On September 8, 1863, four Union gunboats and 4,000 troops attacked Fort Griffin, a Confederate position controlling the Sabine River Pass, which divides Texas from Louisiana on the Gulf Coast. The Union was intent upon the conquest of Texas, which allowed the Confederacy to keep trade open with Mexico. The Union forces were opposed by forty-five men, one engineer, and one doctor, under the command of Lieutenant Richard William (Dick) Dowling.
This unit, Company F, First Texas Heavy Artillery was better known as the Davis Guards, named after Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The men were all Irish, all in their twenties or younger, and all recruited from the docks at Houston and Galveston. Dick Dowling was born in Ireland in 1838. He immigrated to New Orleans in 1846, and then Texas in the early 1850s. Dowling became a successful businessman and married Elizabeth Ann Odlum in November 1857. When Texas seceded, Dowling joined the Davis Guards as a first lieutenant.
The Davis Guards participated in an expedition in February 1861, which was led by Texas Ranger John (Rip) Ford. The Confederate forces attacked Federal forts along Rio Grande River on the border between Texas and Mexico. Ford reported that this raid captured 32 artillery pieces and 7,293 rounds of ammunition. The Guards also helped in Confederate General John B. MacGruder’s recapture of Galveston on January 1, 1863.
On January 21, 1863, the Davis Guards earned their first acclaim at what became known as the First Battle of Sabine Pass. On board the steamship Josiah H. Bell, and armed with an eight-inch rifled Columbiad cannon called Annie, they disabled the Union blockading ship Morning Light by exhibiting “uncanny accuracy” and making some of the “prettiest shots” of the battle. Two Federal blockading ships and 109 prisoners were captured.
During the spring and summer of 1863, Dowling and the Guards continued to man Sabine Pass. The Guards drilled with their cannons daily by aiming at practice stakes driven into the river. On September 8, two Union gunboats proceeded up each channel of the pass. The accompanying troopships were to land their infantry once action began, and then charge the Confederate garrison as the defenders were driven from shelter. Dowling kept his men under cover in the newly constructed Fort Griffin as Union shelling began. When the Union gunboats closed to 1,200 yards, Dowling and the Guards opened fire. They struck the USS Sachem on the Louisiana side then shifted their aim and disabled the USS Clifton in the Texas Channel. With both channels blocked, the Union attack was effectively stalled. The battle was a resounding Confederate victory, resulting in two Union gunboats, 350 prisoners, and thirteen heavy guns captured.
In what became known as the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, the Davis Guards fired 107 times in 35 minutes, a rate of fire almost unheard of for heavy artillery. Their accuracy demonstrated the many hours spent sighting in on their practice stakes. For their defense of Sabine Pass, the Davis Guards were praised by General MacGruder, Jefferson Davis, and the Confederate Congress. Each member of the company was given a special silver medal, and a monument built at Sabine Pass in 1937 bears each of their names.