Calcasieu Raid
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By W. T. Block

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In the Civil War chronicles of Admiral David Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron, one incident of extreme courage and bravery might escape notice, although the admiral did recommend Acting Master Frederick Crocker for a promotion and commendation as a result of that incident. And more than a century in retrospect, it requires minimal hindsight to recognize that Lt. Crocker's raid up the Calcasieu River in Southwest Louisiana was no ordinary feat. On October 3, 1862, he and fourteen of his Bluejackets dashed up the river in a sloop, armed only with small arms and a six-pound boat howitzer, burned three blockade-runners, captured the steamboat "Dan," and after a six-day, eighty-mile penetration deep into Confederate territory, escaped downriver without a single casualty or a shot being fired at them.

At the outbreak of the war, the United States Navy was at a severe disadvantage because of a shortage of sailors, ships, and equipment, due in part to the loss of Federal shipping and facilities in the southern states. The Confederacy had only one export commodity -- cotton -- and almost no manufacturing facilities for the necessities of war. Hence, the Union navy was immediately faced with the need to blockade 3,000 miles of Rebel coastline to halt the shipment of cotton and import of munitions.

The establishment of an effective blockade of the Gulf of Mexico coastline had to await the availability of men and ships, the evacuation of the Port of Pensacola by the Confederates, and the Union capture of New Orleans in April, 1862 (as early as July, 1861, the U. S. steamer "South Carolina" was already blockading the Port of Galveston). In 1862, Adm. Farragut quickly placed Commander W. B. Renshaw in charge of the blockade fleet and "mortar flotilla" off Galveston Island, and one of Renshaw's subordinate officers was Lt. Crocker, aboard the U. S. steamer "Kensington." Renshaw was also fortunate to have three Texas ship captains, L. W. Pennington, James G. Taylor, and Henry Clay Smith, all of them former residents of Sabine Pass, Texas, and all of them defectors to the Union Navy, who knew the inland waters of the Texas-Louisiana coastline superbly.

In September, 1862, Lt. Pennington was already blockading the Sabine River estuary aboard the U. S. mortar schooner "Henry Janes." On September 21, Pennington was joined by Crocker, aboard the "Kensington," and Acting Master Quincy Hooper, who commanded the U. S. schooner "Rachel Seaman." Soon afterward the little squadron took control of the Sabine estuary and destroyed the abandoned Confederate fort there, because a raging "yellow jack" (yellow fever) epidemic had already killed a hundred soldiers and civilians at Sabine Pass, Texas, and forced the evacuation of most of the remainder.

On October 1, 1862, Crocker steered the steamer "Kensington" to the nearby Louisiana coastline to check for Rebel shipping in the Calcasieu and Mermentau Rivers. He soon captured a British blockade-runner, the cotton-laden schooner "West Florida," whose captain possessed a "pass," purportedly signed by Union General Benjamin F. Butler of New Orleans, which permitted the English ship to buy Confederate cotton coastwise and return it to Federal custody at New Orleans. Uninformed of Butler's duplicity in the coastwise cotton trade, Crocker sent the "West Florida" under a prize crew to Admiral Farragut at Pensacola for adjudication.

Upon anchoring at the mouth of the Calcasieu River, which was at that moment undefended, Crocker and a whaleboat or 'launch' filled with crewmen rowed inland to the home of Union sympathizer Duncan Smith to inquire about Rebel shipping in the river. Smith informed Crocker that the Confederate steamer "Dan" had run the blockade to Matamoras, Mexico, a month earlier with a load of cotton, and had just returned to Goosport, its home port two miles north of Lake Charles, La., carrying gunpowder, cannons, lead, and muskets. Crocker also learned that the Spanish blockade-runner "Conchita" was also anchored in the Calcasieu at Leesburg (now Cameron), while its captain and crew were gone to Houston to purchase government-owned cotton. Unknown to the Confederates, the "Conchita's" captain also had a "pass," signed by Gen. Butler, allowing him to purchase cotton with Union gold coins and return his cargo to New Orleans.

Smith also assured Crocker that possibly he might be able to ascend the river and capture the "Dan." The former recounted that not more than twenty-five overage males lived in the vicinity of the river, all of the younger men being away, already enrolled in the Calcasieu Regiment which was fighting in General Richard Taylor's Confederate army. When Crocker informed Duncan Smith that he needed a shallow-draft steamboat to use while burning bridges, ferries, and shipping in the Texas and Louisiana rivers, the latter confided to Crocker that the fast packet would meet his needs superbly.

