Singing Freedom’s Song – Texas, the Irish and the War for Southern Independence – Part V – Dick Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass

Statue honoring Capt. Dick Dowling in Houston, Texas - photo by author

One gallant feat of arms already told
On Sabine Pass sheds lustre manifold.
Another brilliant deed, my Muse, now sing  
And to Dick Dowling meed befitting bring.
One autumn day in eighteen sixty-three
Came gallant fleet, so proud and fair to see,
With gunboats four and transports full of men
To bring back Texas to the fold again.  
Only a six-gun fort stood in their way.
But heroes manned it who were there to stay,
Forty-four sons of Erin, strong and bold
To dare such deed as Fame hath rarely told.
Against the odds they quailed not in dismay  
And to give welcome warm made no delay.
Of fearful iron hail for near two hours
From Federal boats there poured incessant
Joseph Tyrone Derry

Of all of the battles fought in and for Texas the Battle of Sabine Pass is one of a handful that include the Alamo, Goliad and San Jacinto in the pantheon of Texas heroism and derring-do. That forty-seven men with six cannons were able to hold off an invasion fleet is certainly the stuff of epic poetry,  like the one published by Joseph Tyrone Derry in 1904, which we will excerpt throughout this entry. Like the battle of Galveston there were two engagements fought at Sabine Pass with the first being a reconnaissance in force by the union that failed to establish any permanent presence while the second being an attempted invasion of a flanking force that would compensate for the ignominious defeat at Galveston, leave Houston, Galveston and points west subject to attack from the land side and further divide the Confederacy crippling its ability to export via the land bridge to Mexico from whence goods were transshipped without being subject to the union starvation blockade.

Sabine Pass is at the mouth of the Sabine River and a town of that name is located on the left bank of the river, on the Texas side. It is the pilot station for the Sabine and Neches rivers which are the navigable waterways to Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange and other points on the Texas and Louisiana border. During the War for Southern Independence it was defended first as Fort Sabine by  Major  Josephus Somerville Irvine, who had started serving Texas at the siege of Bexar in 1835 and had been with  Col. Sidney Sherman‘s Second Regiment at the battle of San Jacinto where  it is possible that he was the youngest Texas soldier in that battle.  Prior to the war   from 1856 to 1860, Irivine had been tax assessor and collector of Newton County – which is just 100 miles north of Sabine Pass – and had served as a Methodist minister. When the war started he raised a company of volunteers from Newton County that became  Company C of James B. Likens’s battalion of Texas Volunteers – later it was designated the Eleventh or Spaight’s Battalion of Texas Volunteers and Irvine was elected its Major.

From the Annual reports of the Navy Department, we have the letter dated the 2nd of October 1862 of the union commander, Frederick Crocker, to Admiral David Farragut giving his account of the battle and following operations:

“I have the honor to report the entire success of our expedition to Sabine Pass. The town is in our possession, and the battery (consisting of four guns, two of 8,000 pounds, and two smaller) entirely destroyed, without the loss of a single man on our side.

The steamer Kensington and schooner Rachel Seaman, under my command, arrived off Sabine Pass on the morning of the 23rd of September, where the mortar schooner Henry Janes, Pennington, commander, was found at anchor. I proposed to him to join the expedition, which he did, and we attempted to pass the bar that night, but did not succeed. The next day was calm until nearly night, when, with a light breeze, the two schooners, having on board a strong party from the Kensington, attempted to cross the bar, in which, after the greatest exertions, the Rachel Seaman only succeeded.

The next day, with all the boats, the Henry Janes was kedged over, and both vessels immediately took up a position to attack. The battery opened on us with vigor, but the shells and rifle shots from our vessels overpowered their fire, and they ceased. That night I led a boat expedition up the pass to attack them in the rear; but before we got disentangled from the reefs, and got into position, the battery was evacuated. The next morning the schooners moved up to the battery and entirely destroyed it, while I received the surrender of the town…

