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Requiem for a Confederate Gunboat

The CSS Josiah H. Bell

By W. T. Block

It is true that the Confederate States steam gunboat “Josiah H. Bell” did not participate in any significant battle action, other than the offshore battle at Sabine Pass; and it gained no special recognition for battle action in “War of The Rebellion” either. It fired no shells in Hampton Roads, VA., or in Mobile Bay, and it sank no Union commerce on the high seas as did the “gray ghost,” the CSS “Alabama.” However it was well-known all over Southeast Texas, first for hauling cotton in Trinity River; helping build the Texas and New Orleans Railroad from Houston to Orange; and for its defense of Sabine Pass during the Civil War.

According to Texas steamboat inspection records, the Josiah Bell was built at Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, IN., in 1853, and it was a side-wheel steamer of 412 tons burden. The vessel was 171 feet long, 30 feet wide, with a 6.7 foot depth of hold. The steamer was outfitted with a 450 hp. upright marine steam engine, powered by three boilers. The Bell was built of white oak timbers, with a V-bottom, deep-sea hull, and its bow was especially reinforced, perhaps outfitted with an iron prow piece. The Bell had an 1,800 cotton bale capacity, the second largest in Texas.1

Surely the Bell had had at least two names. One report noted that the Bell had been in the Missouri River trade, but if that were so, it could only have been a single, round-trip voyage from St. Louis to St. Joseph, MO. Although launched in 1853, by Jan. 1854 the Bell was already in the Trinity River cotton trade and perhaps the Brazos as well. The steamer belonged to Robert Mills, the “Duke of Brazoria,” TX (later of Galveston), who arrived in Texas in 1830. The huge R. and D. G. Mills firm rivaled McKinney, Williams and Co. of Galveston in size, owning 200,000 acres of Texas land, of which 3,300 were cultivated in cotton and sugar cane. By 1860 the Mills firm was worth $5 million, and in 1865 it emancipated 800 slaves. The steamboat was named for Robert Mills’ friend, Josiah Hughes Bell, who founded the towns of East Columbia and West Columbia, TX in 1824.2

The Josiah H. Bell was one of 9 steamboats, which were occupied in the Trinity River cotton trade in Jan. 1854.3 Typical of its voyages of 1858, the Bell arrived at Galveston 3 times from the Trinity, carrying 836 bales on one voyage.4 The Bell was still hauling cotton on the Trinity in 1859, but sometime before the end of that year, it was sold to the Texas and New Orleans Railroad to haul rail supplies and rolling stock. Before 1859 the steamer was commanded by Captain Tom Peacock, and Capt. McCormick was its pilot.5

The best description of the Josiah Bell came from W. A. Bowen, who was a longtime Trinity River sailor, as follows:6

“...An old-time Trinity riverboat was being fitted out at the close of the war as the most formidable gunboat on the Texas Coast. This was the Josiah Henry Bell. She ran the Trinity River trade from about 1854 to 1860, and having a deep-sea hull, she paid little attention to snags and willows, but rushed right on, breaking through them like weeds, and shoving snags and sawyers out of the way...”

“...It was the Bell which first made the new channel going out of the Trinity into Galveston Bay at Anahuac. The river had begun to spread over the flats, sluggishly pushing its way across the shallows, and had deposited a bank of soft mud. The J. H. Bell, after sounding, took a run and would plow as far as her momentum would take her, and then back up and try again, Thus she finally went through...”

“...It was also the Bell that first started what is known as the ‘cut-off’ some distance above Liberty. She came up there during a very heavy high water. The pilot, the late Capt. McCormick, who also piloted the gunboat Bayou City at the Battle of Galveston, saw the water running across from a narrow place, and he suggested the idea of running the Bell over it. The captain agreed, and it was done, thus saving 10 or 15 miles. Her keel rubbed the earth, and plowed a great ditch, and when the river went down, the plowing had grown to a considerable channel. The channel was dug out on a low water and on the next rise, the river went through. The Bell began clearing away small rafts, and thus worked her way higher and higher up river, and the boats that met obstructions would wait until the Bell came along, at which time she would ‘snatch snags’ out of the way and thus let the log rafts float down. The other boats would pay for this. The Bell was being fitted out for sea as a blockade runner at Orange when Lee surrendered and our people sunk her there...”

