Confederate Hero, Dick Dowling: Miracle at Sabine Pass

He stands in bronze and he stands on granite,
Facing the river where the fleet turned tail;
The stone lists the Davis Guards upon it,
Names that rhyme in the songs of the Gael.*

Around 3:30 on an afternoon of September 8th 1863, on the southeast coastline of Texas, group of about forty-five mostly Irish-American Confederate soldiers were looking apprehensively down the Sabine River. Sweat was dripping off them as they stood bare-chested in the sweltering summer heat. The smoke from the stacks of four Federal gunboats was rising in the air as they came steaming up the river. Behind them in the distance was a flotilla of twenty-three transports with an invasion force of some five thousand infantrymen, all headed directly at their small fort.

(Above: The Battle Of Sabine Pass by Andrew Jackson Houston, Son Of Sam Houston.)

To face this armada the tiny Confederate force in the small earthen Fort Griffin on the western bank of the Sabine had just 6 cannons, and they were old smoothbores. The fate of Texas was in their hands now. The odds against them were hard to calculate, but the word astronomical would not seem out of place.

This motley collection of Irish soldiers, mostly dock workers from Houston and Galveston, along with some railroad hands, and laborers, were Company F, First Texas Heavy Artillery. They were better known as the Davis Guards, in honor of President Jefferson Davis. Their commanding officer, Richard W. Dowling (right), was a muscular, redheaded 26-year old proprietor of a Houston saloon called the “Bank of Bacchus.” Few may have thought this little band of Irishmen with their antiquated artillery could stop this invasion force, but those few were the audacious men inside the fort. They had been training for this fight for several months and had an ace up their sleeve out there in the channel. They would soon know if their self-confidence was misplaced.

Dick Dowling was born in early 1837 in Knock, Tuam, Co. Galway and had six siblings. He and his family were among the multitudes exiled by An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger. Dick and his older sister, Honora, arrived in New Orleans in 1846, perhaps sent to friends or family there. By 1850 Dowling’s parents, Patrick and Bridget, were reduced to living in the Tuam workhose, and followed their children to New Orleans shortly after that. Their luck was no better in “Amerikay,” as both died in 1853 in one of the Yellow Fever outbreaks so frequent in southern cities in the 19th century.

When the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party gained power in New Orleans shortly after that, the teenage Dowling and some of his siblings moved to Texas. At just nineteen, Dick got into the saloon business in Houston and was doing very well by the time the Civil War started in 1861. He also married Elizabeth Anne Oldum, whose father, Benjamin, was a Co. Kildare native and a veteran of the Texas War of Independence.

It was Benjamin’s brother, Frederick, who got Dick involved with the Houston Light Artillery militia in 1860. Oldum drilled his troops into a very skilled group of artillerymen. They saw some action during the rather amazing recapture of Galveston on January 1, 1863 and had one man mortally wounded, Pvt. John Gleason.

On the 21st, aboard two steamers of Major General “Prince John” Magruder’s “Navy,” which consisted of merchant ships “armored” with cotton bales, they took part in the capture of two U.S. Navy blockade ships. The cannon under Dowling’s command, an eight-inch rifled Columbiad called Annie, after his wife, was said to have raked the decks of the federal ship Morning Light with “uncanny accuracy” before they struck their colors. After that battle the Guards were sent to garrison Fort Griffin on the Sabine River.

(Left: An 8-inch Columbiad, similar to the gun Dowling commanded against the Morning Light.)

By the summer of 1863 the U.S. government had begun to worry about French designs on Texas. Their recent incursion into Mexico, which would end up with the “Emperor Maximilian” in power there, had Lincoln very worried that the French had their eye on annexing Texas while the Americans were busy fighting each other. This was one of the motivations for sending an invasion force up the Sabine River in September, to retake Texas and thwart and French plans.

The force the Federal army sent to Texas was to be the largest amphibious assault on enemy territory in the history of the U.S. military up to that date, with five to six thousand troops commanded by Major General William Franklin. Confederate Major General “Prince John” Magruder (right) had only about 11,000 troops to defend the entire state.
Most of them had been moved to the Red River area to oppose an expected Federal assault from Louisiana and some sent west to defend against Comanche attacks there. The coastline was extremely vulnerable, given the Federals huge naval advantage.

