Actually the Second Battle of Sabine Pass, the First being a brief skirmish on September 25, 1861, this engagement was the most improbable Confederate victory of the Civil War.
In 1863 the Lincoln administration was eager to deter Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico from trading with the Confederacy. To accomplish this, Major General Nathaniel Banks ordered Major General William B. Franklin to lead an amphibious force up the Sabine River in Texas, capture Confederate Fort Griffith and occupy the town of Sabine Pass.
On September 8, 1863 Captain Frederick Crocker, United States Navy, steamed up the Sabine to attack Fort Griffith, his force consisting of four gunboats and eighteen transports, loaded with 5,000 Union troops. Opposing this armada were 46 Confederates with six cannon at Fort Griffith.
The Confederates were mainly Irish dock workers who had formed the Jeff Davis Guards at the beginning of the War. They were commanded by Lieutenant Richard, “Dick” , Dowling, who had immigrated to America from Ireland with his family as a small child. A successful owner of a chain of saloons before a war, Dowling now faced a military situation that would have alarmed any professional soldier.
Prior to the battle, Dowling had intensively drilled his men in using their artillery. He also hit on the idea of planting colored poles in the water, marking range and elevation for his gun crews.
The Union force steamed into range among the gaily colored poles, and Dowling’s men blasted it with deadly accuracy. By the end of the engagement, two Union gunboats were sunk and 200 Union sailors captured. The Union force withdrew, and Dowling and his men were feted as national heroes of the Confederacy.