The Battle of Sabine Pass, Texas/Louisiana
By Mike Jones
|Photos by Mike Jones at the 150th Anniversary Reenactment|
of the Battle of Sabine Pass, Texas/Louisiana.
SABINE PASS, Tex./La. -- The Battle of Sabine Pass took place on September 8, 1863 on the Texas and Louisiana border. A Federal invasion fleet, consisting of 22 U.S. Navy gunboats and transports and 5,000 northern invasion troops, was attempting to invade and subjugate the people of Texas.
The fleet was under the command of Major General William B. Franklin and the four gunboats participating in the action were the U.S.S. Clifton; the U.S.S. Sachem; the U.S.S. Arizona, and the U.S.S. Granite City. The initial landing at the pass was to be led by Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel and 500 troops from the 75th New York Infantry. Troops from the 75th New York and the 161st New York were also manning the decks of the gunboats as sharpshooters.
The Confederate defense was anchored on Fort Griffin, several miles upstream from the mouth of the pass into the Gulf of Mexico. The fort was unfinished, but well designed by Col. Valery Sulakowski and Maj. Julius Kellersburg, both outstanding military engineers. The fort was manned on that day by 1st Lt. Richard William "Dick" Dowling, and his 41 men of Company F, "Jefferson Davis Guard," of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery. Dowling and his men had six old heavy artillery pieces to fire, two 24-pounder smoothbores, two 32-pounder smoothbores and two 32-pounder brass howitzers.
|Maj. R.W. "Dick" Dowling|
Dowling was very alert and had the pass well posted by pickets who immediately spotted the advance ships of the Federal fleet when they arrived off the pass on September 7. The pickets spotted the signal lights flashing between ships that night. Dowling kept watch on the morning of Sept. 8 while putting his men in the bombproof bunkers at the fort. They were to stay concealed until he was ready for them to man their pieces. At 6:30 o'clock that morning of Sept. 8, the Clifton came up the pass and stopped by the Sabine Pass Lighthouse, about two miles from the fort, to bombard the fort and see what reaction it got and gauge its strength. The gunboat was commanded by Lt. Frederick Crocker, a former New England whaler. Dowling concealed himself in the fort but where he could watch the Federal ship, and endured the bombardment for about an hour. The Federal gunboat was out of range of the fort's old smoothbore cannons. Dowling said that 26-shells fell during that initial bombardment, mostly going over the fort or falling short. But one of the shells fell in the fort but did no damage.
During the lull in the battle between that morning bombardment and the final assault that afternoon, there was a "line in the sand" type event in the fort. Dowling called his men out of their bunkers, lined them up and explained to them the gravity of the situation. He gave them the choice between either staying and fighting, and probably dying, or retreating and waiting for reinforcements. The Irish-Texans did not hesitate, they refused to abandon the fort. Their motto was "Victory or Death!"
The Federal Army and Navy were still trying to finalize their attack plans, which delayed the main assault. A long oyster reef running up the middle of the pass complicated the Federal approach to the fort. The plan they finally decided on was for the Sachem and Arizona to steam up the Louisiana channel of the pass as the first movement. Then, when the Confederates were concentrating their fire on the two gunboats in the Louisiana channel, the Clifton would then make a fast dash on the Texas side blasting the fort with its heavy naval artillery and the army sharpshooters picking off the Confederate gunners.
When the small Confederate gunboat, Uncle Ben, made a move toward Fort Griffin at 11 o'clock, the Sachem unleashed a three-shell barrage at it. The Confederate cottonclad was not hit, but returned to its dock.
Dowling and his men were confident and ready for what was approaching them. They had put range marker stakes out in the pass and had been drilling for months under the supervision Captain Frederick Odlum, who was an old U. S. Army veteran artilleryman. They would be able to zero in on the enemy warships as soon as they passed the range markers. Captain George H. Bailey, Confederate assistant surgeon at Sabine City, came to the fort to assist any casualties that may occur, but ended up helping with artillery and firing "Magruder pills" (a euphemism for cannon balls) to the attacking gunboats. Also helping attend the guns was 1st Lt. N. H. Smith of the Confederate engineers. Dowling called the men to their posts and, leaping upon the breastworks, rammed the fort’s battle flag deep into the sand, and then said, "Dick Dowling is a dead man before that flag comes down!"
At about 4 p. m., the gunboats entered the pass with the Sachem and Arizona steaming up the Louisiana side firing away at the fort with their heavy guns. The Sachem was in the lead and when it got to the first range marker, Dowling yelled, "Fire!" and the Irish-Texan cannoneers began blasting away at the two gunboats. Also, Major Leon Smith, commodore of the Texas Marine Department, Captain W.S. Good of the Confederate Ordnance Department, and Captain Frederick Odlum, all arrived in the fort. When they saw Dowling had the situation well in hand, they all decided not to interfere, even though they all outranked him.
Dowling narrowly escaped death when, just after siting his gun, an enemy shell struck and knocked off the site just has he had stepped back from it. The gun crews were firing rapidly and took the dangerous chance of not swabbing the guns in between firings. Dowling ordered gunner Private Mike McKernan, the best of the gunners, to aim for the Sachem's steam drum. McKernan did so and scored a direct hit. The steam drum exploded, scalding numerous soldiers and sailors to death, and causing other to abandon ship. The captain of the Sachem then had the shop's colors lowered and surrendered. The Arizona had run aground on the reef and was struggling to get off while under fire, but was effectively out of the battle.
The Clifton rushed toward the fort with guns blazing, but its tiller rope was severed by a Confederate shot, and it ran aground on a reef about 500 yards from the fort. One of Dowling's 32-pounders was dismounted while recoiling and was out of the battle. The Clifton kept up its fire on the fort but its decks were raked by anti-personnel grapeshot which swept the deck clean of naval gunners and army sharpshooters. The steam drum of the ship was pierced and scalding steam started spewing everywhere. Like on the Sachem, the men jumped overboard to save themselves. The Federal warship soon surrendered. The Davis Guards had fired 137 shots from the old cannons during approximately 40 minutes—an almost unheard of rate of fire.
During this time, the Granite City was escorting the troop transport that was supposed to be landing troops. But when Franklin and Weitzel saw the disaster befalling the Navy, it was decided to cancel the invasion and the troops were never landed. The Granite City and troop transport retreated back to the gulf. The Arizona was eventually pulled out of the mud and towed out of the pass. The Confederates captured the two enemy gunboats, killed about 50 northern invaders and took 350 prisoner. The Confederates suffered zero casualties, no killed and no wounded. This great Confederate victory boosted the morale of the South after the disasters at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The Confederate Congress passed a resolution of thanks and tribute to the Davis Guard for their victory. President Davis compared the victory to Battle of Thermopylae in Ancient Greece. The Davis Guards were presented specially made medals by the grateful citizens of Houston, in appreciation for the Irish-Texans having saved their city from the horrors of northern invasion and occupation. Dowling is also the recipient of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' highest award for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty at the risk of life, in combat with the enemy—the Confederate Medal of Honor.