Forty-four Confederates stood their ground against more than 5,000 Federals at Sabine Pass–and won.
Just east of Beaumont, the Sabine River runs as the dividing line between Texas and Louisiana. The mouth of this river, known as Sabine Pass, serves the Atlantic seaport of Beaumont, and its present-day obscurity masks the strategic importance it held for the warring factions during the Civil War. The military engagements at Sabine Pass began in 1862 with a Federal victory, but that fight is just the beginning of the story, and it seems almost peripheral when one considers the might of the attacking Northerners and the vulnerability of the Confederates at the pass. The encounter that caused the New York City stock market to falter and bolstered the spirits of Confederate forces at a critical time was the second battle of Sabine Pass, which started with another Federal attack in September 1863. Confederate Major General John B. Magruder described this engagement as “the most extraordinary feat of the war.”
One of the Confederate defenders recalled that Sabine City, located about half a mile inland from where the waters of Sabine Pass pour into the Atlantic, “held a strategic…position in that if northern forces ever captured [it]…the entire eastern section [of Texas] would be laid open to invasion.” The area was not exporting cotton on the level of New Orleans or Galveston, but it was still a major point of export for the South as well as a port where supplies and ammunition from European markets were received.
In September 1862, one year to the month before the main battle of Sabine Pass took place, Federal forces temporarily secured safe passage through the pass with a victorious assault on the Confederate garrison there. While this attack may be regarded as more of a disjointed skirmish than a battle, due to the Confederates’ lack of readiness, it was important for a number of reasons. It gave the Federals better access to the entire Texas coast from Sabine Pass to Brazos Island, as well as the opportunity to prepare for the larger battle yet to come.
Although the terminology of wargaming may seem too fixed in 20th- and 21st-century military vernacular to be applied here, this is exactly what the Federal attack in 1862 was. Confederate defender Thomas Jefferson Smith described what he recognized as a fact-finding endeavor on the part of the Yankees at that time: “To day they have been firing at our Fort at the distance of Some three miles. Their shot fell harmless some 3⁄4 of a mile from the fort. Thir [sic] object in firing at that Fort was to get us to return the fire by which they might be able to ascertain the caliber of our guns.”
This exploratory effort, which pitted a strong Union force against a weak Confederate one, was over rather quickly. It consisted of three Federal ships sailing into Sabine Pass on September 25, opening fire on Fort Griffin and bombarding it until the Rebels withdrew after spiking their guns.
Following the success of the Federal bombardment, a large Union force destroyed coastal fortifications, captured Fort Griffin, occupied Beaumont and demolished the railroad bridge that connected Beaumont to Sabine City. The Confederates were surprised by the excessive destruction the Federals had wrought. According to Civil War historian Steve Cottrell in Civil War in Texas and New Mexico Territory, it was this excess that “made a lasting impression on the local Confederate authorities, who made plans to improve defenses at Sabine Pass [so that] the next time the Federals attempted to pull off an attack there, they would find stiffer resistance.”
In 1863 the Confederate troops in Fort Griffin were under the direction of Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, a native of Ireland. He was cheerful and intelligent, traits his men would appreciate as the Federals prepared for another September strike.
In Cottonclads! The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast, Donald S. Frazier argues that the Union plan for this second action against Sabine Pass grew out of the desire to “occupy the upper [Gulf] coast once and for all” and to isolate Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, the Confederate commander in Louisiana. To these ends, the Federals planned “an amphibious operation [that] would drive into Sabine Pass, land troops, cut the railroad from Houston to Beaumont, and prevent Major-General Magruder from sending reinforcements to aid Taylor.”
General Magruder first made a name for himself through his successful tactics against Union forces at the Battle of Big Bethel in southeastern Virginia on June 10, 1861. He was on the minds of Federals planning the second attack on Sabine Pass because he had recently stung the Yankees again at the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863. In fact, Magruder’s victory at Galveston had been so impressive that he received letters of praise from Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Understandably, Davis exulted in the very thing the Yankees feared—that the boon to Confederate morale from the victory at Galveston would lead to other blows to the Federals that would be “vigorously and effectively followed up.”
The Federal plan for the 1863 attack looked good on paper. Major General William B. Franklin would rely on four warships—including two Galveston veterans, Clifton and Sachem, as well as USS Granite City and USS Arizona—and nearly 20 heavy cannons to open the assault by shelling Fort Griffin. While the gunboats kept the fort’s defenders and six heavy guns busy, transports would carry three infantry brigades and four companies of the 1st Texas Calvary (USA) along with 10 batteries of artillery to a landing spot approximately one mile south of the fort on the west bank of the river. The troops would then seize Fort Griffin, and Sabine City beyond it.
Fortunately for the Confederates, a case of misidentification caused the initial attack on September 7 to go awry almost immediately. The lead ship in the Federal fleet, Granite City, turned from the pass and headed out to sea because its commander was shaken by an erroneous sighting of the Rebel raider CSS Alabama. Making matters worse for the Federals, the troop-transport ships were unaware that Granite City had retreated. Upon moving into the mouth of the pass as ordered, they found themselves in front of the Confederate guns before realizing they had neither escort nor protection. Like Granite City before them, the transports reversed course, but not before giving the Rebels some idea of the type of attack the Yankees were planning.
Although they now had a brief glimpse at the hand the Federals would play, the Confederates were not overly confident. In fact, the Southerners in Fort Griffin wondered if they would be able to hold both the fort and the pass, or even one or the other. These doubts are understandable if one considers that the mechanics of the Union attack were still somewhat unknown, that the Confederates in Fort Griffin possessed fewer heavy guns than the Federals and that the defenders would be greatly outnumbered by the forces that would attack them. In short, the pending assault had a foreboding effect that made the night of September 7 a long one for Dowling and his men.
Nonetheless, Dowling spurred his forces into action the following morning. One of his top priorities was preventing enemy boats from reaching Sabine Lake, a large widening of the river just north of Sabine City. CSS Josiah H. Bell, a large steamer that had been transformed into one of the most formidable gunboats on the Texas coast, and the tender Florida headed toward the pass to function as the first line of defense on the river itself. CSS Uncle Ben was loaded with half the men from Fort Griffin to act as boarders in the event that any of the Union ships made it past the fort’s guns.
While Uncle Ben sailed to position, CSS Roebuck left Beaumont en route to Sabine Pass with 65 men from Captain Richard Cook’s company, plus 15 from another company and several volunteers, sent by Beaumont’s commander, Colonel Leon Smith of the Texas Marines. In an official letter explaining that he had dispatched these reinforcements to Sabine Pass, Smith apologized that he had not sent them sooner. It appears he knew the troops he had dispatched were going to arrive too late to be of any help to Dowling and his men: “I am exceedingly sorry that Captain Cook did not let me know of [the need to send troops to Dowling’s position] at the time he received the dispatch. I then could have had the troops there this morning. We have heard heavy firing for the last hour.”
The Federal movements on September 8 began with Clifton steaming in close to check the defenses at Fort Griffin. In his after-battle report, Dowling wrote that once Clifton was close, it anchored and “fired twenty-six shells at the fort, most of which passed over or fell short…. [With] one shell being landed on the works and another striking the south angle of the fort.” Clearly it was the reports from these shots that Colonel Smith heard and that caused him to believe he had dispatched Roebuck too late. And although Smith was right on this point—he had indeed dispatched the Confederate vessel too late—it turned out that the absence of Roebuck would not affect the course of the battle.
Although several shells were fired at Dowling’s position, he had his men hold their fire per the orders of his superior, Captain F.H. Odlum, who wished to have the Federal vessels drawn in close to the fort before the Confederates engaged them. Not knowing that it was Odlum’s orders that restrained the Confederates from returning fire, the Federals assumed they were incapable of doing so accurately, and confidently moved three of their gunboats close to the fort to soften the defenses and screen the troops as they landed.
While the Yankees were executing their attack to the fullest, pouring round after round down on the fort, they continued to marvel at the fact that the Confederates were not returning their shots in kind. Inside, Dowling was telling his men to hold their fire until the Federal ships reached certain points in the pass—points on which the Confederate guns were already zeroed in. Therefore, while the first moments of the battle seemed lopsided and the Federals were convinced their attack was proceeding without a hitch, things were actually going precisely as the Confederates wished. This is evident in the report Captain Odlum submitted to Confederate headquarters after the Union ships retreated: “I have the honor to report that that the enemy opened fire this morning at 6:30 o’clock from one of their steamers, and withdrew at 7:30 o’clock, after firing 26 shell[s] . . . . Their shots [were] all good, but doing no damage. I issued orders to Lieutenant Dowling, commanding Fort Griffin, to reserve his fire until the steamers were within range, and then to aim at their wheelhouses, so as to cripple them, which I believe will answer very well. Lieutenant Dowling is carrying out my orders strictly.”
The morning attack produced few tangible results, but the Federal efforts picked up again in the midafternoon and were in earnest just after 3:30 p.m. At this time the Union gunboats divided, with Clifton taking the west, or Texas, channel while Sachem and Arizona sailed east. The confidence of the Yankees was seriously shaken when some of the men aboard Sachem “noticed pilings and stakes in the water, and soon learned that these were the target points that Dowling’s gunners had been practicing on.”
