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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Dick Dowling, Confederate Commander

Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer LibraryRichard William “Dick” Dowling, the victorious confederate commander at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass in the American Civil War, dies of yellow fever in Houston, Texas on September 23, 1867.

Dowling is born in the townland of Knockballyvishteal, Milltown, County Galway on January 14, 1837, the second of eight children, born to tenant farmer Patrick and Bridget Dowling (née Qualter). Following the eviction of his family from their home in 1845, the first year of the Great Famine, nine-year-old Dowling leaves Ireland in 1846 with his older sister Honora, bound for New Orleans in the United States.

As a teenager, Dowling displays his entrepreneurial skills by successfully running the Continental Coffeehouse, a saloon in the fashionable French Quarter. His parents and siblings follow from Ireland in 1851, but the joy of reunion is short-lived. In 1853, a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans takes the lives of his parents and one of his younger brothers. With rising anti-Irish feeling growing in New Orleans, following local elections which see a landslide victory for the “Know Nothing” party, Dowling moves to Houston in 1857.

In 1857 Dowling marries Elizabeth Ann Odlum, daughter of Benjamin Digby Odlum, a Kildare-born Irishman, who had fought in the Texas Revolution, being captured at the Battle of Refugio in 1836.

By 1860, Dowling owns a number of saloons. His most successful is named the Bank of Bacchus, located on Courthouse Square in downtown Houston. “The Bank” as it is known locally becomes Houston’s most popular social gathering place in the 1860s and is renowned for its hospitality. He is also involved in setting up Houston’s first gaslight company, and is first to have it installed in his home and “The Bank.” He is a founding member of Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company Number One fire department and is also involved in running the city’s first streetcar company.

Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Dowling makes a name for himself as an able and successful entrepreneur. Among other things, he is involved with a predominantly Irish militia company which serves a more social than military role in Houston society. Upon Secession, this militia company is mustered straight into the Confederate States Army, with Dowling being elected First Lieutenant. The unit names themselves the “Jefferson Davis Guards” in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Davis Guards are initially part of a Texas State Troops/Confederate expedition sent to take over Union Army forts and arsenals along the border with Mexico. The expedition is successfully completed without a shot being fired. They participate in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863, following which they are assigned to a newly constructed artillery post near the mouth of the Sabine River called Fort Sabine.

Sabine Pass was important as a point of arrival and departure for blockade runners. It is suspected that the Union Army will attempt an invasion of Texas via Sabine Pass because of its value as a harbor for blockade runners and its proximity 18 miles southeast of Beaumont, which lies on the railroad between Houston and the eastern part of the Confederacy.

To negotiate Sabine Pass all vessels except small boats take one of the two river channels. No seagoing ship can traverse the Pass without great risk of running aground should it stray from one of the channels. The inevitable course of any steam-powered warship, including shallow-draft gunboats then common to the U.S. Navy, would use one of the channels, both of which are within fair range of the fort’s six smoothbores.

Dowling spends the summer of 1863 at the earthen fort instructing his men in gunnery. On September 8, 1863 a Union Navy flotilla of some 22 gunboats and transports with 5,000 men accompanied by cavalry and artillery arrive off the mouth of Sabine Pass. The plan of invasion is sound, but monumentally mismanaged. Four of the flanking gunboats are to steam up the pass at speed and draw the fire of the fort, two in each channel, a tactic which had been used successfully in subduing the defensive fortifications of Mobile and New Orleans prior to this. This time, however, Dowling’s artillery drills pay off as the Confederates pour a rapid and withering fire onto the incoming gunboats, disabling and capturing two, while the others retreat in disarray. The rest of the flotilla retreats from the mouth of the pass and returns ignominiously to New Orleans, leaving the disabled ships with no option but to surrender to Dowling. With a command of just 47 men, Dowling had thwarted an attempted invasion of Texas, in the process capturing two gunboats, some 350 prisoners and a large quantity of supplies and munitions.

The Confederate government offers its gratitude and admiration to Dowling, now promoted to Major, and his unit, as a result of their battlefield prowess. In gratitude, the ladies of Houston present the unit with specially struck medals, which are actually Mexican eight reale coins with both faces sanded down and inscribed “Sabine Pass, 1864” on one side and a Maltese cross with the letters D and G on the other. Because of the official recognition given to the action, it is now accepted that these Davis Guard Medals are the only medals of honor issued by the Confederate government, and consequently are collector’s items today.

After the battle of Sabine Pass Dowling is elevated to hero status in his hometown of Houston. He subsequently serves as a recruiter for the Confederacy and is personally commended for his action at the battle by Jefferson Davis. After the war he returns to his saloon business and quickly becomes one of the city’s leading businessmen.

