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Sabine Pass.

A Federal account—letter from Adjutant-General Frederic speed.

[We cheerfully give place to the following letter, which is a different version from the account of Sabine Pass which has been received among Confederates, and is very different from the one which follows it. We publish without comments:] [131]

Vicksburg, Miss., September 27th, 1883.
Rev. J. William Jones, D. D., Secretary Southern Historical Society, Richmond, Va.:
My Dear Sir,—In the October issue of the Southern Historical Society papers you ask, ‘Who will send us a detailed sketch of the heroic defence of Sabine Pass?’ and referring to the death of Jack White, quote from an unknown exchange the statement that White was one of the forty Irishmen who held Sabine Pass against the ‘entire’ Federal fleet during the war, ‘and received the personal thanks of Mr. Davis,’ &c. The statement further goes on to say that the ‘Federal force consisted of three Federal brigades’ ‘and a fleet of gun-boats,’ and adds, ‘the defeat of this force was probably the most heroic exploit of the war, and out of solid shame the Federal Government dropped the record thereof from their war annals.’

I should not write you to call attention to the fact that the statement referred to contains more which is the result of a pure effort of the imagination than of the truth, if I did not credit your society with a sincere desire to publish facts, and not fiction, in making up the history of the war. That the defence of Sabine Pass was ‘heroic’ I freely admit; the defenders were few in numbers, and exhibited coolness and skill; but that they were entitled to the extravagant praise of being denominated ‘the forty bravest men of the Confederacy’ is all balderdash, and does the grossest injustice to the entire forces of the Confederacy; for I presume that there were none of them which on many occasions did not exhibit equal ‘bravery,’ and it is within my personal knowledge that thousands of Confederate soldiers far surpassed the valiant forty at Sabine Pass in the noble quality of the soldier.

That there was a large Federal force within sight is true; but with the exception of three gun-boats, the entire force would have proved quite as effective if it had remained at New Orleans, simply from the fact that it was impracticable to land the army, and the naval vessels drew so much water that with the exception of the gun-boats referred to it could not approach nearer than two and a half to three miles of Mr. Davis's ‘forty bravest men,’ who were as safe from harm in the earth-work as they would have been a thousand miles away. They did not probably know this, and their merit consists in the fact that they did not run away, as most men would have done under the circumstance, before finding out this important fact in the ‘engagement.’ [132]

The three gun-boats engaged were the ‘Sachem,’ a canal-boat in appearance, and about as effective, selected, because of her light draft, to precede the ‘fleet.’ Her value was demonstrated by the fact that the first shot fired at her exploded her boiler and totally disabled her, scalding almost every man on board, and causing her to surrender without—if my memory serves me—firing a gun. The second gun-boat was a Staten Island ferry-boat, called the ‘Clifton,’ which grounded before reaching the earth-work, and at the third or fourth shot from the Confederates had her steam-chest struck, which not only disabled her, but was the cause of the scalding of many of her crew. The third gun-boat was the ‘Granite State,’ which drew too much water to get within effective distance, and she was not engaged. Distributed between the ‘Sachem’ and ‘Clifton’ were seventy-five infantry, who were blinded and scalded by the escaping steam, and did not fire a shot.

The balance of the Federal forces, owing to the heavy draft of the vessels, could not get within less than two miles of the fort; the nearest point at which any other vessel, than those named, succeeded in getting during the entire engagement was the Mississippi-river steamer Laurel Hill, which drew eight feet of water, and the ‘R. W. Thomas,’ another Mississippi-river steamer, drawing a little more water. These vessels had about two thousand men on board, who, if a landing could have been effected, would have made short work of the ‘forty bravest men of the Confederacy.’ But as the ‘Clifton,’ drawing less water, ran aground before reaching the earth-work, and was rendered a helpless wreck by about three shots from the Confederate guns, the chances were that the Mississippi-river boats, with their exposed boilers and machinery, would suffer a similar fate, and at no time were they within such a distance of the earth-work that they could be fairly said to be a menace to the heroic garrison. On the other hand, a force of Confederate infantry, estimated by the number and crowded condition of the boats, by us at four thousand, arrived during the engagement, to reinforce the forty braves. A storm coming on during the night, the fleet, mostly composed of cockle-shells, was forced to run for shelter, and thus ended the demonstration in which forty men won imperishable honors. Of course it was a defeat for the Federals, whose object was to capture Sabine Pass, a feat which would have occasioned no very great difficulty if there had been found any spot where the army could have effected a landing, or the navy could have got one respectably constructed and equipped vessel within range. Such was not, however, the case, and it is as unfair [133] to the whole Confederate forces to speak of the garrison of the earthwork at Sabine Pass as the ‘forty bravest men of the Confederacy’ as it is to insinuate that the Union naval and military forces, lying out in the Gulf of Mexico, have any reason to be ashamed of the failure to capture a place they could not reach in vessels drawing fourteen to twenty-five feet of water, which was the case with the exception of those I have named, and which experience demonstrated drew too much to navigate a channel in which there could not have been much more, if any, than seven feet.

