The Josiah H. Bell began life in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Eventually she worked her way to the Trinity River in Texas. Built with a sharp prow and 400 horsepower steam engine, she was a formidable foe to a lot of the obstacles found in the river. She could plow her way across shallows because of her heavy, pointed bow. Most boats of that time were shallow draft, with a rounded bow and would become grounded in the shallows and would often have to wait for the water level to rise. The Bell could push through brush piles that would often build up in the rivers. She was like a river-bulldozer. Her carrying capacity of 1,800 bales of cotton also made her a vessel that could carry a large load of cargo of any kind.
When the Texas and New Orleans Railroad was being run from New Orleans to Houston the Bell was purchased by the railroad and put to use hauling railroad construction supplies on the Neches and Sabine Rivers and the upper part of Sabine Lake.
After the first Union invasion at Sabine Pass and the fall of Fort Sabine, the Bell was converted to a cotton clad gunboat, outfitted with cannon and along with the Uncle Ben made ready to break the Union blockade of Sabine Pass.
On January 21, 1863, she and the Uncle Ben engaged the Union warships Velocity and Morning Light just offshore of Sabine Pass. The Bell had a 64 pound rifled gun mounted in the bow. The gun was named the “Annie” in honor of Lt. Dick Dowling’s wife.
The Confederate and Union boats began a running gun battle about 8:00 a.m. There was a slight breeze that enabled the Union sailing vessels to keep a distance of about two miles between themselves and the Confederate vessels. However the wind changed and the powerful Confederate steamboats were able to close the distance and open fire. Lt. Dowling was the gunner of the 64 pounder on the Bell. Several of Dowling’s shots severely damaged both ships. In addition the accurate cannon fire of the Uncle Ben also caused damage to both ships. After a running fight of 30 miles, both Union vessels surrendered, were boarded by the victorious Confederates and sailed back to Sabine Pass.