The Federal ships had a confusing couple of days assembling outside the mouth of the Sabine and eliminated any chance of surprise. Seeing the activity during the day, and signal lights during the night, Dowling sent word of the threat to Magruder on September 7th. Having no way to send assistance in time, Magruder telegraphed Captain Oldum, who was now in command of the general area, to abandon the fort and blow it up. “It would be a useless sacrifice of men to offer battle, with almost certainty of defeat,” he said. But when he sent the message to Dowling, Oldum added “Use your own discretion about giving battle.”

Dowling and his men at Fort Griffin were on their own, but did not share Magruder’s pessimism. They had spent many months improving the defenses of the fort and did not want it to be for nothing. Given a chance to fight by Oldum’s unauthorized altering of Magruder’s order, Dowling and his men were not going to retreat without a fight.

“The foe are many and we are few,
Lieutenant Dowling, yours the voice
To spike or fire the guns, and you
Alone can make a soldiers choice.”*

The Sabine River was the southeast border between Texas and Louisiana. It had a sandbar at the mouth that prevented large draft ships from entering. The fort had been placed on the west bank at a spot near the end of an oyster bank that divided the river into a west and east channel.

The Davis Guards has placed white tipped stacks into these channels and knew exactly what powder charge and elevation was needed to zero in on those positions, and where the limit of their range was. They had only 6 guns: two 32-pounder smoothbores, which had been spiked and buried earlier in the war, then dug up and repaired, two 24-pounder smoothbores, and two 32-pounder howitzers. They were all obsolete, so the Guards needed that edge. The ships coming upstream had very little margin for error to avoid running aground passing the oyster bed, so it was not difficult to accurately estimate where attacking vessels would be. It would prove a deadly combination.

Federal Admiral Farragut had given tactical command of the attack to Lt. Frederick Crocker, who had been a very successful New Bedford whaling ship captain. Though it seems odd to give such an important command to a junior officer, Farragut had few career naval officers with shallow water experience. The deciding factor may have been that Crocker had already sailed up the Sabine Pass once, in October 1862, to attack Sabine City.

Crocker had four heavily armed gunboats: the USS Clifton (diagram, left), USS Sachem, USS Arizona and USS Granite City, which seemed like more than enough to attack and neutralize Fort Griffin, given that each of them individually out-gunned the fort. Once that was done, troops would be landed just south of it, and capture it. The plan from there was to march north on Beaumont and west to capture Houston.

And fire sparked in Dowling’s eyes
“Here we stand when the gunboats come,
Here we fight till the last man dies
Or the Yanks march in to a captive drum.”*

Around 6:30 am, Crocker, aboard the Clifton, sailed within range of the fort and opened fire on it with her 9 guns. Seeing that the ship was out of range of his ancient guns, Dowling simply had his men take cover in bombproof shelters. He stayed above ground watching with his spyglass, ready to call them back if the ship advanced into range. The Clifton fired, by Dowling’s count, twenty-six rounds at the fort, doing very little damage, then withdrew to have a conference regarding their next move. The lack of return fire may have given Crocker and the rest of the Federal officers a false sense of security. Some of them had contemptuously dubbed Fort Griffin the “mud fort.”

A small Confederate cotton-clad gunboat, the Uncle Ben, armed with just two 12-pound cannon, steamed into Sabine Lake ready to try to give what little assistance they could to the fort, but really could do little. From Beaumont about ninety-five troops were loaded on a steamer to attempt to assist, but they were unlikely to arrive in time to be any help.

The plan of attack was for the Sachem and Arizona sail up the eastern channel while the Clifton and Granite City steamed up the Texas side channel. The Sachem and Arizona moved first planning to draw the fire of the fort. Then the Clifton, the best armed of all the gunboats, would blast them from the closer channel with the Granite City there to help cover the planned landing just below the fort. If any substantial force managed to land, the fort would quickly be overrun.

Around 3 pm Dowling saw the gunboats start up the river and his men, many of whom were playing cards, scrambled to man their six cannon. The gunboats again were able to take the fort under fire while still out of their range, but now the men, all stripped to the waist in the mid-afternoon heat, stood to their guns.