Mr. Davis was undoubtedly misled, and did not know that if the garrison had abandoned their post at any time during the Federal reconnoisance—for that was all it was, in point of fact they should have been courtmartialed for cowardice; because however meritorious their action in ‘holding the fort’ may have been, it is absolutely certain that they were never exposed to any real danger of capture or injury from the Federals, who did not fire a dozen shots altogether, and from which the garrison was perfectly protected by the earth-work.

Very respectfully yours,

Frederic speed, Formerly A. A. General 1st Division 19th Army Corps.

President Davis's account.

[In order that our readers may have ‘the other side,’ and that there may go into our record a full and authentic narrative of this heroic action, we copy the account given by President Davis in ‘Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.’]

The strategic importance to the enemy of the possession of Sabine river caused the organization of a large expedition of land and naval forces to enter and ascend the river. If successful, it gave the enemy short lines for operation against the interior of Texas, and relieved them of the discomfiture resulting from their expulsion from Galveston Harbor.

The fleet of the enemy numbered twenty-three vessels. The forces were estimated to be ten thousand men. No adequate provision had been made to resist such a force, and, under the circumstances, none might have been promptly made on which reliance could have been reasonably placed. A few miles above the entrace into the Sabine river a small earthwork had been constructed, garrisoned at the time [134] of the action by forty-two men and two lieutenants, with an armament of six guns. The officers and men were all Irishmen, and the company was called the ‘Davis Guards.’ The Captain, F. H. Odlum, was temporarily absent, so that the command devolved upon Lieutenant R. W. Dowling. Wishing to perpetuate the history of an affair in which I believe the brave garrison did more than an equal force had ever elsewhere performed, I asked General Magruder, when I met him after the war, to write out a full account of the event; he agreed to so, but died not long after I saw him, and before complying with my request. From the publications of the day I have obtained the main facts, as they were then printed in the Texas newspapers, and, being unwilling to summarize the reports, give them at length:

Captain F. H. Odlum's official report.

headquarters, Sabine Pass, September 9, 1863.
Captain A. N. Mills, Assistant Adjutant-General.
Sir,—I have the honor to report that we had an engagement with the enemy yesterday and gained a handsome victory. We captured two of their gunboats, crippled a third, and drove the rest out of the Pass. We took eighteen fine guns, a quantity of smaller arms, ammunition and stores, killed about fifty, wounded several, and took one hundred and fifty prisoners, without the loss or injury of any one on our side or serious damage to the fort.

Your most obedient servant,

F. H. Odlum, Captain, commanding Sabine Pass.

Commodore Leon Smith's official report.

Captain E. P. Turner, Assistant Adjutant-General.
Sir,—After telegraphing the Major-General before leaving Beaumont, I took a horse and proceeded with all haste to Sabine Pass, from which direction I could distinctly hear a heavy firing. Arriving at the Pass at 3 P. M., I found the enemy off and inside the bar, with nineteen gunboats and steamships and other ships of war, carrying, as well as I could judge, fifteen thousand men. I proceeded [135] with captain Oldum to the fort, and found Lieutenant Dowling and Lieutenant N. H. Smith, of the engineer corps, with forty-two men, defending the fort. Until 3 P. M. our men did not open on the enemy, as the range was too distant. The officers of the fort coolly held their fire until the enemy had approached near enough to reach them. But, when the enemy arrived within good range, our batteries were opened, and gallantly replied to a galling and most terrific fire from the enemy. As I entered the fort the gunboats Clifton, Arizona, Sachem, and Granite State, with several others, came boldly up to within one thousand yards, and opened their batteries, which were gallantly and effectively replied to by the Davis Guards. For one hour and thirty minutes a most terrific bombardment of grape, canister and shell was directed against our heroic and devoted little band within the fort. The shot struck in every direction, but, thanks be to God! not one of the noble Davis Guards was hurt. Too much credit cannot be awarded to Lieutenant Dowling, who displayed the utmost heroism in the discharge of the duty assigned him, and the defenders of the fort. God bless the Davis Guards, one and all! The honor of the country was in their hands, and nobly they sustained it. Every man stood at his post, regardless of the murderous fire that was poured upon them from every direction. The result of the battle, which lasted from 3:30 to 5 P. M., was the capturing of the Clifton and Sachem, eighteen heavy guns, and one hundred and fifty prisoners, and the killing and wounding of fifty men, and driving outside the bar the enemy's fleet, comprising twenty-three vessels in all. I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

