Defending the Texas Coast - Caney Creek Fortifications

J. D. Stevens

Corporal
Joined
Dec 11, 2016
Location
Deep In The Heart of Texas
I was not sure exactly if this thread should be posted under the Trans-Mississippi or @NFB22 excellent forum of Forgotten Forts. After debating with myself for about 10 seconds, I decided to locate it here.

CONFEDERATE DEFENSES AT THE MOUTH OF CANEY CREEK

After the surrender of Port Hudson in July 1863, President Lincoln wanted Major General Nathanial P. Banks commanding the Department of the Gulf to turn his attention to Texas. The main concern was preventing any type of alliance with the French in their attempt to control Mexico.

After the Union debacle at the Battle of Sabine Pass on the upper Texas coast in September 1863, General Banks and a 7500 man division of the XIII Corps landed at the southern tip of Texas in early November and proceeded up the Rio Grande River to Brownsville. This not only established the American flag for the French, but also curtailed the Confederate cotton trade through Mexico.

Another division began advancing north along the barrier islands on the Texas coast. Passes for blockade runners were closed and on November 29, the Confederate Fort Esperanza guarding Pass Cavallo into Matagorda Bay was captured and Indianola occupied. By December, a base was established on Decrow's Point at the southern tip of 50 mile long Matagorda Peninsula. The Federal army on the Texas coast grew to over 9,000 troops in the Matagorda Bay vicinity, 3,000 at Brazos Santiago, plus gunboats, transports, and supply ships of the Union navy.

Confederate Major General John B. “Prince John” Magruder, Commander of the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona believed the Federal army intended to move up the peninsula using the beach as a highway and continue along the coast to the mouth of the Brazos River. This path kept the army under the protection of their gunboats offshore. The mouth of the Brazos would provide a base of supply in close proximity to both Houston and Galveston. General Banks could move on Galveston Island from the west and capture the best deep water port in Texas. He would also be in striking distance of Houston, the central hub of all railways in the state. Union occupation of these two cities would essentially take Texas out of the war.

Federal patrols made reconnaissance up Matagorda Peninsula as well as landing troops from transports under the protection of their gunboats. Colonel Augustus Buchel's 1st Texas Cavalry supported by Colonel Rueben Brown’s 35th​ Texas Cavalry and James B. Likens’ 35th​ Texas Cavalry skirmished with the Federal troops down the peninsula, but the large cannon of the gunboats offshore kept the cavalry at bay. During one of these engagements, Colonel Francis S. Hesseltine of the 13th​ Maine received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Twenty-two men of Company D, Browns 35th​ Regiment Texas Cavalry drowned or froze to death when their small boat swamped attempting land from the bay and trap Federal troops on the peninsula.

Documents_CWT_Caney Creek Fortifications 2_Fold3_Nov1863 Map_Gulf Coast Edited.jpg


General Magruder resolved to stop the Federal advance by constructing and manning a fortification system as part of an overall defensive plan. Magruder and his chief engineer, Colonel Valery Sulakowski would build defenses at each of three natural barriers; Caney Creek, San Bernard River, and Brazos River. Approximately 4000 to 6000 troops of infantry, artillery, and cavalry were staged between the Brazos River and Matagorda Bay under the command of Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee.

Fortifying Caney Creek where the Matagorda Peninsula connected to the mainland became a priority. Colonel Sulakowski, had designed the defenses around Galveston harbor in the Spring of 1863. Now he was focused on building new forts at each of the three lines of defense. See the following link:

https://civilwartalk.com/threads/fortifications-of-galveston.155818/

A young engineer, Lieutenant Edward Sandcliff, was put in charge of overseeing Colonel Sulakowski’s design carried out at the Caney defenses. The fortifications would include a main fortress, rifle pits, trench works and several redoubts. The mouth of Caney Creek was ideal for defensive purposes. The creek served as a natural moat because it was wide and several feet deep. A one mile loop of the creek paralleled the beach would provide enfilading fire on troops attempting to storm the forts defending Caney Creek. A canal connecting the creek and Matagorda Bay plus marshes and swamps north of the canal would make a flanking movement extremely difficult. A redoubt called the “Lower Fort” was built to cover the canal in case gunboats tried to use it to approach the fort from Matagorda Bay.