Also in 1893, Capt. Joe Boddeker of Galveston rated the Josiah Bell as capable of carrying an 1,800 bale load of cotton.7 By Jan., 1860, two of the biggest steamboats in Texas, the Bell and Florilda, were sailing on Sabine Lake, the property of Texas and New Orleans Railroad, for that company was laying rails across Orange and Jefferson counties; and the steamers carried rails, crossties, and rolling stock from Sabine Pass to Beaumont. Earlier the Bell had carried rails and crossties from Galveston to Liberty. In Jan., 1861, a ship arrived at Sabine Pass, carrying 2 locomotives and several box cars for the railroad.8 Between Feb. 1-8, 1861, three schooners arrived, all loaded with railroad iron.9 Early in March the schooner Whirlwind arrived there, loaded with 2 passenger cars and 10 box cars, all for the Texas and New Orleans Railroad.10

Following the Union Navy’s capture of Sabine Lake on Sept. 24, 1862, the Josiah Bell was trapped in Sabine River, prior to the Confederates’ recapture of Sabine Pass following the burning of the gunboat Dan on Jan. 8, 1863. During that period the Bell is believed to have cut across the river’s long sand bar at Conway’s Bayou, 4 miles south of Orange, creating what was known as the ‘Conway’s Bayou cut-off.’ On Jan. 1, 1863, General John Magruder’s Confederates recaptured Galveston Island and bay, and the general was equally determined to lift the blockade at Sabine Pass by arming the steamers Josiah Bell and Uncle Ben with artillery. To accomplish that end, he sent a 64-pound rifled cannon, Lt. R. W. Dowling’s Co. F of artillery, and a very incompetent major to the Levingston Shipyard in Orange, Texas, where the 2 old cotton boats, Bell and Uncle Ben, were to be outfitted with artillery and with cotton bales as breastwork. Capt. K. D. Keith described his arrival with artillery Co. B on Jan. 10, 1863, as follows:11

“...We arrived in Orange, very cold, sleet and rainy; we found 2 old steam boats had been armed. The Josiah Bell had one 64-pound rifled cannon... I immediately proceeded to board the Bell, that being the headquarters of Major O. M. Watkins... Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that our commander was very drunk...”

The crew aboard the Josiah Bell at that time included Capt. Charles Fowler (who was also commander, Texas Marine Department, in Sabine Lake); Green Hall, first mate; Theodore Wings, second mate; D. E. Conner, chief engineer; Israel Clark, second engineer; James McKee, 3rd engineer; Capt. Peter Stockholm, pilot; G. McLean, pilot; Zach Sable, pilot; and Joseph McClelland, carpenter.12

Capt. Fowler and Capt. Stockholm had grown up together in Brooklyn, NY. Stockholm had been apprenticed as a shipbuilder, and Fowler as a seaman. Stockholm often told of the conversation that went on between him and Fowler while the offshore battle at Sabine Pass was transpiring on Jan. 21, 1863.13

At midnight of Jan. 21, 1863, the gunboats Josiah Bell and Uncle Ben steamed out of the Sabine Pass, while the blockade sail ships Morning Light and Velocity were at anchor. The blockaders quickly hoisted sails, but there was only a slight breeze available. After a 30-mile chase at sea, Lt Dowling opened fire at the Morning Light at 2 ½ miles with his 64-pound cannon. Four shells from the Josiah Bell exploded on the Morning Light, killing one 32-pound gun crew, before the blockade ship surrendered. The gunboats towed the defeated ships back to Sabine Pass. Capt. Keith assured the drunken major that he could kedge the Morning Light over the bar into Sabine Pass, but the latter refused. As a result, the Morning Light had to be burned, with loss of eight 32-pound guns, 200 tons of munitions and food, and 200 tons of pig iron ballast.14

After the battle the Rebel gunboats were no longer up to any mischief, while floating serenely at anchor in Sabine’s Texas Channel. But they did flaunt their presence in the safety of the Pass, though, the prow of each cottonclad frowning its figurative belligerence and defiance. Commander Abner Read of the new blockade ship Cayuga was using the abandoned light house as a spy lookout point, and the gunboats enkindled in him a burning passion for revenge. Upon seeing light flashing from the light house tower, a Confederate detachment of sixty men hid out under the light keeper’s cottage, and the resulting skirmish at Sabine lighthouse resulted in 5 Union Bluejackets, including Commander D. A. McDermut, killed, and 6 more wounded.15

Before the Battle of Sabine Pass on Sept. 8, 1863, the Josiah Bell loaded two companies of Confederate troops at Beaumont, sailed for Sabine Pass, but did not arrive in time to participate in the battle.16

The only casualties that occurred on the Josiah Bell were the result of accidents. In April, 1863, a gun explosion on the Bell killed two sailors.17 In Oct. 1863 a boiler explosion on the Josiah Bell killed four more.18 In Jan. 1864, a seaman reported that all had been very quiet for a long time on the Josiah Bell, and the crew hoped that some battle action would develop.19

When Mrs. Delia Parsons of Sabine Pass, a sister-in-law of Capt. Keith, discovered that the gunboat Bell had no Confederate battle flag, she and some other ladies spent 2 days, sewing a Rebel flag for the gunboat.

