THE BEGINNING OF DICK DOWLING AS A REBEL FIGHTER
By W. T. Block
Delivered by W. T. Block at St. Patrick's Day celebration for Dick Dowling, Hermann Park, Houston, on Mar. 11, 1995.
Officers and members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, also the Sons of Confederate Veterans, fellow historians, ladies and gentlemen:
While you may surmise from my surname that my paternal ancestry is German, my mother's maiden name was Sweeney, a name well-established on The Emerald Isle. Today I offer a salute and a few grateful words to Major Dick Dowling of Houston and his 47 Irish 'dockwallopers' (stevedores) of the Davis Guard, who in forty minutes of time, blazed their way into the hearts of Confederates, and for all practical purposes, shot the other four years of Civil War history at Sabine Pass into oblivion. In so doing, the Davis Guard probably prevented both Beaumont and Houston from being occupied by the Union Army.
By all rules of military science and the laws of averages, the Battle of Sabine Pass, fought on Sept. 8, 1863, should have been disaster, a debacle, a second Alamo, with 47 Irish artillerymen slain at their guns. But no Alamo or Thermopylae took place; instead, the Davis Guard turned it into an Alamo in reverse, a Union route, with 5,000 Federal Bluejackets and troops becoming dreadfully homesick for New Orleans, and the total Rebel casualties amounted to only a wooden splinter imbedded in a soldier's arm. Now let me add that the Davis Guard did have a tremendous knack for shooting cannonballs through key holes, but that was no accident; it resulted only because Captain Odlum and Lieutenant Dowling had honed their troops' gunnery skills to utter perfection.
However, I am not going to discuss that battle at length today, because I'm sure each of you has heard much about it in the past; instead, I'll discuss a little-known offshore battle fought at Sabine Pass 8 months earlier, which helped the David Guard acquire their gunnery prowess. Dowling and his men had spent the first 1 1/2 years of the war performing obscure garrison duties at Fort Brown at Brownsville and at Fort Brazos, until in October, 1862, they were reassigned as Co. F, of Col. Joseph Cook's 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, a unit normally assigned to the defense of Galveston's beaches. Up until December 1, 1862, the Texas Department of the Confederacy had been commanded by Gen. Paul Hebert of Galveston, a man not noted for any particular aggressiveness, and the previous September, Galveston Island surrendered, and two Union steamers, the Harriet Lane and Westfield, patrolled Galveston Bay at will, and in Sabine Lake, the Federal steam gunboat Dan and the schooner Velocity paraded up and down the Sabine Pass daily. However, although the Federals came ashore only twice at Sabine Pass during the fall of 1862 to burn the fort and much of the town, they were reluctant to occupy it because between July and October, a virulent yellow fever epidemic had already killed about 200 soldiers and civilians there.
In December, 1862, a new Confederate commanding general, fresh from the Virginia battlefields, arrived in Houston to take command. And two of Gen. John Magruder's top priorities were to recapture Galveston Island and to lift the Union blockade at Sabine Pass. At dawn on New Year's Day, the cannonading in Galveston Bay was so loud it was heard 90 miles away at Sabine Pass, and Dick Dowling's Co. F came under fire for the first time as the Federals gunboats were captured or escaped from Galveston Bay, and Union soldiers on the island surrendered.
Almost immediately afterward, Gen. Magruder transferred Capt. Odlum's Co. F. of artillery to Orange, Texas where a shipyard was busy converting two old steam riverboats into cottonclad gunboats. The Josiah H. Bell was actually an ocean-going steamer, that before the war had carried cotton on the Trinity River. The Uncle Ben formerly had carried cotton on the Sabine River, but with its flat bottom, it was not designed to travel in choppy seas offshore. Both were being outfitted with cotton bales and artillery needed to lift the blockade at Sabine Pass. Lt. Dowling brought with him from Houston an 8-inch gun with a rifled barrel, a 64-pounder loaned briefly from the defenses of Galveston, to be mounted on the Josiah Bell, and the Uncle Ben was armed with three 12-pounders.
I have with me today several primary source documents of that battle. These papers are the unpublished memoirs, totaling four years, of First Sergeant H. N. Conner, also of Houston, and 25 of his cavalry company, nicknamed "horse marines, who were aboard the Josiah Bell with Dowling and the Davis Guard. The offshore battle was fought 30 miles at sea with the Union blockaders Morning Light and Velocity, and ended with their capture. In this book are the published memoirs of that battle by my grandfather Block's commanding officer, Capt. K. D. Keith, whose cannoneers were aboard the Uncle Ben. I also have here two newspaper reports of that battle, published in Houston on January 26 and 28, 1863. And I also have several other reports of that battle, including the official report in War of The Rebellion--Navies.
