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 failed Union Army attempt to invade 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.
France was openly sympathetic to the Confederate States of America early in the Civil War, but never matched its sympathy with diplomatic or military action. After Mexican forces were defeated by French forces in summer 1863, Mexican president Benito Juárez escaped the capital, and the French installed Austrian Maximilian as "Emperor". With a de facto French government bordering Texas on the south across the Rio Grande, the Confederates hoped to establish a formal route between Texas and Mexico by way of which the Confederacy could obtain much-needed supplies.
United States President Abraham Lincoln was well aware of Confederate intentions and sent an expedition to establish a military presence in Texas and to discourage Maximilian from opening trade with the Confederacy. The military Federal force was commanded by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, a political general with little discernible command ability. Banks's original intent was to launch a combined Army-Navy campaign in northwest Louisiana. The Union plan was to send Union Navy warships from the Mississippi up the tributary Red River, which was navigable upstream as far as where the boundaries of the Confederate states of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas came together. The Union declared its Capture of New Orleans on May 1, 1863, and after the July 3, 1863 surrender of Confederate Vicksburg, the Union military had better control of both the east and west banks and of the mouth of the Mississippi. Unusually low water in the Red River at this time, however, prevented even relatively low-draft Union gunboats from operating effectively, and the anticipated overland Union invasion of Texas was further delayed.
Consequently, General Banks ordered his subordinate, Major General William B. Franklin, who would coordinate with the U.S. Navy, to enter the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico and defeat the small Confederate detachment at "Fort Sabine" on the river's west bank (Texas side) at Sabine Pass. about 2 miles (3.2 km) upstream of the river mouth. The key U.S. Navy target in the First Battle of Sabine Pass was the original earthworks thrown up on the Texas (west) shore of the Sabine River about three miles (4.8 km) south of Sabine City, a tiny town with some wharfs on the east side of its main street. After the Navy gunboats subdued the fort, the first wave of U.S. Army infantrymen riding the deck of one of the gunboats would debark at the fort. They were to take Sabine City, secure the area for the main landing force, and prepare to march on Beaumont. This action would deny the Pass and the natural shallow-water harbor Sabine Lake, upstream from the Gulf about 6 miles (about 9.6 km), to blockade runners. Beaumont, on higher ground about 18 miles (33 km) northwest of Sabine City, was the key to threatening Houston. If Union forces were to capture Beaumont, through which passed the railway line from Houston to New Orleans, then the last remaining railroad connection between Texas and the eastern Confederacy would be under Union control.
Fort Sabine had been renamed "Fort Griffin" in honor of an earlier commander, Confederate Lt. Colonel W. H. Griffin, although this was not shown on Union maps since the First Battle of Sabine Pass in late September 1862. (This Fort Griffin is not the 1867 post-Civil War U.S. Army cavalry frontier post Fort Griffin west of Fort Worth, Texas.) The Confederate detachment residing at the fort was the Jeff Davis Guards (named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis), a company of mostly Irish-American men from the Houston and Galveston area, recently had been merged into the First Texas Heavy Artillery. They were stationed at the hastily built earthworks a mile (1.6 km) upstream (north) on the southwest bank of the Pass. When the battle began with the Union gunboats' bombardment on September 8, 1863, at the fort were forty-six men; all but two or three were members of the Davis Guards. Under the immediate command of Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, the Davis Guards had mounted their unit's six old smoothbore cannon on the elevated platform of the small earthen fort. Although unimpressive to Union observers and scouts, the fort's gun positions 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 affording a view of Fort Griffin, other than from the mast "top" of a naval vessel seaward of the Pass, was a lighthouse on the Louisiana (opposite) side of Sabine Pass at the mouth of the Sabine River.
Considering the dominant size of the Union expeditionary force, taking control of Sabine Pass and environs was not expected to be a great challenge to the U.S. forces.
