This article is about the First and Second Battle of Sabine, Texas in 1862 and 1863.
But first, some background
The United States declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776. It was a bold move, not simply because the colonists had pulled the tail of the British tiger, but also because not every American colonist supported it. There were some who were devout loyalists —viewing themselves as more British than American; some who were American and no longer British, and about another third who were apathetic to either cause. Despite these contrasting sentiments, those who championed independence, who listed their grievances within the Declaration itself, realized that divided colonies could not stand against the might of the British Empire.
Thus motivated, and having made their declaration, the Continental Congress in 1777 developed a confederation of states. The colonists called their instrument the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Despite their urgency and its necessity, the states were fearful of central authority; colonial Americans had suffered under one central authority and were hesitant to create another. As a demonstration of the uneasiness among state delegates, the instrument wasn’t ratified until 1 March 1781.
The Articles of Confederation provided that the states would remain sovereign and independent entities. Congress would serve to resolve disputes. Collectively, the states were named The United States of America —even when the states were far from united. Authority to make treaties and alliances, create and maintain armed forces, and the right to establish a monetary system rested with the Congress. Central authority was prohibited from levying taxes and regulating commerce between the states. In essence —the Articles of Confederation created a completely unworkable relationship among the states because there was no trust between the states, and no trust in the central government [Note 1]. There was at the time little confidence that a republic could serve the interests of a large nation or act in the interests of its citizens.
Unbeknownst to these early founders, their concerns would carry forward, past the development and acceptance of the United States Constitution (ratified on 21 June 1788). In 1798-99, Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence) and James Madison (Father of the Constitution) developed the doctrine of nullification (arguments as set forth in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions), which opposed the Federal Alien and Sedition Acts [Note 2]. Written anonymously [Note 3], Jefferson’s primary argument was that the national government was a compact between the states and that any exercise of undelegated authority by the central government was invalid and unlawful. The states, he argued, had the right to decide when their powers had been infringed upon by the central government, and it was their right to determine the mode of redress of their grievances. Virginia and Kentucky thus declared the Alien and Sedition Acts “null and void.” Madison’s argument, somewhat more restrained, argued that the authority to determine the validity of federal law must rest with state legislatures.
The issue of nullification became a crisis in 1832-33 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson when South Carolina declared that the Tariffs of 1828-32 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of the state. South Carolina (and its citizens) had been adversely affected by the economic downturn in the 1820s and claimed that their economic woes were the direct result of tariffs imposed following the War of 1812. The tariffs were designed to protect northern industrialists from European competition. The “Tariff of Abominations” was enacted during the presidency of John Quincy Adams in 1828. Of concern to southern states, the tariffs were unfair to agrarian states who suffered most from their effects.
The election of Andrew Jackson gave southern states hope that these tariffs would be reduced. They were not. President Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun (a son of South Carolina) were split on this issue. Calhoun was at the time the most able proponent of Nullification Theory and was so set against the tariffs that he resigned the vice presidency over his objection to Andrew Jackson’s recalcitrance. Eventually, Jackson did reduce the tariff of 1832 but not enough to satisfy South Carolina. At a state convention in February 1833, South Carolina’s legislature adopted the Ordnance of Nullification and to back it up, initiated military preparations to resist federal enforcement. A month later, Congress authorized the president to use military force in South Carolina, but a new negotiated tariff (1833) was found acceptable to South Carolina and the crisis was averted.
The issue of the right of states to nullify federal edicts (and of secession from the union) was once more asserted by opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 [Note 4].
Among the (several) causes of the American Civil War, historians frequently cite slavery, territorial expansion, states’ rights, sectionalism, protectionism, nationalism, and the election of Abraham Lincoln. These were, of course, important issues that demanded resolution —but what caused the American Civil War was the unwillingness of men to find solutions. I believe that thoughtful men will examine the events leading to Civil War and conclude that powerful men in the North wanted war more than they did solutions and worked hard to achieve it.
