Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae
by Edward T. Cotham, Jr.
288 pages, published 2004
ISBN: 0292705948 (softcover), price $21.95

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THE STORY

       The canons were too hot to touch. After nearly an hour of relentless firing, the fifty-man Confederate artillery company posted at a raised mud fort in a backwater swamp called Sabine Pass had just beaten off the Union Army invasion of Texas. Confederate Lieutenant Dick Dowling and his Davis Guards would soon take the formal surrender of two riddled Union gunboats and begin accepting more than 300 incredulous prisoners of war. The Federal invasion force of some 6,000 Union infantry troopers turned its transports towards the Gulf of Mexico back to Louisiana. The Confederate artillerists did not suffer one combat casualty. Within hours, the proud victors would begin receiving thanks from almost every level of the Confederate government.

Sabine Pass cover
       The incredible Confederate victory of September 8, 1863, at Sabine Pass would become one of the most celebrated battle stories in Texas history. It is almost unknown north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

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       When the Civil War started the towns along the Texas gulf coast found themselves to be actors in a grand struggle for the successful supply of the the new Confederate states. From the outset, the Union plan for the rebel seaboard was to deprive the Confederacy of the free flow of supplies to its ports. The Union plan for the coastal blockade was part of what was known as the Anaconda Plan. The large constricting snake was the symbolic vision of the Union intent. Of course, the Confederate strategy was to maintain possession of key port cities and to find ways around and through the blockade line.       
       For the first year of the war the Federal navy had too few ships and the Confederacy too many ports for the plan to have full effect on the Confederate war effort, but over time important port cities fell into Union hands. Outright capture and occupation of rebel port cities was a far more effective way of executing a blockade plan than patrolling the ports from offshore, and eventually this technique found its way to the Texas coast.
       It was with the strategy in mind that Union soldiers and gunboats began capturing Texas coastal ports during the late summer of 1862. Although the August attempt to capture Corpus Christi failed, Sabine Pass was captured by an aggressive attack in September and Galveston was taken in October 1862.
       By the Fall of 1862 the Union blockade of the Texas coast was proceeding with speed and success. Both Fort Sabine and the fortifications at Galveston had been paper tigers, under-garrisoned and under-armed by the thin Confederate forces in Texas. However, despite the quick success of Union efforts, Federal forces did not have the leadership in place to maintain control of the captured ports. By the beginning of 1863 the Union effort in Texas had been completely reversed. The Texas coastline had returned as an important source of supply for the Confederacy.
       As 1863 proceeded and Union plans to restrict the flow of supplies into the Confederacy gained momentum, the Texas coast returned to the spotlight. Increasingly, both Union and Confederate commanders understood the importance of the Texas coastline to the future of the war effort and both sides developed plans that would result in the climactic battle of Sabine Pass.
       For the Confederate side, two serious-minded European engineers turned their attention to the Texas defenses in the region. After fortifying Galveston, the team of Colonel Valery Sulowski and Colonel Julius Kellersberg began work on a novel design for a new fort at Sabine Pass in the far southeast corner of the Texas coast near the Louisiana border. These men lent an engineer's eye to the defensive opportunities presented by the unusual topography of the pass. The placement and design of what was called Fort Griffin would come to symbolize an effort that made the most of the human and material resources at hand.
       As the new fort took shape by the hands of commandeered slave labor, Union plans were developing to find a suitable site for nothing less than the wholesale invasion of Texas. Although many sites were considered for the initial assault, Sabine Pass became the eventual target of Union plans.
       The Union invasion was to be a combined service effort employing naval gunboats and infantry transports spearheading an amphibious landing. The gunboats were to sail up the narrow river channel of the pass approaching the Confederate fort and then engage the enemy battery. While receiving cover from the gunboats, 6,000 Union troopers were to disembark and capture the rebel position. The victorious landing party would then move further inland using captured rail resources.
       For a variety of reasons the September 1863 Union invasion of Texas through Sabine Pass encountered the perfect storm. The loss of surprise in the Union battleplan; an accurate, well-trained rebel artillery battery; a perfectly designed fort, a problematic waterway, poor Union coordination and decision-making, and an aborted infantry landing all combined to deliver a shocking reverse to what had been considered a simple Union operation that was to conclude in easy victory.
       The small company of Irish Confederate gunners handed the combined Union forces perhaps the most improbable, yet most thorough defeat of the Civil War. Within days the event had gained a legendary cachet, capturing the imagination of rebel forces badly in need of good news. Dick Dowling, the Irish bartender turned Confederate artillery lieutenant who commanded the battery at Fort Griffin, became a Texas hero who has been repeatedly honored with memorials both in America and Ireland. Indeed, there are at least six monuments to Dowling's Davis Guards and their victory at the battle of Sabine Pass; an array of honors perhaps unequalled to our own day for such a small combat unit and such a soldier of modest rank.