The first battle at Sabine Pass 24th and 25th of September 1862

The next day, leaving the two schooners at anchor, I started with the Kensington for the river Mermantau, which is about fifty miles east of Sabine, where it was reported there was an unfinished battery and several steamers. That evening I led a strong boat expedition up that river. We found the battery deserted and destroyed, and that two of the steamers had run the blockade, loaded with sugar, only a week before. One still remained, but was up the river, and could not be reached in boats. The next day we anchored near the mouth of Lake Calcasieu and took a sloop. We also obtained information of a steamer and two schooners that lay up the lake, and afterwards saw the steamer moving. We immediately commenced to fit the launch with masts and sails, with which to go after her. The next day I returned to Sabine, where I found

that Captains Hooper and Pennington had executed my orders, by going up to Taylor’s bayou and destroying a large railroad bridge, thus cutting off all communication with Sabine Pass, and rendering our position secure against a land attack. The next day I chased and captured the British schooner Velocity, from Sisal, Mexico, loaded with salt, cotton-bagging, and large quantities of rope. I sent her into anchor at Sabine. The next day, (yesterday,) having completed my launch, I started for Lake Calcasieu, and off this place captured the British schooner Adventure, also from Sisal, and loaded with the same cargo. I have taken the liberty of sending her to you with this communication, believing her not to be of sufficient value to send north, and in the hope that you will retain her at Pensacola for the short time necessary to make it safe to send her to Key West, before which I hope to be at Pensacola to report in person.

I shall to-day start-up the lake for the steamer, and hope to take her. In which event I propose to arm her and go up the Mermantau river until I take the steamer there. Upon these two, if I get them safely to Sabine, I propose to place our Parrott guns and howitzers, and make a dash up the Sabine river, where there are several steamers and schooners and no batteries. If I am successful there, I shall return and go up the Neches river, where there are still more steamers and vessels, and where, at the town of Beaumont, there is a large railroad bridge on the main line of Texas, which, destroyed, will stop all communication between eastern and western Texas. All this is defended by only two 24-pounders in battery, and those I hope to overpower with the Parrott’s; in which event I shall take or destroy all above, and thus completely use up one of the most vicious and active of secession ports.

So soon as I take the steamers at this place and at Mermantau river, I propose to man them with such a part of the Kensington’s crew as can be safely spared, and then send the Kensington to fulfil your orders relative to the Albatros and other vessels to the westward, under the command of my executive officer, who is a sober man, thorough seaman, and perfectly competent.

I have the honor to send herewith a Galveston paper, containing a notice of the capture of Captain Kittredge, which I hope is not true. I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,

FREDERICK CROCKER, Acting Master Commanding.

While we would not openly dispute Crocker’s account of his bright and shining hour, and acknowledge it’s worth in describing the union blockade efforts, the actual events and results of the battle may differ.  On the 23rd of September 1862, the union Steamer Kensington, Schooner Rachel Seaman, and Mortar Schooner Henry James arrived off Sabine Pass and on the 24th of September two schooners entered the pass and began firing on the Confederate shore battery. The shots from both the ships and shore gunners fell far short of their targets until the ships moved nearer and their shot began to fall inside the fort. The Confederate cannons, two 12 pounder field guns and a battery of four 18 pounder smoothbores,  were still unable to score hits against the ships. Under cover of darkness, the Confederates evacuated, taking as much property as possible with them and spiking and burying the guns left behind. On the morning of the 25th, the schooners moved up to the battery and destroyed it while Acting Master Frederick Crocker received the surrender of the town.

This first battle of Sabine Pass occurred just before the first battle of Galveston – 2nd of October 1862 – while Texas was still under the command of Paul Octave Hébert, the former Louisiana governor who had thought the coast indefensible and who had removed the heavy artillery from the island. As soon as he was replaced by Gen.  John B. Magruder things changed. Crocker’s marines did burn the railroad bridge at Taylor’s Bayou but they never made it to Beaumont and just as Magruder chased the union out of Galveston one of his lieutenants would take over the abandoned union position at Sabine Pass and fight one of the most famous engagements of the war. As for Irvine, he led his troops in the battle of Fordoche or Stirling’s Plantation in southern Louisiana on the 29th of September 1863, where his son, James Patton Irvine, was killed and finally,  ill with yellow fever, he resigned his commission in December 1864.

With Magruder’s ascension and after the union had once again abandoned their positions on the coast Fort Griffin was built by the Confederacy in the spring of 1863 on the high ground just south and east of the town of Sabine Pass in a position that commanded both the Texas and Louisiana channels. At the time of the second battle the following guns were mounted on carriages at the fort: two 32-pounder smoothbores; two 24-pounder smoothbores; and two 32-pounder brass howitzers all of which were unrifled. The 24-pounders had been removed from  Port Neches in July and remounted at Sabine Pass, the two brass howitzers had been mounted in a fort on the Sabine River south of Orange and had been removed when it was abandoned in July, 1863. The long-iron 32-pounders, had been spiked and buried at the old fort – which had been located on marshy ground at the south entrances to the reef – when Major  Josephus Somerville Irvine had conducted his retrograde advance in October 1862 and Kellersberg had them dug up, rebuilt them at the Confederate foundry in Galveston, and they had been returned to Sabine Pass just days before the battle. The fort had four  magazines where shot and shell were stored which were each eight feet high, eight feet wide and 30 feet long, built into the sawtooth front of the fort beneath the guns.