With the Yankees now in range, the time for the Confederates to return fire was at hand. Frazier describes what happened next: “Dowling yelled for his men, who boiled out of their hiding places, to man their guns. Immediately the Texans opened a rapid fire, firing two shots per gun to get the range, and then holing the Sachem several times. Without taking time to swab their guns, Dowling’s Irishmen were managing a round a minute out of their heavy guns. As the Sachem submitted to this pounding, the crew heard the sickening sound of its hull crunching against mud and gravel as the vessel came to a halt.”
This rude awakening for the Federals turned to panic when a Confederate round sheared Sachem’s steam pipe and hot water spewed over the ship’s deck, scalding everyone in range. In his report to headquarters, Dowling wrote: “I opened fire on the foremost boat which, after the third or fourth round, hoisted the white flag, one of the shots passing through her steam drum.”
After shelling Sachem, the Confederates turned their attention, as well as their guns, to Clifton, which also became grounded while under fire and surrendered. Of his attack on Clifton, Dowling wrote that while his guns were trained on Sachem, Clifton “had attempted to pass up through the Texas channel, but, receiving a shot which carried away her tiller rope, she became unmanageable, and grounded about 500 yards below the fort.” Once grounded, Clifton was a sitting duck, and Dowling concentrated all his guns on it until the crew hoisted a white flag after about half an hour. With both Sachem and Clifton surrendered, the third of the three lead ships, Arizona, reversed engines in retreat.
This was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the battle of Sabine Pass, a battle that Dowling described as lasting “about three quarters of an hour” from the time he “fired the first gun until the boats surrendered.” With Sachem and Clifton out of commission, Arizona and Granite City continued to withdraw from the pass and returned to New Orleans, along with the Union troop transports.
For the Federals, the loss was a disgraceful defeat. General Franklin, the officer in charge of the Union advance at the pass, had, in 45 short minutes, become “the first U.S. general to lose a fleet in a contest with land batteries alone,” according to Richard V. Francaviglia in From Sail to Steam: Four Centuries of Texas Maritime History, 1500-1900. For the Confederates, the victory was remarkable, for it was not a victory of one force over another at even odds, but a victory of 44 Southerners over, as Magruder estimated, “15,000 picked men, mostly of Grant’s army” (though the actual total was closer to 5,000).
From the reports issued on September 9, it is clear that Dowling had not thought that the battle would be a brief one, for he wrote of the “coolness and gallantry” of “Captain W.S. Good, ordinance [sic] officer, and Dr. Murray, acting assistant surgeon,” whom he sent from the fort to get reinforcements as soon as the battle had begun. Although Captain Good and Dr. Murray did not depart until the fight was underway, Dowling noted that “before they could accomplish their mission the enemy surrendered.”
The report Magruder sent to headquarters on September 9, 1863, made it clear that he anticipated yet another Federal attack at Sabine Pass. He apparently formed his opinion that the Yankees would return after interrogating POWs captured during the battle, and informed headquarters that he had increased the number of men at the pass to 2,500. According to the prisoners’ testimonies, had they not been stopped by Dowling and his men “they [the Federals] would have…cut [the Confederates in Texas] off from Major-General Taylor, and probably advanced to Houston.” While some of the captured Federals believed that another attack on Sabine Pass would result in their rescue and subsequent successful push to Houston, Magruder believed the number of troops he had brought together under his command at the pass could “thwart them.”
The Federals never attempted another attack on Sabine Pass. Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks contemplated an overland approach to Sabine City that also involved targeting Houston, but in the end he aborted the attack due to supply difficulties.
At an October 1928 Confederate veterans reunion, Edward Smith recalled how he and his company (Captain Payton Bland’s Company) had moved through the swamps on the morning of September 8 with orders to reinforce Dowling. The Confederates within Fort Griffin had just begun shelling the Federal vessels in the pass when Smith and company made it to within a few miles of the fort, a position from which he recalled hearing “the light cannon of the fort and the heavy naval guns of the Northern gunboats.” Smith now knew that the battle had begun, and that his comrades in Fort Griffin were severely outmanned and outgunned by the attacking Federals. But what he did not know is that when the smoke from the heavily damaged Federal vessels cleared, the Union forces would count 94 soldiers and three officers killed in action, while Dowling did not lose a man.
While Magruder’s description of this remarkable and unlikely victory as “the most extraordinary feat of the war” seems a fitting epitaph to what the Southerners in Fort Griffin did, Smith went even further when he realized what had been accomplished. Upon finally making it to the fort, and seeing the destruction that Dowling’s small band of Rebels had wrought upon the attacking Yankees, Smith declared, “Dowling and his men showed a spirit of bravery which has placed them among the immortals in Texas History.”
A.W.R. Hawkins III writes from Amarillo, Texas. Additional reading: Cottonclads! The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast, by Donald S. Frazier; From Sail to Steam: Four Centuries of Texas Maritime History, 1500–1900, by Richard V. Francaviglia; and Civil War in Texas and New Mexico Territory, by Steve Cottrell.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.