BLUFF IN THE
By Michael Dan Jones
Niblett's Bluff was a bustling river port on the old east
channel of the Sabine River when Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26,
1861. In an 1840 survey by the joint commission of the United States and the
Republic of Texas, it was then known as Millspaw's Bluff and was located on the
Louisiana side of the river, about 10 miles north of Orange, Texas. The
settlement was then known as Jericho. But Dr. Robert Caldwell Neblett (the
alternate spelling), settled in the area in the early 1830's and the site soon
became known by his name. He purchased land in Texas in 1841 and moved to Grimes
County. He was born in 1795 in Roanoke,Va., received his medical degree and
practiced in Kentucky and Tennessee before moving to Louisiana.
Niblett's Bluff was important to the commerce of both Louisiana and Texas, offering a convenient shipping point for cotton and lumber, as well as a crossing point for the road from Houston to Opelousas. A 1912 letter by Mrs. William Dunn, who had been a resident of Niblett's Bluff during the war, gives personal insight into conditions there at that time. She wrote that she settled there in 1860 when it was a vast forest teaming with bear and deer. When South Carolina seceded from the Union that December, the news was greeted with delight. She wrote, "In 1861 the population of this place scarcely exceeded 50 souls [illegible] the sugar growers of New Iberia and a direct route on an old-established road between New Orleans and points in south Texas, it was the scene of great trains of wagons going and coming from market.
"One store was kept by Joseph Garmadi, two hotels by Hortman and Trumball, the latter being used in 1863 by Drs. Turner and Wade, army physicians. In the Summer of 1863, the Florida [Florilda] steamed up the Sabine to this place, having on board Captain George O'Bryant [O'Bryan] with a company of 50 men [Company E, 11th Battalion (Spaight's) Texas Volunteers], consigned for this place to do provost duty.
Alarming news of what the great armies were doing scarcely reached this placed and whenever there came over the stage route, known as the Price Line, a human that could tell of Lee in Virginia, every maid and matron hastened to hear of the beloved Confederacy. Shortly after the arrival of Captain O'Bryant the construction of fortifications were commenced under his command, assisted by Sibley's brigade, which had reached here from the east. At this time the enemy was expected from New Iberia, and due to the fact that Niblett's Bluff afforded an ideal place, both to see and repulse the enemy, the works were hurriedly completed."
Captain O'Bryan's wartime diary confirms that his company arrived there in May, 1863 and that he was the provost marshal. However they only stayed a week before moving on to Major General Richard Taylor's Army of Western Louisiana, where they spent the rest of the year campaigning. One of O'Bryan's men who suffered for the rest of his life with an injury sustained at Niblett's Bluff, was Pvt. Charles (Clairville) E. Quibodeaux (spelled Kibodeaux on the muster rolls). In 1898, Quibodeaux, applied for a Confederate land grant from the State of Louisiana, which required a disabling wound or injury in the war. Quibodeaux, in his affidavit, said he had suffered a rupture while working on the breastworks at Niblett's Bluff. Born in 1829 in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, Quibodeaux joined Captain O'Bryan's company in 1862 at Beaumont. He served in the same company with his brother, Pvt. Nicolas Quibodeaux (Kibodeaux) and his brother-in-law, Pvt. Solomon Jones, who died in the service.
Mrs. Dunn continued in her letter, "Just before the completion of the breastworks the Florida came again to this place, having on board the body of Colonel Terry, whose death occurred in Tennessee. This was one of the saddest incidents ever witnessed by our people. The widow of Colonel Terry had been driven overland to this point, from whence, she accompanied the remains on to Texas." Actually, Colonel Benjamin Franklin Terry, commander of the famed Terry's Texas Rangers, died a little earlier than Mrs. Dunn remembered. He was killed in action December 17, 1861 while leading his Rangers in their first battle at Rowlett's Station, Kentucky. His body was held in state at Nashville and New Orleans before being returned to Houston, Texas. He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Houston.
Mrs. Dunn also wrote, "As the winter in 1863 advanced, Captain O'Bryant went into quarters and soon thereafter measles struck down 30 of his noble men, and today no trace marks their place, save rude furrow of the plowman's share. Shortly after this sad occurrence both Sibley's brigade and the remainder of Captain O'Bryant's company left this section and thus ended the history of their actions as far as I have had traced." Captain O'Bryan mentions in his diary that his company did in fact return to Niblett's Bluff by the end of December, but his diary ended there and thus made no record of the tragic measles epidemic. During that fateful year he and his men had marched and fought across central Louisiana, most notably taking part in the Battle of Fordoche Bridge on September 29, 1863. His battalion was part of Speight's Texas infantry brigade.
On available muster rolls for Spaight's Battalion, only one, Company C, had details of the disposition of members which referred directly to Niblett's Bluff. On that muster roll, it states that Pvt. Hinton D. Dickerson died at Niblett's Bluff on July 1, 1863. Three men were left in the hospital there: privates Robert M. Dickens and Pleasant T. Tanner, both on May 21, 1863; and Pvt. Stephen H. Westbrook on July 12, 1863. While no mention is made of the final result of their illnesses, it does show there was a hospital at Niblett's Bluff.
A review of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, Union and Confederate Armies, finds 209 citations of Niblett's Bluff, which is an indication of the vital importance of the post as a vital crossing point from Louisiana and Texas, and a first line of defense for any attempted invasion of Texas by way of Southwest Louisiana. When the Union blockade of the coasts of Louisiana and Texas commenced in July, 1861, the overland route across southern Louisiana for moving both troops and supplies, became more important than ever. But it wasn't until May, 1863 that Niblett's Bluff seemed directly threatened, which prompted the fortification of the strategic river crossing. And that's where Major General John Bankhead Magruder entered the history of Niblett's Bluff.
