The war took its time reaching out-of-the-way Calcasieu Parish in southwest Louisiana, finally blowing into Calcasieu in the spring of 1864. And when the resulting battle was concluded and the casualties tallied, a conflict erupted that pitted shipmate against shipmate and resulted in one of the most unusual courts-martial of the war—not to mention some pretty wretched attempts at poetry.
All this over a girl—17-year-old Babette Goos, who unwittingly sparked a second Battle of Calcasieu Pass.
This tale of adventure, rivalry and unrequited love begins, however, with more mundane subjects—lumber, beef and bullets.
High-spirited Babette was the eldest daughter of local businessman Daniel Goos, who had come to the United States from the German region of Schleswig-Holstein in 1835. He made his way to New Orleans, where he met his future wife, Katrina.
They married in 1846 and moved about 1850 to the timber-rich area near Lake Charles. Goos built a sawmill and a fleet of schooners to send his lumber to New Orleans, Galveston and other ports.
Presiding over a family that ultimately included 10 girls and five sons, Goos (pronounced “Goss”) prospered in his new home as hostilities erupted. But if he sympathized with either North or South, he kept his feelings to himself. Making money interested him far more than fighting a war. Like many others around Lake Charles, he might have believed the conflict had nothing to do with him, but he was savvy enough to seize the business opportunities it presented.
When the U.S. Navy began to patrol the mouth of the Calcasieu (pronounced “Kal-kah-shoe”) River, Goos converted his schooner fleet into blockade runners. The ships took lumber and cotton to Matamoros, Mexico, and brought back food, medicine and other goods. According to old family accounts, Babette and her sisters stitched lucky pennants for each schooner to fly during its dangerous trip. Guile, pluck and perhaps the good fortune supplied by the young women’s banners all played a role in the success of the enterprise. Babette noted in her diary that her father’s smuggling proved “highly profitable,” producing $30,000 for each shipment of cotton delivered to the Mexican port.
Goos needed all the luck he could get in 1862, when he attracted the attention of the Union Navy. On July 25, Commander George F. Emmons of the USS Hatteras reported to Admiral David Farragut the discovery of a “steamer lying at anchor in the entrance to Lake Calcasieu.” Emmons investigated, but quick thinking by Goos averted disaster. Emmons reported that he was assured the vessel “was only the property of a Union man who had a family of 13 daughters, and that her boiler was burned out, engines out of order, and of no use to us and could be of none to the rebels.” Emmons said he left the ship “with her owner, a foreigner by the name of Goss [sic], who has been long a resident of Louisiana, but lately removed here to get out of the way of the rebels, as he alleges. He gave me fresh provisions for the crew and would accept no pay.”
Although Goos escaped capture, his activities likely helped bring the war closer to home. Union gunboats plied the waterways of southwestern Louisiana to stop Goos and other blockade runners. But the search for smugglers soon evolved into a second mission: finding cattle to feed Union troops.
From the earliest days of the war, Confederate leaders recognized the importance of securing southwestern Louisiana’s large herds of beef. Shortly after hostilities began, Confederate Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell wrote from New Orleans to Secretary of War Judah Benjamin that “one company with two 42-pounders” had been sent to Calcasieu Pass to build a mud fort to prevent Union foraging parties “from reaching the cattle.”
Nevertheless, the region kept Union forces well fed. In April 1863, Lt. Col. W. H. Griffin of the Texas Volunteer Infantry complained that “all the beef, mutton, and pork used on the Federal gunboats [blockading southwest Louisiana and east Texas] are procured on Lake Calcasieu, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana,” and that “it is all important that these depredations should be stopped.” Even so, the Federals continued to forage almost at will.
In early 1864, the situation on the Calcasieu grew tense. The previous fall, Union forces were embarrassed in an unsuccessful invasion attempt at Sabine Pass, Texas, just 40 miles to the west. Speculation abounded that another attempt might be imminent. On April 21, the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Department at Shreveport received word that “a large enemy transport with 1,000 troops aboard passed Galveston” the evening before, heading toward the Calcasieu.
Rumor gave way to reality three days later. On April 24, according to local accounts, the USS Wave, commanded by Lieutenant Benjamin Loring, appeared off Calcasieu Pass, fired two rounds at the forlorn and now vacant mud fort, and sailed upstream to the home of a Union sympathizer to await delivery of 450 head of stolen cattle. Four days later, the USS Granite City joined the Wave on the Calcasieu. Although the boat’s two dozen men from the 36th Illinois Infantry were there to seize cattle and horses, the presence of the Granite City fueled conjecture that a Federal
invasion was likely.
When Maj. Gen. J.B. Magruder learned of the whereabouts of the Wave and Granite City, he ordered an attack on the Union vessels “at once,” to “disperse, defeat and capture the expedition.” A force of up to 300 men commanded by Griffin, including elements of the 21st Texas Infantry, the 11th Battalion of Texas Volunteers, and a battery of the 5th Texas Artillery, moved to drive the Union vessels out.