12 pounder field gun with a range of up to a mile

First of all the reference to “pounder” is a reference to what a solid cast iron ball weighed. Not all cannon balls were solid however and there was “common” shot  a contemporary term referring to a “standard” containing an explosive charge and no balls,  a “case shot” round referred to a hollow ball containing explosive charge and case shot balls. Usually the case shot ball is filled with small lead balls around .5 inch to .7 inch, but dimensions are usually irregular and sometimes  materials such as iron balls, bullets, iron nails or almost any other form of scrap were used.  “Canister” shot is not a round ball at all but refers to a cylindrical “can” filled with balls which is a  distinctly different type of ordnance than “case” shot – and a good deal more lethal when used against personnel – imagine if you will a shotgun with a barrel that measures just over 5.25 inches in diameter and you begin to get the idea.

The 12 pound field gun was a marvel of portability and ease of handling – a proficient gun crew could fire two rounds a minute – and was highly accurate at better than half a mile and could hit targets as much as a mile away using as little as a pound of powder for the charge. The smooth bore cannon is almost as old – in terms of design – as artillery itself with 6 to 42 pounders having been in use by the time of Elizabeth I. Soon after the start of the war cannons were having their bore rifled which is a process of making grooves in the barrel which makes the shot spin around its long axis which serves to stabilize the shot improving accuracy. The 18, 24 or 32 pounder is more of the same just not quite so much range for a heavier shell but with more penetrating power.

Monument at site of Fort Griffin to Dowling and his men - photo by author

On a foggy morning, and most mornings are foggy there, or on a bright afternoon you can visit the site of Fort Griffin and see a model of the battlefield that covers half an acre, a collection of historical markers celebrating the bravery of both sides – although those honoring the union are of decidedly recent vintage – and the remains of fortifications built on the site from the late nineteenth century though the second world war. Unfortunately time and tide – more precisely tropical storms and hurricanes – have washed away almost everything that was there in 1863. We do however have very accurate descriptions of the fortifications and although it was an “earthworks” it was an imposing and effective edifice.

In New Orleans in June 1861 Col. Valery Sulakowski received the task to form a regiment of all Polish soldiers – which turned out to be mostly Italian – and the regiment was  sent to the front in Virginia where they reached Yorktown in September 1861 and constructed defensive works on the peninsula. Afterwards the not so popular Col. Sulakowski – who had been forced to quell a mutiny of his own men by force – resigned, angry for not being promoted to Brigadier General, and in 1862 wound up as chief engineer for General John B. Magruder designing the coastal defenses for Texas. He dispatched Major Julius Kellersberg and Lt. Nicholas H. Smith along with a staff of engineers and 500 slaves  from Houston and built both Fort Griffin and Fort Manhassett on the opposite end of Sabine’s Front Ridge.

Cutaway illustration of the 32 pounder cannon which weighs about 3.5 tons - 2.75 tons for the gun barrel and 0.75 tons for the carriage. It fired a 32 pound ball, propelled by 11 pounds of gunpowder giving a muzzle velocity of 1600 feet per second that gave a point-blank range of approximately 1000 feet.

Fort Griffin’s battlements had sloping, outer walls 16-feet high. The rampart at the top of the embankments was 20 feet wide along the sawtooth front and 10 feet wide along the west wall. The fort was triangular in shape, with a west wall, a north wall and a sawtooth front  which was designed for maximum protection of each gun crew and to prevent all of the fort’s guns and gun crews being destroyed at once by a single, large shell landing within the fort. The six guns faced seaward toward the south and southeast where the could be brought to bear on vessels in either channel – but did not have the range to hit vessels off shore. The fort’s casemates – where the guns were mounted – dropped five feet below the level of the ramparts, allowing only room for a man’s head to see above them and for the gun barrels to be pointed towards approaching vessels. When enemy forces occupied Fort Griffin on the 25th of May 1865 they reported that the roofs of the fort were made of layers of railroad iron, covered by layers of cypress logs, all overlaid with dirt several feet thick. It may not have been a huge stone fort on the model of the east coast fortifications but it was strong and formidable by any measure of the day.