Magruder commanded the District of Texas, arriving in his Houston headquarters in October 10, 1862 and assuming command on November 29, 1862. Since Niblett's Bluff was tied in so closely to the defense of Texas, even though it was in Louisiana, he was given permission by Lieutenant General Kirby Smith, Trans-Mississippi Department commander with headquarters in Shreveport, to include the town in his district. Magruder was an aggressive
and innovative officer, just what the isolated District of Texas needed. Houston was a railroad hub that connected it to Galveston, Beaumont, Orange and Sabine Pass, as well as Central Texas. It was as important to the Trans-Mississippi Department as was Richmond in Virginia and Atlanta, Georgia was to those theaters of the war.
Galveston, then Texas' largest city and port, had been captured by the Federals in early October 1862. Immediately upon assuming command of Texas, Magruder began planning to recapture the coastal city. He launched an early morning land-sea attack on January 1, 1863, catching the Northern occupiers completely by surprise and retaking Galveston after an intense battle between both the naval and land forces of each side.
Meanwhile in Louisiana, Federal forces, which had taken New Orleans in the spring of 1862, pushed out from the Crescent City and took Bayou LaFourche that October and moved into Bayou Teche that spring. Commanded by Major General Nathanial Banks, the Federals goal was to clear out Confederates from the area before turning back east and laying siege to Port Hudson, about 200 miles south of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. Major General Ulysses S. Grant was at the time conducting his famous campaign across Mississippi. Port Hudson and Vicksburg were the last two Confederate bastions on the Mississippi. With both of those strongholds taken, the Union would be able to reopen the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two.
Of course in April 1863, when Banks was attacking up the Teche, the Confederates did not know if the Union army would simply continue westward across Southwest Louisiana and invade Texas by way of Niblett's Bluff. After Northern victories at Bisland Plantation April 13, and Irish Bend, April 14, Brigadier General Alfred Mouton, with his brigade of Louisiana infantry, was ordered to Niblett's Bluff to gather reinforcements being sent there to join him from Texas. Major General Richard Taylor and Sibley's Texas Cavalry Brigade continued to retreat to Central Louisiana to wait further developments.
Union Brigadier General W. H. Emory followed Mouton as far as Opelousas, and wrote from there on May 2, 1863 that he had sent the 4th Wisconsin Mounted Infantry to the Texas Road toward Niblett's Bluff to drive off or disperse "rebel" cavalry on his brigade's flank and rear.
On the 14th day of May, Brigadier General W.R. Boggs, chief of staff for General Smith at Trans-Mississippi Department headquarters in Shreveport, wrote that General Mouton was then in Niblett's Bluff commanding cavalry forces that were gathering there, along with a battery of light artillery. Mouton was directed to attack the enemy's flank and rear in the direction of Opelousas. At the same time, Boggs also ordered all infantry forces concentrated at Niblett's Bluff to move to Nacogdoches to await supplies before moving against the enemy in Louisiana. The next day, May 15, Captain Edmund P. Turner, assistant adjutant general under Magruder, ordered one regiment and a small quantity of artillery to Niblett's Bluff.
But by May 19, it had become obvious to the Confederates that the enemy had turned east to attack Port Hudson on the Mississippi. General Smith informed General Magruder on that day that Banks was withdrawing from Alexandria and was turning to attack Port Hudson. Smith ordered the forces concentrating at Niblett's Bluff to cooperate with General Richard Taylor's offensive operations against the Federals flank and rear. On June 6, 1863, General Magruder informed General Boggs that he had assumed command of Niblett's Bluff and asked permission that it be included in his command, the District of Texas.
Meanwhile, General Smith reported to headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, Magruder could bring together a force of 8,000 at and near Niblett's Bluff to defend Texas. Smith also believed that Niblett's Bluff was the ideal place to rendezvous disposable forces in the event that Port Hudson fell, and the enemy next attempted to invade Texas. "Troops could also be speedily transported from Niblett's Bluff to threatened points on the Texas coast," he wrote. Smith also ordered a military road to be constructed between Niblett's Bluff and Vermilionville, modern day Lafayette. The department commander also officially approved Magruder's taking command of Niblett's Bluff on June 18, 1863. A series of supply depots were established for the army between Niblett's Bluff and Vermilionville.
With his command of the river town officially approved, General Magruder soon ordered Lt. Col. Caleb G. Forshey, his chief engineer, to build a "tete-de-pont" type fortification at Niblett's Bluff to protect that strategic river crossing between Texas and Louisiana. In technical military science terms, a tete-de-pont is an entrenched bridgehead with both flanks anchored on a river, designed to hold a river crossing. Since he was a highly respected engineer and scientist, as well as the founder of the Texas Military Institute, Forshey would have been considered an expert on building fortifications. He had played an important role in planning the recapture of Galveston, supervised the building of Fort Esperanza near Saluria, Matagorda Island, Texas in early 1863, and also planned fortifications at Orange, Texas.
Typically, the fortifications at Niblett's Bluff were built as a "redoubt." A redoubt is an enclosed fortification designed to be defended from all sides. It appears to have been rectangular in shape with a "salient angle" at the entrance of the fort. The earthen walls were most likely eight feet high and six feet thick, with a banquette or firing step for the soldiers to step on to fire over the top, and the step back down to reload. The trench line may have also had a "cremailliere" or indented line, which is a stepped or saw-toothed line of fortifications designed to create a cross-fire all across the front line.
It also had abattis, which are branches sharpened and then interlaced and pointing toward the enemy. The function of abattis was to prevent surprise and delay an attacking enemy charging the trenches. Also specifically mentioned in the plans for the Niblett's Bluff fortification was a bombproof, which was a bunker covered with earth to protect troops from artillery fire. There was also to be a magazine, which is a secure, water-tight place to store ammunition. Typically, it would have been a log or plank room covered with a thick layer of earth. The entrance was to the rear of any incoming fire. The Confederate engineers also mention cutting down all trees in front of the works. The purpose of this was to both create a clear field of fire for defending troops, and create obstacles for attackers.