As the Sachem approached the first range marker, with the Clifton still out of range, Dowling prepared to hit them with a full volley of his six guns. On the Sachem one of the crew pointed out the first white-tipped pole they were approaching in the channel. “What of it,” the overconfident captain Johnson, commanding the ship, asked? “Not to worry,” he said, “the Clifton will soon blow that little mud fort away.” There was reason to worry, as would be revealed shortly.

Dick Dowling, who came from Tuam town
In Galway, signaled above the noise.
He lit his taper, waved up and down.
“Now is the moment. Blast ‘m boys.”*

As Sachem reached that first maker, Dowling yelled “FIRE!!” and educated the Sachem’s captain. Though one of Dowling howitzers rolled off its platform and was out of the rest of the battle, the other five guns were deadly accurate. The Sachem “was being pulverized,” said one of the crew.

Dowling had put Pvt. Michael McKernan in command of one of the 24-pounders, and one of his “Magruder pills,” as they called their rounds, went through the Sachem’s boiler. Boiling water spewed all over the crew, many of whom jumped overboard, and the Sachem was out of the fight. It drifted and was grounded and the Arizona, which was in any case having a terrible time moving over the mud of the shallow river, was blocked from moving up that narrow channel behind them.

(Below: The attack on Sabine Pass, Harper's Weekly, October 10, 1863.)

Crocker had wanted to distract the guns of the fort to the eastern channel before he attacked up the western, but Dowling’s men had destroyed the Sachem so quickly that they turned this strategy to their own advantage. It had enabled them to concentrate all their guns on the Sachem, and now back to the west before the Clifton got too close to the fort. What Crocker had done was divide his superior forces, allowing the inferior force to defeat him in detail.

Crocker saw the disaster in the east channel, but he was no coward. He put on full steam and moved directly into the teeth of the fort’s guns, with his own formidable array of guns blazing back, and accurately.

As the smoke of their guns was enveloping them, the Davis Guards must have looked like denizens of hell itself; they're upper bodies streaked with with black from dirt and gunpowder residue sticking to their sweat-soaked skin. They quickly swung their five remaining guns around on the Clifton as its shells gouged the forts earthen ramparts and whistled over their heads. One round took the sight off the 32-pounder commanded by Dowling, barely missing him. Mini-balls also whizzed and buzzed around them, as the infantry sharpshooters on the Clifton were now in range of the fort.

This was the crisis moment of the battle. The Clifton was halfway up the channel. If they could get above the fort, it would be virtually defenseless to their rounds, as that side of the fort was nearly wide open. But the deadly accurate gunners of the Davis Guards would have something to say about that.

Dowling’s men were now firing without swabbing their tubes between rounds, a very dangerous procedure, which could lead to a premature ignition of the powder from an ember in the barrel at any moment. Two gun crew members had their thumbs badly burned by the severely over-heated tubes. When one of the 24-pounders could not be depressed enough to target the Clifton, the men frantically dug out the ground under the wheels as the Clifton’s shells pounded into the ramparts around them and mini-balls buzzed by their ears.

With the Clifton only about three hundred yards from the fort and looking as if it might succeed in getting by them, a shot took out their steering ropes. The gunboat veered left into the western bank and grounded. (Left: A U.S. Navy drawing of the USS Clifton in profile.)

The fight was not over, however. Crocker had speculated on the possibly of intentionally grounding himself in such a position during the battle planning, as he would still bring his superior firepower to bear on the fort while grounded with no danger of sinking. They would be an immobile, much easier, target at that point, however. So Crocker had told Franklin and the captain of the Granite City that if this happened, they must follow up immediately and get the troops landed. Now he opened his spyglass looked down stream, desperately hoping for their support, but they remained motionless.

The Clifton then fell victim to the same vulnerability as the Sachem. A shot pieced their boiler and steaming water doused her decks. Crocker’s executive officer, Robert Rhodes, fell mortally wounded. Another crew member had his head severed by round careening down the deck. With screaming sailors and soldiers diving over side into the river and the muddy bank, and others dying all around him on his blood-soaked deck, and seeing no ship coming to his relief, Crocker’s choice was clear. “Thus my hope left me,” he later said. He reluctantly ran up the white flag to save useless carnage on his ship.

