A Civil War trip of a lifetime, Part 14


Having been on the road for more than two weeks while visiting nine states from West Virginia to Louisiana, the intrepid Civil War travelers soldiered on. The itinerary called for a drive from Port Hudson, La., south and west into Texas.

The first leg was 20 miles to Baton Rouge, before turning west for 460 miles to San Antonio, Texas — passing through the Cajun country of Lafayette, La., before crossing the Texas line on through Beaumont and Houston.

San Antonio witnessed one of the first acts that led to the War Between the States.

In March 1861, at the Mission of San Antonio de Valero — otherwise known as the Alamo — Southerners took control of the U.S. Army headquarters located at this historic site of Texas independence. Texas had seceded from the Union a month earlier, in February, and the Alamo, with its military stores, became the property of the newly-established Confederate States of America.

After enjoying the sites of San Antonio, including the popular River Walk, our next stop was 145 miles southeast, to visit our son stationed at the Corpus Christi Naval Airbase. From there, we had another long drive of 310 miles to the Sabine Pass on the Gulf of Mexico below Port Arthur.

It was at Sabine Pass where a short-lived battle occurred on Sept. 8, 1863. A small group of less than 50 Confederates manning six cannons at Fort Griffin fought off an attacking Union fleet carrying 5,000 troops in an attempted invasion of Texas.

Sabine Pass, a narrow channel of water that separates Texas from Louisiana and connects the Gulf of Mexico with Sabine Lake, was to be the jumping off point to move inland and capture the important East Texas cities of Houston, Galveston and Beaumont. But the accuracy of cannon fire from Fort Griffin disabled the Union gunboats the Sachem and the Clifton, convincing the expedition commander, Gen. William B. Franklin, to abandon the effort and return to New Orleans.

The Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park is in a quiet, remote location. A small section of several acres is set aside to commemorate the battle. Near the parking area, four markers tell the story of Fort Griffin and the battle of Sabine Pass.

A monument and heroic statue on the grounds honors Lt. Dick Dowling and “his forty-two Irish patriots” who defended the Pass from invasion. Inscribed on the monument are the defenders’ names and these words from Confederate President Jefferson Davis: “There is no parallel in ancient or modern warfare to the victory of Dowling and his men at Sabine Pass considering the great odds against which they had to contend.”

One marker lists the names and units of Union soldiers and sailors who died in the battle and were interred nearby, and six reconstructed gun emplacements now stand as the primary evidence that a fort once occupied the spot. A series of oil-well derricks standing offshore in the Pass contrasts with the otherwise tranquil scene.

To learn more, the next stop was the Museum of the Gulf Coast, 15 miles up the road in Port Arthur. The museum director, an historian and active Civil War reenactor, described what occurred at Sabine Pass and provided a copy of an article titled “The Most Extraordinary Feat of the War: Union Invasion of Texas Stopped at Sabine Pass” by Glenn Goodwin.

The museum, extraordinary in its own right, featured a mural that depicted scenes from Texas Gulf Coast history. Included was the Battle of Sabine Pass, showing the guns of Fort Griffin firing on the U.S. gunboats the Sachem and the Clifton.

After exhilarating days in the Lone Star State, our agenda called for a return to Louisiana. Excitement continued to reign, however, given our next investigation of Civil War events would take place in New Orleans.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point