While construction was in progress, garrison troops were being assigned specifically for Niblett's Bluff. General Magruder, on July 29, 1863, ordered two companies of the 20th Texas Infantry Regiment to protect army supplies at that point. He had also ordered large quantities of supplies to be stored at nearby Orange, which he considered less exposed to attack than at Niblett's Bluff.
Also at Orange six ferry boats were constructed specifically for Niblett's Bluff. A strict military guard system was established at the post, with orders to detain all suspicious characters and spies. The provost marshal at Niblett's Bluff was ordered to penetrate "dens of thieves and jayhawkers" in the area and "shoot them down unless they surrender at discretion." The post was ordered to stay in close contact with Houston headquarters.
On August 2, 1863, Colonel Valerian Sulakowski, chief engineer at Galveston, suggested that 10 days rations be kept at Niblett's Bluff and 20 days rations at Orange. He urged that construction be completed as soon as possible. On the 27th of August, General Magruder ordered two companies of the Third Texas Infantry to relieve the 20th Texas Infantry at Niblett's Bluff. Command of the troops there was given to Major John H. Kampmann. Major J.C. Stafford was the quartermaster assigned to the post. In his communications from Niblett's Bluff, Major Stafford gives a glimpse of the day-to-day routine of the military base. He wrote to Major B. Bloomfield, the chief quartermaster in Houston, that three supply depots had been established by him between Niblett's Bluff and Vermilionville, and that two supply trains departed, escorted by Captain L.G. Clepper's Company of the 20th Texas Infantry. A guard was left at each depot. He also said that he had pushed forward commissary stores for Mouton's Brigade in Louisiana and that he was keeping supplies for forage at Niblett's Bluff, Orange and Beaumont. Meanwhile, Captain Edmund Turner at headquarters in Houston complained to the Marine Department that "extortionate" rates were being charged the government to transit supplies by boat from Beaumont to Niblett's Bluff. He requested that the railroad from Beaumont to Orange be put in running order so they could be transferred by rail instead. But routine business soon came to a sudden end when the Federals mounted a major invasion of Texas at Sabine Pass, just downriver from Niblett's Bluff.
On September 8, 1863, the invasion force, consisting of a Union flotilla of four gunboats and seven troop transports appeared off Sabine Pass. All that stood between 6,000 landing forces was an earthen fort, named Fort Griffith, and 46 Confederates of Company F, 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, under the command of First Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling. They had six old smoothbore cannons to fend off the powerful gunboats. Dowling and his men were mostly Irish immigrants from Houston and Galveston. Many had been dock hands and railroad laborers. But their tenacity and pinpoint accurate cannon fire completely unnerved the Union invaders. After a battle of only about 45-minutes, the Confederates disabled and captured U.S.S. Sachem and U.S.S. Clifton and 350 prisoners. The Federals also lost 61 U.S. soldiers and sailors, killed or missing. Dowling had no casualties in the lop-sided victory. The Congress of the Confederate States of America authorized a special medal in honor of their success, which spared Beaumont and Houston the horrors of invasion and military occupation.
General Magruder and Smith were excited about the victory, but at first could not believe the enemy had actually given up and returned to Berwick Bay near New Orleans, the staging ground for the Northern forces. General Magruder asked General Richard Taylor for reinforcements from his Army of Western Louisiana. He wrote Taylor on September 10 he expected the Federals to ascend the Calcasieu River and try to take Niblett's Bluff to cut off Taylor's line of retreat to Texas. Also at Niblett's Bluff, Captain Matthew Nolan of Company G, 2nd Texas Cavalry, was ordered to the Calcasieu and to establish a line couriers between there and Niblett's Bluff and to communicate any contacts with the enemy coming up that river, both to headquarters in Beaumont and to General Mouton.
General Magruder learned from prisoners captured at Sabine Pass that if the invasion had been successful, the Federals would have immediately attacked Niblett's Bluff and cut off General Taylor, and then march on Beaumont or Houston. He had learned by September 12 that the enemy had returned to Berwick Bay, but was planning to make another try at Niblett's
Bluff by land across Southwest Louisiana. Magruder urged General Taylor to fall back to the Calcasieu River. However, both Generals Smith and Taylor agreed that Taylor should stand-fast in Central Louisiana until the enemy's intentions were more fully developed.
General Magruder continued to argue his case to his fellow generals that Niblett's Bluff and Sabine Pass would be a good position to resist further invasion attempts. He said he who holds Houston with its railroad communications is the master of Texas, and virtually the master of the whole Trans-Mississippi Department. But his calls for reinforcements from Louisiana continued to be rejected. Magruder made contingency plans, ordering Captain Nolan to retain 12,000 rations of breadstuffs and beeves at Niblett's Bluff for the possible use of Taylor's army, should they come to his assistance.
Magruder went personally to Sabine Pass to supervise the continued preparations for defending his district. By the end of September, he learned the enemy was at or near Vermilionville, where the road turns off to Niblett's Bluff, with some 30,000 troops.
Meanwhile, Major Stafford was still managing the shifting around of the various supplies at Niblett's Bluff. On September 29 he was directed by headquarters to send the clothing and shoes for Sibley's Brigade by the steamer Florilda to Sabine Pass. Stafford was also ordered to send molasses, salt beef and bacon to Captain E.P. Alsbury at Sabine Pass, and to send all bagging and rope to Major Bloomfield in Houston. He was told to send other items, such as sugar, weapons being repaired, axes, and impressed horses, to Sabine Pass, as well. Captain Clepper's company of the 20th Texas Infantry was ordered from Niblett's Bluff to Spike's Ferry.