Foremost among the issues leading to war was, in my view, the right of states to govern themselves pursuant to the United States Constitution, specifically: The Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Bill of Rights): The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people; Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery as an abomination to a nation founded on equality among men, but he was more concerned about maintaining the union. Even as much as Lincoln abhorred slavery, he did not believe it was an issue that could excuse bloodshed and treason. Civil War, when it came, was a horror of epic proportions and its effects lasted for over 100 years [Note 5]. Not only was the war devastating in terms of its carnage, or its effects upon the land, but also in terms of the psychology of an entire cultural region of the United States. Worse still, it was a war easily avoided by reasonable men. Between 1850-77, the United States had no reasonable men.
The First Battle of Sabine Pass
It wasn’t going all that well for the Confederate States of America in 1863 —for all kinds of reasons. In a war of attrition, the Northern states had a larger population of men able to fight. It was a war of resources. The economies of the southern states were agrarian; the northern states were industrialized, which meant that the northern states had the ability to produce armaments (from rifles to cannons, and from Gatling guns to navy ironclads). The northern states had a sophisticated network of roads, and interconnecting railway systems. The southern states had railroads, but only a few. The northern economy was self-sustaining; the southern economy was heavily dependent upon trade (if not with northern states, then with European countries). Realizing its advantages, the Union developed a strategy designed to strangle the southern states into submission.
Sabine, Texas is the waterway serving the outlet of Sabine Lake estuary. It is formed by the confluence of the Neches and Sabine Rivers. In 1862, the port at Sabine City was connected by a rail spur to the railroad line running from the eastern border of Texas to Houston and Galveston, serving the coastal trade in Texas. As part of the Union’s strategy to deny southern states access to foreign trade, Texas became the target of riverine blockades. In September 1862, Rear Admiral David Farragut commanded the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. Farragut commissioned Frederick Crocker and the steamer USS Kensington to capture Sabine City. The USS Rachel Seaman was ordered to assist Kensington. On 23 September, USS Henry Janes (a mortar schooner) joined the operation. Kensington’s deep draft prohibited negotiation of the shallow waters, so it was decided that Rachel Seaman and Henry Janes would coordinate their attack.
Early in the morning of 24 September 1862, Henry Janes went aground within sight of the fort at Sabine City. Captain Lewis Pennington ordered a barrage against the port, soon joined by Captain Quincy Hooper, commanding Rachel Seaman. Gunfire from these two ships (as well as from the fort) fell short of their mark. Henry Janes was freed from the muck after five hours and maneuvered to within a mile or so of Fort Sabine. A second barrage began at around 5:30 p.m.
Within the fort, Confederate artillerists numbered 28 men supported by 30 troops of mounted cavalry. Armed with outdated guns, the Confederates were unable to return effective fire. The rebels took shelter until the barrage ceased after nightfall. At that time, Major Josephus S. Irvine, commanding the Confederate artillery, re-emerged to spike his guns and organize an orderly withdrawal. There were no casualties on either side of this confrontation.
One year later, a second engagement would produce a different result.
The Second Battle of Sabine Pass
France was openly sympathetic to the Confederacy, but typical of the French, it never matched its empathy with diplomatic or military support [Note 6]. After defeating Mexican forces in 1863, Mexican President Benito Juarez escaped his capital and France installed Maximillian as Emperor of Mexico. After France seized control of Mexico, the Confederates hoped to establish a trade route between Texas and French-Mexico to obtain much needed supplies. And if that should happen, the Sabine Pass would become a vital link in Confederate resupply.
Responding to anticipated Confederate intentions, President Lincoln sent a joint army-navy expedition to establish a military presence in Texas. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks exercised overall command. Banks was a political weenie; great at organizing offices and paperclips, but somewhat inept in command of combat forces. Initially, Banks wanted to launch his campaign in northwest Louisiana. This scheme called for the US Navy to send warships from the Mississippi River up the Red River to the point where Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas came together.
