Many Houstonians drive past the Dick Dowling Monument on Cambridge Street without noticing it at all. Yet this statue once stood outside Houston's City Hall, and the man it commemorates was once remembered widely as the commanding officer at a Civil War battle that some admirers compared with the Battle of Thermopylae.
The Battle of Thermopylae, fought by the Spartans in 480 BC against Xerxes of Persia, has become synonymous with unthinkable bravery and fighting prowess against incredible odds. So it was high praise indeed when former Confederate President Jefferson Davis claimed in an address in 1882 that Dowling's victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass was "more remarkable than the battle of Thermopylae, and when it has orators and poets to celebrate it, will be so esteemed by mankind" (Item 453). In the late nineteenth century, Davis and many other former Confederates included Dick Dowling in the pantheon of Confederate military officers like P.G.T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Sidney Johnston. This was how the men who commissioned and erected Houston's only statue to Dick Dowling wished him to be known: as a war hero notable for his military achievements.
But Dowling's original admirers would probably be surprised to read the text of the historical marker currently accompanying his statue in Hermann Park. Written in 1997 with strong influence from Dowling descendant Ann Caraway Ivins, the marker's inscription has five sentences concerning the war and seven about his businesses and personal life (Item 381). His business success is noted and the monument recognizes him as the first person in Houston to install gas lighting and later to form an oil company. His achievements outside of the war are presented as equal to his military victory. While Jefferson Davis's speech was full of flowery praise for the righteousness of the Confederate cause, the historical marker makes no mention of that cause or what Dowling fought for.
What happened between 1882 and 1997 to cause such a drastic change in the way Dowling's memory was presented? What has not changed? Why would a Dowling descendant in the twentieth century choose to focus on his business legacy instead of the military legacy that initially made him famous? What do Davis's and Ivins's representations of Dowling share in common? How did Dowling's Irish heritage become so important to the way he is remembered in Houston? And how did a parade celebrating the emancipation of slaves come to be held on Dowling Street?
Curious about how the commemoration of Dick Dowling changed over time and why? Continue exploring this exhibit to learn more!