This was another Sabine Pass battle, which by all the rules of the game should have been lost because Gen. Magruder sent to command it, Major O. M. Watkins, who throughout the battle, lay in his bunk too drunk to stand up. When Captain Keith arrived in Orange on January 16, 1863, he discovered the major was already drunk. A brief quote from Keith's memoirs follows:
The expedition required two artillery companies, both Captain Odlum's and Captain Keith's, to man the artillery on the cottonclads, as well as about 150 snipers or musketeers to pick off the Union cannoneers. There were about six Confederate companies in the area from Pyron's Regiment and Spaight's Battalion, and each company was allowed to draw straws to see which 25 men in each company could participate. In his memoirs published in 1912, William Wiess of Beaumont described the process in First Sergeant Connor's cavalry company, as follows:
On the port and starboard sides of the gunboats, cotton bales were stacked on end to provide better cover for the musketeers. Cotton bales were also stacked around the artillery to protect the gunners, and even around the pilot houses so that the pilots could only steer with the aid of a lookout on the deck.
Let me add that the Confederate navy in Texas was actually a few old riverboats, outfitted with guns and cotton bales and manned with civilian crews, known as the Texas Marine Department. And as you now know, the gun crews were actually Confederate soldiers. Also in January, 1863, Dick Dowling and the Davis Guards were still an unknown quantity, but that situation would change quickly as their Rebel compatriots witnessed the Davis Guards' prowess and handiwork with the 64-pounder gun on the Bell.
On the very foggy night of January 8, 1863, Sergeant Connor and eight of his cavalrymen in a whaleboat paddled up after midnight to the side of the Union gunboat Dan, then at anchor at Sabine Lighthouse. They had 50 lighter pine torches and a wash pot full of live charcoal in their whaleboat, and before lookouts could detect their presence, the Confederates blazed their torches and tossed them aboard the Dan until the pesky gunboat was aflame from stem to stern. In the meantime, the other blockader, the leaky Rachel Seaman, returned to Pensacola for repairs, and the 3-masted Morning Light, with nine smoothbore 32-pounders aboard, and the Velocity, armed with two 24-pounders, arrived at Sabine Pass to replace the other blockaders.
Now the blockade fleet had been forewarned by a Union spy at Sabine Pass that the Confederates were up to no good, but he did not know the details about the two cottonclads at Orange. On January 20, 1863, the Josiah Bell and the Uncle Ben steamed down the Sabine River to Sabine Pass to await the right moment to attack. As luck would have it, the waters offshore became very quiet that night, with barely a ripple of the waves, because not a single breath of the usually strong south wind could be felt.
Long before daylight, the Rebel gunboats started out of Sabine Pass, carrying special pipes over the smoke stacks to propel the sparks and cinders downward, so as not to reveal the cottonclads' route of travel. After daylight, the blockaders sighted their oncoming opponents, lifted anchors and hoisted sails, but the seas were so calm that there was barely enough wind to fill their sails. And as the chase advanced, Major Watkins funneled in an extra quart or two of his favorite moonshine to fortify his bravado, but all he accomplished was to pass out into a drunken stupor on his bunk, and force command of the expedition onto the shoulders of Captain Charlie Fowler, master of the Josiah Bell.
Remember, as the chase began that morning, Dick Dowling and the Davis Guard still had not acquired the reputation that they would earn a few hours later, not to mention that later battle that was still eight months away in the future. Despite the lack of wind for the sails of the blockaders, the chase at sea went very slowly because the Uncle Ben's top speed was only about 5 or 6 knots. And five hours and 30 miles at sea elapsed before the ships came within artillery range of each other. Nevertheless, the five hour chase has been especially aggravating to members of the Davis Guard, because a 64-pound shell had become jammed in the barrel of their big rifled cannon, and for a time, they feared they could not dislodge the shell in time for the battle.
For once, the Confederates had two advantages over their adversaries, the first being a lack of wind to enable the blockaders to escape. Secondly, the 64-pound rifled cannon had a 2 1/2 mile range, whereas the 32-pound guns on the Morning Light were limited to about 1,200 yards or 3/4 of a mile.
As the battle ensued, the Josiah Bell came into range first, and the Davis Guard was able to fire 14 or 15 rounds from their big gun, four of which struck the Morning Light, destroying one gun and killing or maiming all of its crew. And as the adversary ships came within rifle range, the fire of the Rebel musketeers or "horse marines" began striking the Union gun crews.
