Mysteries of the Battle of Sabine Pass
By Judith Linsley
Answering historical questions can be frustrating, in that when we answer one, we often create more. A perfect example is a story from the Battle of Sabine Pass, September 8, 1863, which was a decisive Southern Civil War victory. Union Navy Lieutenant Robert Rhodes was on board the gunboat Clifton, when he was struck by a shot that official records said "nearly carried away his hip and thigh." Those same records said that he died that same day and was buried at Sabine Pass.
Then, in the early 1990s, the late historian William D. Quick acquired a letter from a Pennsylvania paper dealer, who had gotten it from another dealer in London, England. The letter, postmarked Beaumont, was from Robert Rhodes' brother Frank to another brother, George. Frank came in 1868 from Rhode Island to Beaumont, not Sabine Pass, to take Robert's body back to Providence for reburial in the family plot. Beaumonters helped him locate the gravesite. He wrote his brother, "the people are very kind."
Frank was able to forensically identify his brother's remains via a "pivot tooth," an early dental prosthesis made by mounting a false tooth on a wooden peg imbedded in the tooth socket. (Ouch!) He took Robert's remains home in a trunk, because a trunk cost less than a coffin. This revelation shot a hole (pardon the expression) in the official account of both when and where Robert Rhodes was buried. Then super sleuth/historian Quick found a report by the Clifton's master-at-arms, stating that Robert was taken to Beaumont with other wounded and died September 10 in the makeshift hospital at the Jefferson County Courthouse. This is the date on his tombstone in Providence.
But was even that date correct? Rhode Island's Masonic records put the death date at August, 1864, indicating that Robert Rhodes lived for nearly a year longer. Frank Rhodes seemed to support that scenario when he wrote that the Gray family in Beaumont "lived very near to where Robert was, and carried things in to him." A physician stationed at Beaumont wrote his wife in the summer of 1864 that one of the "Yankees" in the hospital had recently died of "congestion." Maybe the man was Robert Rhodes.
Another question as to the location of Rhodes' first grave-given officially as the "Beaumont Cemetery, on the Neches River," was answered. There was no city cemetery then, only private plots. At first the probable site was an old cemetery now under the Port of Beaumont. But further research uncovered a 1910 Beaumont Journal article that described cemetery fragments found in a gas company excavation several blocks from the river. It had once been known as the Town Grave Yard; oldtimers remembered it as the burial site of Union soldiers from the Battle of Sabine Pass-and that one body had been later removed.
Answering historical questions can be frustrating, but that's part of the fun. You always feel that answers are just around the corner. Someday we'll probably even find Robert Rhodes' exact death date.
- United States Navy Lieutenant Robert Rhodes, Executive Officer of the Gunboat Clifton, died at the Battle of Sabine Pass, September 8, 1863
- Sketch of the Battle of Sabine Pass that appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 10, 1863, shows the Gunboat Clifton on the left and the Sachemon the right.