Fort Manhassett was a group of earthen fortifications that guarded the western approaches to Sabine City, Texas during the American Civil War, operating in service of the Confederate Army from October 1863 to May 1865.
By the time Fort Manhassett's construction was complete, Texas had long been a target for attempted Union occupation. President Abraham Lincoln's blockade of southern ports threatened to cut off the Confederacy's foreign supply of desperately needed arms, powder, and lead. By late 1862, both Sabine Pass and Galveston, two port cities vital to the Confederacy's war effort, had been occupied by Federal forces. However, when both cities were reclaimed by Texan forces after a yellow fever epidemic drove Lt. Frederick Crocker's expedition out of Sabine Pass  and Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder recaptured Galveston on January 1, 1863, the two port cities quickly renewed their blockade running activities. In the summer of 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln, fearing an alliance between the French government in Mexico and the Confederacy, ordered the invasion of Texas. After some deliberation in planning the actual site of the invasion, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks directed Maj. Gen. W.B. Franklin to plan for the landing of an amphibious expeditionary force to establish a base of operations for the invasion and occupation of Texas. A fleet of nineteen transports carrying about 1200 Federal marines was assembled in New Orleans. Escorted by six gunboats mounting heavy guns to support the landings, the fleet got underway and sailed for Sabine Pass.
On September 8, 1863, a company of 42 immigrant Irish dockhands from Galveston, under the command of a young Lt. Richard 'Dick' Dowling, were manning six antiquated cannon in a small earthen fortification, known as Fort Griffin, at Sabine Pass. On the evening of the 8th, the Federal fleet arrived off the bar and sent four gunboats up the pass to neutralize the fort. Dowling withheld the fire of his guns until the Union boats came within point-blank range and decimated the Union ships. After watching Dowling's gunners maul three gunboats, and fearing rebel gunboats and field artillery, the Union fleet immediately set sail and returned to New Orleans, without ever disembarking its troops. Dowling had captured two gunboats with heavy cannon and captured approximately 300 prisoners, without the loss or injury of a single Irishman.
Had the Federals attempted to land further south rather than the killing zone of the pass, Fort Griffin would have been turned and become useless to resist the invading force. Having painfully realized their oversight, the Confederate authorities immediately began plans to construct a line of fortifications to secure and defend this unprotected 'back door' to Sabine City.
Design, Construction, and Characteristics
Fort Manhassett's siting and construction was built with a keen eye to the tactical terrain of the marshy plains west of Sabine City. The area consists of flat salt grass prairie with numerous marshes and several large shallow lakes inland of the beach. These large lakes are generally 6–8 feet (1.8–2.4 m) at their deepest, and the marshes support a huge variety of wildlife. The mile of open ground between Knight's Lake and the beach was selected as the site for the fort, with the road on Sabine Ridge providing a route of resupply and communication with the town. Colonel Valery Sulakowski, chief engineer of the Confederate engineering department in Texas, ordered his subordinate, Major Julius G. Kellersberger, to begin the construction of a series of redoubts, redans, and lunettes on the mile of open saltgrass prairie between Knight's Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. Sulakowski also ordered that a small slough, known as Redfish Bayou, just inland and paralleling the beach, be connected to the waters of Knight's Lake. This ditch would create a further obstacle for any attacking Union forces attempting to march on Sabine City from the west. Fort Manhassett consisted of two redoubts, two redans, and one lunette. Redoubt A, Redoubt B, and Redoubt C were built on a straight line between the beach road and the southern prong of the lake. The three redoubts were built to contain a possible enemy advance from the west, and mounted several heavy cannon for that purpose. The two redans in the rear, labelled Flank Defenses I and II on Kellersberg's 1863 map of the Sabine defenses, were intended to serve as temporary defenses in the event of the forts being turned. The shell road from Galveston to Sabine City ran between Redoubts A and B. Redoubt C, which was actually a lunette, was sited in the marsh, making it inaccessible for artillery when first built; however, it is possible that corduroy roads were later built to allow heavy weapons to be mounted in the work, much in the same manner that machinery and pipe fittings are transported to modern LNG terminals in the salt marshes of the Texas coast.