Captain Nolan reported back from his scouting expedition on October 1 that he had been all the way to the Mermentau River but had found no sign of the enemy. Nolan said he had questioned two travelers from Lake Charles who told him there were no Federals west of Franklin. Nolan said he would head back to Niblett's Bluff that afternoon, and enclosed a statement from Deputy Marshal W.H. Haskell. Haskell reported that the schooner Derby from New Orleans was lying at the Mermentau River with a cargo of flour, coffee and Irish potatoes. Haskell was also satisfied there were no enemy troops any further than Franklin.
On October 14, 1863, Colonel Augustus Buchel of the 1st Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), was ordered to take command of Niblett's Bluff. He was instructed to keep scouts out as far as the Calcasieu River. The inspector-general of the Trans-Mississippi Department, Benjamin Allston, inspected the troops of the Third Texas Infantry at Niblett's Bluff and reported there clothing and equipment were good, that they were all armed with Springfield and Enfield rifles, in good condition, and their drill was ordinary.
General Smith issued orders to General Taylor, that if the enemy made a move from Opelousas to Niblett's Bluff, he was to "spare no efforts in retarding his (the enemy's) march and cooperate with General Magruder in defense of Texas." It was reported October 18 that the Federals were moving toward Niblett's Bluff in strength estimated to be 30,000 to 40,000 men. In contrast, General Magruder reported he could muster no more than 8,000 Confederates in defense of Texas. Colonel Buchel asked for permission to destroy two vessels then at Lake Charles, should the enemy advance on Lake Charles.
By October 20, Colonel Buchel was on the ground and in charge of Niblett's Bluff and reported that five companies of his regiment had also arrived, along with one section (two guns), of Captain O.G. Jones' Texas Light Artillery. He said more cavalry was needed and that they were still waiting for a heavy artillery piece, a 32-pounder howitzer, and two mountain
howitzers to arrive. Captain Bailie P.L. Vinson of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry also reported that enemy forces were at Franklin and that he had counted 51 pieces of artillery and 20,000 men.
Captain Theodore Kosse of the Confederate Engineer Corps inspected the fortifications at Niblett's Bluff and reported to Colonel Buchel that the main defenses were nearly completed on the Louisiana side of the river. He added that he needed laborers and axes and shovels to complete the work and to clear the trees from in front of the trenches and to remove brush from the abattis. In addition, he said an ammunition magazine and a bombproof needed to be built. Kosse, in conclusion, said two of the six flatboats designated for Niblett's Bluff had been completed at Orange and a third was near completion. He said each flatboat was designed to carry 100-150 infantrymen or two field pieces of cannon, with caissons and horses. Buchel also had difficulty dealing with state militia forces. He wrote to Captain Turner in Houston that Captain Bland's company of Texas state militia refused to cross the river into Louisiana. However after negotiations, the captain and 10 men did volunteer to cross. Buchel also reported the arrival on October 22 of the rest of his regiment and 1st Lt. Antonio Robira's 32-pounder howitzer. But Buchel added that 1,500 men, more artillery and a full supply of subsistence supplies were needed to adequately defend the fortifications. Even with everything he needed, Buchel said, in light of the size of the approaching enemy army, he expected to be cut off and would be able to hold out only as long as supplies lasted. On October 24, Buchel sent out Captain Edward Beaumont with 52 mounted men to reinforce Captain Nolan's scouts and the Calcasieu and Mermentau rivers. He also sent out five mule carts with corn for Nolan. Meanwhile, General Magruder was appealing to General Smith for more forces to be concentrated at Niblett's Bluff. But by October 26, the Northern invasion of Southwest Louisiana had halted in the Sunset area and Banks had reconsidered his attempt to reach Texas by land. He had now concluded to attempt another amphibious invasion of Texas, this time down on the Mexican border by Brownsville.
At the end of the month Colonel Buchel reported to headquarters in Houston that Lt. Aikens with 20 men were guarding the crossings of the Mermentau; Captain Beaumont with his company were at Pine Island, between the Calcasieu and the Mermentau; Captain Nolan was at Lacassine Bayou trying to secure gunpowder on a blockade runner, the Antelope, and Captain Montgomery was at the Calcasieu crossing. In all Buchel said he then, October 29, had six companies of cavalry and a battery of artillery at Niblett's Bluff. He said he hoped to soon have 1000 cavalry and a battery at the Calcasieu River.
Buchel also received the good news that the Texas militia was now willing to cross into Louisiana and he was ordered to hold fast at Niblett's Bluff. Meanwhile, the gunpowder from the Antelope was en route to Niblett's Bluff. The official report of strength dated November 1, 1863 reported 39 officers, 523 men and five pieces of artillery at Niblett's Bluff, and two officers and 38 enlisted men at the Calcasieu River.
By November 2, Confederate authorities had learned from Federal deserters the enemy strength and dispositions. The prisoners also told the Confederates that there would be no movement from Vermilionville to Niblett's Bluff and the whole force would move to Opelousas. On that day, Federal troops successfully landed at Brownsville, Texas and started slowly working their way up the coast toward Houston and Galveston. The landing did little to cut off trade with Mexico, as the busy wagon trains just moved further inland. Also, they had the same problems they encountered trying to move overland through Southwest Louisiana, difficulty in moving an army through sparsely settled areas.
While the threat to Niblett's Bluff was lessened, Colonel Buchel was ordered to stay in place for the time being, and on November 16 he was ordered to send a heavy cavalry force toward Vermilionville to drive off the enemy's small force still lingering there and to fortify the Calcasieu River crossing. By the end of the month, the garrison at Niblett's Bluff had been reduced to 250, as reinforcements were sent to South Texas. In mid December General Thomas Green's cavalry division passed through Niblett's Bluff on its way to Texas. At the same time Colonel Ashley W. Spaight's battalion returned from Louisiana and spent some time at Niblett's Bluff before catching a boat to the Texas side of the Sabine River.