Leon Smith, Commanding Marine Department of Texas.

(special Order.)

headquarters District of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Houston, Texas, September 9, 1863.
Another glorious victory has been won by the heroism of Texans. The enemy, confident of overpowering the little garrison at Sabine Pass, boldly advanced to the work of capture. After a sharp contest he was entirely defeated, one gunboat hurrying off in a crippled condition, while two others, the Clifton and Sachem, with their armaments and crews, including the commander of the fleet, surrendered to the gallant defenders of the fort. The loss of the enemy has been heavy, while not a man on our side has been killed or wounded. [136] Though the enemy has been repulsed in his naval attacks, his land forces, reported as ten thousand strong, are still off the coast waiting an opportunity to land.

The Major-General calls on every man able to bear arms to bring his guns or arms, no matter of what kind, and be prepared to make a sturdy resistance to the foe.

Major-General J. B. Magruder. Edmund P. Turner, Assistant Adjutant-General.

The Daily Post, of Houston, Texas, of August 22, 1880, has the following:

A few days after the battle each man that participated in the fight was presented with a silver medal inscribed as follows: On one side “ D. G.,” for the Davis Guards, and on the reverse side, “Sabine Pass, September 8, 1863.”

Captain Odlum and Lieutenant R. W. Dowling have gone to that bourne whence no traveler returns, and but few members of the heroic band are in the land of the living, and those few reside in the city of Houston, and often meet together and talk about the battle in which they participated on the memorable 8th of September, 1863.

The following are the names of the company who manned the guns in Fort Grigsby, and to whom the credit is due for the glorious victory:

Lieutenants R. W. Dowling and N. H. Smith; Privates Timothy McDonough, Thomas Dougherty, David Fitzgerald, Michael Monahan, John Hassett, John McKeefer, Jack W. White, Patrick McDonnell, William Gleason, Michael Carr, Thomas Hagerty, Timothy Huggins, Alexander McCabe, James Flemming, Patrick Fitzgerald, Thomas McKernon, Edward Pritchard, Charles Rheins, Timothy Hurley, John McGrath, Matthew Walshe, Patrick Sullivan, Michael Sullivan, Thomas Sullivan, Patrick Clare, John Hennessey, Hugh Deagan, Maurice Powers, Abner Carter, Daniel McMurray, Patrick Malone, James Corcoran, Patrick Abbott, John McNealis, Michael Egan, Daniel Donovan, John Wesley, John Anderson, John Flood, Peter O'Hare, Michael Delaney, Terence Mulhern.’

The inquiry may naturally arise how this small number of men could take charge of so large a body of prisoners. This required that to their valor they should add strategem. A few men were placed on the parapet as sentinels, the rest were marched out as a [137] guard to receive the prisoners and their arms. Thus was concealed the fact that the fort was empty. The report of the guns bombarding the fort had been heard, and soon after the close of the battle reenforcements arrived, which relieved the little garrison from its embarrassment.

Official reports of officers in the assaulting column, as published in the ‘Rebellion Record,’ vol. VII., page 425, et seq., refer to another fort, and steamers in the river, co-operating in the defence of Fort Grigsby. The success of the single company which garrisoned the earthwork is without parallel in ancient or modern war. It was marvelous; but it is incredible—more than marvelous—that another garrison in another fort, with cruising steamers, aided in checking the advance of the enemy, yet silently permitted the forty-two men and two officers of Fort Grigsby to receive all the credit for the victory which was won. If this be supposable, how is it possible that Captain Odlum, Commander Smith, General Magruder, and Lieutenant Dowling, who had been advised to abandon the work, and had consulted their men as to their willingness to defend it, should nowhere have mentioned the putative fort and co-operating steamers?

The names of the forty-four must go down to posterity unshorn of the honor which their contemporaries admiringly accorded.

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