All the forts were built of sand and oyster shell using slave labor, and supporting framing was presumably constructed using timber and planks from the federal collier Manhassett. This was a civilian vessel out of Boston, Massachusetts under contract to supply coal to the blockade ships of the Union Navy. During a severe storm on the night of September 19, 1863, the Manhassett ran aground on the sandbar near the site of the new fort. On the morning of its discovery by the Confederates, the wreck was immediately seized, and her civilian crew of seven men were taken prisoner. They were eventually interred at Camp Groce, near Hempstead, Texas. On the morning of September 30, the US gunboat Cayuga approached the wreck close enough to ascertain that it was the Manhassett, and upon sighting Confederate cavalry on the beach nearby, she fired a total of six shells from her 30-pounder and 20-pounder rifled guns. Cayuga was in turn fired upon by a Confederate battery of three guns on the beach. After sighting Confederate gunboats up the pass ready to give battle, the Cayuga stood down and sent a boat ashore under flag of truce to inquire as to the condition of the wreck and the fate of the crew. Ironically, the Manhassett had supplied the Federal gunboats attacking Fort Griffin with coal about two weeks before she was captured by the Sabine garrison. Though never mentioned specifically in any known reports or letters, it is generally assumed that since the fort was built near the site where the Manhassett ran aground, its name was taken from the ship.
Fort Manhassett's works were constructed along the same principles and theories that had been taught to US Army engineers for decades. The works were generally up to 15 feet (4.6 m) in height, from 60–80 feet (18–24 m) along the sides, and 15–20 feet (4.6–6.1 m) thick at the parapets. They were further protected by ditches surrounding the works, abatis, and rifle trenches and breastworks.
It is not known if the plans for the forts survived the war; their design plans were mentioned by Colonel Sulakowski as being in the possession of Major Hugh T. Douglas of the engineering department. Many of the surviving original plans of neighboring forts, especially those in Galveston, bear the signature of Major Douglas, but unfortunately, no designs or plans of Fort Manhassett have turned up, leaving scholars to estimate the dimensions of its works based on nearby forts of the period.
Confederate Service 1863-1865
Fort Manhassett has been dubbed a 'quiet piece of history' by Sabine Pass residents, and indeed, no known combat occurred there. The main enemy to the Confederates in garrison there was boredom and disease. In spite of poor army rations, the garrison presumably subsided well on the plentiful ducks, geese, rabbits, and fish in the surrounding marsh and beach. However, in April 1864, Fort Manhassett's defenders would receive their baptism of fire 35 mi (56 km) to the east at Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana.
On April 14, 1864, two Federal gunboats, USS "Wave" and USS "Granite City" sailed into Calcasieu Pass and anchored on the horseshoe bend across from what is now Monkey Island. Almost as soon as the boats anchored, a Confederate loyalist rode to Sabine City and notified the Confederate authorities of their presence. The gunboats' mission was simply to gather beef to feed the sailors of the blockade fleet, and to recruit for the Union Navy. However, their relatively innocuous intentions were of little concern to Major General John B. Magruder, after being notified of the situation, ordered a force to attack and capture the vessels immediately. The forces assembled to attack the gunboats were composed of Colonel Ashley W. Spaight's 11th Texas Infantry (companies A, B, C, and D), based at Niblett's Bluff, and Colonel W.H. Griffin's 21st Texas Infantry (companies A,C, and E, commanded by Major Felix McReynolds), twenty cavalrymen of Daly's Company of the Fourth Arizona Cavalry, and Captain Edmund Creuzbauer's battery of two 6-pounder and two 12-pounder guns. Colonel Griffin's force moved from Fort Manhassett to Sabine City, and was transported by steamer to Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana. After debarking there, the infantrymen and cannoneers marched the 30 mi (48 km) all night along Blue Buck Ridge to Calcasieu Pass, going straight into the attack at 5 AM. The Confederates discovered the Federal boats lying at anchor with no steam in their drums; after a sharp three-hour battle, both vessels surrendered and were boarded by the Confederates. The two ships were recovered by the Confederates and outfitted as blockade runners. Rebel casualties were 14 killed and 9 wounded; it is unknown how many Union sailors and marines died. However, according to Colonel Griffin's report of May 11, 1864, there were an estimated 15 to 20 Union dead.
