In the Soldiers & Chiefs Exhibition in Collins Barracks, Dublin, the American Civil War section has a helpful panel which informs us that the majority of the Irish fought on the Union side and this is so. Nevertheless the Irish produced some five generals and forty-four thousand soldiers for the Confederacy, proportionately a better response than in the North. One reason may be that the Irish experienced less prejudice in the South than in the Union.
One of the naval officers who assisted in the Union’s blockade of the Southern ports was Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, son of Prof. Hart Mahan of West Point, who was military adviser to Abraham Lincoln. The Admiral and the Professor were grand-son and son respectively of parents who emigrated from Co Clare in 1800.
Admiral Mahan was later was to write one of the great tracts on naval strategy: “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History”. His theories had a profound influence and gave rise to the expansion of the US Navy to being the most powerful in the world by the beginning of World War II.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary stories of the Irish in the American Civil War occurred during the blockade. The blockade was intensified by the Union when it attempted to seize Sabine City, West of Houston. Close to the city near the Gulf of Mexico the Confederacy had established an earthen fort called Fort Griffin. The Fort was manned by a heavy artillery detachment of the Davis Guards.
All Irishmen, the detachment comprised 46 gunners manning six guns and commanded by Lieut. Dick Dowling. Dowling from Tuam, Co Galway had been despatched as a pre-teen to the US. By the time of the Civil War he had become a successful businessman in Houston.
On the 8th Sept 1863, U.S. Navy Lieut Crocker entered the Sabine River with four gunboats, accompanied by eighteen troop transports containing 5,000 Federal infantrymen. The gunboats began firing on the fort as they steamed forward. Under the direction of Dowling the cannoneers emerged to man their guns as the ships came within range.
One shot hit the boiler of the Sachem, which exploded, leaving the gunboat disabled. The Arizona could not pass the Sachem and withdrew from the action. The Clifton pressed on up the channel near the Texas shore until a shot from the fort cut away its tiller rope causing it to run aground. Another projectile struck the boiler of the Clifton forcing its abandonment. The Granite City turned back thus ending the federal assault.
The Davis Guards had fired their six cannon 107 times in thirty-five minutes, a rate of fire was far more rapid than the standard for heavy artillery. Perhaps for this reason it took 36 hours to elapse before the guns were cool enough to be swabbed out! The Confederates captured 300 Union prisoners and two gunboats, the rest of their force having retreated. The Davis Guards, who suffered no casualties during the battle, received the thanks of the Confederate Congress for their victory.