September 8, 1863 (Tuesday)
Following the surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Union General Nathaniel Banks believed that the next logical move would be against Mobile, Alabama. His force, consisting at the time of only the XIX Corps, was based out of New Orleans. The problem was that July and August saw the expiration of service for thirty or so of his regiments. Conscription was filling in some of the gaps, but he needed more men.
According to Washington, however, he also needed a better plan. Both President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had their mind set on Texas, but for some fairly unexpected reasons. A few days back, Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, Kirby Smith, had tried to convince France to help out the Southern Cause by protecting the Mexican border (and thus opening up and defending shipping lanes against the Federal blockade). France had recently moved into Mexico and Smith thought it a fine way to persuade Napoleon III to pitch in for the Confederacy.
As it turned out, not only was Lincoln concerned with this, he was also afraid that France might try to retake Texas for Mexico (something that the South – or at least Kirby Smith – seemed not to consider). France’s incursion into Mexico violated the Monroe Doctrine, but the Confederacy offered to overlook it in exchange for some ships. In order to nip this whole thing in the bud and reestablish a Union presence in the Lone Star State, Lincoln and Halleck called upon Banks to wrest Texas from Jeff Davis’ hands.
Lincoln, Halleck and Banks each had their own ideas for how this could be accomplished. Lincoln probably thought west Texas would be a good place to start, since it would impress both the South and France, but ultimately deferred to Halleck, who believed entering Texas via the Red River Valley and Louisiana was the way to go. Banks, however, had already dealt with the Red River and seemed little interested in going back so soon. Besides, the summer water levels were too low to allow safe passage. Banks also could have argued that the Red River route would involve a potentially costly overland campaign. While it would secure eastern Texas, it was so far away from the Mexican border that France wouldn’t bat an eye.
And so Banks set his own mind to Galveston and Houston. It certainly wasn’t western Texas, but it was much closer to Mexico than the Red River Valley. On the surface, Banks’ plan seemed fairly contrived and ridiculous. Since he figured that the Rebels were already expecting an attack upon Galveston from the sea, he would take his men up Sabine Pass and hit Beaumont, just off the coast and eighty miles east of Houston. To assist him, he would have four Navy gunboats to protect the transport ships. From Beaumont, and by rail, the Army of the Gulf would strike both Houston and Galveston. The area Confederate troops under John Bankhead Magruder, stationed forty miles farther east at Niblett’s Bluff, would hardly expect it and were so far away that they couldn’t contest it anyway.
In fact, the only Rebels Banks’ army would have to deal with were the small artillery crew that manned the six gun battery at Sabine Pass – this amounted to less than fifty men. Banks’ had 5,000, plus the gunboats. He expected this to all end very well. It, of course, did not.
Late on the night of the 6th, the Federal fleet gathered and the Rebels took notice. Lt. Richard Dowling, who commanded the Confederate fort, wired General Magruder explaining the situation. Magruder soon replied, suggesting that Dowling spike the guns and abandon the fort. But Dowling was of a different mind. He wanted to stay and defend his fort. Over the 7th, he and his men built up the fort and ranged their pieces. At dawn of this date, the Federal gunboats began their bombardment in preparation for the landing.
Through it all, the Rebels held their fire. They knew the capabilities of their guns and to fire now would be a shameful waste of ammunition. Around 3pm, the Federals ceased their fire and steamed toward Sabine Pass itself. They would have to pass by the Confederate fort which had been silent all day. When the lead boat reached 400 yards, however, Lt. Dowling ordered his guns to fire.
The Rebel artillery was shockingly accurate. The crews worked like machines, applying the sciences of artillery to the art of war. After only forty-five minutes, two of the gunboats had been disabled and surrendered with their crews, while the other two made a break for it. The Rebels took no casualties whatsoever.
The Federals quietly limped back to New Orleans, while the entire Confederacy celebrated. General Banks would shortly give up his Sabine Pass idea in favor of something that looked a bit more like Halleck’s original plan. Meanwhile, General Magruder, expecting another Federal attack, called upon Kirby Smith for reinforcements, but Smith had no designs at all for taking troops out of Louisiana. Smith was finding that no matter where he placed his men, through Texas, Louisiana, or Arkansas, he simply had too few to stop the Federal offensives.1
- Sources: Kirby Smiths’ Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr. [↩]