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Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

The Legend of the
Headless Yankee Cannoneer
of Sabine Pass

By W. T. Block, Jr.
I already foresee that some character will accuse me of stealing this yarn from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but I'm going to tell it anyway. The anniversary of the Battle of Sabine Pass is almost here, and if I don't repeat it once more, the story might be lost to posterity for all time.

At the Sabine Pass State Park, there is a state historical marker, which shows the names of thirty Union sailors and soldiers, who were killed in the battle of Sept. 8, 1863. Another 22 men, who were liberated slaves, were also killed during that battle, but their names were not recorded on Navy muster rolls. On that date, an armada of 19 Union ships and 5,000 soldiers sought to run past the Confederate batteries, but they were sorely defeated by the 47 cannoneers and six "pop guns" inside the fort.

The next day being quite hot, Confederate soldiers buried the dead in a mass grave at Mesquite Point. It was a difficult and sickening chore, because the dead men were so badly scalded that the flesh fell from the bones.

Nevertheless, the most visible and unusual victim was the starboard gunner of the enemy gunboat Clifton, whose body had no head. One of the prisoners observed that a large cannonball came bouncing down the deck, hit the gunner in the neck, decapitating him; and his head fell overboard.

Although the name of the headless gunner is known to be inscribed on the state marker, it has never been possible so far to identify him by name or to determine who was assigned to starboard gunnery duty on the Clifton during the battle.

Lt. John Dana, the signal officer, wrote a history of the battle, which was published in the Dec. 1973 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated, as follows:
"Executive Officer Robert Rhodes fell mortally wounded.... Several more of the crew were hit when a cannonball struck the muzzle of one of the Clifton's guns and bowled them over... Ensign William Weld was only able to fire his damaged weapon by exploding the primer with an axe. The hapless starboard gunner was decapitated by another shot....."
For many years before he died in Beaumont about 1928, former Confederate Lt. Joseph Chasteen was known as Sabine Pass' "walking history book." He published this account of the battle in the 'Confederate Veterans' column of Galveston Daily News on Sept. 3, 1899, as follows:
"Soon after the battle, two of the Davis Guards from the fort were walking along the beach, searching for whatever they might find, when the body of a Negro man came drifting by. One of them remarked, "There goes another dead man."

"The other paused and said, "We'll see if he is a dead man or not!" He caught him by the heel, and when the head went under the water, the 'body' began kicking quite lively. They brought him up to the fort, and when the soldiers searched to see what was under his coat, they found the head of the Clifton's starboard gunner."
Since all of the bodies had been buried the previous day, a soldier walked over to the edge of the channel, and threw the severed head back into the water.

In March, 1864, the Confederate steamer Clifton, by then converted into a blockade runner, grounded on a Texas mudflat with 600 bales of cotton aboard. The crew then set the steamer ablaze until it burned to the waterline, and its smokestack remained visible until June, 1957, when Hurricane Audrey washed the remaining wreckage away.

During Reconstruction days, some of Sabine Pass' old veterans believed that the ghost of the headless Yankee gunner came ashore during each full moon, searching for his head and wailing a mournful call. Since it had no vocal chords, the ghost could only emit a grunt or some other discordant sound.

Decades ago, when I used to camp out on the Sea Rim beach, I remember hearing strange banshee wails or grunts, emanating from the neighboring marsh. However, I now realize that what I mistook at the time for the headless ghost was most probably a bull alligator's love grunt or growl, whatever it is that gators do, amorous as usual and pining for the company of his 'gatorettes.'

Many years ago, I asked an oldtimer at Sabine Pass if he knew about the Yankee apparition, and he said he hadn't heard that story told since World War I days. Old Joe Marty, an early Sabine Pass pioneer, used to tell that tale before he died around 1920, and it was told to me by Uncle Austin Sweeney, also deceased, who was a Sabine Pass watermelon grower for fifty years.

And who knows! Perhaps the headless Yankee may still be prowling the beaches there on moonlit nights, but most likely, he ended his nocturnal wanderings whenever the wreckage of the Clifton disappeared in 1957.

W. T. Block, Jr..
"Cannonball's Tales"
April 24, 2006 column
Reprinted from MidCounty Chronicle, Wednesday, October 28, 1998.


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