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Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae (Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage) Paperback – October 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"The book is beautifully written, profusely illustrated and meticulously researched -- and sure to instruct and entertain any reader of Civil War history." (Maxine Turner Civil War News 2005-11-00)

About the Author

Edward T. Cotham, Jr., is an independent scholar based in Houston, Texas. He has served as president of the Houston Civil War Roundtable and is the author of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston.
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Product Details

  • Series: Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage (Book 7)
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press (October 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0292705948
  • ISBN-13: 978-0292705944
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #938,336 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Sabine Pass was a narrow, 6-mile-long defile that channeled the Sabine River, which was the boundary between Texas and Louisiana, into the Gulf of Mexico. Guarding the Sabine River was Fort Griffin, a mud citadel which Union Army Intelligence believed had a force of 200 Confederate troops, including a field artillery battery, two 32-pounders (heavy artillery) and two boats that had been converted into rams. Actually, Fort Griffin was manned by only 46 Irish Texans, officially known as the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery, under the command of 25-year-old Lieut. Richard W. Dowling. It's artillery consisted only of six fieldpieces (the two 32-pounders had been removed weeks earlier). The two rams were ordered scuttled by Dowling near the entrance to Lake Sabine. This meant that any Union ships which did make it past Fort Griffin would run into the trap of the sunken boats, especially since the Sabine was running dangerously low.

The Union plan to take Sabine Pass was developed by Maj. Gens. Nathaniel Banks, Henry Halleck, and William Franklin, as well as Admiral David Farragut. The Union assault force would consist of 5,000 troops in 22 transport vessels protected by four gunboats (with another two gunboats in support). On September 8, 1863, the battle began, and after just 45 minutes, it was all over. One gunboat, "Clifton", was so badly hit by the fort's artillery that it was disabled and abandoned, while another, "Sachem", was forced into shallow water and surrendered to the fort. One humiliated captured Union officer said to Lieut.
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Author Edward Cotham provides a well-written and interesting account of the civil war at Sabine Pass and the events leading to a decisive battle there in front of Fort Griffin. Although the author spares few superlatives for the victorious Texans' unanticipated and stunning victory he does so for good reason and in an overall balanced manner. The Union officers' failures (as well as successes in other areas) are fairly presented.

This engagement was small but costly for the Union. It set back operations for capturing the important port of Mobile, Alabama as well as delaying operations against the Texas coast.

On the Union side, the roots of the fiasco rested in poor intelligence, coordination, and execution. The first major failure was the arrival of the attack force, when the coordinating blockader was away re-coaling--setting back the attack a critical day and a half. This provided the small garrison the opportunity to bring powder and projectiles to what would have been a defenseless set of gun emplacements.

The well-led and well-drilled garrison occupied a small but well-conceived and constructed earthen fort. It was ideally sited and designed to inflict maximum damage to any naval assault while limiting their ability to counter fire. Attacking gunboats would be forced to approach in tightly constricted channels where they could employ only their forward most guns at a low profile target. Lt. Dick Dowling's handful of men were itching for a fight and well equipped to do so.

The attack was to be a joint operation, with the navy leading the attack in order to allow the army to land.
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Calling this battle the Texas Thermopylae is not an understatement since the comparisons are very similar. These men were the bravest of brave and deserved land grants as reward in Texas. This should be a required read in schools to teach them to be proud of their heritage. Instead they are brainwashed with concepts the ideas that attempt to make them ashamed of their history and even their race. Texans should be especially proud that the Yankee race was kept at bay for the entire Civil war and Texas was not occupied even at the very end. The battle of Palmetto Ranch fought weeks after the surrender in the East was another proud event where invaders were repelled.
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While the battles at Sabine Pass are of interest as combined operations in the Civil War, this book appears to have been written primarily to support Texas Civil War mythology. This is reflected by the inclusion of “the Confederacy’s Thermopylae”, Jefferson Davis’s bombastic description, in the title. To make sure the reader gets the point and to maintain the theme of the gloriousness of the defense of Fort Griffin on 8 September, 1863 throughout the book, the author uses the descriptor, “disaster”, almost every time he discusses the Union side, every few pages or so.
However, the battle of Sabine Pass was hardly a “disaster” for the Union. Two marginally important gunboats were lost, but there was no strategic consequence, since the main reason for the operation, to deter French encroachment into Texas (which the Confederacy was willing to risk if it meant recognition by France) did not develop. Texas was recognized as a secondary theater (even by General Banks), and its value for blockade running was minor, given that the Mississippi was effectively in Federal control. Thermopylae is not the right comparison; if Fort Griffin had held off the Army of the Tennessee for a time, perhaps. A better comparison would be to the “Wagon Box Fight” in 1867, where ineffective tactics by the attacking Sioux and superior firepower and a strong position allowed an outnumbered detachment of the 27th US infantry to triumph.
Chapter 13 of the book describes the actual battle pretty well, providing the main reason to read the book. Read objectively, however, it tends not to support the contention that the battle, not as it was planned but as it actually occurred, was a triumph against long odds.
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