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Sabine Pass battle. [from the Richmond, Va., dispatch, February 17, 1901.1

A great achievement in history of civilized warfare.

Participants detail the facts.

Paper read by Mrs. Freer at Convention of United Daughters of the Confederacy—Stirring story of Gallantry.

The following was read by Mrs. Hal W. Greer, historian of Dick Downing Chapter, before the National Convention of United Daughters of the Confederacy:

In this paper I write little else save the bare facts, thinking my time would be limited, but there is much more that could be written which I feel sure would interest you, and in the beginning I wish to state that most of the data in this paper was given me by Mrs. Margaret L. Watson, President of the ‘Dick Downing’ Chapter, of Beaumont. Mrs. Watson received it direct from two Confederate veterans who participated in the battle, so the authenticity of the facts cannot be doubted.

The most remarkable, and so far as the writer is informed, unrecorded battle of the war between the States was fought at Sabine Pass, Texas, on September 8, 1863.

Those who took part in the battle called themselves the ‘Davis Guards.’ The company was organized at Camp Kyle, near Harrisburg, [315] Texas, with Captain F. H. Odlum in command. They were mustered into service at Galveston by Brigadier-General Paul O. Hebert, in August, 1861. They took the name of the Davis Guards in honor of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States.

To gain an accurate knowledge how the result of this battle was accomplished, it is necessary to briefly describe the general topography of the country and streams. The stream of Sabine Pass flows from Sabine Lake into the Gulf of Mexico. It is about seven miles long, slightly less than one mile wide, and ranges in depth from twenty to forty feet. At the time a bar had formed at the gulf end, and the Channel over it was only about ten feet deep, and very tortuous and difficult to navigate. The stream forms a dividing line between Texas and Louisiana, and was once the boundary between the United States and Mexico. Its banks are very low, at the highest places on the Texas side not extending over three feet above low tide, while the Louisiana side is much lower, is an extensive marsh, and is inundated whenever the tide comes in above normal. All the surrounding country is a low marsh, except where the town is located on a ridge about three feet above low tide.

The town is situated on the west or Texas side, about five miles from the gulf end of the stream. On the Texas bank the Confederates had erected a mud fort about one mile from the gulf.

This fort was manned by forty-two men all told, under the command of Lieutenant Richard (commonly known as ‘Dick’) W. Dowling. He was born in Galway, Ireland, and came to America when a child with his parents, who settled in New Orleans, La. He was at the time of this battle very young, but he was a brave soldier, and fully competent to do the work which fate had destined for him.

On the 7th of September, the night previous to the battle, the Federal fleet began arriving from New Orleans. When daylight came the Confederates viewed with consternation the formidable sight. They had not one charge of ammunition, nor even a hand-bar with which to throw the guns around on their travel bars, inside the fort. Captain Odlum sent immediately to the town of Sabine for ammunition, and soon the little company of men set to work with great energy to prepare for the battle which they knew was imminent.

General Magruder, who had been informed of the enemy's approach, sent word to Captain Odlum to spike the guns, blow up the [316] fort, and retreat to Taylor's bayou, and there to try to hold the the enemy in check. When these orders were made known to Lieutenant Dowling-Captain Odlum being in command of the post in the town of Sabine, in place of Colonel Griffin, who had charge of the post, but who had gone to Houston to attend a court-martial—asked his men if they wished to do this. They replied: ‘No; we prefer to fight while there is a detachment to man the guns.’ About this time the Federals began firing. The guns in the fort consisted of two 32-pounders, two 24-pounders, and two brass-mounted howitzers. The 31-pounders, will here be remarked, were some old guns which the Federals had damaged by spiking and cutting to the trunnions. They were taken to Houston and repaired by the Confederates. These guns proved the most effective in battle of any which were fired, as they crippled the Sachem, Clifton, and Arizona. (A part of the old gunboat Clifton is still visible at Sabine Pass.)

The attack from the gunboats continued, the ground around the fort being torn up; still no return of fire from Dowling, he withholding and waiting until the vessels came within easy range to fire his first shot. Meanwhile he spoke with words of courage and good cheer to his men, urging upon them the necessity of making every fire from their guns damage the enemy, and to use their ammunition with the greatest economy. He did not allow his men to put their heads above the parapet, and the Federals had about come to the conclusion that there was no one in the fort and that they had wasted their ammunition. They came nearer and nearer, and when at a point where Dowling, who had been keeping a close watch, knew the shots could take effect, he ordered his men to their places and gave the command ‘Fire!’

Just here is where Dowling evinced his true judgment of warfare. The shots poured into the gunboats, and soon the Sachem and Clifton were at the mercy of the Confederates, while the Arizona backed and turned seaward, but was crippled in the hull. She managed to get out to sea, where she sunk that night with all on board. It is estimated there were at least 250 men lost, and many bodies were found on the shores of Louisiana and Texas.