With Colonel Buchel's regiment back in Texas to help check
the Federal invasion on the lower Texas coast, Colonel Spaight's Battalion was
back in charge of the area in early 1864. First Sgt. H.N. Connor of Company A,
wrote in his diary for April 29, 1864 that Colonel Spaight gave a stirring
address to his soldiers at Niblett's Bluff. The battalion manned Confederate
fortifications at Sabine Pass, Beaumont and Niblett's Bluff, including outposts
in Southwest Louisiana. Officially designated the 11th Battalion Texas
Volunteers, it was unusual in its structure in that it included a mixture of
artillery, cavalry and infantry. Detachments of the battalion had fought in the
first Battle of Sabine Pass in 1862 and the capture of two blockade gunboats on
January 21, 1863; its artillery company, Company B, was on the Confederate
cotton-clad Uncle Ben, which took part in the Battle of Sabine Pass, September
8, 1863; its infantry companies were in the Battle of Fordoche Bridge, La. on
September 29, 1863; and its cavalry companies were in the Battle of Bayou
Bourbeaux, La. November 3, 1863.
The next threat to Niblett's Bluff came in spring of 1864. On March 10, 1864, Union General Nathaniel Banks launched the Red River Campaign to capture Shreveport, and then invade Texas from that point. Backed by a powerful flotilla of gunboats and transports, Banks took Alexandria by March 16, 1864, which cutoff Niblett's Bluff from Confederate General Richard Taylor's Army of Western Louisiana. The military road between Niblett's Bluff and Alexandria was about 120 miles long, but reinforcements from Texas could still reach Taylor's army by other crossings further north, such as Burr's Ferry, which also had fortifications built under supervision of Lt. Col. Forshey. But a stunning Confederate victory at Mansfield, La. on April 8, 1864, followed the next day by the Battle of Pleasant Hill, convinced Banks to call off the campaign. Other actions along the Red River included Blair's Landing on April 12, 1864; Monett's Ferry, April 23, 1864; Bailey's Dam, May 11-13, 1864; and Yellow Bayou, May 18, 1864, as the Union forces retreated back into their strongholds in Southeast Louisiana.
Niblett's Bluff was also threatened by an incursion by Union blockading gunboats Wave and Granite City, which put in at Calcasieu Pass in late April 1864 to purchase stolen livestock from Jayhawkers, and recruit for the Federal Navy. At first, Confederate authorities suspected it might be an attempt to invade by way of the Calcasieu River and then Niblett's Bluff. On April 30, 1864, Brigadier General James E. Slaughter, chief of staff at headquarters in Houston, wrote, "Griffin (Lt. Col. William H. Griffin) reports enemy in small force landed at Calcasieu. His scouts represent one gunboat and one transport; expecting reinforcements."
The report indicated enemy the plan was to proceed up Calcasieu Pass to Lake Charles, thence against Niblett's Bluff and flank Sabine Pass. "They have burned the bridge at Mud Bayou. Colonel Spaight has gone to Lake Charles." On the same day, General Slaughter sent this communication to Colonel Griffin: "Direct Colonel Spaight to attack small force at Calcasieu at once, and disperse, defeat, or capture the expedition. By command of General P.O. Hebert, commanding district."
Colonel Spaight heard that a Union Army was marching to Lake Charles, so he stayed there with part of his command. He sent four of his companies, companies A, C, D, and E, from Niblett's Bluff to Sabine Pass, where they joined the Confederate forces assembling there. They boarded the steamboat "Sunflower" to make their way down Sabine Lake and River to Sabine Pass. Other units participating in the attack were Captain Edmund Creuzbaur's 4-gun battery of the Fifth Texas Light Artillery; Company B of Daly's Texas Cavalry, and three companies of Griffin's 21st Texas Infantry Battalion. There were about 325 men in all. The small force was ready to cross the Sabine on May 4. They loaded up on the steamboat "Dime," then went up Sabine Lake and then Johnson Bayou in Louisiana where they unloaded. Remaining guns and equipment were ferried over May 5 and the Southerners were ready to make the overland march of about 30 miles. The Confederates marched all night, and by sunrise of May 6, the fatigued attackers were ready. They achieved a complete surprise in the attack, catching both gunboats unaware and with no steam. However the Yankee bluejackets gamely fought back with their heavy naval artillery and inflicted serious casualties on the Confederates. The gray-clad infantry charged in close to shore to open up with small arms fire on the sailors manning the deck guns, while Creuzbaur's cannoneers, blasted away at the ships, two cannons aimed at each ship. The duel lasted about an hour and a half and ended with both gunboats surrendering.
Lt. Col. Griffin reported that eight of his men were killed in action and 13 wounded. Later, two of Creuzbauer’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.
With this successful end of the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, the war was all but won in Southwest Louisiana and Texas. There would be no more threats to Niblett's Bluff for the remainder of the conflict, which ended in the Trans-Mississippi with the surrender of all Confederate forces on June 2, 1865.
NIBLETT'S BLUFF COMMANDERS
Here are biographies on some of the men who commanded the
Confederate fortifications at Niblett's Bluff. Some were there for short periods
of time, others rotated in and out throughout the war.
Major General John Bankhead Magruder
The highest ranking officer in command of Niblett's Bluff
was Major General John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the District of Texas,
New Mexico and Arizona. Magruder personally took command of the post on June 6,
1863, even though it was geographically outside his district. It was he who
issued the order for the fortifications to be built. Born May 1, 1807 at Port
Royal, Virginia, he graduated from the United States Military Academy at West
Point, New York. He won distinction in the Mexican War and was promoted to the
rank of brevet lieutenant colonel at the end of the conflict. Magruder resigned
from the U.S. Army on April 20, 1861 and received a commission as colonel in the
Confederate Army. He won distinction at the Battle of Big Bethel, June 10, 1861.