The steamer "Dan" was fairly new, having been built at Goosport in 1857 by Captain Daniel Goos, a Lake Charles sawmiller. The "Dan" was a 28-foot by 99-foot sidewheeler, of 112 tons burden, built of four-inch thick white oak planking over oak ribs. Although possessing only a four-foot depth of draft, unlike the average cotton boat, the "Dan" had a V-bottom, deepsea hull and and its 5 1/2-foot depth of hold gave it an unusually large bale capacity (600) for a packet of that size. The steamboat had already hauled cotton to Mexico on two or three occasions, returning each time with munitions as well as coffee, salt, drugs, calico yard goods, hardware, and other articles.

On October 3, Lt. Crocker rigged his ship's launch with a mast and two sloop sails, and accompanied by two officers, twelve sailors, his six-pound boat howitzer, and small arms, begin sailing inland. He stopped at each landing and burned ferries, while his men spread rumors that there were also ". . three (Union) barges in the river, each mounting a six-pound cannon, and carrying 20 men each and in addition, a schooner with two hundred men on board and six guns was also in the river, only a few miles below . . ." Crocker has assumed correctly that riders would be dispatched northward to warn of an invasion many times larger than it actually was. At one landing, Crocker was most fortunate to capture Colonel Nathaniel Clifton, commander of the Calcasieu Regiment, who was home on furlough, and who was to become a hostage for the remainder of the raid.

Crocker and his men sailed on to Lake Charles, eventually reaching Goosport, two miles farther inland, but found no steamer there. He learned, however, from informants along the river bank that the "Dan" had left the previous day and was hidden in a deep bayou somewhere to the north. The determined raiders sailed on, finally discovering the packet partially hidden by willow and cypress branches in the west fork of the Calcasieu River, beyond Clendinning's Ferry, and they captured the steamboat without firing a shot.

In a long letter from Lake Charles, published in Galveston "Weekly News" of October 22, 1862, and subscribed only by the pseudonym "Louisiana," a resident expressed dismay that a "Yankee" raid could penetrate so deeply into Confederate territory without encountering resistance of any kind. But the writer acknowledged that there were only fourteen overage white males in Lake Charles and perhaps fourteen more on the cotton plantations surrounding the town. In exactly the same manner of Paul Revere a century earlier, "Louisiana" rode all night on October 5, alerting the planters of the parish, and after a thirty-five circuitous route through the countryside, he and about sixteen old farmers, armed only with musket shotguns, arrived at the banks of the river. There they met a Colonel W. W. Johnson of the State Militia and a handful of other residents, who had gathered to await the return of Crocker's raiders. The Rebel Paul Revere wrote that, after remaining in ambush for several hours, "....the men became impatient, and being under no restraint other than their own, some of the officers returned to their plantations..."

After the "Dan's" capture, Crocker removed his boat howitzer and remounted it behind cotton bales on the prow of the steamboat. He then tied Col. Clifton, the "Dan's" pilot, captain, and "ten or twelve" other hostages at exposed positions near the helm, and with the launch in tow, the Union sailors began their descent of the river. They stopped long enough to burn Clendinning's Ferry, a main crossing along the wagon road which carried Texas supplies and reinforcements to Gen. Taylor's army. At Goosport, Crocker discovered an arriving schooner, so he set the blockade-runner "Mary Ann" ablaze. Under threats to burn the sawmill, he forced Captain Goos to load several hundred bales of cotton on the packet. Crocker's arrival back at Lake Charles is best retold in his own words, as follows:

". . . I then levied on the town a contribution of sweet potatoes and beef, which was furnished . . . and was informed by Union men, plenty of which I found, that a large party had collected to attack us below; whereupon I seized upon ten or twelve inhabitants of the place and posting them around the man at the wheel, made the best of my way down the river. I found one other large schooner (the "Eliza"), which I also burned, and thus destroyed all the navigation in the river, besides teaching the people a lesson they will not soon forget. As soon as I reached a place of safety, I released the prisoners . . ."