After just thirty-eight minutes from the time Dowling ordered his men to fire the first shot, the white flag was seen to go up on the flagship Clifton. Lieutenant Dowling went aboard, accompanied by Dr. George H. Bailey, as a signal for a surgeon had been given by the enemy. Commodore Crocker met them and surrendered his sword to Lieutenant Dowling. Dr. Bailey administered to the [317] wounded and dying. Later, Commodore Crocker came ashore and entered the fort. Imagine his surprise when he realized that there were only forty-two men in the fort. The Confederates took as prisoners 490 men, seventy-two of whom were badly wounded. The exact number of killed is not known, these, as contradistinguished from those who were drowned by the sinking of the Arizona, but has been estimated at fifty, most of whom were scalded to death by the explosion of the boiler on the gunboat Sachem when the shot struck it. Not a man on the Confederate side received a scratch, and beyond slight injuries to the walls of the little mud fort, and one gun carriage, no damage was done.

The prisoners, who numbered 490, were kept under guns until relief came by steamers from Orange and Beaumont.

Commodore Leon Smith makes honorable mention of Captain Odlum, Lieutenant Dowling, Lieutenant Smith, and Captain Cook, who came down with the Uncle Ben, a Confederate transport. He also makes mention of another Lieutenant Smith, of Company B, Spaight's Battalion, and Lieutenant Harrison, of Captain Daly's Company.

Dr. George H. Baily, who is living out in California, volunteered his services and was in the fort during the battle, but, as no one required his attention as a surgeon, he assisted in firing the guns, and valuable assistance he rendered, too. General Magruder presented him with a sword which was taken from one of the prisoners.

Mr. Jefferson Davis in his book on the Rise and fall of the Confederacy, says: ‘There is no parallel in ancient or modern warfare to that of Dowling and his men at Sabine Pass, considering the great odds against which they had to contend.’

The Congress of the Confederate States also passed the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the thanks of Congress are due and are hereby cordially given to Captain Odium, Lieutenant Dowling and his forty-two men, comprising the “Davis Guards,” under their command, for their daring, gallant and successful defence of Sabine Pass against the attack made by the enemy on the 8th of September, 1863, with a fleet of five gunboats and twenty-one steam transports carrying a land force of 15,000 men.

That the defence, resulting, under the providence of God, in the defeat of the enemy, the capture of two gunboats, with 490 prisoners, including the commander of the fleet, Frederick Crocker; [318] crippling the gunboats, the dispersion of the transports and preventing the invasion of Texas, constitutes in the opinion of Congress one of the most heroic and brilliant achievements in the history of this war, and entitles the Davis Guards to the gratitude and admiration of their country.

That the President be requested to communicate the foregoing resolutions to Captain Odlum, Lieutenant Dowling and the men under his command.

Approved February 8, 1864.

All the men composing the Davis Guards were from Ireland except two, who were born in the United States, and one German. These Irishmen did a brave part by their country of adoption, and well deserve the tribute paid them by the Confederate citizens eulogizing their courageous patriotism. The rations of the Davis Guards consisted of what the good citizens of the vicinity gave them. Mrs. Kate Dorman, a most patriotic Southern woman and a native of Georgia, herself cooked beef and sent to them, along with the message, ‘they must not fight like men, but fight like devils.’ During the time of the battle she watched its progress through a field glass, while her friend, Mrs. Sarah Vasburg, who was a praying woman, stood beside her with uplifted hand, asking God to direct the shots.

Mr. Sam Watson, of Beaumont, was placed as first engineer on the captured gunboat Sachem, which boat kept its name when in possession of the Confederates. Mrs. Margaret Watson made the first Confederate flag which was put upon her.

The attacking Federals, under the command of Captain Frederick Crocker, had nineteen well equipped gunboats, three steamships and three sloops of war. It is presumed the steamships and sloops were transports, as they took no part in the engagement. What the Federal design was in its attack at Sabine Pass is mere conjecture, as the departments at Washington have never revealed it, but there is reason to believe that their intention was to invade Texas, Arkansas and North Louisiana. A plan had been laid by General Banks somewhat to this effect, and judging from the number of troops, 15,000, it is supposed this was the time the scheme was to be accomplished.

When we remember that only forty-two brave men foiled him, too much honor cannot be paid to their memory, and we, the United Daughters of the Confederacy of Beaumont, have named our chapter [319] for their leader, Lieutenant Dowling. There are only two survivors of this wonderful battle, but many citizens who remember all the incidents perfectly.

Mrs. Hal W. Greer, Historian of Dick Dowling Chapter, Beaumont, Texas.

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