Documents_CWT_Caney Creek Fortifications 1_Map of Defenses_Oct 2020.jpg


In a report on January 18, 1864, General Bee reported "The fort is sufficiently completed for the purpose of defense and the laborers have been much increased by the voluntary assistance of Colonel Hawkins and the other planters.” Early on, manning the main fort fell to Colonel Augustus Buchel's 1st Texas Cavalry. One of Buchel's men from Company C was killed in a bombardment from gunboats on January 10, 1864. Located in the near vicinity of the fortifications were several regiments of Texas Cavalry and Texas State Troops. Artillery batteries were assigned to the defensive works. Late in January, Colonel Ashbel Smith’s 2nd​ Texas Infantry was assigned to the fortifications.

The fortifications at the mouth of Caney Creek were relatively crude, constructed of sand or earth. The main fort (Fort Sandcliff or Large Sand Fort), mounting four smoothbore 32 pound cannon and one 32 pound rifle, was located on the east bank of Caney Creek near the shore line. Six redoubts were located at strategic points along Caney Creek with rifle pits and saw tooth style trenches. They would provide enfilading fire on troops advancing from the peninsula. These forts contained at least eight additional pieces of artillery. The sand dunes had been leveled to give the defenders a clear field of fire. A Union naval officer in a report stated that the forts at Caney Creek, Cedar Creek, and the San Bernard River "do not appear to have been constructed to prevent our gunboats from going in, as so little water is found on the bars, but to resist the advance of our land forces from Matagorda Peninsula toward Velasco.”

The fortifications were intermittently bombarded in January and February of 1864 by gunboats of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. The main purpose of the squadron was to prevent war material from reaching the Confederacy. The squadron's activities against the fortification were designed to interrupt and slow down construction and gather information for General Banks. Although the bombardment was intermittent, a significant amount of ammunition was expended against the Confederate fortifications and the forces manning them.

The height of tension on the part of the Confederates occurred on January 22 when the Federals landed a large force, estimated to be not less than 2,500 men, about 10 miles below Caney. This force moved down the peninsula away from Caney, however its presence greatly concerned the Confederate command. Orders were given on January 25 to divert troops and artillery from other positions to the Caney fortification.



An artists rendition of Fort Sandcliff (The Large Sand Fort) during a bombardment by gunboats off shore. Provided courtesy of Bobby McKinny.
2019 CW Activity_Apr Visit with Bobby McKinny 6__Sand Ft @ the Mouth of Caney Creek.JPG


In early March General Banks began concentrating his troops for an invasion of Louisiana in what would become known for the Red River Campaign. By March 31, 1864, most of the Federal troops had left the Texas coast. Once it was determined the Texas Gulf Coast was no longer in danger, several regiments of Texas cavalry defending the coast were transferred to General Richard Taylor in Louisiana.

Why didn’t General Banks make a concerted effort to attack the Caney Area? Since the Federals had established a permanent base at the mouth of the Rio Grande River, the threat of an alliance between the French in Mexico and Confederates was no longer an issue. It was decided the political and economic benefits of capturing Shreveport and possibly East Texas outweighed those in south Texas. Some have said an invasion on the upper coast was only a feint, but the logs of the Federal gunboats and reports by General Dana do not show evidence this was the case.

Historians generally regard the defense of the Texas coast as a significant military feat by the Texans. Although no battle occurred at the mouth of Caney Creek, the defenses here fit into the overall defense of the Texas coast along with Dowling's victory at Sabine Pass and Magruder's recapture and defense of Galveston. Key ports on the Texas coast remained in Confederate hands for the remainder of the war. As a result, population centers were not threatened with Federal occupation, supplies continued to slip by the blockade, and the cotton trade resumed in the Rio Grande Valley.

Hurricanes, severe beach erosion, construction of the Intercoastal Canal, and land development of a vacation community have destroyed all remnants of the Confederate defenses. The site of the main fort is now several hundred yards out in the gulf. However, some remnants of the fortification were remaining in 1975 when local historians John G. Forister and Hershel R. Horton documented what was left of the old fort as part of their application for a historical marker. Pictures were taken of a “zig-zag” trench line on the long east bank of Caney parallel to the shore line. The trench would have connected the Moore Redan and the Texas Redoubt.

A 1943 aerial photo of the coast area shows the remnants of the Smith Redoubt and large ditch across across a narrow neck created by a loop of the creek. The sight of Redoubt B which defended the rear of the fort is now a bait camp. The Texas Historical Marker for the Confederate Defenses at the Mouth of Caney Creek is located nearby on FM 457 near the draw bridge over the Intercoastal Canal, 5 miles south of Sargent, Texas.

