Richard William "Dick" Dowling was an Irish American Houstonian who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. He is most famous for his role in the Battle of Sabine Pass, fought on September 8, 1863. This exhibit uses items drawn from the Dick Dowling Digital Archive to explore both the history and the historical memory of Dowling and the battle. On this page, you can watch a brief introductory video about the archive and read a brief summary of the battle.

Throughout the exhibit, click on any of the images or documents to learn more about the entire source, or browse all the items here. A larger collection of materials related to the exhibit can be found in the Dick Dowling Collection at the Houston Public Library.

The following discussion of the context surrounding the Battle of Sabine Pass is excerpted from "Dick Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass," a 1958 article published by former Rice University historian Andrew Forest Muir:


After Maximilian and his French troops had occupied the valley of Mexico in 1863, President Lincoln was anxious to re-establish Federal control over Texas. ... After the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July and the re-establishment of Federal control over the entire Mississippi River, the President thought the time was ripe for a movement into Texas, but General Grant and other general officers thought it would be more advantageous to occupy Mobile and begin squeezing the heart of the Confederacy. On August 6, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, the commanding general of the Department of the Gulf, was ordered to establish Federal authority in some point in Texas to be selected by him. Banks immediately began laying plans. The Nineteenth Army Corps under Major General William B. Franklin was chosen for the expedition. Although Lincoln had suggested, but not ordered, the occupation of some point in West Texas, Banks saw the possibility of striking at the heart of Confederate Texas.

From almost the beginning of the war, the headquarters of the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona had been in Houston. This location had been selected because of the several railroad lines radiating out of that city. ... At Beaumont, the [Texas and New Orleans line] was but a mile or two from the railroad of the Eastern Texas that ran almost, but not quite, to Sabine City. Banks knew from his intelligence reports that the Confederate forces in Texas were few and that if the United States Army could reach the line of the T. & N.O., it could push without much opposition into Houston, from which point it could recapture Galveston by a rear attack and could also fan our through the most populous portion of the state. The plans were impeccable and fitted the facts. Had they been executed with a reasonable degree of efficiency, there can be no question that most of Texas would have been returned to the bosom of the United States in September, 1863.

Knowing that Confederate troops had fortified Sabine Pass, Banks laid out a tactical plan by which the Union force would be landed on the hard sand beach skirting the Gulf of Mexico at a point some twelve miles southwest of Sabine Pass. From that point, the army would move overland across Jefferson, Chambers, and Liberty counties to the railroad at or near the town of Liberty. After the fortification at Sabine Pass had been softened by a joint naval and army attack, Banks would send in additional troops to occupy Beaumont and to join the force at Liberty for a push into Houston. Like the over-all plan, these tactical arrangements were without fault. Had the commanding general of the expedition not proved himself both incompetent and cowardly, the expedition doubtlessly would have been a brilliant success ...

Over 5000 infantry and five batteries of artillery, under command of Major General Franklin, assisted by three brigadier generals, left New Orleans on the evening of September 4, and on the 6th the force was joined at the entrance to Berwick Bay by a number of gunboats. The expedition then numbered twenty-seven craft. This force began assembling off Sabine Pass about midnight of the 6th. ...

Lieutenant Colonel Griffin, in command of the Post of Sabine Pass, was absent, and Captain Odlum was in temporary charge of headquarters at Sabine City and Lieutenant [Dick] Dowling in immediate command ... at Fort Griffin. At two o'clock on the morning of the 7th, the sentry at Fort Griffin detected signal lights flashing in the Gulf. He informed Dowling, who put the fort in readiness for attack. ...

At 6:30 on the morning of the 8th, six steamers began sounding the bar, and two gunboats of their number came up and fired twenty-six rounds of shot at the fort, without eliciting a reply. The gunboats then retired. ...

The apprehension and bungling of the Federal forces pass description. No attempt whatsoever was made to land at the point designated in Banks's plan. ... Completely disregarding the unoccupied and uninhabited beach along the Gulf, [Franklin] concentrated all of his attention on Sabine Pass. ... With Lieutenant Frederick Crocker, in command of the naval forces, he laid out a plan for diverting the fire of the fort so that 500 troops under Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel could land. A shallow oyster reef divided the pass into two channels, one along the Texas shore and the other along that of the Louisiana. By sending a gunboat up the Texas channel, he would draw the fire of the fort. Then, when the pieces were laid, two gunboats would go up the Louisiana channel. ...

At about 3:30, the Union gunboat "Clifton," followed by the gunboat "Granite City" and the transport "Gen. Banks" (with Weitzel's troops aboard), started up the Texas channel and the gunboats "Sachem" and "Arizona" up the Louisiana channel. Six transports ... lingered at the bar [outside of Sabine Pass]. For an hour, as the Federal gunboats ascended the channels, they fired at Fort Griffin. .. The fort made no reply. Its defenders were in the "bomb-proofs" behind, while Dowling himself stood concealed in one corner of the bastion, watching the progress of the Federal ships. ...

At about 4:30, the two Federal gunboats leading the parade up the two channels reached the buoys at which the Davis Guardsmen had been doing practice firing. Dowling imediately summoned his men to their stations, and he himself fired the first round. Exposed from the waist up, the men poured a deadly fire of 137 rounds into the boats without stopping to swab their guns. The shelling lasted thirty-five minutes. ... [Early on] a round of shot carried away the tiller rope of the "Clifton," thereby turning her into a sitting duck, and a few minutes later another round went through her steampipe. By now the "Sachem" had raised a white flag, and some unauthorized person aboard the "Clifton" struck her flag. Her men, thinking the ship was about to explode, plunged overboard. ... The gunboats behind the "Sachem" and "Clifton" were either damaged or demoralized, and immediately they, as well as the "Gen. Banks," backed out to the bar.

By this time some eighty men who had jumped overboard from the "Clifton" arrived at the shore, with hands upraised, and Dowling went to the water's edge to receive their surrender. ... The bursting of the ship's steam drum had frightfully scalded a number of men, whom [the ship's surgeon] treated by placing them in flour.

In the meantime, the remaining Federal force had crossed the bar and set out posthaste for New Orleans.


Following this battle, Dowling became famous in Texas and other parts of the Confederacy for defeating the Union's invasion force with no more than 50 men and a few guns. Read on to learn more about the way Dowling's legend grew over time, and about the aspects of the battle--especially its relationship to slavery and wartime emancipation--that were quickly forgotten.

Source: Andrew Forest Muir, "Dick Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass," in Lone Star Blue and Gray, ed. Ralph A. Wooster (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1995), 191-198. Andrew Forest Muir's research notes on Dick Dowling, including this letter announcing the publication of his article, are available in the Muir Papers at Woodson Research Center at Rice University.