Erin’s Spartans in Gray

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2016 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Rightly or wrongly, some months of the year in the U.S. are dominated by a holiday that happens to fall in that month: New Year’s Day for January, Independence Day for July, Halloween for October, Thanksgiving Day for November, and Christmas for December. Any religious significance aside, these holidays and the monthly focus on them transcend any ethnic ancestry. However, there is one month which, in a sense, belongs to a particular ethnic group due to a holiday which falls in that month. That month is the month of March, which can be said to belong to the Irish, because Saint Patrick’s Day falls in March. Likewise, some units that fought in the Civil War had an Irish heritage. Of course, the most well-known Irish unit of the Civil War was the Union’s Irish Brigade. But for those who also wear gray while they do their wearing of the green, there were some Irish units in the Confederacy. While some of these were regiments, such as the 6th Louisiana, 10th Tennessee, and 8th Alabama, most of the Irish units in the Confederate army were companies rather than regiments or brigades. One of these Irish companies was Company F of the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, and this unit has an illustrious history.

Company F, 1st Texas Heavy Artillery consisted primarily of Irish dockworkers from Houston. The unit took as its official name the Jefferson Davis Guard, which was typically shortened to Davis Guard. There were other Confederate units which used some variation of the name Davis Guard, but Company F, 1st Texas Heavy Artillery was the only one of these that was comprised of men with Irish heritage. This unit has two other distinctions, and these are that it won a victory at what is arguably the greatest numerical disparity of the Civil War, and it was the only Confederate unit to receive medals commissioned by the Confederate Congress.

The Davis Guard’s momentous victory came at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass. Sabine Pass is a natural waterway in southeastern Texas that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Sabine River. The Sabine River forms much of the border between Texas and Louisiana, and because of its connection with the Gulf of Mexico via Sabine Pass, the Sabine River provided an invasion route for the Union into Texas. In addition, the town of Sabine Pass, which lay on the western shore of the waterway of the same name, had a port that was used by blockade runners. Consequently, David Farragut, commander of the blockading squadron in the Gulf of Mexico, dispatched a flotilla of three ships in September 1862 to capture the port. This resulted in what came to be known as the First Battle of Sabine Pass, which was no more than a brief bombardment by the Union ships of a very small Confederate force that was stationed on the west side of the Sabine Pass waterway. The Confederate force quickly withdrew, and the town of Sabine Pass surrendered. The Union flotilla remained in the area for a short time after the battle, but upon receiving a report that a large Confederate army was approaching, the Union flotilla withdrew, and the Confederates regained control of Sabine Pass.

Dick Dowling

To better defend the approach into the area, the Confederates built an earthen fort on the west side of the Sabine Pass waterway about a mile north of where the First Battle of Sabine Pass occurred. The Davis Guard was assigned to garrison this fort, and in command of the garrison was Richard W. “Dick” Dowling, who was born in Ireland in 1837. Dowling and his older sister emigrated to New Orleans when Dowling was nine years old. The rest of the family came to the U.S. five years later, but two years after their arrival Dowling’s parents died in an outbreak of yellow fever. In 1857, four years after the death of his parents and at the age of 20, Dowling moved to Houston and began what became a successful business as a saloon owner. By the time of the Civil War, Dowling owned several saloons and had participated in the establishment of Houston’s first gas company, first volunteer fire department, and first streetcar company. When the Civil War began and the Davis Guard was formed, Dowling was elected a lieutenant in the company.

After the Davis Guard occupied the newly constructed fort on Sabine Pass early in 1863, Dowling began an intense training program for the men in his artillery company in preparation for the next Union attempt to take control of Sabine Pass. Dowling put his men through extensive artillery drills to make them thoroughly familiar with the ranges from the fort to various points across Sabine Pass. He also had marker posts placed at various locations across the waterway to assist his men in setting the ranges of their guns. This intense preparation served the Davis Guard well when another Union force attacked Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863, almost one year after the first attack. This second attack consisted of a combined navy and army force that comprised four gunboats and 18 other ships, including troop transports, as well as 4,000 infantry. The initial assault was carried out by the four gunboats, which steamed up Sabine Pass toward the fort. One of the gunboats carried 500 of the infantry troops, who were to be landed once the fort had been reduced, and this gunboat remained behind to keep the infantry troops at a safe distance. The remaining 18 ships and the infantry on the troop transports stayed out of range of the fort’s guns. As the gunboats approached the fort, the Davis Guard’s months of artillery training begot a nightmare of destruction for the two gunboats that were in the lead. With the ranges well established, the Confederate gunners scored multiple hits on these two gunboats. Eventually the boilers of both gunboats were hit, and these gunboats were disabled. In time the commander of the Union gunboat squadron recognized that the assault was a failure, and the two surviving gunboats with the rest of the flotilla and the infantry troops withdrew. In all the Union force suffered 350 casualties and lost two gunboats, while the Davis Guard had no casualties.

A drawing from the October 10, 1863 Harper’s Weekly depicting the Second Battle of Sabine Pass
The smoke in the left background denotes the location of the Confederate fort.

The numerical disparity at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass was very large, about a hundred to one. The Union force contained a total of about 5,000. There is some uncertainty about the exact number of Confederates who took part in the battle, but the best reckoning is between 45 and 50. However, by all accounts the Union infantry remained on board ships and was not engaged, so technically the disparity in the battle, itself, was not as great as generally recorded. Nevertheless, based solely on the total number in each force at the battle, the Davis Guard can claim to have defeated a force that was a hundred times its number. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the focus of the news about the engagement was that a few dozen Confederates drove off a combined army-navy Union expedition of a few thousand. In light of this considerable numerical disparity coupled with the fact that the Davis Guard blocked a large invasion force, the Second Battle of Sabine Pass was likened to the Battle of Thermopylae, reputedly even by Jefferson Davis.

One of the medals that was awarded to the members of the Davis Guard

The Confederacy was so elated over the victory at Sabine Pass, coming as it did about two months after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, that the Confederate Congress did something to honor the Davis Guard that it had not done before and would not do again. In recognition of the victory at Sabine Pass, the Confederate Congress commissioned medals for each member of the Davis Guard, and these are reputedly the only military medals that were commissioned by the Confederate Congress. The medals which the men of the Davis Guard received were made by citizens of Houston from Mexican silver coins. The faces of the coins were smoothed out, and the faces were then inscribed on one side with the words “Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863” and on the other side with the initials “D.G.” (for Davis Guard) and either a Maltese Cross or a Confederate battle flag. The medals were hung with green ribbons to acknowledge the Irish heritage of the men in the Davis Guard. Only seven of the medals are still known to be in existence.

Despite the euphoria that was aroused in the Confederacy over the victory at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, the fortunes of the breakaway nation at the time of that victory were decidedly downward. Dick Dowling’s artillery unit won an astounding and uplifting victory, but that victory was in support of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to bring a new nation into existence. Because of this failure, Dick Dowling, who had moved from Ireland to America at the age of nine, again underwent a change in his country of residence, although this time it happened without any change in Dowling’s geographic location. Less than two years after the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, Dowling no longer lived in the Confederate States of America, but once again lived in the United States of America. However, Dowling did not live long in his once and present country. In the summer of 1867 an epidemic of yellow fever struck the Gulf Coast, including the city of Houston, and at the age of 30 Dick Dowling died of the disease that had claimed his parents 14 years earlier. But before the day arrived on which Dick Dowling’s loved ones filled to him the parting glass, Dowling and his Irish comrades in the Davis Guard carved out a distinctive place for themselves in history and also provided ample reason for adding gray to the green color scheme of the Irish month of March.

Related link:
The Irish in the Civil War