Dorman, Catherine E. Sanders McGill [Kate] (1828–1897)


By: Katherine Kuehler Walters

Type: Biography

Published: September 14, 2021

Updated: September 14, 2021


Catherine “Kate” Sanders McGill Dorman, hotel owner, entrepreneur, caregiver, and “Confederate heroine of the Battle of Sabine Pass,” was born in Georgia on October 7, 1828. Scholars know little about Kate’s formative years. Her mother, Margaret Sanders, whose maiden name is unknown, remarried on April 7, 1842, in Autauga, Alabama, to Jesse Edwards, a cabinet maker. Kate married Arthur McGill (often spelled Magill or MaGill), a Pennsylvania native, in Muscogee County, Georgia, on April 6, 1844. According to the 1850 census, the McGills lived in Columbus, Georgia, a riverport on the Chattahoochee River. Arthur worked as a ship’s carpenter. Kate managed the household, which included three enslaved women, and took in boarders, a common practice in the South during the mid-nineteenth century. In Columbus, Kate gave birth to two daughters, Laura and Margaret Jessie (also spelled Jessie Margarett), who was likely named after Kate’s mother and stepfather.

According to local historians, the McGill family moved to Sabine Pass, Texas, a small community on the lower Sabine River in Jefferson County in 1851. Her husband likely planned to capitalize on the increasing riverboat traffic on the Neches and Sabine rivers (see RIVER NAVIGATION). Motivated by the same entrepreneurial spirit, Kate built and managed a two-story boarding house that could accommodate approximately twenty-four guests and had its own wharf. Commonly referred to by local historians as the Catfish Hotel, the McGill House advertised in regional newspapers and soon became a Jefferson County landmark that served merchants, riverboat crews, and locals. Guests at the hotel frequently commented on Kate’s hospitality, her culinary skills, and her singing for her patrons. According to deed, tax, and probate records, Kate purchased the property in March 1858 and owned it apart from her husband under Texas’s separate property law. Kate’s half-sisters Ella, Josephine, and Alberta Edwards joined her household before 1860 and likely helped Kate and her daughter, Laura, with housekeeping and meal preparation when not in school. The McGills’ five-year-old daughter, Margaret Jessie, died and was buried at Sabine Pass in approximately 1855.

On November 2, 1858, Kate’s husband was killed when the boiler exploded aboard the steamboat T. J. Smith, a mail packet (steamboat) on which Arthur was employed as chief engineer. Probate records show the date of his death as November 1, 1858. The unexpected tragedy left Kate and her daughter in a state of mourning. She also faced a two-year lawsuit from Henry B. Force, co-owner of the T. J. Smith, who sued her husband’s estate and lost when the court found Arthur McGill did not own any separate or community property. On April 20, 1859, Kate married John Dorman, a widowed friend of her deceased husband and captain of the Doctor Massie, a cotton steamer that operated on the Neches River. The couple married in Galveston, Texas. Throughout their twenty-seven years of marriage, Kate remained the sole owner of any land, horses, and cattle held by the couple, and John served as her agent in tax records.

Kate Dorman is remembered in the annals of Jefferson County history for her participation in three major events that took place in Sabine Pass during the Civil War era. First, in the summer of 1862 a yellow fever epidemic broke out in the county. For four months the disease swept through the communities along the Neches and Sabine rivers and killed more than a hundred residents, including approximately forty Confederate soldiers stationed at Sabine Pass. Another 200 citizens in the county suffered from the illness. At the first sign of the disease, many of the residents of Sabine Pass fled to safer localities. Kate, her family, and two of her friends, Sarah Vosburg and Sarah Ann King, were among those who stayed to take care of the infirmed and dying. These women converted Kate’s hotel into a temporary hospital and provided comfort to those suffering from the epidemic. Some local historians state the three women avoided becoming sick as they took care of their patients. Stories passed down to her granddaughters, however, claim she and her family became ill and were cared for by the soldiers she had nursed back to health. Local citizens never forgot the sacrifices that Kate and her friends made for their community.

Next, as the yellow fever epidemic began to subside, Union gunboats moved into Sabine Pass. In September 1862 the small flotilla sent troops ashore that captured and destroyed Fort Sabine, a task made easier by the epidemic’s heavy toll on the Confederates stationed there. The Confederates abandoned the post in advance of the approaching Union force. Fortunately for the residents of Sabine Pass, the invading troops avoided entering the riverport for fear of contracting the disease. On October 15, 1862, U. S. troops again landed at Sabine Pass, this time aboard the Dan, a captured steamer that had been converted into a Union gunboat. With orders to attack the Confederate cavalry barracks and stables located roughly five miles west of the town, they disembarked and prepared to march to their intended target. To carry with them the howitzer they had on the steamer, they commandeered Kate Dorman’s horse and cart. Though small in stature, Kate had a volcanic voice. Upon realizing that the soldiers had seized her property, she shook her fist at the soldiers and expressed her desire to see them dead before the end of the day. Despite her wishes, the troops marched back to town after a successful campaign, loaded their howitzer back aboard the Dan, and returned Dorman’s property, which they assumed belonged to Kate’s husband. As Kate continued to express her disapproval, the soldiers warned her husband that if he couldn’t keep his wife quiet, they would hang him. Further, the soldiers threatened to burn down the hotel unless Kate apologized, a clear indication that her unrelenting verbal assault had an unsettling effect upon the invaders. Instead of apologizing, she declared that she would see them in the lower regions before making any apologies and challenged them to carry out their threat of setting the hotel ablaze. Before the soldiers boarded their vessel and proceeded downriver, they set fire to the town’s sawmill and the homes of John Stamps and D. R. Wingate, but they left McGill House standing.

