It is a curious comment on our times that we pay taxes to fund public artworks that are ugly, insipid, or downright ridiculous while statues with far more aesthetic appeal are being defaced, destroyed, or removed. Of course, politics pollutes everything it touches, so why should history or art be exceptions?
The anathema statues have been almost exclusively of men so one imagines the distaff members of Antifa take particular pleasure in their iconoclasm. On occasion, however, the removal of a statue serves to draw attention to a great man or at least a common man who once accomplished a great feat. Such a man was Dick Dowling.
On June 17 in Houston a longstanding (since 1905) statue of Dick Dowling was removed from Hermann Park. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner had promised that the removal would precede Juneteenth, a state holiday marking the date (June 19, 1865) when Texas slaves first found out about the Emancipation Proclamation. Funny how remarkably punctual politicians can be when it comes to keeping certain promises.
This was not the first controversy pertaining to the Dick Dowling legacy in Houston. The first concerned Dowling Street, renamed Emancipation Avenue in 2017. One year later a Houston man failed in an attempt to blow up the statue. Houston may be a port city but it is not Portland, so he was sentenced to six years in prison for his crime.
If you don’t live in Houston – or even if you do – you may not be familiar with Dick Dowling. But you should be. Dowling led a short but remarkable life – an immigrant success story if ever there was one, but unfortunately he does not qualify as an IOC (no, not the International Olympic Committee, but an immigrant of color).
A multi-talented fellow, his skill as an artilleryman was unmatched. Unfortunately, he employed that skill to repel Yankees. So 155 years after Appomattox, his street and his statue are history, but not in a good sense. Nevertheless, his deeds need not perish from the manosphere.
Richard William Dowling was born in County Galway, Ireland in 1837. As a boy, Dowling and his family escaped the Irish potato famine and emigrated to New Orleans. As a youth, he managed a saloon in the French Quarter. Rising anti-Irish sentiment as a result of the Know-Nothing Party’s success in New Orleans convinced him that the luck of the Irish might be stronger in Houston.
Arriving in Houston in 1857, he prospered as a saloonkeeper – not just one saloon but three of them. Dowling was more than a bartender, however. He was also a player in the city’s first gas company, fire department, and streetcar company. So far, so good, but nothing really statue-worthy. Then on February 1, 1861 Texas seceded from the Union.At the outbreak of the Civil War, the 24-year-old Dowling was already a member of a local Irish militia. The militia was quickly absorbed by the Confederate Army and Dowling and his Houston Irish brethren, mostly 20-something dockworkers, became a Confederate unit popularly known as the Davis Guards. Or, if you prefer, Company F, Cook’s Regiment, First Texas Heavy Artillery.
It didn’t take a military genius to realize the importance of Gulf Coast ports to the Confederate cause. So long as bales of cotton remained piled up on the docks, precious revenue for the CSA withered away.
The U.S. Navy blockaded the Texas coast in the summer of 1861, but the big prize was further east. New Orleans, at the time the largest city in the South and one of the world’s major ports, was occupied by the Yankees in the spring of 1862. Next came Mobile and Galveston. But on New Year’s Day, 1863, the rebels retook Galveston, which remained under Confederate control for the duration of the war. Dick Dowling and his cohorts were among the victors that day. But they had not seen the last of the Yankees.
In September 1863 a flotilla of four gunboats and 20 troop transports was dispatched to the mouth of the Sabine River which divides Texas from Louisiana. The mission included capturing Beaumont, another port city, and recapturing Galveston. Houston was also on the agenda, but before the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel boat traffic was minimal. The city was an important railroad nexus, however.
A Confederate fort with six cannons stood on the Texas side of the Sabine River. Aware of the impending invasion, Dowling, then a lieutenant, led the men of the Davis Guard, just 45 in number, as they made careful measurements of distances and powder charges. Then they took target practice—lots of it. When the Yankee ships arrived on September 8, the Irish Texans were prepared.
The Yankee warships engaged in long-range shelling of the fort for 90 minutes in the early morning hours. Knowing the ships were out of range of his artillery, Downing ordered his men to hunker down and wait.
The Yankees, thinking they had rousted the rebels or at least softened them up, returned that afternoon. When they came within range (about 1,200 yards), the rebel cannoneers sprang into action. Despite the disablement of one cannon, the Davis Guards fired their guns 107 times in 35 minutes, which qualified as rapid fire in 1863. Two of the Union warships were destroyed. A third found the channel blocked by one of the immobilized ships and was forced to turn back. The captain of the fourth ship realized he was the proverbial sitting duck, so he made a U-turn and went back out the Gulf. The 20 troopships never got close to landing. Against overwhelming odds, the Confederates easily won the battle, which was over in 45 minutes. Estimates vary, but at least 24 Yankee soldiers or sailors were killed or seriously wounded, 37 were missing, and more than 300 were captured.
Had the Yankees landed, there was no way Dowling and his men could have defended themselves against the roughly 5,000 men in the flotilla. Thanks to the cannoneers’ sharpshooting, no ground combat was required. Amazingly, Dowling and his men suffered zero casualties.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis (for whom the Davis Guards were named) called it “one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements in the history of this war.” Normally, that would qualify as political hyperbole, but Davis was a graduate of West Point, served as a Colonel in the Mexican-American War, and was Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration, so he was hardly unschooled in the ways of war.
To be sure, it was a humiliating defeat for the Union, even though the blockade continued. Outside the South, news of the engagement was also of interest. U.S. credit declined abroad and the U.S. dollar lost 5% of its value against gold.
