Second Battle of Sabine Pass
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The Second Battle of Sabine Pass took place on September 8, 1863, the result of a Union Army expedition into the Confederate state of Texas during the American Civil War. It has often been credited as the most one-sided Confederate victory during the War.
During the summer of 1863, the president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, was overthrown and replaced by the emperor Maximilian, whose allegiance was with France. France had been openly sympathetic to the Confederate States of America earlier in the war, but had never matched its sympathy with diplomatic action. Now that a French government existed just south of the Rio Grande, the Confederates hoped to establish a fruitful route of entry for much-needed matériel.
United States President Abraham Lincoln was well aware of Confederate intentions and sent an expedition into Texas to establish a military presence and to discourage Maximilian from opening trade with the Confederacy. The Federal force was under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, a political general with little discernible command ability. Banks's original intent was to lead a combined Army-Navy expedition from the Mississippi River into the Red River. However, low water in the Red River prevented the Union gunboats from entering it. As a consequence, the expedition entered the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico. Banks ordered his subordinate, Major General William B. Franklin, to defeat a small Confederate detachment at Fort Griffin near the mouth of the river and capture Sabine City.
The Confederate detachment residing at the fort, a 1st Texas Heavy Artillery locally-formed company the Jeff Davis Guards (named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis), on the date of the battle consisted of forty-six Texans almost all of whom were Galveston-area young men of Irish birth. They were stationed at the earthworks hastily built about a mile north and upstream of the original earthworks named as a principal U.S. Navy target during the First Battle of Sabine Pass. The newer defensive works was known as "Fort Griffin" (not the 1867, post-Civil war U.S. Army cavalry "frontier" post Fort Griffin west of Fort Worth, Texas). Under the immediate command of Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, the Davis Guards had mounted their unit's six old smoothbore cannon on the six elevated earthen platforms of their small fort. Although unimpressive to Union observers and scouts, the fort's gun platforms were high enough to afford a clear view to the horizon for many miles: the flat marshlands stretched northeastward into Louisiana, westward toward Houston, southwestward toward Galveston, northward toward Port Arthur and Beaumont, and southeastward into the Gulf of Mexico. The nearest observation point of consequence was a lighthouse across the Pass near the bank of its channel -- the Sabine River -- or from the mast "top" of a naval vessel seaward of the mouth of the Pass.
Considering the dominant size of the Union expeditionary force, subduing this fort was not expected to prove a great challenge to the U.S. forces.
On the day of the battle, "Acting Captain" Frederick Crocker, United States Navy, entered the Sabine River in the armored side-wheeler gunboat Clifton, accompanied by three other gunboats. At anchor in the Gulf of Mexico was a fleet of 18 vessels, including four or more troop transports. Including the first wave of assault troops, 500 U.S. Army soldiers aboard the gunboat Granite City following the Clifton, the U.S. Army had brought 5,000 federal infantrymen from New Orleans for this invasion of Texas. Dowling's Irish Texans previously had placed stakes in the river channel as markers specifically for accurate range of each of the fort's cannon. As the Union convoy entered among the stakes, the Confederates opened fire with deadly accuracy and wrought havoc on the vessels. The Union Army was forced to withdraw down the river after having lost two gunboats and 200 sailors captured. The Confederates are believed not to have suffered any casualties.
In recognition of the victory, local residents of the Galveston and Sabine Pass area smoothed off Mexican silver dollars, stamped them with the battle and date plus individually the name of each soldier, hung them on green ribbons, and presented them to the members of the Jeff Davis Guards. Approved by the Confederate Congress, the Davis Guards Medal is believed to be the only official military decoration issued by the CSA.
The Battle of Sabine Pass was of little tactical or strategic significance to the Civil War. A Confederate supply line from Mexico to Texas was never established, and in any case it could not have effectively supplied the states east of the Mississippi once the Union controlled the whole of that river after its victory at Vicksburg in July. The Confederacy was therefore forced to continue its reliance on blockade running to import valuable materials and resources.
- National Park Service battle description
- History Under Siege: Sabine Pass battlefield designated by CWPT as one of the top 10 most endangered Civil War battlefields of 2009
- CWSAC Report Update
- Banks, Raymond H. The King of Louisiana, 1862-1865, and Other Government Work: A Biography of Major General Nathaniel Prentice Banks. Las Vegas, NV: R. H. Banks, 2005. Chapter 44. OCLC 63270945.
- Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Park, Archeological Report #8, Antiquities Permit #21 by T. Holtzapple and Wayne Roberson. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Historic Sites and Restoration Branch, Austin, Texas, Sept. 1976.
- Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal