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Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae

Table of Contents and Excerpt

Table of Contents
1. Setting the Scene
2. The Admiral and the Forts
3. Attacking Texas
4. From Bar to Battle
5. Cottonclads with Cannon
6. Planning a Victory
7. Texas Is the Target
8. Sabine Pass as a Stepping-Stone
9. The Navy Makes Its Plans
10. The Expedition Departs
11. Revising the Plan
12. "Hold the Fort at All Hazards"
13. Attack of the Gunboats
14. Praise and Blame
15. The War Ends for Fort Griffin
Appendix 1: Report of Lieut. R. W. Dowling, Company "F," Cook's (Texas) Artillery, Concerning the Battle of Sabine Pass
Appendix 2: Annotated List of Sabine Pass Battle Participants
Appendix 3: Union Casualties at the Battle of Sabine Pass

A large and excited throng packed the French Opera House in New Orleans on an April evening in 1882. Although the stated purpose of the gathering was to conduct a meeting of the Southern Historical Society, it was a far from routine event. The Society's ordinary business was quickly conducted, and every eye in the standing room only crowd strained to witness the arrival of the evening's principal speaker. Suddenly, from a side entrance, Jefferson Davis emerged into the theater and was escorted up to a place of honor upon the stage. A fifteen-minute standing ovation and a sea of waving handkerchiefs greeted his appearance.

The figure who so mesmerized this enthusiastic New Orleans audience was in some ways only a pale reflection of the man who twenty years before had served and suffered as the chief executive officer of the Confederacy. Obviously ill and tired, Davis walked slowly to the stage, leaning on the arm of Governor and former Brigadier General Francis T. Nicholls. This procession was in itself a symbol, for the right arm that Davis leaned on for support was the only one remaining to Nicholls. Governor Nicholls had lost his left arm, as well as his left foot, fighting under the command of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. This very visible sacrifice to the Southern cause had motivated some of his postwar political supporters in 1876 to successfully nominate "all that is left of General Nicholls" for governor of Louisiana. The crowd responded with great fervor to the sight of these two Confederate icons slowly making their way to the stage. After escorting Davis to his chair, Governor Nicholls gave him an impassioned introduction, and the large crowd again surged to its feet to cheer the former president of the Confederate States of America.

Davis began his address in a low voice, but quickly warmed to his subject, seeming to gather strength from the adoration of his enthusiastic audience. The preservation of Confederate history, the subject of his New Orleans address, was a subject with which Davis was intimately familiar. In the past few years, he had personally devoted considerable time and effort to the perpetuation of his view of the war he had unsuccessfully waged. Davis himself had released a book on the history of the Confederate government only the year before his appearance in New Orleans. Many in the audience had probably read that book. But on this night they felt privileged to hear firsthand the former president's unique perspective on the conflict that had so divided America.

Pausing to acknowledge the wartime sacrifices of General Nicholls and other Louisianans who had served the Confederate cause, Davis brought the audience to its feet again and again with his unrepentant declaration that their mutual cause "was so just, so sacred, that had I known all that has come to pass, had I known what was to be inflicted upon me, all that my country was to suffer, all that our posterity was to endure, I would do it all over again." This unapologetic paean to the lost cause of the Confederacy set the theme for his address. Acknowledging that he would not and indeed could not be impartial about the fate of the secessionist cause to which he had unsuccessfully committed his political fortunes, Davis urged his listeners "to keep the memory of our heroes green," repeatedly invoking what he described as the fundamental nobility of the cause for which he and other Southerners had sacrificed so much.

Strengthened by the evident passion of his audience, Davis then proceeded to lay before the faithful the names of a whole pantheon of Confederate heroes whom he believed deserved to be memorialized for posterity. In doing so, of course, Davis was treading on both familiar and treasured ground with such an audience. Each mention of such obvious candidates for heroic status as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Albert Sidney Johnston was instantly greeted with sustained and enthusiastic applause. However, one set of heroes that Davis identified, a small band of determined Irishmen, probably surprised many of the spectators.

