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Battle of Sabine Pass

The battle of Sabine Pass, on September 8, 1863, turned back one of several Union attempts to invade and occupy part of Texas during the Civil War. The U.S. Navy blockaded the Texas coast beginning in the summer of 1861, while Confederates fortified the major ports. Union interest in Texas was stemmed mainly from the need for cotton by northern textile mills and concern about French intervention in the Mexican civil war. In September 1863 General Nathaniel P. Banks sent 4,000 soldiers from New Orleans under the command of General William B. Franklin to gain a position at Sabine Pass, where the Sabine River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. A railroad ran from that area to Houston and opened the way into the interior of the state. At Sabine Pass, the Confederates’ Davis Guards manned Fort Griffin, which had six cannons.

The Union forces lost any chance of surprising the garrison when a blockader missed its arranged meeting with the ships from New Orleans on the evening of September 6. The Union navy commander, Lieutenant Frederick Crocker, then formed a plan for the gunboats to enter the pass and attack the fort so the troops could land. The Clifton shelled the fort from long range between 6:30 and 7:30 A.M. on the 8th, while the Confederate troops waited because the ship remained out of reach for their cannon.

Finally, at 3:40 P.M. the Union gunboats began their advance through the pass, firing on the fort as they steamed forward. Under the direction of Lieutenant Richard W. Dowling, the Confederate cannoneers fired as the boats came near. One cannon in the fort ran off its platform after an early shot, but the artillerymen fired the remaining five cannons with great accuracy. A shot hit the boiler of the Union gunboat Sachem, which exploded, killing and wounding many of the crew and leaving the gunboat without power in the channel near the Louisiana shore. The next boat, the Arizona, backed up because it could not pass the Sachem. A third Union boat pressed on up the channel near the Texas shore until a shot from the fort cut away its tiller rope, causing it to run aground. Another well-aimed cannon hit the grounded vessel and forced the sailors to abandon ship. A fourth gunboat also turned back rather than face the artillery of the fort, thus ending the Union assault.

Franklin and the Union army force turned back to New Orleans, although Union troops occupied the Texas coast from Brownsville to Matagorda Bay later that fall. The Davis Guards, who suffered no casualties during the battle, received the thanks of the Confederate Congress for their victory.


Source: Battle of Sabine Pass
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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