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Woodson Research Center - Fondren Library -  Rice University

Dowling's Story

Photograph of a painted portrait of Dick Dowling

This painted portrait of Dick Dowling by Thurston Donnellan stresses his status as a soldier and depicts the Davis medal he was presented after the Battle of Sabine Pass.

Immediately after the Battle of Sabine Pass, Dick Dowling and his Davis Guard became legendary among Confederates for their military achievements, which had prevented federal troops from occupying Texas. Due to the significance of the battle for the Confederacy, Dowling and his men received a great deal of praise and recognition, especially from Texans and fellow Houstonians, who could boast a local connection to the battle. The stories these early admirers told laid the groundwork for later attempts to commemorate Dowling, both in what they emphasized--his unlikely victory--and in what they elided from the story. 

Some early stories about Dowling's victory at Sabine Pass highlighted the Irish heritage of the Davis Guard and its commander, but most contemporary accounts of the battle focused on the odds that Dowling faced and the service he provided to the Confederacy. For example, an 1863 note from Leon Smith describing the battle reads, "God bless the Davis Guards, one and all! The honor of the country was in their hands, and nobly they sustained it." The women of Sabine City presented a flag to the Davis Guard, and Charles Otis even proposed that a concert be held for Dowling and his men to commemorate their valiant military efforts (Items 538463). Within days of the battle, contemporaries already compared it to the Battle of Thermopylae, and early in 1864, the Confederate Congress passed a resolution which included, among other complimentary language, the declaration that "this defense . . . constitutes, in the opinion of Congress, one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements in the history of this war." At the suggestion of Jefferson Davis himself, the soldiers also received silver medals with green ribbons that had "D.G." (for Davis Guards) engraved on one side and "Sabine Pass, Sept. 8, 1863" on the other. (Click here for an image of one of the surviving medals.)

In the succeeding decades after the battle, most stories about Dick Dowling continued in this vein, turning him into a legendary Confederate war hero who single-handedly saved Texas from destruction by Yankee forces. His obituary in 1867, after his death from yellow fever, lauded his "unparalleled boldness and intrepidity" and praised him as a "warm-hearted hero" for his activity at the Battle of Sabine Pass, but did not include his manner of death or his accomplishments in the city of Houston (Item 336). Instead, the obituary spent four paragraphs detailing the battle, while only one sentence focused on Dowling himself.

"The Davis Guards" newsclipping<br />

This early Houston newspaper response to the battle praises Dowling and his men, noting their Irish heritage but focusing on their "pluck" and military skill.

In the thirty years after Dowling's death, stories about the battle and the Davis Guards's heroism continued to spread, taking on mythic proportions. The battle was referred to as "the greatest feat of the war, surpassing even that of the recapture of Galveston," by the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph (Item 464). As time passed, the number of Union soldiers and prisoners in the battle was also increasingly exaggerated as a means of glorifying the Confederacy. Initially, local newspapers claimed that the Davis Guard had taken around 235 prisoners. About a week later, the number of prisoners captured had "increased" to 400. In 1867, the number of attacking soldiers was supposedly 15,000 men, but a few decades later various sources quoted the numbers as 10,000 and 20,000. This disparity in the statistics indicates the prevailing tendency of Confederate sympathizers to focus on the victory as an example of Confederate heroism.

The Battle of Sabine Pass was particularly celebrated in an 1882 speech by Jefferson Davis, which called Sabine Pass the Confederacy's Thermopylae. In his exaggerated retelling of the battle, Davis described an "iron clad fleet [that] came steaming up the river with nothing to oppose it but a mud fort armed with field guns and held by 42 men." The fleet actually contained no ironclad ships, and the fort Dowling defended was not a simple "mud" shelter, but Davis used this account to stress the bravery of Dowling, who supposedly told his men, "We will fight to the death!" (Item 453). According to Davis, Dowling was an even more successful commander than the Spartan leader Leonidas because Dowling's forces were victorious without suffering any casualties. 

Told in this way, Dowling's story fit easily into the mythology of the "Lost Cause," which was first developed by Southern historians and former Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee in the aftermath of Reconstruction and was later taken up by groups such as the United Confederate Veterans. The Lost Cause referred to the idea that the South was never capable of winning the Civil War because the North had an overwhelming advantage due to their increased resources and manpower. According to the Lost Cause, Southern soldiers never would have been able to defeat the Northern forces no matter how bravely and nobly they fought, and were therefore fighting a "Lost Cause." Lost Cause historians and writers also denied that slavery was a cause of the Civil War, arguing instead that courageous white Southerners were only defending their homes from Northern aggression. 

The early versions of the story of Dowling and the Battle of Sabine Pass certainly supported these Lost Cause ideas. As remembered in the immediate aftermath of the battle, Dowling's life offered a perfect example of guileless Confederate heroism and the Union's overpowering amount of resources. Although stories about Dowling were less prevalent between 1867 and 1882 than before or after, the idea of the Lost Cause established a powerful narrative that helped ensure the revival of his memory in the 1880s.

Revised April 3, 2012