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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

THE BATTLE OF SABINE PASS

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald, PhD
Confederate President Jefferson Davis called the Battle of Sabine Pass, fought on September 8, 1863, for control of the inlet from the Gulf of Mexico to Sabine Lake and southeast Texas, one of the most significant military engagements in world history.

Davis was grasping for any Confederate success just two months after the losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, so such hyperbole is understandable. Actually, the facts were spectacular: less than fifty Confederate artillerists kept approximately 4,000 Union troops and seventeen vessels from coming through the pass. If one leaves the story there, the battle does seem amazing.

Here is the rest of the story. General N.P. Banks, following the Union's Anaconda plan to defeat the Confederate by dividing it into portions, sent General William B. Franklin's command by sea to invade the Louisiana-Texas coast via Sabine Pass. The goal was to stay aboard the ships as long as possible before disembarking and marching north to interrupt rail connections between the two states.

The Davis Guards, or Company F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment, commanded by Captain Frederick Oldham, defended the coast, and on the day of the attack Lieutenant Dick Dowling had the duty at Sabine Pass.

The defenders previously had sighted their guns on the narrow channel in the pass, so when the Union vessels started through the pass they fired away when the ships reached their line of fire. They disabled the Sachem and the Clifton, and these ships then blocked the pass, preventing the others from proceeding.

What is strange is that Franklin did not attempt to disembark his troops and go around the artillery on land. He withdrew entirely, and Banks did not attempt to revisit Sabine Pass, instead attempting to gain entre into Texas via the Red River. This effort, too, was rebuffed by Confederates at the Battle of Mansfield early in the summer of 1864.

The Confederate victory at Sabine Pass may not have justified President Davis' boast, yet some pride is justified. Controlling Texas was not a major Union goal on its way to victory in the Civil War, which probably is why Banks did not receive orders from U.S. Grant to try the Pass again, but the battle did have some consequences. War weariness in the North was a potentially fatal issue for the Lincoln Administration, and one more time the Confederates seemed unconquerable.

Grant eventually gave President Abraham Lincoln the victories that preserved the Union. But for a while, Dick Dowling and his Texas gunners helped to keep the issue in doubt.


All Things Historical May 27 - June 2, 2001 Column
Published by permission.
(Archie P. McDonald is Director of the East Texas Historical Association and author or editor of over 20 books on Texas)


See also
Fairmount Cemetery - Edward Smith & The Battle of Sabine Pass
 
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