He received a promotion to brigadier general on June 17, 1861, and to major
general on October 7, 1861. During the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in the
spring of 1862 he was heralded for delaying a massive Union army with a small
opposing force, using clever and deceptive tactics. But then Magruder, exhausted
and ill, performed poorly during the Seven Days Battles in the summer of 1862,
and shortly thereafter was transferred to command Texas.
Magruder, operating from headquarters at the Fannin Hotel in Houston, immediately set about recapturing Galveston, which had fallen to the Federals on October 6, 1862. He commanded a successful land-sea attack on the island on January 1, 1863, and Galveston was never again in enemy hands until the war ended. Magruder then vigorously defended against all Federal encroachments on the Texas and Southwest Louisiana coasts, and had such strategic points on the Sabine River as Sabine Pass, Niblett's Bluff and Burr's Ferry heavily fortified. He also supplied men and supplies to General Richard Taylor's Army of Western Louisiana throughout 1863 and 1864. On August 17, 1864, Magruder was transferred to command of the Department of Arkansas, but returned to Houston headquarters on March 31, 1865, where he finished the war.
Following the Confederate surrender, he went to Mexico to serve the Emperor Maximilian. After the collapse of the Imperial forces there, he returned Texas and made his home in Houston, where he died February 19, 1871. Magruder was married to Esther Henrietta von Kapff on May 18, 1831 and had three daughters.
Colonel Ashley W. Spaight
Ashley W. Spaight's 11th Battalion Texas Volunteers spent
much of its existence as garrison troops for Confederate posts at Beaumont,
Sabine Pass and Niblett's Bluff. Spaight was born November 24, 1821 at Prairie
Bluff, Wilcox County, Alabama. His previous military experience included service
in the Creek War of 1836. An 1842 graduate of the University of North Carolina,
Spaight was a lawyer who served a term in the Alabama legislature in 1846. He
married Victoria M. Riggs on November 15, 1854 and moved to Liberty County,
Texas in 1861.
Spaight organized the Moss Bluff Rebels for Confederate service in 1862, which became part of the 11th Battalion Texas Volunteers, and latter the commanding officer of the whole battalion with the rank of lieutenant colonel. A dispute with district commander General Magruder in January 1863, prompted Spaight to offer his resignation, which was refused. He was commended by General Richard Taylor for his service with Taylor's army in Louisiana in 1863. In late 1864, he was promoted to colonel in command of the 21st Texas Infantry Regiment, which was made up of a consolidation of the 11th Battalion Texas Volunteers, and the 21st Texas Infantry Battalion. The regiment was placed in charge of the district headquarters in Houston from November 1864 until near the end of the war.
Following the war, Spaight was elected a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention in 1866. After the death of his wife in 1869, he moved to Galveston. Spaight was appointed state commissioner of insurance, statistics and history by Governor Oran M. Roberts. He oversaw the publication of "The Resources, Soil, and Climate of Texas" (1882). Spaight died in Galveston 23 December 1911 and buried in Lakeview Cemetery there. A comment on Spaight's Regiment that ran on May 3, 1865 in the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph says alot about Ashley W. Spaight's leadership ability. The newspaper said:
"...It is but just that we should say on departure of Colonel A. W. Spaight that it (the Twenty-first Regiment) is the best disciplined, quietest, and best disposed body of men we have ever seen among us. This regiment has been on post duty here for several months, and during that time, we have not heard of a single depredation committed by any of its men; we have seen no rowdyism, no drunkenness...Such a regiment is an honor to its commander and a credit to the service..."
Lt. Col. Caleb G. Forshey
The man who planned the construction of the fortifications
at Niblett's Bluff, Lt. Col. Caleb Goldsmith Forshey, was an eminent engineer
and scientist. Born July 18, 1812 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Forshey was
educated at Kenyon College in Ohio and at the U.S. Military Academy at West
Point, N.Y., but apparently didn't graduate. Forshey was a professor of
mathematics and civil engineering from 1836 to 1838 at Jefferson College in
Washington, Mississippi. He also worked on engineering projects on the
Mississippi River and lived in Vidalia, Louisiana from about 1840 to 1848. He
constructed a hydrologic station in Carrolton, Louisiana in 1848 to measure the
flow of the river from 1848 to 1855. This work was done for the federal
government's Mississippi Delta survey.
Forshey moved to Texas in 1853 to be chief engineer for the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad. On November 16 of that year, he officiated at the railroad's ground-breaking ceremonies at Virginia Point on Galveston Bay. He planned construction of the railroad and is credited for designing the original West Bay Bridge to Galveston Island. The tracks carried the first train from Virginia Point to Galveston on 1 February 1860. Forshey also continued his interest in military science, founding the Texas Military Institute at Galveston in 1854. The school moved to Rutersville in Fayette County in 1856, where it was consolidated with Rutersville College and the Texas Monumental Committee of LaGrange. He was still superintendent of the school when it closed in 1861 at the beginning of the War Between the States. He immediately began work on Texas coastal defenses for the Confederacy, and in 1862 became chief engineer on the staff of Major General John B. Magruder. He played an important role in planning the recapture of Galveston, and issued the order for outfitting of Confederate "cotton-clad" gunboats that were used in the successful counter-attack on January 1, 1863.
Forshey also supervised the construction of Fort Esperanza, near Saluria on Matagorda Island, fortifications at Niblett's Bluff and others. Following the war, Forshey was an engineering consultant to the city of Galveston and worked along the Red River in 1874-75 and eventually returned to the Mississippi River delta, where he died July 25, 1881 at Carrolton, Louisiana.
