September 8, 1863: Confederate Thermopylae

A near miraculous Confederate victory, and the most humiliating Union defeat of the Civil War, the Second Battle of Sabine Pass fought on September 8, 1863 indicates how badly a battle plan can go awry when confronted by a brave and determined foe.

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.  In an 1882 speech Jefferson Davis characterized the battle as a victorious Confederate Thermopylae, and it is hard to disagree.  A grand day indeed for the Confederacy and the Irish.  Here is an account by a correspondent for The New York Times who accompanied the Union fleet:

On arriving at the spot on which our troops were destined to land, it was soon found to be impossible to attempt anything of the kind, owing to the marshy nature of the ground and the excessively shallow water. It soon, therefore. became evident that upon our gunboats would devolve the whole task of attacking; and gallantly did some of them go into an engagement, that is pronounced by all who saw it, one of the most desperately contested of the whole war.       

                    The attack was commenced about half past 3 o’clock on the afternoon of the 8th, by the gunboat Clifton, Capt. CROCKER commanding, carrying nine heavy guns, two of which — one at the how and the other at the stem — were 9-inch pivots.       

                    Capt. CROCKER opened fire at a distance of about two miles from his bow pivot, and alter an experimental shot or two, acquired the range, pouring it, upon the enemy a continuous stream of tire, the bursting shells knocking holes in their works, and throwing the debris up in enormous quantities. The reports of the huge monster was absolutely deafening, and the around fairly shook from the concussion.       

                    The Sachem, Capt. JOHNSON commanding, in the meantime took up a position where she could pour a raking cross-fire, and also opened with her broadside of riffed pieces, which were served with equal precession and effect.       

                    About the same time the powerful battery of the Arizona, Capt. TIBBETTS, from a position at the stern of the Sachem, also opened upon the enemy with screaming shell and hissing round shot, — every one of which could be plainly seen plowing up the interior of the fort and crashing through the breastworks.       

                    This continued for some time before the enemy replied, the ships gradually nearing the fort and increasing the rapidity of their fire, until they were within point-blank range, and the Sachem had nearly passed by the works — on the right hand side of the oyster reefs fronting them, — when the enemy suddenly opened a terrific fire from his entire battery.       

                    The fort is situated some distance below Sabine City — as shown by the map I send you. The first and main work consisted of a powerful earthwork of great length, mounted with six heavy guns, and garrisoned by a large number of men. To the left of this was a second work of similar character, mounting from three to five heavy guns, one or more of which was rifled. In addition to these two forts, the enemy had in sight, and rendering valuable assistance to the defence, three large cotton-clad river steamers, aimed with one or more guns, and a schooner armed with one bow gun — probably of very large calibre, as she lay off at a distance of over two miles, and deliberately tired at the approaching fleet.       

                    The firing now continued hot and fierce, the enemy’s shot being generally aimed too high, passing over the tops of the vessels and striking in the water beyond them; while, on the other hand, nearly all the shots from the vessels were effective, searching every portion of the larger WORK, and. at limes, with such effect that every man was driven from the guns.       

                    But just at this moment, when everything appeared most favorable, and the fortunes of war seemed about to assign the meed of victory to the gallant little vessels, the Sachem unfortunately grounded, broadside on, exposing her most vulnerable part to the concentrated, lire of the enemy’s largest work, he steamers and the sailing craft,       

                    This was speedily taken advantage of by them, and a perfect storm of shot and shell fell upon, over, and around her, making the water hiss and foam like a boiling cauldron. Soon a heavy rifled shot struck her lair in the side, crushing in the iron-Dialing and wood-work, and, striking her machinery, exploded her steam chest, filling the vessel with the scalding vapor and leaving her a helpless wreck, with no hope of getting off the shore. Poor little Sachem! — a saucier craft never floated on the water nor a bolder man than her commander JOHNSON. We all remember the noble part she took in the a flair at Galveston; one of the few bright spots in that otherwise dark and hideous piece of business.       

                    The enemy now ceased their fire on the Sachem and turned their attention to the remaining two boats; the crews of which, realizing the position of their brave comrades, redoubled their exertions.

The Arizona, unfortunately, drew too much water to get to close quarters, and it devolved upon the Clifton alone to undertake the perilous task of silencing the works — a task that might have daunted the stoutest hearts.       

                    But the Clifton was manned by brave men, and most nobly did the gallant CROCKER and his crew respond to the call upon them. Putting on a full head of steam, the devoted little craft ran down directly toward the largest fort, keeping up a hot fire all the time from her, pivot guns, and as she neared the works, loading with double charges or grape, sweeping the parapet at every discharge.       

                    The Clifton had now approached to within about 500 yards, and after giving the enemy a last discharge of grape from her pivot, attempted to throw her bow around, and take up a broadside position. But she had gone a few yards too near, and at she slightly swung around, her bow struck, — the velocity with which she was running driving her far upon the shore. She instantly commenced backing, keeping up a constant fire from her bow and port broadside guns, the former keeping the main parapet entirely clear of the enemy, while the latter played on the second battery.       

                    This continued for some time, and faint hopes were entertained that the gallant Captain would succeed in extricating his boat from her terrible position. But this was not to be for, at last, a shot from the battery at the left penetrated her boiler, in an instant reducing her to the 6ame condition as the Sachem.       

                    The battle was now, to all intents and purposes, ended. Further resistance seemed utterly hopeless, but still the brave CROCKER could not endure the idea of giving up his vessel, and ordered his men to fight on. Without his knowledge, however, some party struck the white flag, and the enemy instantly ceased firing.       

                    When informed of this, the Captain ordered the deck to be cleared, and, loading the after pivot-gun with a 9-inch solid shot, he fired it through the centre of the ship, from stem to stern, tearing the machinery in pieces, and rendering it utterly worthless to the enemy. After doing this, and spiking all the gum, the Clifton surrendered.       

                    The remaining gunboat, the Arizona, quite unable to cope single-handed with the enemy, and drawing too much water to engage them in close quarters, reluctantly withdrew from the unequal contest, firing a farewell shot of defiance, as she steamed slowly down the bay, the enemy not replying to her challenge.       

                    The Clifton had on board, beside her regular crew of one hundred and ten men, seventy-five sharpshooters: and the Sachem thirty sharpshooters — all of whom were captured, with the exception of seven men from the Clifton, who swam ashore, ran down the bench, and were taken off by a small boat.       

                    The loss of the armament of the Clifton is unquestionably a serious one: her powerful battery of rifled guns being one of the most effective in the service. The boats, however, are so much damaged that the guns, to be of any service to the enemy, will have to be removed from them and remounted, and consequently it will be a long time before they can be made available.       

                    The amount of killed and wounded I have not been able to ascertain, though they are not supposed to be heavy. I am happy to add that Capts. CROCKER and JOHNSON are neither thought to have been killed or wounded, but both prisoners.

Published in: on September 8, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on September 8, 1863: Confederate Thermopylae  
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