Tx Cav_History_Gulf Coast 1863-4_Caney Fort 3_CSA Defenses on the Caney Sign.jpg
 

Rusk County Avengers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 8, 2018
Location
Coffeeville, TX
Hurricanes, severe beach erosion, construction of the Intercoastal Canal, and land development of a vacation community have destroyed all remnants of the Confederate defenses. The site of the main fort is now several hundred yards out in the gulf. However, some remnants of the fortification were remaining in 1975 when local historians John G. Forister and Hershel R. Horton documented what was left of the old fort as part of their application for a historical marker. Pictures were taken of a “zig-zag” trench line on the long east bank of Caney parallel to the shore line. The trench would have connected the Moore Redan and the Texas Redoubt.

A 1943 aerial photo of the coast area shows the remnants of the Smith Redoubt and large ditch across across a narrow neck created by a loop of the creek. The sight of Redoubt B which defended the rear of the fort is now a bait camp. The Texas Historical Marker for the Confederate Defenses at the Mouth of Caney Creek is located nearby on FM 457 near the draw bridge over the Intercoastal Canal, 5 miles south of Sargent, Texas.

Are these pictures available online?
 

J. D. Stevens

Corporal
Joined
Dec 11, 2016
Location
Deep In The Heart of Texas
The Texas Coast map was found on Fold3 and edited for this thread. The Caney map was a Google Map shot and edited by yours truly for this thread. My skills as a cartographer are sorely lacking, but it's the best I could do. The painting is private which I took a picture of and asked permission to use. The historical marker was taken by me a few years ago. Prior to the pandemic, I was down there and the historical marker had been removed due to construction. Hopefully it was replaced after the construction was complete.
 

Biscoitos

Corporal
Joined
May 14, 2020
Are these pictures available online?
Assuming that you have the proper permission, try right clicking on the image and choosing "save image as" and using the given title or creating your own, then saving as jpg or jpeg (or whatever format you prefer.) You can choose where the images are saved.
 

Lubliner

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Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Due to the huge gathering of troops for the coming Spring Campaign in 1864, the Texas forts were reduced by the Union, and only a small garrison was left commanding at Matagorda(?) or Brownsville (?). Because of the main aims of campaigning, the foreign affairs get mostly overlooked during this period during the last year of the war.
Lubliner.
 

J. D. Stevens

Corporal
Joined
Dec 11, 2016
Location
Deep In The Heart of Texas
what remained of the fortifications way back in the day
A 1943 aerial view showing some of the fortifications was found on the internet. The 1975 pictures of the "saw-tooth" trenches were found in the application for the historical marker. A sketch of the Lower Fort was made years ago a by man who explored them in 1928. The NARA has a map of the fortifications, but doesn't show a lot of detail. My eureka moment came when I found a hand sketch map by Colonel Ashbel Smith. It is difficult to read, but provides considerable detail including location and names of the redoubts and the ordinance in four of them.
 
Joined
Sep 15, 2018
Location
South Texas
The dead man in Bobby's painting is Private William Behrends, Company E, Buchel's 1st Texas Cavalry. Colonel Buchel was himself killed in action in Louisiana a few months after this incident.

View attachment 390916
I am a fan of Col. Buchel, before making colonel in his own cavalry unit he was Lt. Col. In the 3rd. Texas infantry, my great great grandfather's regiment. My avatar is a likeness of him.
 

J. D. Stevens

Corporal
Joined
Dec 11, 2016
Location
Deep In The Heart of Texas
The Caney Creek in the title of this thread also caught my attention.I used to be in the transportation department for the Texas Prison System. The "first right after you crossed Caney Creek" used to be part of one of our bus routes to the Darrington Unit.
It was a prisoner at the prison who painted the picture. My favorite are the barrels used to stabilize the sand.
 
Joined
Sep 15, 2018
Location
South Texas
Some of the inmates where pretty good at painting murals and pictures, in fact they were great. But there were a handful who couldn't seem to get human bodies proportioned right. Some of the painted characters had arms almost as long as their legs and such.
 

mjr251

Private
Joined
Apr 27, 2014
Location
Near Port Arthur, Texas
It's a really good painting. Looks like he used the photo of the water battery at Warrington, Florida as reference for the barbette gun.

I notice the barrels, was he trying to replicate gabions? Seems like the CS engineers down here on the Texas coast mostly used sod as revetments.
 
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