Captain George W. O'Bryan
The military officer whose name has been most associated
with the Niblett's Bluff fortifications is Captain George Washington O'Bryan
(changed to O'Brien after the war). O'Bryan was born May 28, 1833 five miles
south of Abbeville, Louisiana. He received a private education and moved to
Beaumont, Texas in 1852. His first job was as a mail rider from Galveston to
Beaumont. He was selected county and district clerk for Jefferson County in 1854
and continued in that capacity until the outbreak of war in 1861. He joined
Company F, 5th Texas Infantry, which became part of Hood's Texas Brigade in
Virginia. O'Bryan received a medical discharge on December 10, 1861 and returned
to Beaumont. After he recovered from his illness, he organized a company of
infantry which became Company E, 11th Battalion (Spaight's) Texas Volunteers. He
was captain and company commander. He took part in various engagements,
including the capture of two Union blockading gunboats on January 21, 1863, on
the Confederate cotton-clad steamboat, Uncle Ben; the Battle of Fordoche Bridge,
September 29, 1863; and the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana on May 6, 1864.
At the end of the war, on May 27, 1865, his company was manning the defenses at
Sabine Pass and Niblett's Bluff.
After the war, O'Bryan vehemently opposed Radical Reconstruction and published a newspaper, "Neches Valley News," and its successor, the "News Beacon." He was active in efforts to construct a deep water port in Beaumont and served as Jefferson County District Attorney from 1874-75. O'Bryan was also active in the Methodist Church and was a grand master in the Beaumont Masonic Lodge. He was also one of the organizers of Gladys City Oil Company, which struck oil at Spindletop in 1900, a place his Confederate company had used as a camp ground in the War Between the States. O'Bryan died June 30, 1909 in Beaumont and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Colonel Augustus Carl Buchel
The man who commanded at Niblett's Bluff during the
crucial Great Texas Overland Expedition in the fall of 1863 was a professional
soldier from Germany, Colonel Augustus Carl Buchel. Born October 8, 1813 in
Guntersblum, Hesse, Germany, Buchel entered the military academy at Darnstadt at
the age of 14 and at 18 was commissioned a second lieutenant of volunteers in
the First Infantry Regiment of Hesse-Darnstadt. He later entered the L'Ecole
Militaire in Paris, after which he served as a lieutenant in the French Foreign
Legion. In that capacity, he participated in the Carlist War in Spain and was
decorated and knighted by Queen Maria Christina in 1838 for his bravery at the
Battle of Huesca. His next military service was in the Turkish Army as an
instructor. He achieved the rank of colonel, but resigned when he was offered
the rank of general on the condition he become a Moslem.According to family
tradition, he came to Texas in 1845 after killing a man in a duel in Germany. He
lived in Carlshafen, later Indianola, and raised a company in the Mexican War,
which became part of the First Regiment of Texas Foot Rifles. He was captain and
company commander. Buchel was present for the Battle of Buena Vista, where he
served as aide-de-camp for General Zachary Taylor. Following the war President
Franklin Pierce appointed him collector of customs at Port Lavaca, a position he
held for many years. He also sold lumber and building materials in Corpus
Christi. In 1859 he raised the Indianola Volunteers to combat Mexican bandits
under Juan N. Cortina.
In the War Between the States, Buchel became lieutenant colonel of the Third Texas Infantry, which served in South Texas. He then became colonel of the First Texas Cavalry in 1863, which brought him and his regiment to Niblett's Bluff in October of that year. His regiment served in the Red River Campaign in the brigade of General Hamilton P. Bee. In the Battle of Pleasant Hill, 9 April 1864, Buchel was mortally wounded while leading a dismounted charge. He was taken to Mansfield where he died, either April 11 or 15 April 1864, and was buried there. Buchel had been appointed brigadier general but was never confirmed for that rank. His body was taken by a detachment of cavalry and reburied at the State Cemetery in Austin, Texas. He was described by contemporaries as small, unassuming, courteous, and gentlemanly in manner. He spoke seven languages.
Niblett's Bluff Garrison Units
Many different Confederates units passed through Niblett's Bluff during the War Between the States, but only about six were assigned there for garrison duty. Here are some of the units stationed at Niblett's Bluff as part of the garrison there:
1st Texas Cavalry Regiment
The 1st (Buchel's) Texas Cavalry Regiment was organized at Carreicetas Lake on the Rio Grande River in Texas during the early spring of 1862. It was formed by consolidating Yager's 3rd and Taylor's 8th Texas Cavalry Battalions. The men were from San Antonio, Fredericksburg, Marshal and Belton, and Jackson and Davis counties. During the Red River Campaign of 1864, the unit was attached to Brigadier General Hamilton Bee's Brigade and fought at the battles of Mansfield, April 8, 1864 and Pleasant Hill April 9, 1864. It then skirmished in Louisiana until the finish of the campaign. It was included in the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department June 2, 1865, one of the last Confederate units to lay down arms. The field officers were Colonel August Buchel, Lieutenant Colonel William O. Yager, and Major Robert A. Myers.
2nd Texas Cavalry Regiment (2nd Mounted Rifles)
The 2nd Texas Cavalry Regiment was organized in May, 1861 with about 1200 men, under the designation 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. The unit was reorganized in April, 1862 as the 2nd Texas Cavalry Regiment. The men were recruited in San Antonio, Houston, Marshall and Beeville, and the counties of Anderson, Houston, Nacogdoches, and Cherokee. It served in the Trans-Mississippi Department throughout its career. It took part in battles in the New Mexico Territory and Louisiana, and then saw action in the defense of Galveston. In November 1862, the regiment had 752 effectives, but was reduced to19 officers and 167 men by July, 1864. At the end of the war, April, 1865, it had 150 men present for duty. The field officers were Colonels John S. Ford and Charles L. Pyron; Lieutenant Colonels John R. Baylor and James Walker; and Majors John Donelson, Matthew Nolan, William A. Spencer, and Edward Waller, Jr.