In describing the second battle of Sabine Pass during the war, Jefferson Davis the president of the Confederacy said, “There is no parallel in ancient or modern warfare to the victory of Dowling and his men at Sabine Pass considering the great odds against which they had to contend.”, and as late as 1882 he told a spellbound audience, “That battle at Sabine Pass was more remarkable than the battle at Thermopylae.” – certainly it was grand victory. With less exuberance, but greater accuracy, Lt. Richard William Dowling stated in his official report of the battle, “Thus it will be seen that we captured with forty-seven men two gunboats mounting thirteen guns of the heaviest caliber and about three hundred and fifty prisoners. All of my men behaved like heroes, not a man flinched from his post, our motto was Victory or Death!”, echoing William Barret Travis from the Alamo. Dowling’s natural eloquence may be explained by the fact that he was Irish, born in Knockballyvisteal, Milltown, near Tuam, County Galway, Ireland in 1838, and was another Texan by way of New Orleans.

Lt. Richard William Dowling - the hero of Sabine Pass

But all in vain! Brave men behind the guns
Foiled all the fury of the North’s strong sons.  
Minus two gunboats and of each the crew,
A fleet of twenty sail dismayed withdrew.
The red-hot greeting which Dick Dowling gave
Made them see forts with myriads strong and

And so the fleet with its five thousand fled  
From forty-four stout hearts with steady head.
Whene’er this tale of Sabine Pass was told,
It made the wav’ring and faint-hearted bold.
A small affair it was, but of great weight,
In that it stopped th’ invasion of a State;  
And thus Fort Grigsby won an honored name
Upon the glorious South’s proud roll of fame,
And the brave Davis Guards, who fought so well,
Will in her grand Valhalla ever dwell.

Joseph Tyrone Derry

The “legend” of the battle is that Dowling, and his 40+ Irishmen, managed in less than an hour to repulse an invasion fleet of between five and fifteen thousand bloodthirsty yankees foaming at the mouth and straining at the leash in their desire to rip the bodice from the fairest flower of the Confederacy, Texas. Just as Crocker’s report  exaggerated the union claims in the first battle this is a somewhat florid version of the second.

Capt. Frederick Odlum commanding the Jefferson Davis Guards, Company F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment had placed colored poles along both channels through the pass to mark both distances and required elevation and then drilled the company until they had sharpened their accuracy which had been lacking at the battle of Galveston. The Union forces lost any chance of surprising the garrison when one of their ships missed its rendezvous with the invasion fleet from New Orleans on the evening of  the 6th of September 1863 but the navy commander, Crocker who had been in command at the first battle and apparently had no new intelligence on the improved Confederate position, formed a plan for the gunboats to enter the pass,  destroy the fort and land his invasion force. The Clifton shelled the fort from long-range just after sunrise on the 8th, but the Confederates held their fire because the ship remained out of range. The initial bombardment concluded late in the afternoon and Crocker sent his gunboats into the pass, guns blazing as they steamed forward.

"The Disabling and Capture of the Federal Gunboats 'Sachem' and 'Clifton', in the Attack on Sabine Pass, Texas, 8th of September 1863." She was originally the civilian ferryboat Clifton, built in 1861. After she was captured on the 8th September 1863, she became the Confederate gunboat and blockade runner Clifton and was destroyed on the 21st March 1864.

After sustaining a ten-hour bombardment the Irish longshoremen turned  Confederate cannoneers emerged to man their guns as the ships came within range and the artillerymen fired their cannons with great accuracy and a shot from the third or fourth round hit the boiler of the Sachem, which exploded, killing and wounding many of the crew and leaving the gunboat without power, the Clifton continued up the channel until a shot from the fort cut away its tiller rope, left the gunboat without the ability to steer and caused it to run aground. Another deadly accurate shot into the boiler of the Clifton sent steam and smoke through the vessel and forced everyone to abandon ship. The Davis Guards had fired their heavy guns over 100 times in thirty-five minutes, a rate of less than two minutes per shot – far more rapidly than the standard for heavy artillery – and more importantly with the greatest of accuracy.

Gen. William B. Franklin and his transports with about 5,000 soldiers turned tail back to New Orleans and the upper Texas coast was safe until the end of the war – although Magruder never quit working on improving the fortifications. During the battle Crocker was in command of the Clifton and lost not only his ship but was also be captured and imprisoned at Camp Ford in Tyler, Texas from which he would not be released until February of 1865.

