came aboard and informed Captain Fowler of the position of the Federal gunboats, which lay at anchor some five miles off the bar. This news was discouraging. It looked as if the game had escaped, but there was a universal desire to run great risk for the chance of success. The Federal fleet at this time consisted of the Morning Light, twelve guns, and the schooner Velocity, carrying four small guns. The number of boats on each side was equal, but here the resemblance in force ceased. Nevertheless Captain Fowler determined to carry out the plan of attack, although the position of the Federal fleet was very different from that which it occupied when the expedition was first designed. The armament of the Confederate boats was very light, and it was not expected to cut much figure in the fight about to take place. The J. H. Bell had a 6-inch rifle gun in her forecastle, and the Uncle Ben two small 12-pounder smooth-bore, old-time guns. The Davis Guards, under Lieut. Dick Dowling, had had some practice and could be relied upon for long range firing, but the sharpshooters could only be effective when brought into close contact with the enemy. [101]

At daylight, January 21st, the boats proceeded out to sea. Putting on all steam the Bell and Uncle Ben headed toward the Federal fleet, some 5 miles beyond the bar, but the latter, perceiving their intention and supposing them to be ironclads, took to flight, keeping up a running fire as they retreated. After pursuing them for many miles the Bell came near enough to open fire; the gunners were anxious to begin work, and the first few shots produced telling results, one of the guns of the Morning Light being dismounted by a shell, which killed and wounded all the men at her No. 2 port gun. Both head and feet of one man were taken off, and an other was killed by a fragment of shell, and 16 were wounded, two of whom afterward died. But scarcely were the gunners aware of the great execution their gun was doing, when it was incurably disabled by a conical shell stopping about halfway down the gun. It could not be rammed down, neither could it be drawn. Lieutenant Dowling, with his characteristic daring, wanted to chance it by firing; Captain Fowler told him they could not risk firing with shell half home, but assured him that they would go on and take the ship with their rifles.

Henceforth all became riflemen. The Bell continued to pursue the Morning Light directly away from the land for many miles, with all the speed they could make, burning resin and pine knots for fuel. When they had approached within about 200 yards of her, the riflemen opened fire with volleys from about 40 rifles at a time. With this constant rain of bullets on her deck, the men of the Morning Light became demoralized and could not be kept at their guns. The Bell was soon alongside with grappling fast to her main chains. By this time the crew of the Morning Light had stampeded to the between decks, for they could not stand the shower of shot poured on them by the riflemen of the Bell. Some of the ship's men from the top of the mast still fired down upon the Bell, but Captain Dillingham, who had remained at his post on the quarterdeck, seeing that there was nothing left for them but surrender, struck his flag. The men of the Bell were firing like savages and it was almost impossible to make them cease, for they knew and understood little about striking flags or surrender. The surrender was made unconditionally. As the Bell had but two or three seamen, the men of the captured ship were used to clear her [102] up, furl sails and brace the yards. Another detail of men and the ship's surgeon were assigned to the care of the dead and wounded on the deck, while still another party was employed to get the ship's hawser up from between decks to be used for towing her into Sabine pass. The officers of the ship were taken on board the Bell, and great was their surprise to discover what manner of frail craft they had mistaken for an ironclad. While the Bell was capturing the Morning Light, the Uncle Ben had veered to the eastward and achieved the same success in her encounter with the Velocity, which she promptly towed into port.

Captain Fowler, with characteristic modesty, lavished unqualified praise upon the detachment of Pyron's regiment on board the Bell, and also upon the Davis Guards for their bravery and readiness to obey orders, taking no credit to himself for the successful result of the daring expedition. They were brave men, but so gallant a leader would have lent courage to less valiant hearts than theirs. Many hearts sincerely mourn his death, but perhaps none more truly appreciated the intrepid courage of his grand nature than those who shared his danger in the capture of the Morning Light and Velocity.

The report of Lieut.-Col. W. H. Griffin, in command at Sabine pass, mentions the victory of a small body of Texans in an engagement there, April 18, 1863, as follows:

‘Last night I placed 30 men in the lighthouse under Lieutenant Jones, of Griffin's battalion. To-day at 11 o'clock, 13 Federals came up to the lighthouse in two small boats. We captured 6 men, including Captain Mc-Dermot, of the Cayuga, who was mortally wounded, and the captain's gig. The other boat escaped with 3 men. Four were killed in the water. Second Lieutenant Wright, of Company D, Griffin's battalion, was killed, gallantly leading the men. No other casualties.’

On May 3d the enemy attempted to make a landing on St. Joseph's island, near Corpus Christi, but were brilliantly repelled by a small force under Capt. E. E. Hobby. Col. A. M. Hobby, Eighth Texas infantry, in command at Corpus Christi, in transmitting the reports of Capts. B. F. Neal and E. E. Hobby, said of the latter: [103]

His men behaved most creditably. Both the officers and the men were exposed to the rain without shelter and short of provisions, but determined to remain until an opportunity was offered to attack the enemy. The boats approached in rear of each other, the first only landing, so the capture of the others was impossible. Nearly all, so the prisoners state, were killed in the second boat; the third had a gun but were unable to use it under the fire of the riflemen. The captured launch is now in the service, and the cotton secured, awaiting your orders. The Sharp's shooters I have repaired and turned over to the ordnance officer, who issued them to Captain Hobby's company as they were greatly in need of guns, having 64 men and only 40 guns.

The report of Capt. E. E. Hobby was as follows:

On the 3d inst., about 2 p. m., I attacked with 28 men of my company three Federal launches, containing about 40 of the enemy, and succeeded in capturing one launch (captain's gig), 5 prisoners, 6 new superior Sharp's rifles, 5 cartridge boxes and 1 ammunition chest. One of the remaining launches, being about 300 yards from the shore, had also surrendered and was pulling toward us. I ordered the fire on it to cease and the men to secure the property belonging to the gig already captured. While busily engaged in this the bark opened fire upon us and the launch began to pull to her. We again fired upon it, doing much execution. We could distinctly see the men in the launch drop their oars and fall over as we fired. Several bodies were also seen floating in the water. One of the launches reached the bark with only 2 men in it. The third launch being still further out in the gulf, pulled out of our range at the beginning of the fight. I do not think I am mistaken in estimating the loss of the enemy at 20 in killed, wounded and prisoners. I cannot too highly praise the conduct of the men on this occasion; they were regardless of danger. Their enthusiasm was only equaled by their bravery, and they promptly obeyed every command. The captured launch was carried by the men across the island, a distance of 2 miles, to Aransas bay. On the night of the 3d I removed ten bales of cotton, which had been captured by the enemy and placed on the shore of St. Joseph's island, and carefully concealed it, where it now awaits transportation. Privates Smith and [104] Bell, of Captain Brackenridge's cavalry, accompanied me in the attack upon the launches, and also assisted in concealing the cotton. I am happy to say I have no casualties to report.


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