© By W. T. Block
(click here for W. T. Block web page)
LIEUTENANT FREDERICK CROCKER'S DARING CALCASIEU RAID
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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.