Dowling’s promising future is cut short by another yellow fever epidemic which devastates Houston in the late summer of 1867, and he dies on September 23, 1867. He is buried at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Houston.


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Birth of Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne

patrick-ronayne-cleburnePatrick Ronayne Cleburne, called the “Stonewall of the West” and one of the finest generals produced by either side during the American Civil War is born on March 17, 1828 at Bride Park Cottage in Ovens, County Cork, just outside Cork City.

Born on St. Patrick’s Day, this native Irishman is nevertheless extremely loyal to his adopted country, saying, “if this [Confederacy] that is so dear to my heart is doomed to fail, I pray heaven may let me fall with it, while my face is toward the enemy and my arm battling for that which I know to be right.” Sadly, Cleburne ultimately receives his wish.

Cleburne begins his military career in an unlikely manner. When he fails the entrance exam at Trinity College, Dublin, he cannot face his family. He enlists in the 41st Regiment of Foot in the British Army. In 1849 he purchases his discharge and leaves for the United States, eventually settling in Helena, Arkansas in June 1850 and earning his citizenship in 1855. He loves his new country, taking part in many community projects, and even being one of the few volunteers to care for the sick during a yellow fever outbreak.

In January 1861 Cleburne joins the local militia company, the Yell Rifles.  He leads the company in the seizure of the U.S. Arsenal in Little Rock in January 1861. When Arkansas left the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Infantry Regiment. By fall of 1861 he has risen to command the 2nd Brigade, Hardee’s Division, in the Army of Central Kentucky. His first major battle is at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862. At the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky) in August 1862, he is wounded in the mouth and loses several of his teeth. Still, he earns the thanks of the Confederate States Congress for his actions there. During the October 1862 Battle of Perryville he is wounded again – twice, yet stays in command during the battle. In December 1862 he is promoted to Major General.

At the December 1862 Battle of Stones River, Cleburne and his division earn the praise of General Braxton Bragg for their incredible skill and valor. Cleburne’s actions and character play a large role in his men’s determination during battle.

In 1863 Cleburne faces off against Union General George Henry Thomas at the Battle of Chickamauga. His and General John C. Breckinridge’s assaults force General Thomas to call repeatedly for reinforcements. In November 1863 the Confederate army is forced to retreat after the Chattanooga Campaign. However, Cleburne has defeated every assault against his men eventually charging his attackers. After the battle, he and his men are charged with covering the retreat.

On January 2, 1864, Cleburne makes his most controversial decision ever. He gathers the corps and division commanders in the Army of Tennessee to present his proposal. The Confederacy is unable to fill its ranks due to a lack of manpower. He states that slavery is their “most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.” His proposed solution is for the Confederacy to arm slaves to fight in the army. In time, these soldiers would receive their freedom. The proposal is not well received at all. In fact, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, directs that the proposal be suppressed.

In the spring of 1864 the Army of Tennessee moves towards Atlanta, Georgia. Cleburne and his men fight at Dalton, Tunnel Hill, Resaca, Pickett’s Mill, Ringgold and Kennesaw. The Atlanta Campaign begins in the summer and lasts until September, when General John Bell Hood evacuates Atlanta. Hood had taken command from General Joseph E. Johnston, which Cleburne felt to be a disaster for the Confederacy.

General Hood hopes to stop Union General John Schofield and his men before they can reach Nashville to reinforce General Thomas. Due to poor communications and nightfall, Schofield slips past the Army of Tennessee into Franklin.

The November 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin is a tragic loss for the Confederacy. Hood throws his men into well-fortified Union troops. The results are disastrous. About 6,000 men are killed or wounded including six generals who are killed or mortally wounded. Cleburne is one of these six, killed while attacking Union breastworks. He is last seen advancing on foot toward the Union line with his sword raised, after his horse had been shot out from under him. Accounts later say that he is found just inside the Federal line and his body is carried back to an aid station along the Columbia Turnpike. Confederate war records indicate he died of a shot to the abdomen, or possibly a bullet that went through his heart. When Confederates find his body, he has been picked clean of any valuable items, including his sword, boots and pocket watch.

Cleburne’s remains are first laid to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. At the urging of Army Chaplain Biship Quintard, Judge Mangum, staff officer to Cleburne and his law partner in Helena, his remains are moved to St. John’s Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, where they remain for six years. In 1870, he is disinterred and returned to his adopted hometown of Helena, Arkansas, with much fanfare, and buried in the Helena Confederate Cemetery located in the southwest corner of the Maple Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River.

Several geographic features are named after Patrick Cleburne, including Cleburne County in Alabama and Arkansas, and the city of Cleburne, Texas. The Patrick R. Cleburne Confederate Cemetery is a memorial cemetery in Jonesboro, Georgia that is named in honor of General Patrick Cleburne.