After waiting several hours, the ambuscade of farmers, comprising Col. Johnson, the Rebel Paul Revere known only as "Louisiana," and his Calcasieu 'Minute Men,' sighted pine knot smoke rising above the neighboring cypress forest, and they realized the "Dan": was steaming downriver. Forwarned of their presence, Crocker fired a number of shells in their direction, all of which exploded harmlessly. As the "Dan" approached, Johnson ordered that no shots be fired, for the only people aboard the packet who were visible were the pilot, Col. Clifton, and other Lake Charles neighbors who were tied up as hostages. Upon reaching a safe point at Leesburg, where the "Conchita" lay at anchor, Crocker stopped the "Dan," releasing all of the prisoners aboard except Col. Clifton, whom he had hoped to exchange for a Federal navy lieutenant being held for the Confederates. Crocker then burned the "Conchita," whose crew, fearing arrest by the Rebels, had abandoned her.

After his return to Sabine Lake, the feisty lieutenant put his thirty-pound Parrott rifle and twenty five Bluejackets from the "Kensington" aboard the "Dan." And for three months, the former blockade-runner strutted up and down the Lake and Pass at will, harassing the Rebel cavalry along the shores and Sabine's civilians alike. On October 21, the "Dan's" crew came ashore with their boat howitzer and burned $150,000 worth of property, mostly sawmill factories and some palatial residences. On the night of January 8, 1863, after much scheming and two previously unsuccessful attempts, nine Confederate cavalrymen rowed up to the "Dan," then at anchor during a dense fog at Sabine Lighthouse in Southwest Louisiana, and tossed pine knot torches aboard until the gunboat was a blazing inferno from stem to stern. And as the fiery silhouette in the pea-soupy fog surrendered once again to darkness, the skeleton of the "Dan" slid to its final berth beneath the shadows of the lighthouse.

On October 28, 1862, Admiral Farragut forwarded Gen. Butler's "pass," issued to the 'West Florida," to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, along with Crocker's report and a letter which recommended Acting Master Frederick Crocker ". . . for promotion . . . Captain Crocker's entire conduct meets my highest approbation; his energy and managment in the whole affair at Calcasieu River is worth of commendation . . ." Farragut also paroled Colonel Nathaniel Clifton, captured on Crocker's raid, at Pensacola on October 30. By November 11, 1862, Secretary of War E. M. Stanton, by order of President Lincoln, notified Gen. Benjamin Butler at New Orleans that he must refrain from issuing any further "cotton passes" to blockade-runners.

For the next eleven months after his Calcasieu raid, Lt. Frederick Crocker continued his services to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron until he was selected by Gen. N. B. Banks to lead a flotilla of gunboats detailed to subdue Confederate Fort Griffin at Sabine Pass, Texas, on September 8, 1863. Instead Crocker's force fell victim to the amazingly accurate and savage gunnery of a young Irish and equally courageous lieutenant, Richard "Dick" Dowling and his Davis Guards. Thereafter, Crocker remained a Confederate prisoner of war at either Camp Groce or Camp Ford, Texas, his brilliant naval career effectively ended in defeat and surrender. Nevertheless, the story of this feisty and daring sailor's exploit, when Crocker sailed eighty miles into enemy territory and "singed the beard" of Confederate General Richard Taylor, should be worthy of retelling and remembance around the camp fires.

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SOURCE MATERIAL: "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies," Series I, Vol. XIX, 217-231; "The Diary of First Sergeant H. N. Connor," Co. A, Spaight's 11th Texas Battalion, unpublished manuscript; "The Enemy's Raid in Lower Lousiana," Galveston "Weekly News," October 22, 1862. The reader should note how closely this narrative affected split allegiances within the writer's own family. Duncan Smith, the arch-Unionist collaborator on the Calcasieu River, was the writer's maternal great grandfather. Rebel Private Albert Block, a 12-pounder cannoneer aboard the cottonclad "Uncle Ben," at which gunboat Crocker's Sabine Pass flotilla fired three rounds, was the writer's grandfather. Rebel Private Isaac Bonsall of Grand Chenier, killed at the Battle of Mansfield, La. on April 8, 1864, was the writer's great uncle by marriage, husband of Elizabeth Sweeney. Rebel Lieutenant William McCall of Grand Chenier, who died of pneumonia at Mansfield the day before the battle was fought, was the writer's great uncle by marriage, husband of Harriet Sweeney.

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Copyright 1998-2024 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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