Confederate Conundrum on The Sabine
The mosquitos and the heat nearly beat the men down before they even arrived at their destination. The swampy shoreline marsh had never been sprayed for the bloodsuckers and malaria was a constant fear of the company. A malaria or even dysentery outbreak would certainly doom their mission.
But onward they moved one sloshy foot in front of the other through the heat in the bog past huge, thick as a pipeline water moccasins and an occasional rattlesnake. The hard headed Irish man leading the group would not be dissuaded by the legions of mosquitoes the snakes or even the sultry humid August heat and steamy sporadic thunderstorms each afternoon we live with every day on the Gulf Coast.
I can hardly stand it and I’m wearing shorts, they were in flannel uniforms and leather boots humping full rucksacks, canteen and heavy artillery, ball and powder. And the trip from Galveston to Sabine Pass wasn't a sunny ferry ride and highway speeds. It was a four day battle with mother nature - a really long walk on the beach.
Richard Dowling was accustomed to the heat, humidity and flying blood drinking hounds, having arrived in the United States from Ireland directly into the port of New Orleans, his parents and six siblings settled in Houston where in 1857 he married, and began to establish a chain of successful saloons. One in Houston was the first to install indoor gas lighting and featured an upstairs billiard room.
The immigrant businessman and born leader, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War joined with a Texas regiment, composed primarily of Irish dock workers (his clientele) from Houston and Galveston named the Davis Guards. Texas having freshly been its own country, maintained a streak of orneriness and would resent any persons from any place or foreign country dictating to them and the sentiment aroused the protective spirit in the masses. You know - you can tell a Texan but you can't tell'm much...
Dowling was soon named lieutenant of the outfit, which was formally accepted into the Confederate Army on October 26, 1861. That's just how it was in the times he lived in.
The Davis Guard became a renowned artillery unit as the men spent a great deal of time drilling on targeting techniques at their assigned post Fort Griffin which was mostly piles of soil near the opening of the Sabine River at the Gulf of Mexico. That’s near what’s known as Sabine Pass today, a part of greater Port Arthur, Texas.
Jape "JP" Richardson, The Big Bopper was born there.
Dowling and the Guard had every spot along the mouth of the river sighted in – you could say they could put a cannonball into a pickle barrel in Cameron, and one in a pickle barrel every hundred yards all the way back across the Sabine River, they were so deadly accurate with their fire.
And it came to be that on September 8th, 1863 a Union flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men tried to enter the Sabine River at the pass near Fort Griffin. The Union had plans to invade Texas as part of their scheme to strangle the south and drive a wedge between the Confederate Armies operating in the Texas-Louisiana area, and extend federal attacks deep into Louisiana and Texas to as far north as they could go.
But here Dowling and his men’s constant artillery drilling, sighting and practice paid off. The Davis Guard scored direct hit after direct hit on the federal ships, disabling two of them and partially sinking them in the river. They captured a large amount of supplies and 350 Union soldiers without enduring a scratch on a single member of their own tiny company. Except a few mosquito bites.
The Battle of Sabine Pass was literally the ‘Thermopylae of the Confederacy.” After the gallant victory Dowling was elevated to hero status in his home town and his and the Guard’s fame spread up and down the Houston-Galveston corridor and all through Louisiana and Texas.
After the war ended, Dowling went back to the life of saloon keeper, prominent statesman of the Houston area, husband and father. Sadly his life was ended in 1867 during a yellow fever epidemic.
For eight generations Dowling has been celebrated for that battle. Fort Griffin remains to this day in Sabine Pass as Dick Dowling Park. Its bunkers and fortifications served the United States during both World War I & II guarding against invasion of the same Sabine River by German U-Boats attempting to attack Port Arthur, Texas refining operations, which could have crippled the effort to defeat the Nazi's and Japanese.
Typically every September the little Coast Guard Station town celebrates "Dick Dowling Days" at the park. Featuring fishing tournaments, cook-offs, and of course The Davis Artillery Corps firing blanks across the Sabine River at decorated to look like federal ships flat bottomed fishing boats.
And the actors sit in the heat in camp all day with mid 19th century utensils, flannel uniforms, cotton tents, cap and ball revolvers and assorted accouterments of the day in the stifling early September heat. But with mosquito spray and an RV a few feet away. Families come out, fish, have hot dogs and the kids scream with delight when the cannons go off.
At the park today, you can see Sabine Pass’ modern LNG facility and walk among the remains of the 20th century ammo bunkers in the beautifully manicured park grounds, and view the statue of Lt. Dick Dowling, of the Davis Guards, CSA. His bronze gaze permanently watching over the river and the Gulf.
On Thursday August 24th, 2017 The Port Arthur Independent School Board Trustees will meet and determine whether an elementary school in the area named for Dowling, should have his name ripped from its facade of education. The same meeting will also discuss removing Robert E Lee’s name from yet another area elementary school.
That's just how it is in the times we live in.