Drawing on his classical education, Davis first asserted that every schoolboy could recite from memory (an assertion that unfortunately could not credibly be made today) that King Leonidas had commanded three hundred Spartans at the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Facing overwhelming odds, he recalled, the Spartans under Leonidas had given their lives defending the critical pass at Thermopylae, delaying the seemingly unstoppable advance of Xerxes and his massive Persian horde into the heartland of Greece and buying the Greeks enough time to put together the resources to eventually defeat the invaders. Recalling this classic story of heroism, Davis then presented his audience with a challenge regarding a less familiar battle at another pass:

But my friends there are few in this audience who, if I asked them, could tell me who commanded [the Confederate forces] at Sabine Pass. And yet, that battle at Sabine Pass was more remarkable than the battle of Thermopylae, and when it has orators and poets to celebrate it, will be so esteemed by mankind.

Davis then went on to summarize the events of the Battle of Sabine Pass, which took place on the border between Texas and Louisiana on September 8, 1863. At that battle, Davis recalled, a young lieutenant named Dick Dowling, commanding fewer than fifty Irishmen, stationed in what Davis described as merely a "mud fort," had defeated thousands of Union invaders in powerful gunboats. What made the Confederacy's version of Thermopylae even more remarkable than the original, Davis asserted to his New Orleans audience, was that the disparity of numbers and the inequality of arms were even greater at Sabine Pass than the Greeks had faced at Thermopylae. Even more significant, he observed, the resourceful Confederates had actually won the Battle of Sabine Pass without a single casualty, unlike the Spartans at Thermopylae who had been completely annihilated by the Persian forces.

While telling his audience the Sabine Pass story, Davis could not resist the opportunity to challenge them to recall its details:

Who remembers how the iron-clad fleet came steaming up the river with nothing to oppose it but a mud fort armed with field guns and held by 42 men; how its commander was asked by a comrade what was to be done, and suggested that they had better retreat; but how this gallant man said, "We will never retreat!" How they shook hands with each other and said, "We will fight to the death!" How the iron-clads came steaming in but were repulsed by that gallant little army of 42 men. . . . Now who knows of Dowling? And yet this Dowling I hold higher than Leonidas. It is such events as this that we must preserve.

This was not the first time that Davis had paid Dowling and his Irishmen such an extravagant compliment. In his lengthy history of the Confederacy published the year before his appearance in New Orleans, Davis had also approvingly described the exploits of Dowling and his men at Sabine Pass, on that occasion characterizing them as "marvelous" and "without parallel in ancient or modern war." He had even gone to the trouble to list in his book what he thought were the names of every man who had served in the fort with Dowling. A cynic might suggest that Davis chose to emphasize the part played by Dowling and his men to add an aura of nobility to the cause he had championed. But even though Davis may have chosen to emphasize Dowling's exploit in part to serve his own historical and political agenda, these were obviously words of sincere praise, the product of years of thought and study.

Davis's comments were even more remarkable in light of the long list of military accomplishments (West Point graduate, Mexican War experience, and former secretary of war) that he brought to his study. This background made him more qualified than the usual politician to pass judgment on a military subject. Davis was not the only prominent figure to make such a tribute. Francis Lubbock, the former wartime governor of Texas, echoed Davis's assessment in his memoirs, describing the Battle of Sabine Pass as "one of the most remarkable engagements of the war, resulting in a victory for the Confederate arms that immortalized those who participated in it."

Davis and Lubbock are not alone in their assessment of the remarkable nature of the efforts made by a few Texans to defend their coast. Modern historians are slowly but surely coming to join a parade of former Confederate political figures in that same conclusion. Historian Dave Page wrote an excellent history and guidebook titled Ships versus Shore that explored the conflicts in each Southern state between Union ships and forts. In his chapter analyzing the military events in Texas (including the Battle of Sabine Pass), Page observed that "The Texan defense of the seacoast between 1861 and 1865 proved to be one of the most brilliant unsung feats of any Confederate state during the war."

Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach came to a similar conclusion in his history of the Lone Star State, noting that at Sabine Pass, Dowling and his men "fought the most brilliant and decisive small action of the Civil War." There was just something about this battle that invited comparisons to famous battles. Like Jefferson Davis, historian Andrew Forest Muir, who wrote a fine study of Dowling and his men in the late 1950s, could not resist the temptation, saying about the Battle of Sabine Pass that "For bravery this engagement ranks with the Defense of the Alamo, and for military results with the Battle of San Jacinto."

