Drumbeat for Civil War

Indianola sat on the middle Texas coast––a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. The vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north in the rich bottomlands of Texas’ rivers. The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and despite the law against freedmen living in the state without Congressional approval, they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off. However, the arrival of a gentleman who was accused of being an abolitionist prompted city authorities to force him onto an outbound ship and appoint a “vigilance committee,” to maintain order.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

The news of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas. Residents threw caution aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade. An owner of one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas. Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candles or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. A judge gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action. Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens. While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution. After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with the support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood. The dye was cast.

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Texas in the Civil War, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede. First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor. Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores. Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered. But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual. The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition. The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic. Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

My award-winning book includes this story. STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA has just been republished by Sunstone Press. The cover image is of Union troops in the streets of Indianola, a wood engraving by Thomas Nast published in the New York Illustrated

From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

News, April 6, 1861.

Houston’s Civil War Hero

A handsome, redheaded Irish saloonkeeper lead a group of forty-six Irish dockworkers in a Civil War battle that Jefferson Davis called the most amazing feat in military history.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Richard “Dick” Dowling, owner of three popular Houston saloons, joined the Davis Guards, and soon became the company’s first lieutenant.  After gaining a reputation for its artillery skills in the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates regained control of the island, Dowling’s company was assigned to Fort Griffin, a nondescript post at the mouth of Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border.

Dick Dowling

The twenty-five-year-old Dowling showed leadership beyond his years by keeping his rowdy men occupied with artillery practice—firing the fort’s six cannons at colored stakes placed on both sides of a shell reef that ran down the middle of the pass dividing it into two channels.  The east side of the passage led along the Louisiana border and the west paralleled the earthen embankment of Fort Griffin.

Battle of Sabine Pass

On September 8, 1863, Dowling’s Company F watched a Union navy flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men approach the pass.  Waiting until the first two gunboats entered the parallel channels, the little band of forty-six Irishmen opened fire with all six cannons, striking the boiler and exploding the USS Sanchem on the Louisiana coast and then striking the steering cables of the USS Clifton on the Texas side of the pass.  With both channels blocked by disabled ships, the Union force sailed away.

USS Clifton on left, USS Sanchem on right

In less than one hour Dowling’s men captured both Union vessels, killed nineteen, wounded nine, and took 350 prisoners without suffering a single casualty.

Dick Dowling rose to the rank of major before the end of the war and he returned to Houston as its hero, hailed as the man who stopped federal forces from coming ashore and marching westward to capture Houston and Galveston.  Jefferson Davis presented a personal commendation, calling the Sabine Pass Battle the “Thermopylae of the Confederacy.”  The ladies of Houston presented Dowling’s unit with medals made from Mexican coins smoothed down and inscribed on one side with “Sabine Pass, 1863.”

Medal inscribed on Mexican Coin “Sabine Pass, Sept 8th 1863”

Dowling claimed genuine Irish roots.  Born in County Galway, Ireland in 1838, he moved with his parents and six siblings to New Orleans to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845.  Orphaned by the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic that took the lives of his parents and four siblings, Dowling finally made his way to Houston and within four years opened his first saloon.

By 1860, the mustached Irishman with a good sense of humor owned three saloons; the most popular, called “The Bank,” sat on the square with the Harris County Courthouse and became Houston’s social gathering place.  Dowling also immersed himself in Houston’s business community–investing in local property, helping set up Houston’s first gaslight company, and installing gaslights in his home and in “The Bank.”  He helped found Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company fire department and the city’s first streetcar company.

After the war, Dowling returned to his earlier business interests and expanded into real estate, oil and gas leases, and ownership of a steamboat.  Unfortunately the 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which swept across Texas from the Gulf coast, ended Dowling’s life on September 23, 1867.

Survived by his wife Elizabeth Ann Odlum and two children Mary Ann and Felize “Richard” Sabine, Dowling was honored by the city of Houston’s first public monument, which stands today in Hermann Park.

Dowling Monument