New Orleans was captured on 1 May 1862. After Confederate capitulation of Vicksburg in 1863, the Union exercised absolute control of both east and west banks of the Mississippi River. Beyond this, shallow water in the Red River prevented Union gunboats from any effective operations there, so the idea of an overland Union invasion of Texas was scraped.
In 1863, General Banks ordered Major General William B. Franklin to enter the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico and defeat the small Confederate detachment at Fort Sabine, located on the river’s west bank —about two miles from the mouth of the river. The Army’s plan was that after the Navy silenced the fort, an assault group of 200 infantry would force the fort to surrender. The Union battle plan included 22 ships carrying US Army regular forces: in all, about 5,000 men augmented by a small artillery detachment. Neither Banks nor Franklin believed that this was an insurmountable challenge —but then, neither of these gentlemen had been introduced to First Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, Confederate States Army, the Texas Davis Guards, commanding at Fort Sabine.
Fort Sabine was renamed Fort Griffin in honor of Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Griffin [Note 7]. The Confederate Detachment at Fort Griffin were the Davis Guards, named in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The company was manned by mostly Irish American men from Houston and Galveston, recently merged into the First Texas Heavy Artillery. Their post was a hastily constructed earthwork about one mile upstream (north) of the Southwest bank of the Sabine Pass. Lieutenant Dowling commanded 47 men and six smoothbore cannon, which Dowling had placed on an elevated platform. To Union observers, it was an unimpressive sight. The elevated guns may have given Union officers a dim view of the rebel commander’s expertise as an artilleryman, and while that may be true, Lieutenant Dowling had a clear view to the horizon for many miles. The flat marshlands stretched to the North toward Port Arthur and Beaumont, northeast into Louisiana, southeast toward to the Gulf of Mexico, southwest toward Galveston, and westward toward Houston. The nearest observation point afforded the Union force, besides the topmast of a naval ship, was the lighthouse at Sabine Pass at the mouth of the river.
On the afternoon of 8 September 1863, Lieutenant Frederick Crocker [Note 8], US Navy, was in temporary command of the advance squadron of four gunboats. Crocker was a veteran naval officer, experienced in riverine operations and blockade duty. His ship was the USS Clifton, a steam-powered side-wheeler. His squadron consisted of the ironclad vessels USS Granite City, USS Sachem, and USS Arizona. Seven naval transports were anchored three miles southeast of Fort Griffin, well out of range of the rebel guns. The transports were carrying most the Army’s landing force troops. The landing force commander, Major General Franklin was headquartered aboard USS Suffolk. Outside the sandbar at the mouth of the Sabine, an additional two miles downstream, were a 22-vessel invasion fleet.
The first wave of 500 men aboard Granite City steamed behind Clifton as close as possible but remaining out of range of the rebel guns. They infantry planned to land in an open space adjacent to and downstream of the fort. The landing area was wide and muddy. The rebel garrison had cleared away brush, affording the fort with clear fields of fire for their canister and grapeshot. The Union army intended to silence the fort’s guns before the main body of the landing force went ashore. It was the largest amphibious invasion assault force ever assembled on enemy territory in the history of the US military up to that time.
At Beaumont, Texas, Leon Smith [Note 9] ordered all Confederate troops in that city —about 80 men— to board the steamer Roebuck and dispatched them down the river to reinforce Fort Griffin. Smith and Captain Goode rode to the fort on horseback, reaching Fort Griffin three hours ahead of Roebuck just as Union gunboats came within range of the rebel guns. Smith and Goode assisted Dowling in the defense of the fort.
Dowling’s men were efficient artillerymen and supremely confident. The garrison had placed range-stakes in the two narrow and shallow river channels. The white-painted stakes helped the artillerists determine the range of the fort’s guns. Gun crews knew how much charge was needed for each type of projectile available, which guns, charges, and loads had the best potential to hit each range-stake.