(Right: Both disabled Federal gunboats near the end of the battle.)

The Sachem had enjoyed a respite while the fort concentrated on the Clifton. They had a few men rescued by a row boat from the Arizona, but the Arizona fell victim to the narrow channel and was stuck in the muddy bottom. With no hope of more help from her, and with no other assistance in sight, Captain Johnson, “swearing and boiling with rage,” ran up the white flag.

The Granite City now turned tail and fled, as would the Arizona, though it took her some time to get off the mud flats. General Franklin ordered the entire fleet of transports to follow the Granite City out toward the Gulf. The battle was over. Dowling and his one company of Irishmen had achieved one of the most astounding victories of the entire war.

The fight was over in half an hour
When the Granite City ran for the sea,
But not in glory as Fort Griffin’s tower
Lifted the banner of victory.*

The battle had lasted only about 35 minutes, and Dowling’s men had fired 137 rounds, a rate of fire almost unheard of for heavy artillery. With only five pieces firing for most of the battle, that was barely over one minute per round for all of them. The tubes were so scorching hot that they would not cool until the following afternoon.

Dowling had them loaded with canister as soon as the two gunboats surrendered, however, because he had about eighty armed survivors of the Clifton now on shore just south of the fort. If they realized how few men were in the fort, they could easily capture it. Luckily, the reinforcements from Beaumont presently arrived to relieve him of that danger. One of the captured Federal officers who met Dowling in the fort was shocked that he had commanded the fight. He estimated Dowling’s age to be nineteen and called his defeat of the flotilla a “boyish trick.”

(Left: Lt. Robert Rhodes, who was killed on the USS Clifton.)

Dowling and his men had killed perhaps as many as 50 Federal sailors and soldiers and taken about 350 prisoner, many of them wounded. They had captured two ships that were eventually repaired and put in Confederate service, along with 13 large caliber artillery pieces. All that had been done while having no one killed and one man very lightly wounded by some flying wood slivers.

Tributes soon rained down on the heads of the Davis Guards from all corners of the Confederate military and government. Magruder’s over the top comment was that Dowling and his men were “the greatest heroes history recorded.” There were no half-measures with “Prince John.” The Confederate Congress passed a resolution that was a bit toned down from that, calling it “one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements of this war.” And historian A.J. Muir has called it, “the new Thermopylae.” Some called it, “the Alamo in reverse.” Perhaps Dowling himself had the truest comment in his after action report. “All my men behaved like heroes; not a man flinched from his post,” he said. The people of Houston had medals made from silver Mexican coins and presented to each man who fought in the battle. The Federal government would never occupy more than a few coastal areas of Texas.

(Below: The Davis Guards medal that was awarded to Jack White.)

The victory greatly enhanced the standing of the Irish in Texas. The Houston Telegraph wrote: “Let no one hereafter cast any imputations on the honest Irish soldier … The noble men belonging to the Davis Guards, who are all natives of the Green Emerald Isle, deserve well of this nation … Inured to hard labor, nobly did they stand by the guns and fight to the last.”

The Davis Guards saw no further combat in the war. Dowling was promoted to major and, with his new found fame, was utilized with recruiting trips around the state. Following the war his uncle Fred was involved with the Fenian movement. It’s not known if Dick joined, historian A. F. Muir believes he did, but the Houston group was called the “Davis Circle,” in honor of his unit.

Dowling reopened his saloon and became involved in several other business ventures, including buying up land in anticipation of the nascent oil business. This would likely have made him a very wealthy man in the near future, but fate intervened.

In September 1867 that 19th century scourge of the southern summer, Yellow Fever, struck Houston. Dick came down with it, but recovered and went back to work, but perhaps too soon. He relapsed and on the 23rd he passed away, taken by the same disease that killed his parents and would also take Fred Oldum a month later. Richard Dowling was laid to rest in St. Vincents Cemetery in Houston.

