The Civil War began in Texas in early 1861 when the Constitution of the Confederacy was ratified by Texas and the first two Houston units, the Bayou Guards and the Here We Are Guards, started drilling daily. By the end of April 500 Houstonians were enlisted in various Confederate units and by August 14 there were nine companies from Harris County in the Confederate Army stationed at several garrisons in Texas and other parts of the Confederacy.
Still, by the end of 1861, traffic on Buffalo Bayou, an all-important route for shipping goods to and from the coast, was affected due to a Federal blockade at Galveston. Merchants began warning inland planters not to ship cotton to Houston in the event Galveston fell Houston might be next and every bale of cotton would be burned. Houstonians became creative as supplies coming up the Bayou dwindled. Dried okra was substituted for coffee, castor oil was used for lamps, and wrapping paper was used for stationary. By December, newspapers were even being printed on brown wrapping paper.
Houstonians made preparations for the inevitable invasion. Many buildings along Buffalo Bayou in Houston were adapted for Civil War use. John Kennedy leased his two-story brick building on Travis Street, just north of Congress Ave., to the Confederacy for an ordnance depot. In May, the unfinished courthouse in Houston was converted into a cartridge factory. Alexander McGowan’s Foundry on Preston Avenue was working on Confederate government contracts. Other public buildings were rented out as hospitals for patients who had been evacuated from Galveston. Old houses and warehouses were torn down to provide firewood for the City of Houston as the war went on.
On Christmas Day, 1862, an unusual sight was taking place on Buffalo Bayou at the foot of Main Street. The Steamboats Neptune and Bayou City were taking on cotton. However, as the decks were being lined with large bales of cotton, the prows were being fitted with barbed bowsprits to ram the enemy. The boats appeared to be regular Galveston-bound freighters shipping cotton, but artillerymen and sharpshooters hid behind the bales … and right behind the freighters were the packets Lucy Gwinn and John F. Carr loaded with infantrymen. Houston was going on the offensive!
The Civil War battle between the “cottonclads” Neptune and Bayou City and the U.S. gunboat Harriet Lane took place on New Year’s Eve 1862 in Galveston Bay. On January 2, 1863, news reached Houston that the Neptune had been sunk but the Bayou City had rammed and captured the Harriet Lane. The federal flagship The Westfield also ran aground during the battle. Several hundred prisoners from the two ships were in Confederate hands.
The tri-weekly Telegraph reported on January 2 that the Civil War battle would go down in history as one of the most brilliant of the war considering “that the enemy was in terrible gunboats and were challenged by a couple of bayou boats fitted up for the occasion!”
After the battle, the victorious Bayou City returned up Buffalo Bayou to Houston flying a bat of cotton above the Harriet Lane’s ensign at her masthead and was greeted at Main Street by a flotilla of “cottonclad” bayou boats. About 350 Federal prisoners were marched down Main Street and interred in a warehouse located on the site of today’s downtown campus of the University of Houston on the north side of the Bayou.
The safety of the city was further insured on September 8, 1863 when Houston’s Davis Guards, made up mostly of Irish-Texans, engaged the enemy at Sabine Pass. Dick Dowling, owner of the Bank of Bacchus saloon at Main St. and Congress Ave., and his 47 Irishmen manned the six guns that repulsed an attack of four Federal gunboats and the landing of 4,000 northern troops. The result was the capture of the Sachem, the Clifton and many federal prisoners. The heroism of the men in Dick Dowling’s company was praised and those high in the Confederate command said that if the battle of Sabine Pass had been lost to the Federals, Texas would undoubtedly have been taken and Houston could not have escaped capture.
After Sabine Pass, the Federals made no major attacks on the coast. Thanks in large measure to the efforts of the “cottonclads” on Buffalo Bayou and the heroism of Houston soldiers like Dick Dowling and his men, Houston was never invaded during the Civil War or seriously threatened. On the contrary, the city became the most important highway for overland trade with the Rio Grande.
A statue honoring Dick Dowling stands in Hermann Park, a fitting tribute to Houston’s most famous Irishman and a true Civil War hero. He died during a yellow fever epidemic shortly after the Civil War ended and was buried in St. Vincent’s cemetery. Tuam Street is named in honor of his birthplace in Ireland.
1. Photo: U of H Downtown Campus in the former M & M Building which is built on the site of the Allen Warehouse.
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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2002