Conversely, Lieutenant Crocker had only a general knowledge of the river’s channels; there were no river pilots to advise him, and he had no assurances of water depth. Nevertheless, on Crocker’s order, with Clifton in the lead, Sachem and Arizona advanced up the right channel (Louisiana side) while firing their port-side guns at Fort Griffin. Crocker’s orders were to delay landing troops until the rebel guns had been silenced. When Sachem was within Dowling’s range-stakes, the Lieutenant ordered his men to fire for effect. Clifton and Arizona soon came into range. Dowling’s fires were deadly accurate. As a result, the Confederates captured Clifton and Sachem with their 13-heavy cannon and two new Parrott rifles [Note 10]. Two dozen Union men were killed or badly injured; 37 men were declared missing in action. Dowling’s men captured 315 Union sailors. The combined Union Army and Naval invasion force withdrew and returned to New Orleans. The Davis Guards suffered no casualties.
In recognition of Dowling’s victory, the citizens of Houston collected funds to provide a specially struck medal to the Davis Guard. The only medals awarded to Confederate troops during the war, they were made from Mexican silver pesos, strung from a green ribbon, and presented to the men during a later formal ceremony.
The battles of Sabine Pass were of little tactical or strategic significance to the Civil War. A Confederate supply line from Mexico to Texas was never established, although Texas did continue to export its cotton through Mexico to European markets. But, without a formal supply line, the Confederates were forced to rely on the highly dangerous tactic of blockade running against a vastly superior naval force.
Richard William Dowling (1837-1867) was born in County Galway, Ireland, the second of eight children. In 1845, young Richard was taken by his older sister to New Orleans. A year after his parent migrated to New Orleans in 1851, yellow fever took both his parents and one of his younger brothers. Dowling moved to Houston when anti-Irish sentiments in New Orleans made life there untenable. In Houston, he worked as a saloon keeper, operating two establishments. In 1857, he married Elizabeth Ann Odlum, the daughter of a Texas congressman. By 1860, Dowling owned several saloons. With the rumor of war, Dowling formed a militia company dominated by Irish Americans. Initially, it was more of a social club than a militia, but the company was mustered into the Confederate Army in 1861 and Dowling was elected First Lieutenant.
Dowling was elevated to hero status after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass; he subsequently served as an army recruiter in Houston. After the war, Dowling returned to running his saloons and became one of the city’s leading businessmen. He died in 1867 from another outbreak of yellow fever and was laid to rest at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery in Houston, Texas.
- Cothan, E. T. Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004
- Cornell University: The Making of America, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion: Series I, Volume 6: Atlantic Blockading Squadrons (1861)
- U. S. Government Printing Office: Crocker, F. Official Report, Official Record of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Pp. 546. 1921.
- Given what we know of our history, the suspicions of these early founders toward central authority was well justified.
- Imposed limitation on civil liberty and the growth of an authoritarian central government.
- Its authors were not identified until 1823.
- Nullification has been asserted in California (1863), by opponents of civil rights legislation (1964-65), and by opponents of federal acts regulating firearms (throughout the twentieth-century, and in the prohibition of the sale and possession of marijuana (2001).
- Actually, longer when one considers the damage that Barack Obama did to race relations in the United States (2009-2016).
- France learned its lesson when, after supporting the American colonies in their war with Great Britain, the USA reneged on its promise of financial renumeration. Given the outcome of the American Civil War, France made a wise decision.
- Griffin was known for extraordinary courage under fire while commanding the 21st Texas Infantry in East Texas and Louisiana.
- Crocker (1821-1911) was an experienced seaman achieving command of a whaling vessel at the age of 24-years. At age 40, Crocker volunteered for service in the Union navy. He demonstrated courage and ability in several successful naval engagements on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Taken prisoner after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, Crocker was held at Camp Ford near Tyler, Texas for 17 months.
- Smith (died 1869) was a volunteer naval officer. In this capacity, he was named Commander of the Texas Marine Department under General John B. McGruder. Smith participated in most major conflicts along the Texas coast during the Civil War. He was described as the most able Confederate naval officer in the Gulf waters.
- Muzzle-loaded rifled artillery of various weights. A 20-pound rifle weighed over 1,800 pounds.