Following a year of battle inactivity at Sabine Pass, Gen. Magruder decided that the Josiah Bell would be of more value to the Confederate States as a blockade runner than as a gunboat. Hence all cotton bales and armor were removed, and the steamer was sent back to Levingston Shipyard in Orange for conversion to a blockade runner. Hence the Bell was still on the shipways there when Confederate authorities learned that Gen. R. E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 12, 1865.

Ship carpenters at Levingston decided in May, 1865 that the old gunboat was too proud a craft to be surrendered to the Northern victors. They removed the old gunboat’s 450 hp. steam engine, steam drum, 3 boilers, all piping and shafting, before they sank the wooden hull in Sabine River, 4 miles south of Orange.

When H. J. Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore of Williamsport, PA., built their sawmill at Orange in 1877, they found the Bell’s old engine and boilers still in storage at the shipyard. They bought the steam engine to energize their first sawmill, later called the “Lower Mill.” When the Lower Mill was subsequently enlarged to cut 200,000 feet daily, the steam engine was moved to the powerhouse of the planning mill. A history of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company explained that the Bell’s engine remained in continuous use for fifty years without suffering a single failure or mishap -- “...so much as the shearing of a single pin...”20

The final disposition of the Josiah Bell’s old engine is uncertain. When in 1930, the Great Depression plummeted lumber demand to zero everywhere, Lutcher and Moore ceased operations entirely at both mills and sold all machinery as scrap iron. That was the age during the 1930s when Japanese scrap iron ships were leaving the ports of Beaumont and Orange weekly - so the old engine might have been melted and recast into artillery shells to be shot back at all Americans during World War Two.

Divers believe they have found the wreckage of the old Josiah Bell. It is sunk in 15 feet of water, near the “Conway’s Bayou Cut-off,” in what is now an unused channel of Sabine River.

Endnotes

1 E. J. and Virginia Lasworth, “Texas Steamboat Register, 1829 to 1998,” (computer printout: Longview Public Library, 1998), 84.

2 Lasworth, 84; Handbook of Texas, “Biographies of R. Mills and J. H. Bell,” (Austin: 1952), Vol. 1, p. 141 and Vol. 2, p. 200.

3 W. T. Block, Cotton Bales, Keelboats, and Sternwheelers: A History of the Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades, 1837-1900 (Woodville: Dogwood Press, 1995), 202.

4 (Galveston) Weekly News, April 6; Nov. 23, 1858.

5 Ibid., May 31, 1859; (Galveston) Daily News, June 11, 1893.

6 Interview with W. A. Bowen, (Galveston) Daily News, June 11, 1893.

7 (Galveston) Daily News, Apr. 23, 1893.

8 (Galveston) Weekly News, Jan. 12, 1861.

9 Ibid, Feb. 19, 1861.

10 (Galveston) Tri-Weekly News, April 4, 1861.

11 K. D. Keith, “The Memoirs of Capt. K. D. Keith,” Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, VIII (Nov. 1972), 39-60.

12 Ben C. Stuart, “Stirring Story of Old Sabine,” (Beaumont) Enterprise, June 1, 1913.

13 “Obituary of Capt. Peter Stockholm,” (Beaumont) Journal,. Sept. 26, 1902.

14 War of the Rebellion-Official Records, Navies, Ser. I, Vol. XIX, 565, 571; W. T. Block, Schooner Sail to Starboard: Confederate Blockade-Running on the Louisiana-Texas Coast Lines (Woodville: Dogwood Press, 1997), 136-137.

15 Ibid, Ser. I, Vol. XX, 147-153.

16 J. T. Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy (New York: 1887), 524.

17 (Galveston) Weekly News, April 29, 1863.

18 Ibid, Oct. 7, 1863; (Houston) Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Oct. 6, 1863.

19 (Galveston) Weekly News, Jan. 26, 1864.

20 “History of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Co.,” (Beaumont) Enterprise, Oct. 15, 1905

Copyright W. T. Block. Used with permission.

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