On the afternoon of September 8, 1863, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Frederick Crocker ("Acting Captain") was in command of the advance squadron composed of four gunboats. Crocker was a veteran officer of considerable recent experience in Union river-gunboat actions and blockade duty. His ship was the Clifton, an ironclad steam-powered side-wheeler. Besides Clifton, Crocker's advance squadron included Granite City, Sachem, and Arizona, all recently commissioned ironclad warships. Three miles southeast downriver at the confluence with the Gulf and out of the Confederate fort's artillery range, the other 18 vessels of the U.S. invasion fleet were anchored. (This cited contemporary U.S. Army map shows the fleet inside the bar; the following official U.S. Army report indicates that the fleet was outside the bar as many as five miles from the fort.) The fleet included six troop transports from New Orleans with 5,000 Union Army infantrymen plus an artillery company. The first wave of 500 Union infantry assault troops, aboard the gunboat Granite City which would follow the Clifton, were to make the landing: the largest amphibious assault on enemy territory in the history of the U.S. military up to that date.
Dowling's well practiced Irish-Texan artillerymen, whose chosen and officially approved unit name was "Jefferson Davis Guards", had placed range-stakes in the two narrow and shallow (5-to-7 feet) (1.5-to-2.1 m) river channels. These were the "Texas channel" near the southwest shore and the "Louisiana channel" against the Louisiana shore. The white-painted stakes were for determining accurate range of the fort's guns: six old smooth-bore cannon. Each "Davis Guards" gun crew during gunnery practice thereby worked to predetermine the approximate charge (amount of gunpowder) needed for each type projectile available for their specific gun (ball, canister, or grapeshot); and which specific guns, charges, and loads had the best potential to hit each range-stake.
Crocker's squadron had no local river pilots, only general knowledge of the river's channels, no assurance of locations of the constantly varying depths especially of large oyster-shell "reefs" or "banks" between the river's two channels. Regarding this battle no mention is found in official U.S. Navy reports of whether Union sailors were making observations and taking depth soundings from the gunboats' now dangerous top decks, while the Confederate cannon shots pounded and shook their ships. The few maps to which they had access were old and outdated or could not account for recent changes in river-bottom conditions. On Captain Crocker's signal the Sachem, followed by Arizona, advanced up the right channel (Louisiana side) as fast as they dared, firing their port-side guns at the fort. Clifton approached in the lead, ascending the Texas channel at full speed. Granite City hovered out of range behind Clifton, having orders not to risk debarking the 500 assault troops until the fort surrendered or its guns were silenced. As Sachem entered among the range-stakes, the Confederates opened fire. Then Clifton came into range, followed by Arizona. Despite their old smoothbore cannon, one of which had just become inoperable, after only a few rounds it was obvious the Confederate artillerymen's months of training and target practice was an astounding success: their aim was deadly accurate.
The Union fleet lost two warships with a total of 13 heavy cannon, including at least two new potent Parrott rifles, two dozen killed and badly wounded, about 37 missing (including several "colored men" U.S. sailors), and 315 Navy men captured. The combined Union Army and Navy invasion force withdrew and returned to New Orleans. The Confederates had no casualties.
In recognition of the victory, the Confederate Congress passed a resolution of special thanks the officers and men of the Davis Guard. In addition, Houston residents raised funds to provide medals to the Guard; these were made from silver Mexican pesos by smoothing off the coins, then hand-stamping and hand-engraving on one side, the battle name and date and on the other side the initials "D G" and a maltese cross. The medals were hung on green ribbons, and presented to the members of the Davis Guard. The official Confederate silver metals were presented in a military ceremony some time later.
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.
- Cotham, Edward T. Jr., Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2004.
- 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
- Crocker's Report, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate navies, Series 1, part 20, page 546. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1921.
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate navies, Series 2, part 1, pages 39, 59, 97, 195.
- Banks' Report, in The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies, Series 1, 26(1), pages 286-290. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1901
- Banks' Report, in The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies, Series 1, 26(1), pages 286-290. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1901.
- Cotham, p. 170
- Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal