Civil War battlefield recovering after hurricanes

Associated Press Writer
© 2009 The Associated Press
May 30, 2009

SABINE PASS, Texas — The bronze likeness of Confederate Lt. Dick Dowling has survived two hurricanes in the last five years, as against the odds as the few dozen rebel Texas soldiers he led to victory against a huge Union force almost 150 years ago.

But the double whammy of 2005’s Hurricane Rita and last year’s Ike left the Sabine Pass Battleground Park in shambles. Trees were toppled and ripped out. Historical markers were snapped off and creature comforts for visitors were swept away in one of the few Civil War battlefield sites in Texas.

The 57-acre park on the coastal Texas-Louisiana border is considered one of the nation’s most threatened Civil War battlefields by the Civil War Preservation Trust. It is where Dowling and his men, in September 1863, stood fast against a Union attempt to invade Texas and wrest the state from the Confederacy.

Now after a healthy dose of tender loving care from the man who alone oversees the park maintenance, and a $600,000 rebuilding program directed by the Texas Historical Commission, the battlefield site is to reopen probably in September — just in time for the most dangerous part of the hurricane season that starts this weekend.

"I hope and pray we get a break this year," maintenance manager Efrem Hill said. "I wouldn’t want to see anybody else get it. I just hope everybody gets passed by."

The park, which opened in 1974, draws history buffs, families on picnics and fishermen. Typically, a couple hundred anglers on weekends line the concrete walkway on the riverbank.

The Sabine River mouth at the Gulf of Mexico made the area a strategic commercial and military site and prompted establishment of Fort Griffin, an earthwork fort bolstered by ship timbers and railroad iron and equipped with six artillery pieces. It was named for Lt. Col. W.H. Griffin, the Confederate commander at nearby Sabine City, and was unfinished on Sept. 8, 1863, when four Union gunboats entered the river, leading a force of transports carrying thousands of ground troops.

Richard W. "Dick" Dowling, a 25-year-old Ireland-born Houston saloon owner, and his 47 primarily Irish troops from Houston and Galveston who made up Company F Texas Heavy Artillery took less than an hour to disable two of the gunboats, leaving the river channel blocked. They took 300 prisoners and seized the two damaged gunboats, convincing the remainder of the Union fleet to withdraw and bringing to a swift end one of only five Civil War battles in Texas — two of them at Sabine Pass.

About 60 Union soldiers and sailors were killed or missing. None of Dowling’s men was lost.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis repeatedly called the victory by the Texas troops "the most amazing achievement in military history," according to Ed Cotham, a Civil War historian from Houston whose books include one about the Sabine Pass battle.

Dowling became a hero. The statue of him at the battlefield was erected in 1936 as part of Texas’ centennial celebration. It shows him bare-chested with a cannon-ready flaming torch in one hand and binoculars in the other, surveying the Sabine River a stone’s throw away.

Hurricane Rita scored a direct hit on the area and Hill, who’s worked at the park for more than seven years, figures the bronze Dowling endured a storm surge that reached his chest, easily 10 feet high. The damage at the surrounding park was so severe the place had to close.

Then Ike, judging from a flooded concrete bunker that serves as Hill’s tool shed, inundated the park with at least 12 feet of water, meaning Dowling’s head barely poked above the stormy waters.

"Rita tore us up," said Hill, who lost a mobile home where he lived. "Ike finished it. But everybody is looking forward to coming back."

When Hill returned following Ike, he was greeted by a debris-strewn park, including a "big old long timber" stuck to the statue. It took weeks to remove industrial containers, wood pallets and other trash as Hill’s wife and children joined him in the cleanup.

More severe damage, however, left riverside walkways undermined by erosion, a boat launch area destroyed and rest rooms obliterated, still being replaced after Rita.

Hill said he gets dozens of calls from people eager to see the park reopened for the first time since 2005, when about 45,000 people visited, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department figures.

"I tell them we’re doing our very best and when it comes back it’s going to be very very nice," he said. "I tell them to be patient."

For the tiny town of Sabine Pass, where new mobile homes dot the coastal landscape amid the remains of broken structures mangled by the two storms, the park’s reopening would mark another step in recovery.

"We have a lot of people waiting for the park to be reopened and visitation to the park should help in the revitalization of these areas that have suffered so much from storms," Cotham said.

"I think it would mean a great deal," said Kellie Brown, who works at Tammie’s Diner, a mobile food truck that just opened in May, giving folks here now two places to eat outside of home. "That’s been here long before we were and it’s part of why we’re here."

Copyright © 2009 The Houston Chronicle

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