Houston 101: The Short Happy Life of Dick Dowling
Aside from the city's namesake, no 19th-Century Houstonian was more famous than Dick Dowling, the Irish-born saloonkeeper / businessman and Confederate war hero. In fact, when city leaders commissioned Houston's very first public monument in 1905, it was Dowling and not Sam Houston who got the honors, not least because Dowling was loyal to the Confederacy and Houston was famously not.
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When the Civil War came, Dowling and a few dozen other Houston Irish (most of the others were stevedores from the Allen's Landing docks) formed the Jefferson Davis Guards artillery battalion. This unit took part in the Battle of Galveston on New Year's Day in 1863, but it was to win its fame at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass in September of the same year.
There on the Texas-Louisiana border, Dowling and his 45 men and six cannon met a Union invasion flotilla of four gunboats and 18 troop transports containing a total of 5,000 infantrymen, and in an upset on the order of the Naval Academy defeating Notre Dame in football, Dowling's finely-honed artillery skills carried the day. Two of the gunboats were captured, along with 200 Union soldiers. One of Dowling's men is said to have gotten a splinter -- and that was his unit's sole casualty.
With droll modesty so characteristic of the day, Confederate President Jefferson Davis claimed that there was "no parallel in ancient or modern warfare to the victory of Dowling and his men at Sabine Pass considering the great odds against which they had to contend," and went on to call it "more remarkable than the battle at Thermopylae." You classicists will remember Thermopylae as the place where 300 manly, buff Spartans slew approximately nine billion effeminate, gold-encrusted Persians, amid dramatically contrasted lights and darks and eerily desaturated lighting, before succumbing to the last man to the girly-men Persians' vastly superior numbers. Not to mention the treachery of a hideous outcast goatherd...
Modern military historians have a different view of Dowling's triumph. The whole reason the Union bothered to invade Southeast Texas was to prevent the Confederacy from opening up a supply line from Mexico to the rest of Dixie. Even after Dowling's victory, that supply line never did open, so even though Dowling likely spared Houston and Beaumont the indignity of occupation, his victory meant little.
But none of that mattered in Houston in 1864, where Dowling was treated something like Julius Caesar home from a punishing foray into Gaul. Dowling Street was named in his honor, as was the Montrose/Midtown thoroughfare Tuam, which takes its name from the Irish village where he was born. A medal was struck, one of only two the Confederacy awarded.
After the war, Dowling returned to his saloons and started rolling the proceeds into snapping up land in deep East Texas with the purpose of striking oil -- 34 years before Spindletop. Some say Dowling thus was the first oil company in Texas, but he never struck it rich. Then yellow fever, the Dowling family's old nemesis, struck again, and in 1867, Dowling succumbed along with 3,000 others in the Houston-Galveston area. Today, he's buried at St Vincent's Cemetery in the 2400 block of Navigation, adjacent to Our Lady of Guadalupe church. Dowling's grave is unmarked, as were many of those who died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, but there is a memorial marker there.
Today, Dowling's troubled legacy lives on locally in many other locations. There's the statue at McGregor and Almeda in Hermann Park, the two streets, and a middle school with 99 percent minority enrollment (Vince Young's alma mater) out in the Hiram Clarke area .
We mentioned the school's demographics because along with the fact that Dowling Street is predominantly black Third Ward's principal north-south roadway, from time to time the issue of Dowling's Confederate army service is raised. But this being Houston, where 1980 is ancient history, nothing is ever done. Today, Dowling the man is only remembered by Houston's rapidly vanishing (if not downright extinct) coterie of Confederate apologists, military historians, and the local Irish community, who honor him at his statue every St. Patrick's Day.