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 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
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.
John Dana, the signal officer, wrote a history of the battle, which
was published in the Dec. 1973 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated,
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....."
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
"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
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.
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.