I love a good historical, and any story with an unlikely hero is bound to find its way onto my keeper shelf. When I discovered Gone With the Wind, I found both, as well as a love for Civil War era tales. Imagine my surprise when I found out one of the most surprising tales of the era took place almost within walking distance of where I was born in Jefferson County, Texas.
Picture it: Five thousand Union sailors in a flotilla of seventeen vessels against 44 Confederate artillerymen at the command of an Irish saloon owner. Sounds like the making of a sound defeat or a Hollywood action movie, doesn’t it?
In truth, it is the story of a band of soldiers called the Davis Guards, or Company F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment stationed at tiny Fort Griffin on the mouth of the Sabine River. Their stunning victory is one that Confederate President Jefferson Davis called “one of the most significant military victories in world history.”
Richard “Dick” Dowling started life in County Galway, Ireland. After immigrating to New Orleans then losing his family to yellow fever, Dowling settled in Houston in the mid-1850s, where he established a chain of saloons. The most successful of these, the Bank of Bacchus, was situated on Courthouse Square in downtown Houston and was, according to several sources, the first business in the city to boast gas lighting.
At the outset of the war, Dowling enlisted and eventually found himself assigned to the remote outpost of Fort Griffin (near the city of Sabine Pass, Texas). To pass the time – which moved quite slowly in the mosquito-ridden lowlands – Dowling drilled his men on artillery exercises. These lazy-day activities came in handy on September 8, 1863 when a flotilla of seventeen Union vessels appeared on the horizon. While the four-dozen men scrambled to their well-rehearsed positions, the brown waters where the Sabine River poured into the Gulf of Mexico filled with enemy ships. The first two crafts were quickly disabled by the Davis Guard sharpshooters, blocking the channel and effectively keeping the other fifteen ships out of the river.
At the end of the battle, 350 prisoners had been taken and the enemy had retreated leaving significant amount of supplies, weapons and ammunition behind. Lt. Dowling and his men were heroes, hailed by President Davis and commemorated with medals melted down from Mexican silver.
Interesting fact: two streets in downtown Houston are named for Dowling. The first is obviously Dowling Street. The second is Tuam, named for the city of his birth. And ironically, the Yankees couldn’t best him but the yellow fever that took his family back in New Orleans did. Dowling died in 1867 of the disease, just a few scant years after his stunning victory. Not the ending I would have written, but still quite a story!
So, what sort of history can you find within walking distance of your birthplace?
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