The Irish ‘Dockwallopers’ win famous victory for the Confederates

Week III

Deadly accuracy won the day: Engraving of a Confederate coastal battery in an earthen fortification similar to Fort Griffin in September 1863.

Deadly accuracy won the day: Engraving of a Confederate coastal battery in an earthen fortification similar to Fort Griffin in September 1863.

By the late summer of 1861, the city of Houston had become a hive of activity, and excitement. Texas and a further 11 southern states had withdrawn, or seceded, from the United States. Now groups of volunteers crowded into Houston to answer the call to arms. As well as recruitment queues and military bands, there were concerts and parties. Ballrooms were packed. Apparently, southern girls never looked prettier, nor young men handsomer in their new uniforms. There was an air of intense animation, and pride. An officer class quickly emerged, many of them adding personal flourishes to their uniform. The new Confederate ‘Bonnie Blue’ flag was unfurled to cheers and impassioned speeches.

Many of the new Irish immigrants, who still felt to be outsiders, yet had made a commitment that Texas was now their home, were prepared to fight for the Confederacy. But perhaps some felt the growing animosity against immigrants that was now beginning to emerge. Young Dick Dowling, who came to the south directly from the Tuam workhouse at nine years of age, was now an able and successful entrepreneur. Still in his early twenties he had established a series of popular public houses, was married to local girl Annie Odlum, and had a young family. His wife’s uncle, Captain Frederick Odlum, established the Davis Guards as an artillery unit, and invited Irish immigrants to join. He immediately made Dick his first lieutenant, and treasurer of the company. Dick’s brother, Patrick Emmet also joined, as did other relations of Annie’s.

They didn’t look as smart as their more highbrow fellow artillerymen; and they probably couldn’t have cared less. Instead of parades and balls the men of the Davis Guards were content at ‘ swopping yarns, smoking pipes, playing cards, drinking ‘ardent spirits’ and enjoying the odd brawl’.

Often dismissed as‘ dockwallopers’ in earlier accounts, many of the Davis Guards were skilled in trades, and quickly excelled at artillery practice. I have read that when building the railroads across America, an Irishman was often chosen as foreman, as they appeared to have a natural ability for mental arithmetic. Similarly, the Davis Guards quickly learned to calculate distances, elevation and shell power with deadly accuracy. They soon earned the reputation for being ‘ the finest artillery men on the Gulf Coast.’

Their skills were soon put to the test when the Confederate army fought to regain Galveston, which had recently fallen into Union hands. The Davis Guards moved their field artillery by railroad, and to the surprise of the Union gunboats off shore, opened an artillery duel “ with great gallantry and coolness.” By the end of the day Galveston was once again in Confederate hands. A local newspaper, the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, reported that “ the artillery boys acted nobly and have covered themselves with glory...the Irish boys have surpassed the expectations of their friends.”

Posted to Fort Griffin

Revelling in their victory, members of the Davis Guards were given passes to Houston. It is easy to imagine the many celebratory toasts made in their honour, and their own inclination to toast their good fortune. Things, however, got a little out of hand in the city later. Jubilant crowds moved into Courthouse Square, not far from Dick’s saloon, where they became so rambunctious that three shots were fired. One man was shot through the hand. Another had a leg broken.

News that the Davis Guards had suffered half as many casualties celebrating their participation in the Battle of Galveston as they had in the battle itself, when only four men were reported wounded, was not very well received at Confederate headquarters. It was beginning to be felt now that it would be best all round if the Irish Davis Guards were transferred away from their home town of Houston to a post where they might not get into so much trouble.

Ironically the Guards were posted to a small raised earthwork, known as Fort Griffin, at the Sabine Pass. Incredibly, it was the scene of intensive fighting on September 8 1863, where the 40 men of the Davis Guards, with only five cannon (the sixth had run off its platform and failed to work ), turned back several Union attempts to invade and occupy a major part of Texas.

Gunboats were wrecked

The Sabine Pass, on the border between Texas and Louisiana, marked a natural outlet into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to Sabine city, a prosperous cotton export centre. It had long been the ambition of the Union to capture and stifle its trade. Earlier in September the Confederates heard that a substantial Union invasion force was being prepared to invade Texas through the Sabine Pass. In the event 5,000 men, accompanied by a number of gun boats approached the Pass to begin the invasion. Alarmed at such a formidable force, and aware that such a small garrison at Fort Griffin could be quickly over run, word came to the Davis Guards that they should spike their guns and retreat.

Due to ill health Captain Odlum was no longer in charge, and our Dick was made official acting commander. Immediately he placed coloured markers along the channel creating target zones, and having discussed the odds with his men, everyone agreed to stay and fight.

The Union ships lost all hope of surprise as they bungled their rendezvous betraying their presence well in advance of their entrance into the Pass. On the afternoon of September 8 Union gunboats steamed into the channel firing at long distance, looking fierce but causing no damage. The Davis Guards did not respond, giving the impression that the fort was unmanned. But as the gunboats came closer, to their utter shock and surprise, the Guards opened up with deadly precision.

Some of these boats were converted Staten Island ferries, with reinforced bulwarks of almost eight inches of solid oak, sheathed in sheets of steel plate. But their Achilles’ Heel was their boilers. A direct hit sent scalding steam and boiling water running through their decks causing panic with men jumping overboard. Added to the impact of salvo after salvo (it is reckoned that in a little over 45 minutes the Guards fired off 137 rounds ) ‘ a blizzard of fire’ was created resulting in complete confusion among the enemy. Two gunboats were wrecked and stranded, and more than 300 Union soldiers surrendered. The rest turned and quickly steamed away.*

It was one of the most significant victories for the Confederates in the whole Civil War. It made world wide news including the columns of The Tuam Herald. The Herald had kept a continuous eye on the progress of the war, owing to the large numbers of Irish immigrants joining both armies. But had it been known at the time that it was a young Dick Dowling from Dunmore, and the Tuam workhouse, who had masterminded the whole battle, it would have been a sensation. David Burke, the present proprietor, who inherits the long tradition of that famous newspaper (established in 1837 ), could have also inherited the mantle of the Rupert Murdoch of its day.

Next week: Union astonishment at the young age of the hero of the Sabine Pass.

NOTES: I am leaning heavily on an excellent new book: Dick Dowling - Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas, by Timothy Collins and Ann Caraway Ivins, published by Old Forge Books, on sale at €29.99.

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