Thermopylae of the Confederacy: Battle of Sabine Pass
By Mike Jones
In the actual battle, the Union was planning to invade Texas through Sabine Pass with an initial invasion force of 5,000 troops, four gunboats and 18 troop transports. The expedition was led by Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin for the Army, and Lt. Frederick Crocker for the Navy. Sabine Pass was defended by 1st Lt. Richard W. Dowling and his 47-man, Irish-Texan, contingent of Company F (Jefferson Davis Guards) of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery in Fort Griffin, an earthen structure. Dowling had four 32-pounders and two 24-pounders at his disposal to defend against the attack.
The battle opened at 6:30 o’clock in the morning of September 8, 1863 when the gunboat U.S.S. Clifton entered the pass to bombard the fort and reconnoiter the Confederate position. However Lieutenant Dick Dowling kept his men under cover to mask their numerical weakness. After an hour of shelling, the Clifton withdrew. At 3:40 o’clock that afternoon, the assault began. The pass was divided up the middle by a long oyster reef, which divided it into the Louisiana channel on the east and the Texas channel on the west. The Clifton entered the Texas channel while U.S.S. Sachem and U.S.S. Arizona steamed up the Louisiana channel. The U.S.S. Granite City was to escort the transports up the Texas channel to protect the transports off-loading the Union troops. The gunboats entered the pass and opened fire on the fort. The Irish-Texans had placed range markers in the pass during practice and were ready to zero in on the invading ships. Confederate gunners opened fire when the enemy ships reached the 1,200 yard range marker. After a few rounds, the steam drum of the Sachem exploded, scalding many men to death, and disabling the ship. The Arizona ran aground. The Clifton charged up the Texas channel but the Irish-Texan artillerymen blasted its tiller rope, causing it to run aground and also exploded its steam drum. The Arizona had to be pulled off the Louisiana shore, and the Granite City retreated and no troops were landed. The fleet soon turned around and headed back to New Orleans.
Texas was saved from invasion, and Houston and Beaumont were saved from the fate of other southern cities, like Atlanta and Vicksburg. The battle lasted only about 45 minutes but 56 U.S. sailors and soldiers were killed, about 350 captured, along with the gunboats Clifton and Sachem. Dowling and his men suffered no casualties at all. The Davis Guards received the thanks of their country. Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, Confederate commander of Texas, honored the men with a special badge and the Davis Guards were presented special medals from the citizens of Houston, the only such medal for valor issued to Confederate soldiers during the war. The Confederate Congress and President Jefferson Davis honored the Davis Guards with a special proclamation. Dowling said the fort fired 137 shells during the short battle.
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