When the smoke cleared at the Sabine Pass on September 8 1863, a narrow channel on the border between Texas and Louisiana, two Union ships, the USS Clifton and the USS Sachem, had their steam engines blown out. They had beached on the shallows, and had signalled their surrender. The remaining invasion fleet, and its 5,000 troops, had made a hasty retreat, giving an incredible victory to the 43 Irishmen at Fort Griffin.
Lieutenant Frederick Crocker of the USS Clifton, asked for medical help for his wounded, and asked that the commander of the fort to present himself to receive his sword as the etiquette of surrender dictated. When Dick Dowling and a Dr Bailey rowed out to the USS Clifton, a furious Crocker dismissed Dowling as he could not believe that such a young man could have won such a decisive victory. “ We’ve been treated badly enough today , sir, not to have practical jokes. I’ll have the commander, Sir.”
Dowling assured him that he was the commander. He allowed the humiliated Crocker to keep his sword.
On the other side of the Pass, a Confederate ship went alongside the stranded USS Sachem to accept its surrender. Its decks were slippery with blood and gore, with fewer than half of those on board able to stand. Wounded and dying men slumped everywhere. It took some time to transfer all the prisoners and casualities ashore. Eventually some 350 Union prisoners were assembled before the fort. Realising that his 40 men were far outnumbered by the number of prisoners, Dowling sent for help. Men from the town, many of them too old for army duties, rushed out and happily took up guard duty.
Gradually the prisoners realised that they had been defeated by such a small a force and by so few guns. It was a chastening experience for a well armed and formidable force. A dejected and angry Union lieutenant Henry Dane, survived the battle and later wrote the following description.
‘ The commander of the fort was a modest, retiring, boyish-looking Irishman, 19 years old (Dowling was, in fact, 26 years old ). I could not refrain from laughing in his face when he introduced himself as the commander of the fort. I asked, “Are you the Shaughran who did all that mischief? How any guns did you have?”
“We had four 32 pounders and two 24 pounders and 43 men.”
“And do you realise what you have done, Sir? Well, Sir, you and your 43 men in your miserable little mud fort in the rushes, have captured two Yankee gunboats, carrying 13 guns, a good number of prisoners, small arms and plenty of good ammunition, and all that you have done with six pop guns....you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Sir!”
If some Union officers were baffled at the devastating defeat that had been inflicted upon them, the people of Houston were ecstatic. No more was their talk of ‘No Irish need apply’. The Irish, and in particular the Davis Guards, were hailed as heroes. They had won respect and had earned a firm place in their new land. At the people’s expense a special medal was struck, the only medal for valour ever authorised by the Confederate government, and presented to Dick D59owling and his men.
Dick was promoted to the rank of major. As the war inevitably began to seriously swing against the southern states, a final and desperate recruitment drive was launched. Every able bodied man was urged to join the army. Major Dick Dowling, the hero of the Sabine Pass, appeared at every big rally where he was cheered, and introduced with warm and glowing speeches. But it was all to no avail.
On April 9 1865, in a scene most Americans are familiar with, the south’s revered General Robert E Lee formally surrendered his army to General Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox courthouse in Virginia. The south lay in ruins. Many slaves either escaped or were liberated by the Union armies. Without its cheap labour the south’s commercial life was totally destroyed. There was huge disruption of southern life. Some states grimly held on to their slaves. As we saw in Spielberg’s film Lincoln it took the keenly argued 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, the following December 1865, before slavery was formally outlawed throughout the USA. Yet it would take another 100 years, often with great individual sacrifice, and in the face of murder and lynchings, before all Americans won full civil rights and equality under the law.
Dowling returned to civilian life with his usual energy. He reopened his Bank of Bacchus saloon, and resumed his varied commercial interests. But that nemesis of the Dowling family, yellow fever, was to continue to wreck havoc. The year before the war ended, he and Annie buried their third son in less than three years. Annie later gave birth to a daughter on August 31 1867, but this time it was Dick himself who caught the disease. At first it appeared that he fought it off. The Houston Daily Telegraph picks up the story.‘ Major Dick Dowling, we learn, suffered a relapse on Tuesday while at the Bank, and was carried immediately home, where he will have the best attention. Take better care of yourself next time Dick. Houston cannot afford to lose such men as you.’
He died on September 23 1867, just 30 years of age. The Telegraph, after describing the crowds of ‘grieving citizens’ that followed his funeral, concluded that ‘The far-off echoes of the guns of Fort Griffin have served as funeral salvoes for the warm-hearted hero DICK DOWLING.’
Today there is a fine statue of Dick in full Confederate uniform at Houston’s Market Square, the first civic monument erected after the war. A further monument at the Sabine Pass commemorates the battle, giving full recognition to the Davis Guards. A school is called after him, and there is a Tuam Street in Houston in honour of the county Galway town that Dowling left for America at only nine years of age. In Tuam itself there is a very fine plaque to its famous son on the wall of the town hall, the first memorial to a Confederate soldier in Ireland.
- Read more about Dick Dowling in a new book Dick Dowling - Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas by Timothy Collins and Ann Caraway. Superbly illustrated. On sale €29.99
- I mentioned the importance of music and songs in the American Civil War. One of the best known is When Johnny Comes Marching Home, written by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore from Ballygar, Co Galway. I had a very informative letter from Jarlath MacNamara who has wonderful information on Gilmore who became the bandmaster general of the Union Army. Jarlath will give a talk on this remarkable man to the Renmore History Society next year. Watch this space.