Keeping Yankee troops off Texas soil was a major achievement. Aside from Gettysburg, fought two months prior, the theater of war had been below the Mason-Dixon Line. The occupation of Texas could have been relatively benign (albeit riddled with corruption) as in New Orleans, or it could have been nastier, like the scorched-earth policy General Sherman inflicted on Georgia and South Carolina in 1864. The retention of Texas did not keep the South from losing the war, but at least postbellum Texas was not in a state of ruin, making it easier for the natives to pick up the pieces afterwards.
To say that Texans were gladdened by Dowling’s victory would have been an understatement. If you look at what people call stunning, amazing, or awesome today, you would have to come up with a new word to describe Dowling’s feat. There’s no telling how much suffering he and his men prevented.
After the war, Dowling, discharged as a major, remained a local hero. In fact, he picked up where he left off. His newest saloon, the Bank of Bacchus, was particularly popular as it was across from the Harris County Courthouse. He formed the first oil company in Houston (that alone should have secured his place in local history) and owned a large chunk of downtown Houston.
Dowling’s business acumen was a match for his military smarts; unfortunately, his Irish luck had run out. He fell victim to yellow fever in 1867. The same disease had already taken out most of his family members. He was just 30 years old.
Nevertheless, September 8, 1863 marked a great achievement for Dowling and was a great day for the Irish. Ironically, a couple of months before, Irishmen in New York had been the most conspicuous participants in the New York Draft Riot. In those days before mass media and social media, it took something big to stir people up. The new conscription law was indeed a big deal, particularly to an Irish immigrant who couldn’t have cared less about ending slavery, saving the union, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, or any other crusade you could name.
If they’d had draft cards in those days, the Irish probably would have burned them, but what really riled them was the provision that a man with $300 to spare could buy his way out of the draft. $300 was a tidy sum in 1863, and few men – and very few Irish immigrants – could pony up that amount. Wasn’t this a New World version of the British tyranny they had endured for centuries? Hence the riot…or should we call it a protest? Final score: 120 deaths, 2,000 injuries. Maybe we’d better call it a riot.
The statue honoring Dowling was a long time coming, though planning started soon after he died. It was finally unveiled in 1905 at City Hall. It was the first publicly funded monument in the city. In 1939 it was moved to Sam Houston Park and finally in 1959 to Hermann Park. Now it is in storage. Finding it a home may be difficult, even on private property. The statue could be considered, in legal terms, an attractive nuisance; in other words, something that attracts children, or in the case of BLM/Antifa mobs, the childish.
The statue of the remarkable young man who saved Texas from untold woes will no longer stain the cityscape. Never mind that today’s Houstonians, all 2.3+ million of them, are beneficiaries of his proficiency with artillery. Had the Yankee invasion succeeded, Houston might be very different today. Granted, given the air pollution and traffic, some might argue that would be a good thing.
There was a time when a remarkable military achievement could be duly noted if not necessarily celebrated. Many a Yankee had to admit that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest were pretty sharp. In fact, they might have wished they had generals of that ilk on the Union side. There was much to admire about these men. Sure, they were rebels and maybe they owned slaves (Forrest, tut tut, was also a slave trader!) but that is not what defined them. Once upon a time such men went down in history; today, no matter how outstanding their achievements, they go down in infamy along with their statues.
But the iconoclasm in Houston may just be getting started. Recently a statue of Christopher Columbus was removed from his namesake city in Ohio. The same fate could await the equestrian statue of Sam Houston on the north side of Hermann Park in Houston. It wouldn’t be the first time the Father of Texas was snubbed.
In 2006, for example, Houston’s Major Soccer League franchise was pondering nicknames. The name chosen was the Houston 1836, based on the year Texas won its independence. Unfortunately, in the process Mexico lost a lot of real estate, so the usual suspects complained that the name 1836 was divisive (isn’t that what independence movements are all about?) so after one month the nickname was changed to the Houston Dynamo.
Houston was no Confederate – indeed he spoke out against the spread of slavery and secession many times. After Texas seceded in 1861, he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and was removed from office. Also, he championed Native American rights, spoke Cherokee, and once married a Cherokee woman. But goshdarnit, he was in charge at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto, just east of present-day Houston…and he and his troops killed a lot of Mexicans (roughly 630) in the process.
Well, these days it’s one strike and you’re out – actually, make that two strikes. Houston also owned a few slaves, which he freed before his death in 1863. If his statue goes, it’s entirely possible that the name of the city will also go bye-bye.
The big enchilada, however, is the Sam Houston statue adjacent to I-45 outside of Huntsville, Texas. A modern-day Colossus of Rhodes, it stands 67 feet tall. I’m sure the Antifa Lilliputians have this one on their agenda also.
I don’t know if Dick Dowling had any slaves or not. But I do know the fort he defended was built with slave labor. Not that that should tarnish his victory, but we live in illogical times.
There may be yet another reason to flush Dick Dowling down the Texas history toilet. At the Battle of Sabine Pass, his planning, preparation, and execution were flawless. If you have a soft spot in your heart for rebels and you like to root for the underdog, he certainly qualifies.
Unfortunately, governments generally aren’t fond of people like Dick Dowling. He shows that you can defy the odds and not only emerge victorious but unscathed. That’s not an idea you want to implant in men’s heads. Rather, just the opposite…you know, resistance is futile…lay down your weapons and bend over. For sure, we could use a Dick Dowling or two in fighting today’s culture wars.
The story of Dick Dowling’s victory may be far more dangerous than any statue ever could be. For the time being, his story is still told at the Sabine Pass Battleground State Park in Port Arthur. It’s located at 6100 Dick Dowling Road…whoops! This just in! According to the internet, the address has been changed to 6100 Dolewood Road.