- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

In May 1864, Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the Confederacy’s southwest district, received bad news: Two Union gunboats had been spotted entering Calcasieu Pass where the mouth of the Calcasieu River flows into the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Louisiana.

Confederate authorities feared the worst. The previous year, a Union flotilla had been turned back at Sabine Pass, the border between Louisiana and Texas. It was quickly concluded that this might be a second try to land an invasion force along the lightly guarded Louisiana coast.

Magruder’s orders to his commander in Beaumont, Texas, Col. A.W. Spaight, were direct and to the point: “Attack the force at Calcasieu at once, and disperse, defeat and capture the expedition.”

Unknown to the Confederates, Union plans were not so grand. The U.S. Navy was slowly but surely starving the Confederacy of supplies, and this mission was sent to purchase, in gold, stolen cows and horses that would otherwise end up in Confederate hands.

But the Union Navy knew it was entering a lawless territory. Though part of the Confederacy, its wide expanse of bayous and backwaters provided perfect cover for draft dodgers, deserters and jayhawkers, outlaws who preyed upon the locals.

Two tinclad gunboats were sent on the mission. The USS Wave, commanded by Lt. Benjamin W. Loring, was armed and ready for battle with a 20-pound Parrot rifle, four 24-pounders and a 32-pound rifle (the figures represent the weight of the ammunition). The USS Granite City, commanded by Lt. Charles W. Lamson, sported a 12-pound rifle, a 20-pound Parrot rifle and six 24-pound Dahlgren howitzers. To add to the firepower, elements of the 36th Illinois Infantry were also onboard.

Upon receiving his terse orders, Col. Spaight acted fast. He assembled a force of blood-and-guts Rebels hellbent on glory. Col. William Griffin, in command at Sabine Pass, was put in charge. The combat force consisted of units from the 11th and 21st Texas battalions, cavalry from Andrew Daly’s battalion and light artillery commanded by Capt. E. Creuzbauer with a pair each of 6- and 12-pounders.

With his 300 gung-ho men, Col. Griffin marched at night to avoid being sighted by Union blockade patrols. After two nights of hide and sneak and 50 miles of marching through the bayous, the Rebels were in position to attack the cattle-buying Yanks.

Dropping anchor at Calcasieu Pass, the two Union gunboats met the jayhawkers and their herd of stolen livestock. Soon animals were being loaded and gold was changing hands. Night fell and commerce stopped, to be completed the next day. The jayhawkers performed picket duty out in the marshes while the Union soldiers stayed on the gunboats.

On May 6, 1864, dawn broke at Calcasieu Pass with a Rebel yell and a charge. The jayhawkers skedaddled and the Yankees received a totally unexpected volley. Immediately, the big Union guns roared into action while the Confederate artillery opened up.

The Union officers had been caught literally asleep at the wheel, and the coal-fired engines were cold. The crews jumped to their feet and stoked the stoves to get up enough steam to get out of harm’s way.

Each side traded shot for shot. A Confederate 12-pounder crew took a direct hit. Pvt. William Kniep was killed instantly by the blast and Pvt. William Guehrs was mortally wounded. Although bleeding to death, Guehrs stayed in the fight at his gun, hunched over in a kneeling position.

Another shell burst knocked a Confederate cannon off its carriage and its crew to the ground. The battery unit was decimated, with three mortally wounded. Pvt. Henry Foesterman took shrapnel to his head, Pvt. John Lynch was shot through both thighs, and Cpl. Ferdinand Fahrenthold was completely shot up. The rest of the crew, now walking wounded, included Cpl. J. Therriat, a French deserter from Maxmillian’s army in Mexico.

Although outgunned, the Confederates gave as good as they got. A direct hit blew the Granite City’s wheelhouse to smithereens. Another shot ripped a hole in the ship’s hull. That was enough for Lt. Lamson. Thirty minutes and 15 direct hits into the fight, he raised a white flag over the Granite City. He would later say, “The enemy’s sharpshooters annoyed us most, although we were pretty well cut up by shot and shell.”

Upon seeing the white flag, the Rebels let out a premature victory cheer. However, a white flag was not flying over the Wave and Lt. Loring had no intention of raising one.

It was touch and go on both sides for another hour. Confederate casualties mounted while the Wave took hit after hit. Finally, with enough steam up, the Wave tried to pull away, but its anchor was still down.

Going topside to hoist the anchor, brave Union sailors caught Confederate lead. A bull’s-eye hit entered the muzzle of the Wave’s 32-pounder and exploded the barrel and took out its crew. Another shot disabled the steam drum along with the boilers and starboard engine.

A disgusted Lt. Loring, his ship having taken 65 direct hits, followed Lt. Lamson’s example and ran up a white flag, but he attempted to delay the boarding party while his men dumped everything overboard, including their dead and the safe full of gold.

Sgt. H.N. Conner of the 11th Texas took an after-action tour of the prize: “The Wave is a perfect wreck, her cabin torn to flinders, and Minnie balls have riddled her, and then the shells exploding aboard put the finishing touch to her. The deck was strewn with glass, crockery, clocks, stoves, pipes, wooden splinters, provisions and bedding.”

The Confederates celebrated their victory and rounded up the spoils: 180 prisoners, 16 cannon, 200 cows, 100 horses and a large supply of foodstuffs and medicines. They also counted the cost of their victory: eight killed and 13 wounded, four mortally.

An accurate number of Union casualties will never be known. While the Rebels searched unsuccessfully for the sunken safe bulging with gold, five bloated Yankee corpses floated to the surface with rocks tied around them. It is not known how many more Union dead ended up as food for the fish. Best estimates put the Yankee losses at 11 killed, 36 wounded.

News of the battle traveled slowly, and days later the Union’s Gulf squadron didn’t know that two of its gunboats were now in Rebel hands. Ensign Henry Jackson boarded a skiff and set off to deliver dispatches to the gunboats.

Coming within sight of the Granite City, Jackson spied the Stars and Bars waving from its masthead. Thinking it was a late April Fool’s joke, he took aim at the flag and fired a shot. He missed, but a shot from the ship’s deck smashed into his forehead, killing him instantly.

When Adm. David G. Farragut received the bad news about the gunboats, not Jackson, he thought about launching an attack to recapture them. However, a rescue mission was never attempted, perhaps because Farragut became preoccupied with the Mobile Bay expedition, which took place three months later.

The Wave and Granite City finished the war years as blockade runners. Pvt. Guehrs, who refused to leave his gun despite his mortal wound, was very posthumously awarded a Confederate Medal of Honor in 1996. The medal existed only in theory during the war, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans now awards the medal.

Lt. Loring wasn’t enamored with prison life. On his second escape from Confederate confinement, he reached Union lines. However, the Naval Department wasn’t impressed with his white-flag maneuver, and his naval career was over.

The location of the sunken safe weighted down with Union gold remains elusive even today, as do the grave sites of the dead buried where they fell during the hotly contested Battle of Calcasieu Pass.

Mark McKenna lives in Lake Charles, La.

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