As modern historians are beginning to understand, the comparison urged by Davis and others between the battle at Sabine Pass and epic struggles of military history like Thermopylae is perhaps not as big a stretch as it might first seem. In terms of sheer numbers, the fewer than 50 Confederate defenders at Sabine Pass who were pitted against an invading force of more than 5,000 Union attackers does indeed stack up with such great defensive efforts as Thermopylae (300 Spartans and perhaps 6,000 allies against 200,000 Persians), the siege of Malta (9,000 against 60,000), the siege of Rhodes (6,700 against 100,000), the Alamo (188 against 3,000), and Rorke's Drift (45 against 5,000). The reader need hardly be cautioned that the estimates of the contending forces in all of these famous military actions are highly controversial. As we shall see, however, the numbers of attackers and defenders at Sabine Pass are also a matter of some dispute.

Even if perfectly accurate, however, numbers can be deceiving, and nowhere is that more true than in warfare. At the time of the American Civil War, technological innovations in weaponry were on the verge of making the raw numbers of troops involved on each side in a battle less of a factor in determining its outcome. But numbers undeniably continued to be of critical importance in determining the fortunes of war, and it could still generally be argued at the time of the Civil War, as Voltaire once famously observed, that "God is always on the side of the heaviest battalions." This seemingly divine preference for the more numerous force makes all the more unusual the unexpected Confederate victory and defense against seemingly overwhelming odds at Sabine Pass.

Although it is usually characterized by historians as odd or unusual, Sabine Pass is not commonly viewed to have been an important battle. In fact, it is rare to see much mention of the battle at all in conventional histories of the war. While meriting a separate chapter in a book titled Strange Battles of the Civil War, it is mentioned only in passing in Shelby Foote's famous narrative history. Most military histories of the Civil War ascribe little, if any, importance to the events that took place at Sabine Pass (or elsewhere in the Trans-Mississippi Department for that matter) during that conflict. Typical of this point of view is the entry on the "Trans-Mississippi Department" in the Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, which states that "although there were numerous minor campaigns and battles in this area, none affected the war's outcome."

It is probably true that nothing that happened in Texas could have affected the war's outcome in the sense that it could have given the Confederates a victory in the war as a whole. But it is certainly possible to argue that what happened in Texas did matter to, and may have had vital consequences for, the length and conduct of the war. In fact, a good case can be made that Dick Dowling and his fewer than fifty Irishmen at Sabine Pass may actually have influenced the course of the Civil War as much as almost any other small body of troops that served during that conflict. If Dowling and his men had failed and Texas had been successfully invaded starting at Sabine Pass in 1863, additional men and supplies from the Lone Star State would have become largely unavailable to the Confederate war effort. In addition, the course of the war itself might have been very different, not only in Texas but in other strategic parts of the Confederacy.

As odd as it may sound at first, the events that took place in Texas were actually the key consideration affecting the timing of Union efforts to capture the port city of Mobile, Alabama, and the bay in which that important city was sheltered. For reasons we will discuss later in detail, plans to capture Mobile were repeatedly put on hold during late 1862 and throughout 1863 as Federal plans to capture cities along the Texas coast were time and again moved to the top of Washington's list of priorities, with consistently disastrous results. If those plans to gain a foothold in East Texas had succeeded, as they almost did at Sabine Pass, Union resources would have been freed up to be diverted to the capture of Mobile, with significant consequences.

Historian Arthur Bergeron, Jr., has persuasively argued that if Mobile had fallen earlier in the war (i.e., earlier than August 5, 1864, when the Union navy finally fought its way into Mobile Bay, or April 12, 1865, when the city of Mobile itself surrendered), it would have "greatly shortened the life of the Confederacy," noting that "Mobile's capture earlier in the war would have proven a serious, if not fatal blow to the Confederacy." If Bergeron's well-supported speculation is correct, it seems that the Confederate successes in Texas at places like Sabine Pass, which were the direct cause of the delay in attacking Mobile, must be assigned a military importance that has not heretofore been assigned them, even by the most careful Civil War historian.