THE BOOK

I love books like this one. An author who lives near the events of the story delves into an exciting, little known drama and comes up with a gold nugget of a book. Mr. Cotham is an attorney and it shows. Like a prosecutor assembling a cold case, each piece of the puzzle is carefully fit into place. Suddenly, a story that seems like a miracle becomes an inevitability. This is the beauty of the book.
       Having noted that Mr. Cotham is an attorney, and that the book is built with care and confidence, I must also say that the story is drawn taught with drama. Mr. Cotham is a good writer and each sentence flows purposefully and logically from the last. To every degree possible, each chapter reveals the backstory of the causal events. Its not until after you've finished the book that you realize the importance of each piece that made up the whole. The chapter on Union Admiral Farragut's gunboat tactics against shoreline fortifications initially seems off the point, until you realize that Farragut's preferred combat tempo was openly adopted by the Union gunboats at Sabine Pass (with disastrous effect). The reader might also wonder why the engineering background of the Confederate mud fort is worthy of so much attention, until you later realize that the placement and design of the fort put in place a strategic advantage that was grossly underestimated by the Union attackers. And on it goes. The second time through the book is where the reader sees it all coming (and enjoys it all the more).

Following is a short e-interview with the author of Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae, conducted January 19, 2009:

RM: When was the first time you heard about the battle at Sabine Pass and how did it effect you at the time? Did you think immediately, "I've got to write about this."

Mr. Cotham: I grew up out in West Texas and had never heard of the Battle of Sabine Pass until the late 1960's when we moved to Houston. I had heard of Dowling street here in Houston and knew Dick Dowling was a Civil War figure but did not know much about him. But one day I read a reference work that mentioned that Jefferson Davis had called the Battle of Sabine Pass the most amazing military victory of all time. I was hooked. The more I read, the more amazing it seemed. When I discovered that there had never been a scholarly history written on the battle I knew I had found the subject for a book I wanted to write.

RM: Books like this often have the effect of revealing new information from private sources after the book is published and comes to the attention of those possessing private information like letters, etc. Has that happened since your book has come out? Any new information you can add to this incredible tale?

Mr. Cotham: Yes, I have been contacted by descendants of men who fought on both sides of the battle, who have offered me copies of letters and photographs. Nothing earth-shattering. Just material that helps flesh out the story a little. Historians live in fear of something coming out that changes the whole picture but fortunately nothing like that has ever happened to me. We have recently formed a Friends group for the Sabine Pass Battleground and I hope to publish some of this new material in our newsletter.

RM: Do you see a trend in Civil War writing toward the examination of smaller events like Sabine Pass or the battle at Galveston? Many historians, like yourself, live in an area and use that area as a springboard to explore regional Civil War history. Being close to the locations and sources it seems like a natural evolution for those doing private scholarship. Please comment.

Mr. Cotham: Yes. It seems like there are three trends going on in Civil War books. The first is to take a small battle or skirmish and try to build it into something larger (call it "the Gettysburg of East Texas" etc). The second trend is to write about a big battle but to concentrate on only a small part of it (e.g., "The last five minutes of the Battle of Antietam"). The third trend is to take a minor figure and write a biography that will catch a reader's attention (e.g., "the Stonewall Jackson of Texas"). I try not to be guilty of these sins. The battles I have written about are indeed small by Eastern standards but I think they have genuine significance. Sabine Pass is unique because of its outcome and the fact that 40 men prevented an invasion of Texas. Galveston was important because it was the only major port recaptured by the Confederates. I think there is a real place for books that study a little known military conflict, even if it is small in scope. But the author has to be careful not to exaggerate the importance of the subject, which is a natural tendency. It is interesting that writing the first two books put me on the trail of a third book (recently published) which covered a Civil War Marines's journey all along the Gulf Coast and up and down the Mississippi. So by studying two relatively small battles I was led into a larger area of research that is still bearing fruits today.

       My thanks to Mr. Edward T. Cotham, Jr. If you are looking to buy a copy of Sabine Pass, go here.

       Mr. Cotham is also the author of two other Civil War books, Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston and The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley.