By Lynn Ashby 1 Feb. 2016
HERMANN PARK –It is a busy Saturday afternoon, with joggers, walkers, zoo visitors. Sunny, dry, a gentle breeze ushering in eau de Pasadena. This is the perfect place to read a newspaper article to a local businessman. The newspaper is the Boston Sunday Herald, specifically the edition of Sept, 6, 1863. This story reports “a well authenticated rumor that Gen. Lee has resigned.” Even back then the press got it wrong. The local businessman is Richard W. Dowling, better known as Dicky He was once honored in Houston and all of Texas as a savior, but now, like the boll weevil, he’s just lookin’ fer a home. Actually, I can’t even find his statue.
We start with the newspaper, which has turned orange and brittle, yet legible. This from New Orleans, which is in Union hands: Word of a massive military buildup, with 22 warships carrying supplies plus 5,000 infantry, artillery and cavalry, under the command of Gen. William B. Franklin. “The destination, which has been given out, is Mobile; but the rebel sympathizers, however, are quite sure the expedition is going to Texas.” The spies think the exact point is the mouth of the Rio Grande. Bad intelligence. The armada is going to Texas, all right, but is actually headed to Sabine Pass which separates Texas from Louisiana. Capture the pass, take the little fort guarding it, then capture Beaumont, only 18 miles away, with its rail line connecting Texas to the eastern Confederacy. March down I-10 to Houston with its rail lines west into the rest of Texas, then swiftly to Galveston and its port. This will be easy, because most able-bodied white male Texans have gone east to fight. Indeed, Texas has sent the highest proportion of its men to the war of any state on either side. That leaves Lt. Dicky Dowling. Age 26.
He had run saloons in New Orleans before moving to Houston. A red-headed jovial Irishman, Dowling knew everybody and everybody knew and liked him. When the war broke out, he recruited fellow Irishmen from his various bars, who became the Davis Guards, Company F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment. They were sent to guard a backwater mud-and-log fort named Fort Sabine at Sabine Pass, wherever that was. Once there, they rowed out into the shallow waters and stuck poles, painted white, into the bottom, then practiced hitting the poles with their artillery — six cannon: two 24 pounders and four 32 pounders.
On Sept 8, 1863, the Union armada steamed into the pass. Lt. Dowling and his 45 men waited patiently. Then the first two warships puffed by the painted poles. Boom! Then another and another. In quick order – stick with me — a shot from the third or fourth round hit the boiler of the Sachem, which exploded, killing and wounding many of the crew and leaving the gunboat without power in the channel. The following ship, the Arizona, backed up because it could not pass the Sachem, and withdrew.
The Clifton came on until a shot from the fort cut away its tiller rope at the range of a quarter of a mile – pretty good shooting. The gunboat couldn’t steer and ran aground, where its crew continued to fire. Then a shot hit the boiler of the Clifton, sending steam and smoke through the vessel and forcing the sailors to abandon ship. The Granite City also turned back rather than face the accurate artillery, and that ended the battle. Dowling and his Irishmen had fired their cannon 107 times in 35 minutes, a rate of less than two minutes per shot, a fantastic rate. The Confederates captured 300 Union prisoners and two gunboats. Franklin and the army force turned back to New Orleans. Not a single defender had been scratched. It was the most lopsided battle of the Civil War, maybe ever.
What would have happened to Houston – and Texas — if the Union assault had succeeded? If the fall of other Southern cities is any clue, nothing good. Atlanta was burned to the ground. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was burned, but not by the Yankees. To keep the Rebels’ military supplies of artillery, vast amounts of shells, and other ordinance, from being captured, the fleeing Rebels set fire to warehouses, but the fire soon spread all over downtown Richmond. Fredericksburg, Va. was occupied and thoroughly looted. Columbia, South Carolina, was destroyed. Sherman’s famed march through Georgia saw civilian homes burned, livestock slaughtered, rail lines ripped up. Sherman said he wanted to “make Georgia howl.” Today they would be called war crimes. New Orleans was spared, but the city’s women ignored or even insulted the occupiers, so their commander, Gen. Joe Hooker, ordered that all New Orleans women were to be treated as prostitutes – or hookers. It’s a good story although the earliest known use of “hookers” as prostitutes dates to 1835, but it made the term more popular. In the words of British historian Alistair Cooke, “the South was not only defeated, it was destroyed.” The song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” made popular by Joan Baez, was based on fact.
Dowling and his men were hailed as heroes, although, alas, he died in 1867 from yellow fever. His statue was raised in 1905 and moved twice. His sword has been stolen five times. Now there is pressure to put Dicky in some back lot or car pound, take his name off of a school and two streets – Dowling and Tuam, his birthplace in Ireland — because he fought for the Confederacy although I can find no record that he owned slaves. Douglas Brinkley, a noted author and professor of history at Rice University, says of this and other such movements, “They are allowed a 21st-century moment.” I think he means we are judging our forefathers by today’s standards. Wherever Dowling is now and wherever he winds up, his pedestal should read, “The Savior of Houston and Texas.”
Ashby’s pedestal reads firstname.lastname@example.org