Saturday, November 19, 2005

Cotham: "Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae"

[Sabine Pass : The Confederacy's Thermopylae by Edward T. Cotham. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004. Pp. 245, $21.95, Softcover, photos, maps, appendices, notes. ISBN 0-292-70603-0)]

On September 8, 1863 and handful of men occupying a mud fort under the command of Richard W. “Dick” Dowling turned back a massive U.S. invasion fleet at Sabine Pass and saved Texas, in the process becoming almost mythical heroes. The myth stretches the truth a bit but it is close to reality, a reality that is wonderfully recreated in Edward Cotham’s new book Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae. According to Cotham, Fort Griffin was not a simple mud fort but rather a well engineered and modern earthwork fort. The number of men (an understrength artillery company called the Davis Guards) manning the work was indeed small but entirely adequate for the task of firing the fort’s six antiquated guns. Although the Union fleet was large (22 ships) only four unarmored shallow draft steamers converted to gunboats were able to cross the bar and contribute to the attack. Seeing the naval attack end in disaster, the invasion’s advance army contingent of 5,000 men did not even land. Nevertheless, the Confederate victory was a stunning achievement.

Sabine Pass is an entertainingly written and extraordinarily well-researched and balanced account of this ship-to-shore battle. The author’s analysis of the actions of the participants is insightful and fair. Engineering officers rarely get their due and two foreign-born Confederate engineers (a Pole and a Swiss) are lauded here for their excellent design and construction of Fort Griffin.

In addition to the blow by blow battle history, the legacy of Sabine Pass in the hearts and minds of the area’s inhabitants and the Confederate populace in general is discussed. Monuments to the defenders were plentiful (at least six by the author’s count) and interestingly enough no two monuments have the same names and/or numbers of names inscribed upon them. As an appendix, Cotham weighs in on the controversy and provides an annotated list of Davis Guard participants compiled from his own research. Dick Dowling’s after action report and a list of Union casualties are also included.

Edward Cotham has written a first-rate history that deserves to be more widely read than it predictably will. The Battle of Sabine Pass is unfortunately little known outside of Texas and Cotham’s worthy addition to the literature will hopefully serve to raise the general level of awareness of this remarkable battle and the men who fought it.

(Reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer and reprinted with Permission from North & South Magazine. Originally published in Vol. 8 #2, pg. 89)

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