In September 1863, Sabine Pass, the southernmost point of the border between Texas and Louisiana, saw a battle that could best be summarized as unusual. More than 20 warships loaded with dozens of guns and thousands of trained seamen and soldiers surrendered to the 47 inhabitants of a mud hut in a debacle that defies most conventional military logic. The duration of the battle remains a point of contention, but even the most generous estimates suggest that no more than ninety minutes of gunfire proceeded between the Union Navy and the Davis Guards, an artillery unit named after Confederate President Jefferson Davis and commanded by Lieutenant Dick Dowling.
For centuries, Native Americans and others used the landscape around Sabine Pass, a narrow channel that serves as the outlet for the Sabine River, as a method of transport for both people and commercial products leaving Texas and entering the Gulf of Mexico. While landscape might appear uninteresting or unimportant, the landscape of the narrow channel is probably the most important factor in the events leading up to the battle, and the battle itself.
The Union Navy struggled for years to establish and maintain a blockade on the Gulf Coast of Texas, an effort they deemed crucial in order to collapse the strong economy of the American South. The First Battle of Sabine Pass (1862), little more than a quick Confederate surrender, allowed the Union to maintain domination over a huge swath of land by controlling the railroad between Beaumont and Houston and river transportation for hundreds of miles. But the Confederacy recognized what the Union failed to see; the incredible potential for Sabine Pass. It is for this reason that the Union was easily dispelled from the pass and the neighboring town of Sabine in 1862 and the Confederacy was able to establish Fort Griffin, a domed mud construct at the entrance to the pass.
Deemed by Jefferson Davis the most impressive defensive stand in the entire history of warfare, the Battle of Sabine Pass was certainly surprising. 47 Confederates defeated an invading force of more than 4000 Union Soldiers and 20 warships, and accomplished this feat with six artillery guns and a fort constructed mostly from compacted mud.
The Confederacy's victory was attributed primarily to three factors. First, the superior information obtained mostly via the lighthouse several hundred yards away from the battlefield. Second, the inferior orders given by the Union Army higher command, which resulted in land-based backup arriving too late to be of any significant use. Finally, the geography of the pass, which restricted access to any but the smallest of warships, and resulted in three ships being grounded or having to retreat. While the battle certainly did not change the outcome of the war, it is completely reasonable to suggest that a successful Union invasion would have resulted in the capture of much of East Texas.
Today, the Sabine Pass Battleground is a national historic landmark, home to several dozen monuments, banners, informational signs, models, and ammunition bunkers, all of which tell the story of Sabine Pass and its importance in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century East Texas History.