Events following the Confederate victory at Sabine Pass only confirm the linkage between the events in Texas and Union strategy elsewhere in the Confederacy. In the spring of 1864, for example, General Ulysses S. Grant was forced to once again delay his campaign to capture Mobile while General Nathaniel Banks and a combined army and navy force unsuccessfully launched yet another attempt to invade East Texas, this time with a disastrous campaign up the Red River in Louisiana. Banks himself later noted that this campaign, which cost the Union almost ten thousand casualties and probably prolonged the war, would have been rendered entirely unnecessary if Texas had been invaded successfully in 1863. Even General William Boggs, a Confederate staff officer, acknowledged in his memoirs that if the Sabine Pass expedition had succeeded, "we would have been so completely flanked as to have prevented us from meeting and defeating General Banks [in his Red River Campaign] the following spring."

The events in Texas were also significant for reasons other than the effect they had of postponing campaigns against other strategic targets. Potentially even more important were the issues surrounding the effect that a Union conquest of Texas in 1863 might have had on the morale of Texas troops serving in Confederate armies on the other side of the Mississippi. With their homes directly threatened and their families suffering under Union occupation, it is at least questionable whether Texas troops in the East would have continued to serve as effectively and in the same numbers as they actually did.

These Texas troops were of critical importance to the Confederate war effort in campaigns from Virginia to Louisiana. On one occasion, at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, for example, the timely arrival of the Texas troops saved Robert E. Lee's army and very probably his life. Lee himself greeted the appearance of the Texans with a cheer, saying to his staff, "Texans always move them." Even Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's principal biographer, called the Texans "Lee's favorite shock-troops" and observed that the general had said that "I rely upon [the Texans] we have in all tight places and fear I have to call upon them too often." Lee knew well that Texans were critically important to the Confederate war effort. It is naïve to assume, as many historians implicitly do, that the control of Texas that was at issue at battles like Sabine Pass is somehow unrelated to the way these Texas troops functioned in other theaters of the war.

From his position as head of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis realized the importance of the invasion that had been thwarted at Sabine Pass and was convinced, even long after the war, that the Irish defenders who were responsible had not received the recognition they deserved. That may still be the case. The challenge that Jefferson Davis posed to his New Orleans audience about this battle in 1882 is still worthy of consideration today. Does the Confederate triumph at Sabine Pass in 1863 really compare to some of the great battles in military history? Or, is the story of Dick Dowling and his Irishmen merely a legend that grew far beyond its true importance as it became fuel for the flame of the "lost cause" mythology that, fanned by Jefferson Davis and others, swept the South at the end of the nineteenth century?

Other questions about the battle, which Davis might have posed to his New Orleans audience but did not, also deserve exploration. How did a much smaller Confederate force manage to win a battle it seemed destined to lose? On the other hand, how did a much larger Union force manage to lose a battle it seemed virtually certain to win? As we shall see, these are related but still different questions, and they have slightly different answers.

To begin to answer any of these questions, it is necessary to review the actual events of this battle and separate fact from fiction. That is not an easy task at this distance in history. There is without doubt a great deal of myth and misinformation surrounding the usual account (which Davis repeated to his New Orleans audience) of the battle at Sabine Pass. In fact, there may be more myths per man about the Battle of Sabine Pass than any other Civil War battle. But even stripped of this embellishment, the story of the Pass and its defense during the Civil War is a remarkable one that is well deserving, as Davis urged elsewhere in his speech with respect to the Southern cause generally, of being "so fully and exactly stated, that the men who come after us may compare and do justice in the case." To "do justice in the case" of a battle like Sabine Pass, however, it is necessary for a narrative such as this one to lay considerable groundwork, and travel fairly far afield. For the events at Sabine Pass had their origins many years before the battle and were set in motion by people who, in almost every instance, were not present at the battle. In the end, however, such a journey is rendered worthwhile by the rich tapestry of people, places, and events that blend together to form the background of the military events at Sabine Pass: the Confederacy's Thermopylae.