Dick Dowling was an Irish publican – in peacetime he owned three bars in Houston including the Bank of Bacchus across the street from the court-house and the most popular watering hole in the city – turned artillery officer and may be said to have been a providential man, a David to the yankee Goliath who had triumphed at both Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July of that year. He was celebrated the length and breadth of the Confederacy and he and his unit were the only soldiers to be decorated by the South for heroism under fire. They each received a medal that had been made by smoothing a Mexican silver peso which was then engraved with DG [Davis Guards] and the Southern Artillery Flag on the obverse and the inscription “Sabine Pass 1863” on the reverse. In honor of their Irish heritage the medal was worn suspended from a green ribbon with a gold border. The site of the battle has been preserved and memorialized and the first piece of public art in Houston, Texas was the statue – the top of which is pictured at the beginning of this post – which was commissioned and paid for by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and given to the city who placed it in front of the city hall in 1905 [in 1958 in an act of political cowardice it was removed to a less “provocative” location which may be why it hasn’t been demolished by the forces of revisionism yet]. Every St. Patrick’s day it is saluted by those who hold Erin dear, every September they celebrate Dick Dowling Days with a reenactment of the victory in Sabine Pass and for many years [including when the author was in school] his deeds were recounted with those of Travis and Bowie and Crockett and helped make a special place for the Irish in Texas.

There is a final chapter to the story that is maybe more horrible than the war itself. In 1864 Josephus Somerville Irvine, the first defender of Sabine Pass, would be forced to resign his commission sick with yellow fever. Throughout the war there were periodic outbreaks of yellow fever including one in Galveston in 1862 which killed at least 12 Confederate soldiers and it would claim other lives there, probably including Margaret Edythe Young’s grandfather – David Adams who was a member of Company I of the 1st Regiment, Texas Heavy Artillery. After the war Dowling’s, who had returned to be a local hero in Houston reopening the Bank of Bacchus,  was cut down by a yellow fever epidemic and died on September 23, 1867 at the age of thirty.

Yearly summer epidemics of yellow fever had decimated American cities as far north as Boston since colonial times. Doctors knew that the disease was carried  by infected seamen on ships from tropical ports, but they had no idea – prior to Walter Reed’s work in Cuba during and after the Spanish-American War –  that the great plagues were spread by mosquitoes. Ports had established quarantine stations where arriving ships from ports where infection was so much as suspected were required to wait, often   weeks, until they were certified free of the disease and allowed to proceed to the wharves and unload their cargo. With the union starvation blockade making ships – even those of neutral nations – subject to capture or sinking quarantine was a luxury the South could no longer afford. As a result there were many catastrophic  epidemics of yellow fever during the Civil War. For all intents and purposes this was a much an exercise in germ warfare as giving smallpox infected blankets to the indians had been.

The disease was prevalent  in the swamps,  marshes and lowlands but especially at the Southern ports. Coastal North Carolina was swept by an epidemic in 1864; of the 763 cases reported in New Bern, 303 died. Wilmington traced its epidemic to the arrival of the blockade runner Kate and from the 20th of October  to the 15th of November, yellow fever claimed 710 lives, about 15 percent of Wilmington’s population. It was for all intents and purposes the equivalent of the plague and once an infected mosquito bit a person, the onset of the disease began within a few days. The patient suffered head and body aches, along with high fever and nausea; damage to the liver resulted in a yellowing of the skin and eyes – more than half the victims of yellow fever died within a few days and everything that they had come into contact with had to be burned, since people believed it was spread by contact, and the victims were buried quickly and without ceremony. Part of the old cemetery on Broadway in Galveston is known of as the “fever cemetery’ and who and how many are really buried there is a matter of conjecture but it was due in no small part to the nursing of the Ladies of the Ursuline that the epidemics in Galveston were not worse.

Hidden away on the northwest side of Sam Houston Park in Houston, Texas is another Louis Amateis creation, The Spirit of the Confederacy, a 12-foot tall winged nude male who is holding a palm frond and a sword that has somehow escaped the depredations of the politically correct. It was erected by the Robert E. Lee Chapter N. 186 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in January 1908 and dedicated “To all heroes of the south who fought for the principles of states rights.” There are those who will never understand that there is a difference between heritage and hate and these are by and large the same people who will never admit that he who governs least, governs best. This is not specifically a monument to Dowling but maybe it should be because the Irish of Texas personified the Southern spirit perhaps better than anyone else.

Spirit of the Confederacy by Louis Amateis, 1908


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