The Confederates surprised the Union gunboats at dawn on May 6, 1864. Both boats were at anchor in a horseshoe bend near Monkey Island at the mouth of the Calcasieu River, and neither had steam in its boiler. They were sitting ducks for Confederate guns, which concentrated first on the Granite City because it had the most firepower. After a 90-minute firefight, during which its pilothouse was demolished and hull battered, the Granite City surrendered. Loring’s boat didn’t fare much better. Shells ripped into its pilothouse, engine room and boilers. The Wave received 65 direct hits. Confederate marksmen peppered the stranded crew. Loring said the Wave fought for an hour and 35 minutes before being forced to give up.
Babette and her family got involved with the captured Union sailors when, about 10 days after the fighting, the Confederates moved the Wave and its crew upriver to Lake Charles. Daniel Goos offered to turn over a building on his plantation for use as an infirmary if Union Dr. Eduard Ver Meulen would treat the wounded of both sides. The physician agreed, and the Goos children went to work whitewashing an outbuilding to turn it into a 50-bed hospital. When the building was ready, Ver Meulen and Goos supervised moving the wounded and sick. The younger Goos daughters had prepared bandages that were taken to the hospital building along with a supply of medicine that Goos had recently brought in from Mexico.
According to a Goos memoir, his family took care of wounded troops for more than two months. By day, Babette and her sisters worked with Ver Meulen to care for the wounded. In the evenings, the girls entertained them. A piano was moved into the hospital, and the older girls sang, danced and flirted. Two men from the Federal command–—Ensign William Terry and Harry Irwin, an enlisted man–—found Babette particularly enchanting.
Terry apparently found Babette indifferent to his attention. Undeterred, he pressed his case in verse that reads in part:
My own darling Babit,
Pray, quit that bad habit
Of writing cold letters to me!
By the heavens above you
I swear that I love you.
I’ll never wed another but thee!
Irwin took a more positive approach, describing her effect on the “mind of all young men” who gaze upon her:
Your lovely face with joy does beam
Your voice makes music sweet.
Your sylph like form, your airy step
Your pretty little feet.
But ’tis not your beauty enchants
Nor your graces all combined.
But your winning, gentle, loving way,
Your richly well stored mind.
When their wounds healed, Irwin, Terry and some of the other men from the Wave returned to the ship after it arrived in Lake Charles. They remained prisoners, but apparently had enough freedom to visit the Goos home from time to time and to receive gifts from Babette. Terry proved particularly appreciative; a letter to Babette from Ver Muelen, written May 22, 1864, aboard the Wave, reported Terry “desires to return thanks for your kindness and consideration for his personal comfort and appreciates his bouquet highly.”
Although the men on the Wave were fed well enough to keep body and soul together, boredom and a hankering for Louisiana beef got the better of them—and soon Babette was embroiled in a plot to rustle up some better food.
As recounted in her diary, Babette and a handful of the crew from the Wave “borrowed” one of her father’s boats and slipped down the river to a place where a local man named Bilbo kept a herd of cattle. She dropped her passengers and returned with some of the crew to her father’s docks. The men who were left behind selected one of Bilbo’s finest beeves, butchered it, feasted, then returned to the Wave.
But when they got there, Sheriff David John Reid Sr., captain of the Home Guard in Lake Charles, was waiting for them. Reid threw them into the guardhouse, and a mischievous lark suddenly became something more serious. On November 24, Irwin faced a court-martial aboard the Wave for “communication with the enemy”— the enemy being Babette. Irwin’s romantic rival, Terry, acted as judge advocate in the proceedings.
The daylong trial ended predictably. Irwin and a second crewman were found guilty for their part in the episode, but the unusual sentence suggests that more than the interests of military justice were being served. Among the terms imposed was a requirement that Irwin and his comrade “renounce all claims or interests real or supposed that they may have possess[ed] or desire to possess to and Special Regards from certain Special Ladies resident at Lake Charles & its vicinity.” Irwin was barred from communicating with anyone who resided in the Lake Charles area “except through such medium as the court shall appoint.”
Terry sent a copy of the decision to Babette with a note saying only that it was “for her information,” but the sentence seemed to have little effect on Irwin. If anything, he waxed more affectionate. By December, letters once addressed to “Miss Babette E. Goos” and signed formally “Truly and Sincerely, Harry G. Irwin” were sent to “My Dear Babette” and signed simply, “Harry.”
Even so, Irwin realized what he was up against. “I find that I have a formidable rival…in the person of Mr. Terry,” he confided to Babette. “I never recollected to have seen a man so deeply smitten in my life. On our trip to the boat he done nothing but sigh and has continued to do so ever since, and I fear he will never get over it.”
But with the war coming to an end and the Federal wounded going back home, time ran out for the dueling versifiers. In a final letter to Babette, Irwin wrote, “Wherever I go, or what e’er may be my fate, I shall always look back upon the recollections of the times I have passed in the society of yourself and your accomplished sisters and which I can assure you have been among…the happiest moments of my life, and which will never be erased from memory.”
Memories would be all that remained. “Dear Babette” was flattered by the wartime attention from her two suitors, but she was also a practical girl. In 1868 she married Charles Fitzenreiter, a Confederate veteran from New Orleans. He was not very good at poetry, but he made up for that with a rather healthy bank account.