September 8, 1863 – A Federal army-navy expedition to the Texas-Louisiana border met with embarrassing defeat by less than 50 Confederates defending Sabine Pass.
With Louisiana under Federal occupation, the Lincoln administration sought a military expansion into eastern Texas. Cotton-starved New England mill owners applied political pressure to invade the cotton-rich region. Also, Mexican arms shipments to the Confederacy through this region provided another reason to invade. Moreover, a Federal presence in eastern Texas could threaten the French puppet regime in Mexico and prevent France from recognizing the Confederacy.
Both President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck favored a Texas invasion via the Red River. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Department of the Gulf, favored an attack on Mobile, Alabama. However, his army shrank drastically after capturing Port Hudson, when the enlistment terms of many of his regiments expired. This made a Mobile expedition impossible without reinforcements.
Banks ultimately agreed to target Texas, but he opposed the dangerous Red River plan because the summer had lowered the water level, making it difficult for Federal gunboats to pass. Also, as a former politician with questionable command ability, he did not want his future political aspirations damaged if the expedition failed. Banks instead favored a safer amphibious attack on the Texas coast. Lincoln and Halleck approved.
Banks selected multiple targets, with Sabine Pass being the first. The pass was at the mouth of the Sabine River, which forms the Texas-Louisiana border. Once the Federals controlled Sabine Pass, they could seal it off from blockade runners and continue upriver to Sabine City. From there, they could advance on Beaumont, Houston, or Galveston.
For the army part of the operation, Banks selected Major General William B. Franklin to command. Franklin had failed to save Harpers Ferry prior to the Battle of Antietam, failed to press his advantage at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and was transferred out of the Army of the Potomac for conspiring against Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. He was given 5,000 troops for this mission.
Admiral Henry H. Bell, acting commander of the Federal West Gulf Blockading Squadron, assembled four ironclad gunboats (the U.S.S. Clifton, Arizona, Granite City, and Sachem) to support the army troops. These vessels were converted side-wheel river steamers and the only available ships that had drafts shallow enough to get over the sandbar and enter the Sabine River.
According to Banks, the gunboats had “decayed frames and weak machinery,” and were “constantly out of repair.” Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, the official squadron commander currently on leave, informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles when he learned of the plan that “you may expect to hear of disaster.” Lieutenant Frederick Crocker would command the navy part of the operation, which included not only the gunboats but 22 transports to convey Franklin’s troops.
The Federal armada arrived off the bar at Sabine Pass late on the 7th. Franklin planned to seize the pass the next day, then move inland to Beaumont and capture the Texas & New Orleans Railroad. This linked Houston to New Orleans and represented the last rail connection between Texas and the eastern Confederacy. In the meantime, a Federal division under Major General Francis J. Herron would divert the attention of Confederates in Louisiana so they would not interfere with the operation.
Fort Griffin guarded the pass about two miles up the Sabine River, but only 47 Confederate artillerists of the Texas Jeff Davis Guards, which had been merged into the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, manned the fort. Led by 20-year-old saloonkeeper Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, the Confederates had been posted at Griffin partly as punishment for misbehavior.
The fort had just six smoothbore cannon, but they were on an elevated platform from which the artillerists could see several miles around them. The men had placed range markers in the river and practiced firing their guns every day. Dowling observed Federal signal lights off the pass on the night of the 7th and notified Major General John B. Magruder, his department commander. Magruder advised him to spike the guns and retreat, but Dowling prepared to defend the fort instead.
The Federal gunboats began bombarding Fort Griffin at dawn the next day. The Confederates held their fire until the vessels crossed the bar around 4 p.m. and came within range. Then Dowling’s men used their range markers to open a deadly cannonade. Within a half-hour, the Sachem had taken a shot through her boiler and the Clifton took one through the steam drum. The crews of both gunboats surrendered, while the remaining vessels quickly withdrew.
In addition to 315 men captured from the Clifton and Sachem, the Federals sustained 65 casualties (19 killed, nine wounded, and 37 missing). Crocker was among the wounded. Franklin also reported that 200,000 rations had been dumped overboard to lighten a grounded transport, and 200 mules had been dumped to lighten a steamer.
As Farragut had predicted, Franklin relied solely on the gunboats to neutralize the fort rather than provide infantry support. Franklin aborted the attack and ordered a return to New Orleans. Thus, the first Federal attempt to invade Texas ended in humiliating failure. The next day, Confederate Captain F.H. Odlum issued his report on the battle:
“I have the honor to report that we had an engagement with the enemy yesterday and gained a handsome victory. We captured two of their gunboats, crippled a third, and drove the rest out of the Pass. We took 18 fine guns, a quantity of smaller arms, ammunition and stores, killed about 50, wounded several, and took 150 prisoners, without the loss or injury of any one on our side or serious damage to the fort.”
This small engagement greatly boosted Confederate morale. President Jefferson Davis called it “one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements in the history of warfare,” and labeled the battle the Thermopylae of the war. Dowling and his gunners became southern heroes, later receiving an official vote of thanks from the Confederate Congress. Houston residents also contributed to produce special Davis Guard medals for the men, the only official Confederate awards for military valor.
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