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Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae (Number Seven, Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage Series) Paperback – October 1, 2004
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"The book is beautifully written, profusely illustrated and meticulously researched -- and sure to instruct and entertain any reader of Civil War history." (Civil War News)
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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Justin Glenn, author of "The Washingtons: A Family History"
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. Fort Griffin actually outgunned the gunboats in terms of cannon that could be brought to bear, the gunboats were not armored, and both ran aground during the action. Although not discussed, for naval vessels to be successful against fortifications in the Civil war required either mobility (the ability to “run” the fort) or heavily armored vessels (sufficient to protect their powerplant); neither was a factor at Sabine Pass. Since the army troops on the board the transports didn’t land, they could just as well have been in New Orleans with regard to the action at Fort Griffin.
A thorough analysis of the Union army’s decisions at Sabine Pass remains of interest. Why was a landing at another site not pursued? Why did Wietzel’s force not land?
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. Dowling,"You and your 46 men in your miserable little fort in the rushes have captured two gunboats, a goodly number of prisoners, many stand of small arms, and plenty of good ammunition, and that is not the worst of your boyish tricks: you have sent three Yankee gunboats, 5,000 troops, and a major-general out to sea in the dark!"
The battle at Sabine Pass had disproved once and for all the myth about the invincibility of Union gunboats. And it gave the Confederacy a much-needed victory after recent disasters at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. In fact, President Jefferson Davis was so impressed by Lieut. Dowling and his men that he commemorated the battle by striking a silver medal in honor of the men. A statue honoring Dowling was later erected near the site of the remarkable fight. This is, at least in my opinion, one of the most fascinating battles of the American Civil War, yet very little has been written about it. Edward T. Cotham has obviously done exhaustive research for this book and his narrative makes for an exciting and very informative book on this extraordinary battle. Highly recommended!