A Houston battle report, published five days later, reported:
The Morning Light, a 900-ton, 3-masted sail ship, was an especially valuable prize, both for the 9 cannons aboard, as well as the 200 barrels of beef, 600 bushels of potatoes, 200 tons of munitions and supplies, and 400 tons of pig iron carried in her hold for ballast. The cottonclads towed their prizes back to the Sabine Pass, but just at they reached the outer bar, Major Watkins, recovering from his drunken stupor, stormed on deck, raving mad because no one had awakened him during the battle. Of course, if all the cannonading could not awaken him, there was probably no hope for anyone else. Since the Morning Light drew 14 feet of water, Watkins ordered that the big boat be anchored offshore. Capt. Keith and Capt. Stockholm, both of whom were Sabine bar pilots, assured the drunk major that the Morning Light could be towed across the bar because the outer bar was composed only of fine silt, through which boats of 20-foot draft of water had been towed. But despite the fact he had never been afloat before, the angry major refused to let them try. Both Keith and Dick Dowling begged Watkins to put their cannoneers aboard the prize ship, since they, along with the Josiah Bell, could fight off any attack, but again Major Watkins refused, allowing only cavalrymen to remain aboard. In total disgust, Keith added:
Even Sergeant Connor wrote in his diary that Major Watkins had had too much whiskey under his belt. As a result, when three Union gunboats arrived the next day, the Morning Light had to be burned, with the loss of everything aboard, cannons, munitions, pig iron and all, which went to the bottom of the gulf. But guess who was on hand to grab all the credit for the success, for on January 28, 1863, the Galveston Weekly News loudly proclaimed that:
Even before the above words were published, the captured stores and the remains of the Morning Light were already on the bottom of the gulf. So one can readily detect that the Confederates won only in spite of their commander, not because of him.
For the next several months, both artillery companies remained aboard the two cottonclads while the walls of the new Fort Griffin were being built and the new fort was being armed with six cannons. Within a few months, Dick Dowling and his 47 men came ashore to man Fort Griffin's new cannons and not a day too soon too. Almost immediately, they drove markers 1,200 yards away into the oyster reefs so they would know the exact range of their guns, and they used a grounded wreck near the fort as a target until they could put a cannonball through it every time. And when the next September 8th rolled around, the Union fleet of 5,000 men were totally unaware that, although only 47 men, each was prepared to died if needed. Each awaited the assault on the fort with the dogged determination and gunnery skills of the Davis Guard, and they were a match for any invading force. You know the rest of the story -- 2 ships aground with 50 dead and 300 prisoners, while the remaining 4,700 invaders, suddenly feeling "very homesickly," sailed away to fight another day. Everyone both in the North and in the South were stunned by the phenomenal Rebel triumph, that is, except the men of Captain Keith's company. You see, they were still aboard the Uncle Ben in the Sabine Pass channel, and no one knew better than they - that the "do or die" tenacity of old Dick and the Davis Guard had just about evened the odds for themselves.
Dick Dowling and his men won many Southern accolades during the next two years, including a special minted Davis Guard medal, one of only two authorized by the Confederate Congress. But they, like all Southerners, had to bow to the inevitable defeat of 1865, and each had to be paroled and each had to reestablish his place as an American citizen. Dick Dowling was paroled and he soon returned to his pre-war business, the famed Bank of Bacchus.
Another unreported fact about Dick Dowling's was, that had he lived, he probably would have drilled the first gusher in the Sour Lake oil field, where millions of barrels lay only 370 feet under the surface. Early in 1867, he and his partners leased the entire 4,400-acre Jackson league at Sour Lake. But instead, the greatest foe the Davis Guards ever faced was lurking in 1867 in both the towns of Galveston and Houston. And Dick Dowling and about half of the former Davis Guards died in that horrible yellow fever epidemic of 1867, which claimed 1,900 lives in Harris County, and 1,100 more at Galveston. So far as this writer knows, only the Galveston hurricane of September, 1900, cause more deaths, when 6,000 died in the hurricane.
I have also just discovered that the The Handbook of Texas contains some terribly inaccurate statements about Dick Dowling, even about the date that the offshore battle was fought, and since the Handbook is currently in the process of modification and republication, I will be working to get those inaccuracies corrected.
I don't know of any greater expression that I could use to eulogize this man that I and thousands of other Texans still adore for his brilliant performance during the Civil War. I hope his memory remains forever in our hearts, for he was truly a son of the old sod, and was certainly one of Ireland's greatest gifts to this city. Thank you for your kind attention.