It is ironic that the "Granite City" was captured by the Sabine garrison only 35 mi (56 km) from Sabine Pass; during the battle there, the "Granite City" was one of the two surviving gunboats which participated in the ill-fated assault on Fort Griffin on September 8, 1863.
While the rebel armies to the east fought against overwhelming odds in titanic battles in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, the remainder of the war at Sabine Pass was spent guarding the coastline from an enemy who was ever expected but never came again after September 1863. The blockade runners continued to slip by the Federal blockade, and the Union never again attempted a landing on the upper Texas coast. When Lee and Johnston surrendered in April 1865, effectively ending the war, the news did not reach Sabine Pass until the end of May. Many Confederate officers simply told their men to go home. At Fort Manhassett, the Confederate standard was lowered for the last time, and some of the remaining guns, ammunition, and powder were pushed or thrown into the ditches and buried. On May 25, 1865, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Lewis L. Pennington of the US Navy, and a former resident of Sabine Pass, came ashore with a landing party of marines and raised the Union flag over Forts Manhassett and Griffin, bringing four years of death, destruction, and hardship in southeast Texas to a close.
The Trans-Mississippi Department, under command of Lieutenant General E.K. Smith was widely known as 'Kirby-Smithdom', in reference to the department's size and isolation, due to the Union's control of the Mississippi River which halved the Confederacy's territory. As such the department did not receive much assistance from the Confederate government in the Eastern theater, where by 1863 the Armies of Tennessee and Northern Virginia were deemed most vital to the survival of the Confederacy. Major General Magruder, concerned with keeping open the ports used by blockade runners and defending the Texas coast from seaborne invasion, had 3,636 men (nearly 40% of his entire command) in garrison at Sabine Pass, by September 1863
Discovery in 1970
- "The Civil War in Texas"
- Handbook of Texas Online - SABINE PASS, TX
- Handbook of Texas Online - GALVESTON, BATTLE OF
- OR, Series 1, Vol.XXVI, Part 1, pp 311-312
- OR, Series 1, Vol. XXVI, Part 1, pp 290
- OR, Series 1, Vol.XXVI, Part 2, pp 320
- OR, Series 1, Vol. XXVI, Part 2, pp 299
- OR, Series 1, Vol XXXVIII, Part 2, pp 299, Atlas, OR, Plate XXXII 'Plan of Sabine Pass, of its Defenses and Means of Communication', accompanying report of Maj. JP Johnson, IG, OR Series 1, Vol. XXII, Part 2, pp 1133
- Atlas, OR, Plate XXXII 'Plan of Sabine Pass, of its Defenses and Means of Communication', accompanying report of Maj. JP Johnson, IG, OR Series 1, Vol. XXII, Part 2, pp 1133
- ORN, Series 1, Vol. XX, pp 626
- Lisarelli, Read; 'The Last Prison: The Untold Story of Camp Groce, CSA; Chapter 5, p 39
- ORN, Series 1, Vol. XX, pp 606
- ORN, Series 1, Vol. XX, pp 841
- ORN, Series 1, Vol. XX, pp 514
- Fort Manhasset: A Forgtotten Chapter in the History of Sabine Pass, Texas
- OR, Series 1, Vol. XXXIV, Part 1, p.312
- OR, Series 1, Vol. XXVI, pp. 280-281