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Biography of Richard William Dowling

by Micheal McGreevy

The young commander of Fort Griffin during the 1863 Battle of Sabine Pass, Richard William Dowling, was born near Tuam, County Galway, Ireland in July of 1838. In 1846, the Dowling ( originally O'Dowling ) family, fleeing poverty and hoping for a better life, sailed for America and took up residence in New Orleans.

In 1853, a yellow fever epidemic claimed Dowling's mother and father. Four of the five children moved to Texas and eventually settled in Houston around 1855. Young Dick Dowling was soon to make a name for himself. By the age of ninteen, grown handsome and charismatic, Dowling opened a two-story salloon and billiards parlor on Main Street. Due to his progressive business practices, "The Shades" was very successful. In 1860, he sold his interests in it, invested in a Galveston liquor importing business, and opened the "Bank of Bacchus" saloon on Courthouse Square. He also operated an informal finance and pawn brokerage on the premises, cashing checks and making loans. Dowling soon came into possession of his third public house,"Hudgepeth's Bathing Saloon", as a result of a debt owed him.

Dowling often tended bar at his various establishments and enjoyed inventing new cocktails. He was jovial and popular and was respected in the community. He held membership in several civic organizations and a Houston volunteer fire company. In 1859, he joined a local militia company, the Houston Light Artillery. When this unit disbanded in 1860, many of its members organized the Davis Guard, named for US Senator Jefferson Davis.

The all-Irish Davis Guard was mustered into Confederate service as an independant infantry company. It was commanded by Captain Fred Odlum, his wife's uncle, and Dowling was appointed first-lieutenant. In February of 1861, the Davis Guard was sent to Galveston and combined with other com- panies under the command of Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford. This force then sailed to Brownsville to take over the federal garrisons on the Mexican Border. During this time, disputes broke out between Ford and Odlum over the treatment of his men, and, amid claims of discrimination against Irish-Catholics, the Davis Guard returned to Houston in late March of 1861.

In October of 1861, the Guard was assigned to Company F, Third Texas Artillery Battalion and manned the big seacoast guns around Galveston. A year later they were reassigned as Company F, First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment, and were trained personally by Colonel Joseph J. Cook. The Irish volunteers learned their lessons well, becoming crack artillerists.

On the first day of 1863, Dowling and his comrades were designated as the first wave in an assault on the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry and a four gun battery of the Second Vermont Artillery barricaded on Kuhn's Warf during the Battle of Galveston. The Davis Guard waded out to the warf under heavy fire, but the attack was unsuccessful because their scaling ladders were too short. There were four casualties, including one fatality.

Upon the recapture of Galveston by the Confederates, the Davis Guard was sent to Fort Griffin, a timber-shored earthwork on the low muddy banks of Sabine Pass, where the Neches and Sabine Rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico. A few days after their arrival, the guard was ordered to serve as gunners on board two cotton-clad steamers sent out to attack two Federal blockaders that were menacing local shipping.

Dowling and a picked crew manned the 8-inch Columbiad on Board the CSS Josiah H. Bell as it steamed out accompanied by the CSS Uncle Ben. A twenty mile running artillery duel ensued, ending with the capture of the USS Velocity, the USS Morning Light, and their cargoes of much needed supplies.

The Davis Guard spent the next several months improving the fortifications at Fort Griffin and at drill. Armaments at the fort were obsolete; two 32-pounder smoothbores, two 24-pounder smoothbores, and two 32-pounder howitzers, but the boys became so proficient, that their fire could dominate the entire two- thousand yard width of the pass.This became painfully apparent to the Federals during the September 8th Battle of Sabine Pass. Capt. Odlum had been assigned as district commander in Sabine City, and First-Lieutenant Dick Dowling, now twenty-five years of age, was in command of a garrison of less than fifty men when the United States launched the twenty- two ship invasion fleet from New Orleans. On board were five-thousand soldiers, sailors, and marines, plus enough livestock, munitions, and equipment for the capture and occupation of Texas. Of course, the result was a miraculous Confederate victory yielding two Union gunboats and three hundred and fifty prisoners.

Dowling was promoted to major and spent the remainder of the war as a traveling celebrity recruiting troops for the State of Texas. When the war ended in 1865, Major Dowling was paroled by Federal authorities , and he returned to his business enterprises in Houston. The Bank of Bacchus became one of the favorite meeting places for veterans of the war. Despite hard times in the South, Dowling's ventures flourished. By 1867, he had expanded into Houston real estate, South Texas farm land, a bonded warehouse in Galveston, a construction company, a Trinity River steamboat, and oil and gas leases in three counties.

Unfortunately, the disease that took his parents came for their son in 1867. He contracted yellow fever and died on September 23rd at age twenty-nine. He was carried to his final resting place in St. Vincent's Cemetery by his Houston Hook and Ladder Company while a soft rain fell and thousands of hushed Texans lined the streets. Many public works and schools have been named for him in Southeast Texas. Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #1295 in Beaumont and Camp #1305 in Houston are named for him, as well as United Daughters of the Confederacy Chapter #404 in Beaumont.


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