For all intents and purposes, by 2011 Dick Dowling had been largely forgotten by most Houstonians, even though his statue has remained in the same spot for over fifty years. Recent commemorations of Dowling have not focused on his victory in the Battle of Sabine Pass or his history as a Confederate war hero. That memory has been confined to small groups of people since the cultural shift after the Civil Rights movement. Since 1997, there have been few if any headlines about Dowling as a prominent Houstonian Irishman. The Dick Dowling Irish Heritage Society in which Larry Miggins and Ann Caraway Ivins played leading roles appears to be defunct. Literally and figuratively, Dowling has come a long way from the front steps of City Hall.
Still, the last time the City of Houston took an active interest in Dowling was not so long ago. In 1996, the City worked with the Dick Dowling Irish Heritage Society and the Houston Municipal Arts Commission to complete an expensive cleaning and restoration of the statue. Funds came primarily from appropriations made by Congress's Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 for roadway beautification, and the project was led by the Texas branch of Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!), a group dedicated to the preservation of historic public artworks. Additional restoration of the statue was completed by the City of Houston in 2009. (Click here for more information about the funding for the statue's restoration.)
As these projects suggest, however, today Dick Dowling usually isn’t noted publicly for who he was, but for the statue of him. The Dowling statue is the oldest civic monument in the city of Houston, and restoration efforts have focused on saving a piece of art by Frank Teich more than on retelling Dowling's story. Even the story that his most vocal admirers told about Dowling in the 1990s was different from the stories once told by Confederate veterans and Jefferson Davis. In her efforts to secure the City of Houston's help in restoring the statue, Ivins stressed Dowling's contributions to Houston as an Irish businessman before the Civil War, rather than focusing exclusively on the Battle of Sabine Pass.
This shift from the "gray" to the "green" in Dowling's story was especially evident in a ceremony held to rededicate the Dowling statue after its cleaning in 1996. Led by the Dick Dowling Irish Heritage Society and Larry Miggins, the ceremony was advertised as a "celebration of Irish heritage" (Item 372). Irish elements filled the ceremony, from the playing of bag pipes, to traditional Irish dancing, a “strolling leprechaun,” and a lengthy speech by Dr. John A. Claffey, the president of the Old Tuam Society, who was flown to Houston from Ireland for the occasion. Claffey’s speech brushed past Dowling's role at the Battle of Sabine Pass, which he described as an "encounter," and instead discussed the historical conditions of Ireland in which Dowling was raised (Item 373). While there was a military salute and the posting of the colors to Dowling performed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, these elements were greatly overwhelmed in comparison to the amount of Irish elements (Item 378).
This shift of emphasis was also evident in the new official Texas historical marker that was placed next to the statue in 1997, which was written primarily by Ann Caraway Ivins after an initial draft by a state historian (Items 381, 382, and 384). Unlike the previous historical marker, which focused exclusively on his victory at Sabine Pass, the new text introduced biographical details culled from research by Ivins and others and painted a picture of Dowling as a prominent businessman and Irish immigrant. Ivins revised the original text of the marker to note that his family emigrated from Tuam, Ireland to New Orleans after the Irish potato famine of 1846. The text also stressed that one of Dowling's three bars was "a prominent gathering place for Irish immigrants.” Ivins also emphasized Dowling's successful business ventures in Houston, revising the text from "his third Houston bar, 'The Bank of Bacchus,' opened in 1860," to "by 1860, he had owned three bars, installed Houston’s first gas lighting in his home and business, and was a charter member of Houston Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1."
These details added new layers to the public representation of Dick Dowling's story. But the original stories about Dowling's career as a Confederate soldier have never totally disappeared or been erased from the city's landscape. The historical marker that still stands by the statue misleadingly suggests that 27 ships and 5,000 Union troops entered Sabine Pass to face Dowling's guns, even though the vast majority of these ships and troops never entered the Pass and did not participate in the battle. For the first time, the 1997 marker also included a quote from the Confederate Congress praising Dowling's "brilliant" achievements at Sabine Pass, echoing Jefferson Davis's own assessments of the battle.
Compared to the throngs of Houstonians who turned out to celebrate the statue's unveiling in 1905, the number of those dedicated to celebrating the original, Confederate versions of Dowling's stories is small. But the slow, steady decline of attention to Dowling and his statue also allowed elements of the oldest stories about Dowling to persist into the twenty-first century. Despite the many afterlives of Dowling, the multiple locations of his statue, and the different groups who have rallied to keep his memory alive, the story told by his statue and its historical marker still focuses attention on those aspects of the Battle of Sabine Pass that mattered most to Dowling's first admirers--like the large numbers Dowling faced and his skillful management of his men. Meanwhile, other aspects of the battle, like its place in the broader context of the Civil War and the reasons why Dowling and other Confederate Texans fought, have seldom been considered in public discussions of Dowling and his legacy.
Revised April 3, 2012