3rd Texas Infantry Regiment
The 3rd Texas Infantry Regiment completed its organization during the fall of 1861. Some of its members were recruited at Austin and San Antonio. It served along the Texas coast at various points, as well as the companies that garrisoned Niblett's Bluff in the summer of 1863. Because the regiment never saw any action, during the latter part of the war morale deteriorated. It disbanded before the Trans-Mississippi Department surrendered on June 2, 1865. The field officers were Colonel Philip N. Luckett, Lieutenant Colonels Augustus Buchel and Edward F. Gray, and Major John H. Kampmann, who commanded Niblett's Bluff during the regiments stay there.
11th Battalion (Spaight's) Texas Volunteers
The 11th Battalion (Spaight's) Texas Volunteers had an unusual structure in that it was composed of all three branches of service, infantry, cavalry and artillery. It was organized in April, 1862 in Beaumont with 400 men. The battalion was assigned to Sabine Pass, Beaumont, Grigsby Bluff and Niblett's Bluff. It took part in the first Battle of Sabine Pass in 1862, the capture of two blockading Federal gunboats on January 21, 1863, the Battle of Fordoche Bridge at Stirling Plantation in Louisiana on September 29, 1863, the Battle of Bayou Bourbeau on November 3, 1863 and the Battle of Calcasieu Pass on May 6, 1864. The battalion was assigned to Brigadier General Paul Hebert's Brigade. In November 1864, it was consolidated with the 21st Texas Infantry Battalion, to become the 21st Texas Infantry Regiment. It spent much of the rest of the war at Houston, Beaumont, Sabine Pass and Niblett's Bluff. Lieutenant Colonel Ashley W. Spaight and Major J.S. Irvine were the field officers.
20th Texas Infantry Regiment (Elmore's)
The 20th Texas Infantry Regiment was organized at Galveston, Texas during the early summer of 1862 with a high percentage of middle-aged men. They were from Hemstead, Houston, Austin, Kaufman, Galveston, and Huntsville and Walker County. It performed guard duty along the coast from Galveston to the Sabine River and in April, 1864 reported 21 officers and 622 men present for duty. On June 2, 1865, it was included in the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Commanding the regiment were Colonel Henry M. Elmore, Lieutenant Colonel Leonard A. Abercrombie, and Major Robert E. Bell.
Captain O.G. Jones Texas Light Artillery
Not much is known about the history of this battery, only that it was assigned to Niblett's Bluff in the fall of 1863, and included four pieces of light artillery, probably 6 or 12 pounders, and possibly two mountain howitzers.
15th Texas Artillery
The only thing known about this heavy artillery unit is that it was assigned to Niblett's Bluff at the same time at Jones' Light Artillery. It had only one gun at Niblett's Bluff, a 32-pounder howitzer. It was commanded by 1st Lieutenant Antonio Robira.
Flags, Weapons, Uniforms
The correct official Confederate garrison flag for the
Niblett's Bluff fortification in the summer of 1863 would have been the
"Stainless Banner" (Second National Flag). No documentation for what if any flag
was actually there has been found. However, if there was one, the correct one
would have been the Stainless Banner. The Confederate Congress approved, and
President Davis signed, the new flag law, which became effective May 1, 1863. On
May 28, 1863, the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph newspaper published the news and
how to make the flag:
"Col. Wilcox while here gave us a correct drawing of the new Confederate flag . . . The flag is white, with a red union, having a St. Andrew's cross of blue, on each bar of which are three white stars, with a large one at the crossing. To make a flag, say a yard and a quarter by three yards; take the usual size of the Beauregard battle flag, seven eights by one and one quarter of red. On each side of this place a strip of blue, say 4 [?] inches wide, running from each corner, diagonally across. This makes the cross, and on this put the stars. Now make a white flag, three yards by one and one quarter leaving space to put in the Union, and you have it."
A Stainless Banner associated with the Galveston defenses is in the collection of the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans. It is a large flag, 5.5 feet by 12 feet. No doubt there were also individual unit flags at Niblett's Bluff as troops were either stationed there or passing through. The cannons used are clearly indicated in the officials’ records, including the 32-pounder howitzer, four pieces of light artillery of unknown type and possibly two mountain howitzers which were expected. The inspection report of the Third Texas Infantry shows all the troops were armed with either British Enfields or Springfields, which were the standard infantry small arms for that period. Since Niblett's Bluff was being supplied by the Houston Ordnance Depot, it is likely the troops would have been using the distinctive Houston cartridge box and cap boxes.
The Houston Quartermaster Depot was the main supplier of uniforms for the troops at Niblett's Bluff. Historians have described the Houston Depot jacket has being typically made of blue/gray British Army cloth run through the blockade, or Irish made Peter Tait Company jackets and trousers, also made of blue/gray British army cloth. The best documented picture of a soldier wearing what is believed to be a Houston depot jacket is of Pvt. August Ritter of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery. He was stationed in Houston working at the Ordnance Depot. The jacket appears to be made of kersey wool, six or seven artillery "A" buttons and no epaulettes, or
shoulder tabs. Existing surviving examples of the Peter Tait jackets, many of which survive probably due to their late war issue, show them to be made of kersey wool with eight buttons, "A" for artillery, "C" for cavalry, and "I" for infantry, and epaulettes. The trousers were either made of the British army cloth, or undyed wool/cotton jean cloth woven at the Texas state prison at Huntsville. The hats issued tended to be either black slouch hats, or kepis made of jean cloth.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
The Diary of Captain George W. O'Brien 1863, edited by Cooper K. Ragan: The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. LXVII, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 1963
Houston Post, February 1912, Mrs. William Dunn article.
"History of Spaight's Regiment," Ashley W. Spaight Papers, University of Texas General Libraries, Baker Texas History Center.
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