The Battle of Sabine Pass September 1863
After the fall of Confederate strongholds at Vicksburg. Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana in July 1863, the Union commander of the Department of the Gulf, Major General Nathaniel Banks, proposed that his forces attack Mobile, Alabama. Mobile was an important railroad center and seaport for the Confederacy, and others in the Federal Military agreed that Mobile should be taken. However, international events caused the U.S. government to delay a Mobile expedition and instead make an attempt at establishing a permanent foothold in Texas.
In 1862, French ruler Napoleon III sent troops to Mexico to establish a French backed monarchy, and a French sphere of influence, in North America. The United States wanted to quash any ideas Napoleon had of expanding into U.S. territory, so it was felt that a U.S. Army presence in Texas was necessary.
The Sabine River forms the boundary between Texas and Louisiana, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Navy, the mouth of the Sabine was lightly defended, and Banks drew up plans to invade Texas at that location. The plan was to send light draft gunboats and troop transports into the Sabine and land troops there. From that point, Federal troops could march on Beaumont, Houston, and Galveston depending on the level of Confederate resistance. Banks placed Major General William B. Franklin in charge of the expedition. He would have 5000 troops of the Nineteenth Corps to establish a landing. That was as many as could fit on the available transports. After landing the troops, the transports were to go and pick up a division of the Thirteenth Corps to provide additional strength to the invasion force.
Before Franklin’s soldiers could land, the Navy would have to secure the landing area. Lieutenant Frederick Crocker was in command of the four vessel naval force assigned the task of securing the landing area. The four ships were the Clifton (Crocker’s ship), the Sachem, the Arizona, and the Granite City. The attack was to have been made on the morning of September 7th; however, part of the fleet overshot Sabine Pass on the way over from Louisiana and had to turn around, delaying things until the next day.
Waiting for the Federal invasion force was Company F of Cook’s Texas Artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Richard Dowling. Numbering just 44 officers and men, the defenders were armed with six cannon, including two 32 pounder smoothbores, two 24 pounder smoothbores, and two 32 pounder howitzers. This small force was inside a fortification known as Fort Griffin.
The engagement began about 3:30 in the afternoon of September 8th. There was a reef in the center of the river, splitting it into a Louisiana channel and a Texas channel. Clifton took up a position in the Texas channel, and Sachem headed up the narrower Louisiana channel, followed by the Arizona. Clifton also carried about 100 sharpshooters from the 75th New York Infantry, and the Sachem had a smaller number of soldiers from the 161st New York Infantry. These sharpshooters would be used to shoot the enemy gunners when the ships were within rifle range. The Granite City and the transport General Banks, with 500 soldiers aboard, was to follow Clifton and begin the landing of Federal troops about 1000 yards below Fort Griffin. Transports with the rest of the landing force would proceed in after the landing site was secure and the fort’s defenders silenced.
Clifton, Sachem, and Arizona began firing on Fort Griffin as they steamed within range. The forts defenders held their fire until the ships closed in to within range of their guns. The Confederates opened fire and within a few minutes, Sachem took a shot though its boiler and was disabled. The Louisiana channel was too narrow for Arizona to pass the disabled Sachem, so it attempted to back out. But as it did so, the Arizona grounded in the shallow water.
With Sachem disabled, Arizona grounded, and Granite City hanging back with the General Banks, Clifton faced the Confederate gunners alone. Clifton had closed to within 500 yards of the fort and was attempting to position itself for a broadside shot when it, too, grounded. The crew fired the three (out of its total of eight) guns that faced the fort while desperately working to get the ship free. Fort Griffin’s defenders continued to fire at Clifton, and, like Sachem, it took a shot through its boiler and was disabled. Many of the sharpshooters thought the ship was about to blow up and jumped overboard.
Clifton continued the fight, but the Confederate shelling set the ship on fire and was killing and wounding the officers and crew. One officer lowered the ship’s flag, believing further resistance was futile. Crocker ordered it raised and the fight continued, but some of the crew were abandoning ship. Crocker considered his options. Sachem had been forced to surrender, Clifton had only two guns left in operation, and neither the Arizona nor Granite City were making any attempt to support Clifton. Reluctantly, Crocker raised the white flag. The Arizona, Granite City, and General Banks retired, and the battle was over. With no more shallow draft gunboats available, the Union forces withdrew.
The battle was a complete victory for the Confederates. Lt. Dowling’s small force of 44 men had stopped an entire invasion force. Though Sachem and Clifton were damaged, they were repairable, and were captured. Estimates varied, but approximately 50 Federals were killed or wounded, and 200 taken prisoner. The Fort Griffin defenders suffered no casualties at all.
In his report to Washington, General Banks blamed the loss on “the misapprehension of the naval authorities of the real strength of the enemy’s position, and the insufficient naval force with which the attempt was made.” Although Lt. Crocker was a prisoner of war, Confederate authorities allowed him to submit an after action report. He saw things differently than Banks did. He said he surrendered after “seeing that the Arizona failed to push on; [and] the Granite City and General Banks [failed] to make the slightest attempt to support me”; also the “conduct…of General Franklin in failing so utterly to cooperate”.
It was different on the Confederate side. Lieutenant Dowling and his men received the thanks of the Confederate Congress, and admiration from the people of the south. Dowling filed this after action report on the Battle of Sabine Pass:
FORT GRIFFIN, Sabine Pass, September 9, 1863.
CAPTAIN On Monday morning, about 2 o’clock, the sentinel informed me the enemy were signaling, and, fearing an attack, I ordered all the guns at the fort manned, and remained in that position until daylight, at which time there were two steamers evidently sounding for the channel on the bar; a large frigate outside. They remained all day at work, but during the evening were re-enforced to the number of twenty-two vessels of different classes.On the morning of the 8th, the U.S. gunboat Clifton anchored opposite the light-house, and fired twenty-six shell at the fort, most of which passed a little over or fell short; all, however, in excellent range, one shell being landed on the works and another striking the south angle of the fort, without doing any material damage. The firing commenced at 6.30 o’clock and finished at 7.30 o’clock by the gunboat hauling off. During this time we had not replied by a single shot. All was then quiet until 11 o’clock, at which time the gunboat Uncle Ben steamed down near the fort. The U.S. gunboat Sachem opened on her with a 30-pounder Parrott gun. She fired three shots, but without effect, the shots all passing over the fort and missing the Ben. The whole fleet then drew off, and remained out of range until 3.40 o’clock, when the Sachem and Arizona steamed into line up the Louisiana channel, the Clifton and one boat, name unknown, remaining at the junction of the two channels. I allowed the two former boats to approach within 1,200 yards, when I opened fire with the whole of my battery on the foremost boat (the Sachem), which, alter the third or fourth round, hoisted the white flag, one of the shots passing through her steam-drum. The Clifton in the meantime had attempted to pass up through Texas channel, but receiving a shot which carried away her tiller rope, she became unmanageable, and grounded about 500 yards below the fort, which enabled me to concentrate all my guns on her, which were six in number–two 32 pounder smoothbores; two 24-pounder smoothbores; two 32-pounder howitzers. She withstood our fire some twenty-five or thirty-five minutes, when she also hoisted a white flag. During the time she was aground, she used grape, and her sharpshooters poured an incessant shower of Minie balls into the works. The fight lasted from the time I fired the first gun until the boats surrendered; that was about three-quarters of an hour. I immediately boarded the captured Clifton, and proceeded to inspect her magazines, accompanied by one of the ship’s officers, and discovered it safe and well stocked with ordnance stores. I did not visit the magazine of the Sachem, in consequence of not having any small boats to board her with. The C. S. gunboat Uncle Ben steamed down to the Sachem and towed her into the wharf. Her magazine was destroyed by the enemy flooding it.
During the engagement I was nobly and gallantly assisted by Lieut. N. H. Smith, of the Engineer Corps, who, by his coolness and bravery, won the respect and admiration of the whole command. This officer deserves well of his country.
To Asst. Surg. George H. Bailey I am under many obligations, who, having nothing to do in his own line, nobly pulled off his coat, and assisted in administering Magruder pills to the enemy, and behaved with great coolness.
During the engagement the works were visited by Capt. F. H. Odium, commanding post; Maj. [Col.] Leon Smith, commanding Marine Department of Texas.
Capt. W. S. Good, ordnance officer, Dr. Murray, acting assistant surgeon, behaved with great coolness and gallantry, and by them I was enabled to send for re-enforcements, as the men were becoming exhausted by the rapidity of our fire; but before they could accomplish their mission, the enemy surrendered.
Thus it will be seen we captured with 47 men two gunboats, mounting thirteen guns of the heaviest caliber, and about 350 prisoners. All my men behaved like heroes; not a man flinched from his post. Our motto was “victory or death.”
I beg leave to make particular mention of Private Michael McKernan, who, from his well-known capacity as a gunner, I assigned as gunner to one of the guns, and nobly did he do his duty. It was his shot struck the Sachem in her steam-drum.
Too much praise cannot be awarded to Maj. [Col.] Leon Smith for his activity and energy in saving and bringing the vessels into port.
I have the honor, captain, to remain, with great respect, your most obedient servant,
R. W. DOWLING,
First Lieut., Comdg. Co. F, Cook’s Art., Fort Griffin, Sabine Pass.
Capt. F. H. ODLUM,
- Abbott, John S.C. “Texas Lost and Won”. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1866.
- Irwin, Richard B. History of the Nineteenth Army Corps. 1892. Reprint, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Elliot’s Book Shop Press, 1985.
- “The Expedition to Texas”. The New York Times , September 21, 1863.
- U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official
Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: 1880-1901. [Series I, Vol XXVI, Part 1]