After nearly a year of peace at the riverport, Kate faced an invading force once more. On September 8, 1863, during what became known as the battle of Sabine Pass, Union troops planned to land 4,000 troops on the Texas side of the Sabine River. Before they could accomplish their goal, it was necessary to destroy the artillery battery at Fort Griffin, which overlooked the river and was located approximately 300 yards southeast of Kate’s McGill House. Four Union gunboats maneuvered within range of the Confederate battery and began to bombard their position. With federal shells landing between the hotel and the fortification, Kate and Sarah Vosburg prepared a hot meal for the Confederate defenders, then drove Kate’s horse and buggy to Fort Griffin and delivered food, coffee, and a gallon of whiskey to the defenders. After returning to the hotel, Kate and Sarah positioned themselves on the rooftop of the inn and through the lens of a telescope watched the battle. During the battle, Confederate artillerymen under the command of Dick Dowling crushed the Union squadron and thwarted a Union invasion into the state. The townspeople, including the Dormans, celebrated Dowling’s victory by holding a community-wide feast, complete with barbeque, sweet potatoes, various breads, and cakes.

For many years following the famous battle, individuals remembered and praised Kate’s acts of bravery and kindness during the Civil War. Margaret Watson, a noted journalist and reformer, wrote a personal account of Dorman’s heroic behavior. She recalled, “Mrs. Kate Dorman stood strong and brave under every difficulty. She was the friend of the private soldier as well as the officers. She nursed them when sick, gave the best she had to feed them. She was always on hand in the hour of peril to express faith in their success. . . .” Kate became known as the “Confederate heroine of the Battle of Sabine Pass.”

A few weeks after the battle, Kate celebrated the marriage of her daughter, Laura, to Maj. Felix McReynolds, who served in the Twenty-first Texas Infantry and was in command of Fort Manhassett. In 1864 her half-sister, Alberta, who Kate had raised, married Powhatan Jordan, a Confederate officer and assistant surgeon. During the last year of the war, with many foodstuffs scarce in the area, Kate had difficulty offering customers a full menu and often only had beef and bread to serve. After the war Kate and John Dorman ran the hotel with the help of their son-in-law until Kate sold it in 1869. She continued to hold other properties in Sabine Pass. There, Kate’s daughter, Laura McReynolds, died on December 27, 1885, and Kate’s husband, John Dorman, died on July 3, 1886. Three months later a hurricane destroyed all but two homes in their riverside community and killed eighty-six people, including the wife of her oldest grandchild, Arthur McReynolds. The riverport never fully recovered. After the storm, Kate helped take care of her youngest grandchildren and often lived with her son-in-law on the KO Ranch near El Campo in Wharton County, as well as in Beaumont and Sabine Pass.

Catherine “Kate” McGill Dorman died on December 24, 1897, and was interred next to her second husband in the Sabine Pass Cemetery. Her actions during the war were not forgotten by those who fought in the battle of Sabine Pass. In February 1900, when a few veterans of the Davis Guards traveled to Sabine Pass from the Texas Confederate Home in Austin, where they lived, to see the old fort and grounds, they asked to see Kate and learned of her death a few years earlier. Her story was recounted as well by locals and heritage organizations, including the Port Arthur chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Order of the Confederate Rose, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In 1974 the Jefferson County Historical Commission dedicated a state marker for Kate Dorman in the Sabine Pass Cemetery. The Texas Historical Commission erected marker for her at Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park in 1990. Her verbal altercation with U. S. soldiers over her horse and cart has been memorialized with annual reenactments during Dick Dowling Days festivities at the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Site.

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Beaumont Enterprise, June 6, 1920. W. T. Block, “Catherine MaGill Dorman: Confederate Heroine of Sabine Pass” (http://www.wtblock.com/ wtblockjr/catherin.htm), accessed October 29, 2019. W. T. Block, “A Eulogy to Catherine MaGill Dorman (1828–1897)” (http://www.wtblock.com/wtblockjr/ eulogy.htm), accessed February 11, 2019. W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas: From Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland, Texas: Nederland Publishing Company, 1976). W. T. Block, “The Swamp Angels: A History of Spaights 11th Battalion, Texas Volunteers, Confederate States Army,” East Texas Historical Journal 30 (March 1992). Philip Caudill, Moss Bluff Rebel: A Texas Pioneer in the Civil War (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009). Timothy Collins and Ann Caraway Ivins, Dick Dowling: Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas (Kilnaboy, Colorado: Old Forge Books, 2013). Edward T. Cotham, Jr., Sabine Pass: The Confederacy Thermopylae (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004). Mike Cox, “Kate Dorman of Sabine’s Catfish Hotel,” Texas Trails (http://www.texasescapes.com/ MikeCoxTexasTales/186-Kate-Magill-Dorman-Texas-Heroine-Civil-War.htm), accessed February 11, 2019. Galveston Daily News, October 16, 1886; May 9, 1889; October 27, 1893; November 12, 1894; September 15, 1895; March 11, 1900. Galveston Weekly News, September 21, 1858. Graham Leader, May 31, 2015. Houston Post, August 21, 1897. Jefferson County Deed Records, Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, Beaumont, Texas. Opelousas Patriot, August 13, 1859. Port Arthur News, September 8, 1990; September 9, 2012. Sabine Pass Cemetery Records, Jefferson County, Texas. Texas County Tax Rolls, Jefferson County. Ralph A. Wooster, “Life in Civil War East Texas,” East Texas Historical Journal 3 (October 1965).

Categories:
  • Health and Medicine
  • Nurses and Nurse Administrators
  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Katherine Kuehler Walters, “Dorman, Catherine E. Sanders McGill [Kate],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dorman-catherine-e-sanders-mcgill-kate.

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September 14, 2021
September 14, 2021

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