Today around Texas memories of Dowling and the Davis Guards have faded, but for decades he was one of the most commemorated heroes in Texas history. Dowling St. and Tuam St. in Houston are both named in his honor. In 1905 a statue was unveiled to Dowling in Houston. It was paid for by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Dick Dowling Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was rather unique in that it had an actual metal sword in its left hand. In 1937 a statue of Dowling was unveiled on the site of the fort. He has now been commemorated in Ireland as well. A few years ago a bronze plaque honoring Dowling was unveiled at the Tuam Town Hall.

(Left: Dowling statue that was once at Market Square in the city and is now in Hermann Park, Houston. It was the first publicly financed monument in Houston.)

Dowling’s life contains numerous incidents that showed him to be a man who cared about his community. Before the war he helped organize Houston’s first fire brigade and he donated several thousand dollars to it as he got more successful just after the war. He organized fund raising for a local war-widow and also for the families of fire brigade members who fell victim to Yellow Fever during the summer of 1867, before he tragically fell victim to the same epidemic at the age of thirty.

Richard Dowling was a soldier and a Confederate war hero, but he was more than that. Had he lived he was well on his way to completing a rags to riches story, going from a penniless Irish famine refugee to a wealthy businessman, but he was also revered by the people of Houston as compassionate and kind Irishman. In his obituary the Houston Telegraph wrote: “The far off echoes of the guns of Fort Griffin have served as funeral salvos for the warm-hearted hero, Dick Dowling.”

Dick and his Jefferson Davis Guards
Will live forever at the Sabine Pass.
Inviting the ghosts of the Irish Bards,
Who sing by the sandless hourglass.*

 

* From “The Ballad of Dick Dowling” by A.M. Sullivan, American Irish Historical Society, 1954.

RELATED LINKS:

Battle of Sabine Pass (Video)

Battle of Sabine Pass. Civil War Battle (Video)

(Right: Dick Dowling Plaque on the wall of the Town Hall, Tuam, Co. Galway)

Dowling's First Person Account of the Battle (Video)

Dick Dowling Camp # 1295, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Facebook page.

Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site

Bibliography:

“Dick Dowling at Sabine Pass Hardcover” by Frank X Tolbert

“Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae” by Edward T., Jr. Cotham

"Dick Dowling and the Jefferson Davis Guard" by Michael Dan Jones

"Dick Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass" by Anne Caraway Ivins - The Irish Sword, Summer 2002: Vol. XXII, No. 91 - pp. 53-64

"The Thermopylae of Lieutenant Dick Dowling"  by P. D. O'Donnell - The Irish Sword, Summer 2002: Vol. XXII, No. 91 - pp. 69-80

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Tags: American Civil War, Civil War, Confederacy, Davis Guards, Dick Dowling, Sabine Pass, Texas, United States


Admin
Comment by Joe Gannon on April 23, 2017 at 4:18pm

Davis Guard Medal. This medal is one of the most sought after Civil War relics. The one belonging to John W. White was at an auction house recently and was offered for sale at $35,000.00. It’s one of three Davis Guards medal held in private hands. Only seven are known to be in existence. 


Admin
Comment by Joe Gannon on April 23, 2017 at 4:20pm

Soldiers who were manning Fort Griffin at the Battle of Sabine Pass. All but the top two are members of the Davis Guards:

2nd LT. N.H. Smith
Dr. Geo. H. Bailey
Michael Carr
Pat Clair
Thos. Daugherty
Michael Delaney
JNO. Drummond
Pat Fitzgerald
John Flood
Tom Haggerty
John Hassett
James Higgins
Tim Hurley
Pat Malone
Pat McDonnell
John McGrath
Michael McKernan
JNO. McNealis
Peter O'Hara
Maurice Powers
Charles Rheins
Pat Sullivan
Mathew Walsh
John W. White
Patrick Abbott
Abner R. Carter
James Corcoran
Hugh Deagan
Dan Donovan
Michael Eagan
James Flemming
William Gleason
William Hardy
John Hennessey
Tim Huggins
William L. Jett
Ally McCabe
Tim McDonough
John McKeever
Dan McMurray
Michael Monoghan
Lawrence Plunkett
Edw. Pritchard
Michael Sullivan
Thomas Sullivan
John T. Westley
Joseph Wilson
1LT Richard “Dick” Dowling

Comment by The Wild Geese on May 10, 2017 at 10:56pm

A map showing the Federal's plans after landing their invasion force near Sabine City.

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