By Bob Hurst
During the latter part of 1859 and into 1860, when it became obvious that war between the North and the South was inevitable, there was a popular saying in the South that one Confederate was worth 10 yankees. Part of the reason for this expression was psychological and was meant to convince Southerners that Southern boys and men were so superior to their northern counterparts that, despite the northern advantage in population,resources and industrialization, the war would be quickly over and a Southern victory was assured. Many people in the South truly believed that Southern boys, taught at an early age to shoot and hunt, were simply better equipped for the rigors of war than those boys from up north who had, for the most part, been raised in towns and cities,
I first heard this 10 to 1 comparison when I was young and just starting to learn about the War. I believed the statement to a degree but was a bit skeptical that the 10 to 1 ratio was truly factual. I later learned, though, of one truly amazing Blue/Gray encounter that indicated that just possibly one Confederate was worth at least 120 yankees.
This remarkable clash was the Battle of Sabine Pass.
The Sabine Pass was a watery expanse that divided Texas from Louisiana. Fort Griffin had been built adjacent to the Pass to impede any advance of enemy vessels that might have their sights on invading Texas.
On the night of September 6, 1863 there were 42 Confederates manning Ft. Griffin when lights were spotted near the lighthouse across the water on the Louisiana shore. The Confederates manned their guns (all six of them) throughout the night but the lights came no closer. The next day, September 7, Confederate observers were able to identify 22 different Federal vessels approaching the Pass from the direction of the Gulf of Mexico.
The commanding officer at Ft. Griffin was 1st Lieutenant Richard William Dowling. Dick Dowling was of Irish descent as were most of the troops stationed at this small post. Dowling notified General John Magruder, commander of the department that included Ft. Griffin, of the situation and received a response from Magruder that Dowling might consider spiking his guns and blowing up the fort in the face of such an overwhelming enemy presence.
Dowling polled his men as to their wishes concerning this option offered by Gen. Magruder and, to a man, their response was to stay the course and fight. These Texans were cut from the same cloth as the 188 heroes who had defended the Alamo against a Mexican army of over 3000 troops.
The attack on Ft. Griffin began on the morning of September 8. A Federal gunship, the CLIFTON, began a bombardment of the small fort. Lt. Dowling realized the ship was out of range of his smaller guns and ordered his men not to fire until he fired the first shot.
The two channels at Sabine Pass were shallow and well-marked with buoys and stakes and the gunmen at the fort had taken much target practice firing at these markers so Dowling knew precisely when their cannon fire would be most effective.
After bombarding the fort for a while and receiving no return fire, the CLIFTON withdrew only to return mid-afternoon with three other Federal gunships - the SACHEM, the ARIZONA and the GRANITE CITY. The Federals started their bombardment of Ft. Griffin at about 2000 yards which was out of range for the smaller guns at the fort. Lt. Dowling continued to encourage his men, all wanting to fire back, that they would return fire when the time was right.
When the lead ship, the SACHEM, reached the 1200 yard mark, Dowling fired the first shot and the other guns quickly joined in. What happened over the next 45 minutes was simply amazing and gave birth to many tales of Texas and Confederate lore.
In quick succession the SACHEM, the ARIZONA and the CLIFTON were ripped apart by the accurate fire of the few cannon of Ft. Griffin. Panicked Federal troops began abandoning ship to escape the exploding boilers of their own ships and the devastating fire of the Confederates. White flags went up on what remained of the masts of the crippled ships. Boats were sent out by the Confederates to rescue and take prisoner the yankee troops floundering around in the water of the Pass and the nearby marshes.
Of even greater significance was the action taken by the 22 transport ships which had been observing the destruction of their gunship escort by the guns of the small fort. In a state of panic they began dumping anything that could be dumped to lessen their draft and facilitate a fast escape. For fifteen miles the beach was strewn with discarded wagons, food supplies, equipment and even horses and mules.
What this small band of Texans had done was simply breathtaking. They had captured two gunships and disabled a third while taking 350 prisoners. There had been more than 400 Union casualties including 56 killed. All of this was accomplished without a single serious injury being suffered by the Confederates. More importantly, this small band of 42 Rebels forced an enemy invasion force of more than 5000 infantry troops on board the transport ships to flee thus thwarting a planned invasion of Texas.
These invading yankees learned what so many other people know, you don't mess with Texas.
Gen. Magruder characterized the battle as "the most extraordinary feat of the War". President Jefferson Davis went even further saying the achievement was "without parallel in ancient or modern war". The Confederate Congress issued an official resolution of thanks to the troops of Ft. Griffin in which their actions were described as "one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements in the history of this war".
Truly the Battle of Sabine Pass is one of the most remarkable in the annals of war.
There was a movie in recent years entitled "300" about the heroic stand taken by 300 Spartans at Thermopylae who (in actuality accompanied by 6000 allies) fought to the death in an attempt to hold off a Persian army of more than 200,000 troops. The bravery of these Spartans was remarkable and truly deserved recognition. Sabine Pass has sometimes been called " the Thermopylae of the Confederacy". I disagree. The big difference to me is that at Sabine Pass the good guys WON and did so without suffering a single casualty.
How about a movie entitled "42" commemorating this great victory and raising Dick Dowling to the level of Leonidas. Sounds like a winner to me but in these politically-correct times I'm not holding my breath waiting for it to happen.
Speaking of remarkable victories, less than a month ago the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge was held at Natural Bridge Park. Here in upper Florida this battle has great significance to we-the-people (at least the Confederate kind) since the Southern victory allowed Tallahassee to be the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River to not be taken by invading northern forces.
As I wrote last year in this column, a disagreeable element to many had been allowed into the re-enactment. For two consecutive years a "Frederick Douglass" impersonator (re-enactor ?) had been allowed to give about a 20 minute oration to the large, assembled crowd immediately before the battle re-enactment on Sunday afternoon. In this setting he had a captive audience since no one who had secured a seat in the stands was about to give it up right before the skirmish was set to begin. Since Frederick Douglass was not within a thousand miles of Natural Bridge at the time of the actual battle, many felt he had no place at the re-enactment. After all, a re-enactment is supposed to be a re-enactment.
After the battle re-enactment had ended last year, a group of people (some from as far away as Chattahoochee and Marianna) approached me and asked what could be done about this. They, and other people who subsequently emailed me about this situation, were disturbed about the inclusion of "Frederick Douglass" in the event. Some of the re-enactors expressed similar sentiments to me.
I spoke with Barry Burch, the park manager at Natural Bridge, about this discontent of many of the supporters of the event. I am happy to write that at this year's Natural Bridge re-enactment there was no "Frederick Douglass" presentation to a captive audience on Sunday afternoon immediately before the skirmish began. Barry and the other decision-makers for the park events still allowed this person to speak but his presentation was given on Saturday afternoon at 12:30 in a tent set up in the suttlers section of the park. I think this was a good resolution to the situation as those people who wished to hear his oration could choose to attend on Saturday and the many others who thought it inappropriate for him to be at the battle on Sunday did not have to sit through his performance.
Job well done, Barry! Kudos to you and the other parties who make Natural Bridge such a success each year.
DEO VINDICEBob Hurst is a Southern Patriot who belongs to a number of historical, heritage and ideological organizations. He has a particular interest in Confederate and Southern history and Old South antebellum architecture. He is also Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. He can be contacted at