The Battle of Sabine Pass

With Louisiana under Federal occupation, the Lincoln administration sought a military expansion into eastern Texas. This was partly because cotton-starved New England mill owners were pressing for an invasion of the cotton-rich region. 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 seize the vital railroad network around Houston. This would cut Galveston Island off from the mainland and give the Federals control of the most populated section of Texas.  

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 of the Nineteenth Corps 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 formerly 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, commanding the Clifton, would be overall commander of the navy part of the operation, which included not only the gunboats but 22 transports to convey Franklin’s troops.  

The Federal armada left New Orleans on September 4 and met up with the gunboats two days later. The Federals then spent a day trying to find Sabine Pass and keeping an eye out for a potential appearance by the famed commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama. They arrived off the bar on the 7th.  

Franklin planned to seize the pass the next day, then move inland to Beaumont and take control of 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 Sabine Pass, about two miles up the Sabine River. The fort was manned by just 47 Confederate artillerists of the Texas Jeff Davis Guards, which had been merged into the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery. Led by 20-year-old Houston saloonkeeper Lieutenant Richard “Dick” 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 where the artillerists could see several miles around them. The men had placed range markers in the river and practiced their marksmanship with the 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.  

Franklin called a council of war “to indulge in a little supreme strategy.” He had shown reluctance to put his troops into action before, and now, rather than forcing a landing on the coast, he opted to let the navy pound Fort Griffin into submission before continuing up the Sabine River. The Federal gunboats opened a bombardment on Griffin at dawn on the 8th. A marine aboard the Clifton wrote, “If the Texans are not wide awake we, no doubt, will give them a bit of surprise.” But the Texans were wide awake.  

Federal gunboats entering Sabine Pass | Image Credit:

Dowling’s men held their fire until the vessels crossed the bar around 4 p.m. and came within range. They then 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, the Arizona was grounded and then withdrew after being freed, and the Granite City retired before seeing any action. The entire engagement was over in 45 minutes.  

In addition to 315 men captured from the Clifton and Sachem, the Federals sustained 65 casualties (19 killed, nine wounded, and 37 missing), Crocker among them. 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 back them with infantry. Franklin aborted the attack and ordered a return to New Orleans. Thus, the first Federal attempt to invade Texas ended in humiliating failure. A Federal prisoner told his captors:  

“You and your forty-three men, in your miserable little mud fort in the rushes, have captured two gunboats, a goodly number of prisoners, many stands of small arms and plenty of good ammunition–and all that you have done with six pop-guns… And that is not the worst of your boyish tricks. You have sent three Yankee gunboats, 6,000 troops and a general out to sea in the dark.”  

The Confederate victory had been so easy that Magruder was sure this was just a Federal diversion from a larger coastal landing somewhere else. He reported, “The enemy’s fleet, with his land forces, is still off the coast, no doubt intending a landing at the first favorable moment.” But the Federals were already in full retreat. 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 make special Davis Guard medals for the men, the only official Confederate awards for military valor.  


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