, Port Arthur, Texas

September 9, 2013

Battle of Sabine Pass, 150 years later

Erinn Callahan
The Port Arthur News

SABINE PASS — All it took was a small miracle, a significant amount of planning, and a small group of fiercely determined underdogs.

“When you get this much going on with a really small staff, you have little situations popping up,” said Micheal McGreevy, chairman of Dick Dowling Days and member of all sponsoring groups, including the Jefferson County Historical Commission and the Friends of Sabine Pass Battleground. “But they’re being handled perfectly.”

Today, Sept. 8, marks 150 years since another ragtag army triumphed over the odds stacked against them — the Battle of Sabine Pass. On Sept. 8, 1863, after the Civil War had been raging for two years, 6,000 Union troops entered the Sabine River with four gunboats, intending to sweep through Beaumont west to Houston and sever the Confederacy’s ties to Texas. Lt. Richard William “Dick” Dowling, an Irish immigrant who settled in Houston, had been left in charge of 44 men stationed at Fort Griffin, a remote artillery post on the Sabine River.

Dowling gave his men the choice to retreat or stand their ground. The Confederates opened fire, sinking two gunboats and capturing or wounding 200 sailors in what Confederacy President Jefferson Davis called “the most amazing victory in military history.”

“If they had lost, Texas would have immediately had to surrender,” McGreevy said. “The war would probably have been a lot shorter.”

On Saturday, Dick Dowling Park overflowed with history buffs for the first day of the Dick Dowling Days Sesquicentennial, which included a re-enactment of the First Battle of Sabine Pass — officially a Union victory, the battle took place Sept. 24, 1862 — and a court-marshal execution of 2nd Lt. Elijah P. Allen for desertion of his troops at High Island. Gunshots and cannon fire rang sporadically through the campgrounds, where the 350 re-enactors had set up camp.

Charles Green traveled from his home in Spring to witness the event honoring his ancestor. Green’s grandmother was a great-niece of Dick Dowling, making him the Irishman’s great-great-nephew.

Green admired his ancestor’s resiliency. In 1838, Dowling left behind his home in Milltown, County Galway, Ireland for New Orleans. After yellow fever made him an orphan in 1853, Dowling established a successful chain of saloons in Houston before enlisting in a unit known as the Jefferson Davis Guards.

“It was almost like history had fated him,” Green said. “He was what you’d consider the ideal Texan — he had that can-do spirit.”

Had yellow fever not also claimed Dowling’s life in 1867, Green said, there would be several more pages devoted to him in the history books. Dowling was instrumental in setting up Houston’s first gaslight company and the Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 fire department.

“I really want to imprint the heritage he left on my children,” Green said.

Another person trying to preserve the legacy Dowling left behind had a bit further to travel than Green. Tim Collins, who hails from County Galway, Ireland — less than 10 miles from Dowling’s birthplace — met Ann Caraway Ivins at the library where he worked in 1989. Ivins was a descendant of Dowling, and she was seeking more information about him.

“She was the epitome of a Southern lady,” Collins said.

Together, Collins and Ivins mined family records for a book she was working on until Ivins was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. Before her death in 2004, she asked Collins if he would complete her work.

“You can’t refuse a dying lady’s wish,” Collins said.

Thus, “Dick Dowling: Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas” was published, and Collins’ interest in the largely unresearched topic of Irish colonization of Texas grew by leaps and bounds. After visiting Sabine Pass several times since 2005, he feels a kinship with the people there — as well as all Texans.

“We seem to have the same wicked sense of humor,” Collins said. “We have a certain calm outlook on life, but we’re quick to protect our own.”

In Texas, Collins said, he found the same sense of home that Dick Dowling found.

“He didn’t own slaves,” Collins said. “He and his men weren’t fighting for slavery. They were fighting for their homeland.”


Twitter: @ErinnPA