The battle of Thermopylae has earned its place in military history, rightfully capturing the public imagination as the greatest “last stand” of all time. The story of the Spartans’ heroic, but doomed, stand against Xerxes and his Persian horde can’t help but inspire, and references to the battle have found their way into popular culture, from the real-life battle of the Alamo to the 2003 Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai.
One of the reasons that Thermopylae –- as opposed to, say, Custer’s Last Stand -– has found its place as an example of heroic sacrifice is that, despite the odds, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans actually managed to hold off a quarter million Persians for two days, until they were finally done in by Ephialtis’ treachery.
As far as last stands go, when I think of Custer, I think of a foolhardy general (actually, lieutenant colonel when he died) who bit off more than he could chew. When I think of Thermopylae, I think of a group of fearless soldiers who knowingly went up against impossible odds, and who managed to prevail, at least for a while.
But what if the Spartans had won? How much higher would Thermopylae rank in the public’s mind if they had actually managed to pull it off?
Well, that’s what happened (sort of) in the Battle of Sabine Pass, in the American Civil War. On September 8, 1863, a tiny force of 46 Confederate Texans –- most of Irish descent –- under the leadership of Houston saloonkeeper Richard W. Dowling, prevented a Union military force of more than 5,000 men, 22 transport vessels, and 6 gunboats from occupying Sabine Pass, the would-be starting point for a Union invasion that ultimately could have given control of Texas to the Union.
In the Summer of 1863, the president of Mexico, Benito Juarez, was overthrown and replaced by Emperor Maximilian, who was allied with France. France, along with England, had been openly sympathetic to the Confederacy at the outset of the Civil War. After Robert E. Lee was rebuffed at Antietam and Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, however, both France and England became reluctant to match their words with diplomatic or military action. With the advent of a new French government just south of the Rio Grande, however, the Confederates once again hoped to establish a much-needed foreign alliance.
Recognizing the Confederates’ intentions, Lincoln resolved to send an invasion force into Texas to establish a military presence and to discourage Emperor Maximilian from coming to the Confederates’ aid. The federal force was under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks, a former Congressman with little military experience who had previously been routed by Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.
Banks originally wanted to lead a combined force from the Mississippi River into the Red River, and then into Texas. Because low water in the Red River prevented the Union gunboats from entering, however, the Union force proceeded along the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico, instead. Banks ordered his subordinate, Major General William B. Franklin, to move against the only Confederate resistance, a small detachment at Fort Griffin, at Sabine Pass, near the mouth of the Sabine River.
Sabine Pass is a narrow, 6-mile long gorge that channels the Sabine River, the boundary between Texas and Louisiana, into the Gulf of Mexico. Several months before, in the Summer of 1863, Confederate Engineer Major Julius Kellersberger had directed the construction of Fort Griffin, a triangular fortification with slanted, 12-foot high walls 100 feet on a side. The six heavy cannon at Fort Griffin were manned by the “Davis Guard,” a 46-member unit composed almost entirely of Irish dockworkers from Houston. In command was First Lieutenant Richard W. “Dick” Dowling, a popular, red-headed Houston saloonkeeper.
In anticipation of the Union invasion, the Davis Guard had placed stakes along both channels through the Sabine Pass to mark distances as they sharpened their accuracy in early September. With no prospect of reinforcement, however, the 46 men in Fort Griffin could do little more than wait.
Battle of Sabine Pass
On September 8, 1863, that wait ended, as the Union Navy commander, Lt. Frederick Crocker, sent his gunboats into the pass to shell the fort from long range, in an attempt to silence the Confederates and allow the thousands of Union troops in the troop transports to land. The shelling, which began at approximately 6:30 a.m., was largely ineffective, however, with the Union rounds either passing harmlessly overhead or deflecting off of Fort Griffin’s low, slanted walls.
The actual Union invasion finally came at 3:40 in the afternoon, when four of the Union gunboats –- the Sachem, the Clifton, the Granite City, and the Arizona -- began their advance through the pass, continuing their fire on the fort as they steamed forward.
Under Lt. Dowling’s direction, the Confederate troops, who had hidden in bunkers all morning to escape the Union shelling, emerged to begin their own bombardment of the Union gunboats as they came within firing range. Aided by their distance markers, the Confederates fired with tremendous accuracy. Two of the Union gunboats, the Clifton and the Sachem, were disabled or forced to surrender within minutes. The remaining Union gunboats, hampered by the Sabine River’s low water and the hulks of the two disabled Union gunboats, were forced to withdraw, along with all 22 Union transport vessels and their 5,000 Union troops.
Only 45 minutes after the battle began, it was over. The Confederate victory was total. As one captured Union officer said to Lt. Dowling after the battle, “You and your 46 men in your miserable little fort in the rushes have captured two gunboats, a goodly number of prisoners, many stands of small arms, and plenty of good ammunition, and that is not the worst of your boyish tricks: you have sent three Yankee gunboats, 5,000 troops, and a major-general out to sea in the dark.”
The Battle of Sabine Pass has often been described as the most one-sided Confederate victory of the entire Civil War. Years after the war ended, in 1882, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis exclaimed that “That battle at Sabine Pass was more remarkable than the battle at Thermopylae.”
Yet as great a victory as Sabine Pass may have been in military terms, it never yielded any political or economic benefits for the Confederacy. The Union stranglehold of the Mississippi following the defeat of Vicksburg ultimately closed off supply lines from Texas to the rest of the Confederacy, and no Confederate supply line from Mexico to Texas was ever established in any event. The Confederacy was forced to continue its ineffectual reliance on blockade running, one of the many factors leading to its defeat in April 1865.
- Handbook of Texas Online, http:www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/SS/qes2.htm
- National Park Service Battle Description (http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/tx006.htm)
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Website (http:www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/sabine_pass_battleground/)
- Harper's Weekly, October 10, 1863 (http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/october/army-potomac.htm)
- Alwyn Barr, "Sabine Pass, September 1863," Texas Military History 2 (February 1962)