The Legend of Sabine Pass and the Headless Yankee Cannoneer

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Any number of ghost stories derive their origin from the days of the Civil War. Several even originate in Texas. One such story tells of a hapless cannoneer, who just so happened to be headless. Here is the tale:

A single state historical marker stands at the Sabine Pass Park in Southeast Texas. It marks the day when an armada of 19 Union ships and 5000 soldiers attempted to run past the Confederate army stationed there. In memorial, it lists the 30 Union sailors and soldiers killed in this battle on September 8th, 1863. Indeed, the Union army was utterly defeated by the 47 cannoneers and six “pop guns” inside the fort.

sabine pass, state marker, history, ghost stories, texasPhoto: www.thc.texas.gov

The following day after the brutal, albeit brief, battle was rife with the sounds and smells of the Confederate soldiers burying the dead. So badly burned by the heat of the sun were the dead that the flesh literally fell from their bones, making this a sickening and almost impossible task.

Amidst the dead was the starboard gunner of the enemy gunboat, Clifton. Headless due to, as one of the prisoners observed, a large cannonball that had bounced down the deck, hit the gunner in the neck and decapitated him. The head, now separated from the body, had fallen overboard into the water.

There is more that makes this story interesting, though. No one has ever been able to identify the headless gunner by name or to determine who was assigned to starboard gunnery duty on the Clifton during that fateful battle. Despite this enigma, the name of the gunner is known to be inscribed on the state marker.

In the December 1973 issue of the Civil War Times, Lt. John Dana recanted a history of the battle.

“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…..”

Confederate Lt. Joseph Chasteen, better known as a ”walking history book of Sabine Pass” published his account in the ‘Confederate Veterans’ column of Galveston Daily News on Sept. 3, 1899.

“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.”

sabine pass, history, texas, ghost storiesPhoto: www.thc.texas.gov

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