Conquer or Perish: Texans in a Fight


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There are so many stories of Texan courage in battle that a book about them would need sequel after sequel. In my last article on Texans in battle you heard tell of Audie Murphy of Hunt County, Texas, the most decorated soldier of World War II.  Well, let’s not forget fellow Texan Edward Keene, the only man in World War I to earn all three of the Army’s top medals:  Congressional Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star (twice).

Not to mention seven Purple Hearts.  Yep, that’s right, seven.  The man was not a quitter.

Heck, even the French got in on the act with four awards of valor, including its top medal (personally pinned on by the head of the French Army, Field Marshall Koch).  Oh yeah, I almost forgot:  two more countries were also busy making Keene’s dress uniform heavier, something I am not altogether sure a Texan really appreciates.  One can just imagine this fellow from Crockett, Texas, wondering what the fuss was all about.  After all, it was just family tradition:  his great grandfather had started it by participating in the Texas revolution.

Speaking of the Texas revolution, last time I happened to mention about the Alamo fighting ’til the last man fell.  Well, a month later Sam Houston’s Army of the Texas Republic was carrying on the Texas battle for independence.  Santa Anna’s Mexican army was pursuing Houston and his men, feeling pretty sure of themselves.  But the Texans got fed up with this, and Houston sent a few men to destroy a bridge that would have been Santa Anna’s only escape.  Then the outnumbered Texans lined up for the Battle of San Jacinto. 

Houston ordered the advance, and shouts of “Remember the Alamo” were heard.  The battle took 18 minutes.  630 of Santa Anna’s men were killed, another 730 captured.  The Texans lost nine men killed and 30 wounded (one of them Houston, who also had two horses shot out from underneath him).  The next morning Santa Anna was found hiding in the grass, dressed as a common foot soldier.

It does not pay to get overconfident when you are attacking Texas.

That battle changed everything, and shortly one million square miles were free and independent.  Of course, this is a blog about the Confederacy, so I guess I better get down to business.  Many Civil War stories come to mind, but let’s cover one that happened in Texas itself.

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Union Gunboat Mendota

It was 1863, and the Yankees were pretty much having their way along the Texas coast.  Union gunboats were a real threat to the Texas interior because of the rivers that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.  The commander of Confederate forces in Texas, General Magruder, quickly got a fort built at one of these vulnerable points:  Sabine Pass, where two rivers empty into the Gulf.  To man the fort Magruder sent the 42 men of the Davis Guards, an artillery unit.

These fellows of the Davis Guards had a bit of a reputation.  Seems they liked their drink, enjoyed a good brawl, and were not the model of respectability that some thought they ought to be.  These were Irish-Texans, after all, and I might as well confess the rest:  their commander, Dick Dowling, was a saloon owner, and a lot of the men in his unit were his customers.

A rowdy lot, indeed.  In fact, the Davis Guards had been ordered disbanded, but battle-hardened Gen. Magruder reversed that order.   He knew that while it might be ideal that a fellow was a fighter and a gentleman, it was not the manners of men that won battles.

Well, the brawlers of the Davis Guards settled into the fort and took up target practice with their cannons.  Good thing, too, because it was not long before four Union gunboats appeared, escorting a bunch of troop transports up the river – a total of 5000 Federals.  The fort was not supposed to be much of a challenge to this force.

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Richard W. Dowling

The Texans sent a telegraph up to headquarters, but there was no way to get reinforcements in time.  The situation appeared hopeless, so top command ordered the Guards to destroy the fort and retreat.  But the way the order finally arrived to Dowling was that they had permission to retreat.  Dowling talked it over with his men and they decided to fight.  After all, it was just a few thousand of ‘em.

Dowling had most of his men hide below as the enemy approached, making the Federals overconfident – and we already know that’s a mistake when facing a Texan aiming to fight.

The gunboats started firing, the fort taking hits.  When the first gunboat got within 1000 yards, Dowling scrambled his men onto the battlements, and they opened fire.  One thing led to another, and the Texans blasted two of the gunboats, two vessels got grounded, and the whole thing was a mess for the attackers.  Most of the Union force withdrew, and two boats surrendered.

Now this surrender was a problem for Dowling. He did not need hundreds of prisoners to march up to the gunboatfort, only to discover he had but a few dozen men.  So Dowling waded out into the river to accept the Union surrender and arrange for their custody without risk to the fort.

The Texans had defeated an overwhelming force and taken no casualties, probably the most lopsided victory of the war.  And stopped an invasion to boot.

The consequences to the Union were disastrous.  If the federals had managed to land a force of thousands then the Texan heartland would have been at serious risk.  Instead, this Confederate victory made sure that the Union never got a foothold on the Texan interior, the only state to be able to make that claim.

Forty-two Texans can sure make a statement.

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