Richard Dowling, The Battle of Sabine Pass, and The Davis Guards Medal

In Texas! The Exhibition you can view hundreds of objects, each with fascinating back stories. Some of these amazing artifacts belonged to well known national heroes and some to local heroes.

As I stroll through the exhibit’s Civil War section, I’m often drawn to one small and shiny object named the Davis Guards medal. I’m a history nerd, but until recently I wasn’t familiar with Davis Guards metals.

Engraved on the metal are the words: Jack White| Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. A document in the case above the metal has the signature of a 1st Lieutenant by the name of R W Dowling.

Together, these objects reveal an interesting story.

It’s a story this history “connoisseur” still might have overlooked if something in the text panel had not caught my eye. According to the panel, the Davis Guards medal on display is one of three held in private hands, and it is one of only seven that are known to still be in existence.

However, being rare does not always translate to being fascinating. As I was preparing to begin my research for our upcoming Discovering the Civil War exhibition, I noticed something interesting.

On a rough draft of objects we hope to have on display is yet ANOTHER shiny disk with the words: Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863. I was intrigued. If only three of these are in the hands of private collectors and HMNS may have the honor of displaying a second Davis Guard medal, this piece is more fascinating.

But who was R W Dowling? What was his connection to the Davis Guards medal? What happened at the Battle of Sabine Pass? And most importantly, why is this medal significant? Since the discovery of the second medal to be displayed I have been obsessively researching to find more about these topics.

The Davis Guards Medal
The Davis Medal
See more photos from the Texas exhibit on Flickr.

Richard William “Dick” Dowling was born in 1838 in an area called Tuam (pronounced choo-um), which is located in Ireland.

He and his family left Ireland at the start of the potato famine in 1845 and settled in New Orleans, Louisiana. While living in Louisiana, Dowling’s parents and four of his siblings died of yellow fever in 1853. After the loss of his parents, he and a few siblings moved across the Louisiana border to Texas.

Dowling settled in Houston where he met, fell in love with, and married Elizabeth Odlum. With the support of Elizabeth’s family, Dowling was able to start and maintain several successful saloon businesses and became a founding member of the Houston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 (which later became the Houston Fire Department), and even owned one of the first oil and gas companies in Texas. His saloons were outfitted with gas lighting as a result of this investment. Richard Dowling was indeed a prominent local businessman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, like many men during this time, Dick Dowling went off to war.

He joined a group of other Irish immigrants. His group would help the Confederate army remove the Union blockade during the Battle of Galveston. During that battle, the USS Westfield sank off the coast (HMNS will display some objects from the USS Westfield in the Discovering the Civil War exhibition). Dowling and his group were in charge of guarding the coast of Texas until they were given a new assignment, the Sabine Pass.

Dowling was placed in charge of a group of 47 men of the Davis Guards, which was named after the current Confederate States of America’s president. Under his uncompromising leadership, he drilled his men until they could properly shoot up to 2,000 yards, which was the length to clear the Sabine Pass.

What Dowling and his men did on September 8, 1863 would go down in history as one of the greatest military upsets on American soil.

The 47 men of the Davis Guard were faced with 5,000 enemy soldiers. Instead of drawing back, according to his official report, Dowling and his men used a motto that once brought heartache to Texas.

They shouted “Victory or Death” as they aggressively attacked the Union forces.

After 45 minutes, the Union soldiers retreated and the battle was over. The Davis Guards hadn’t lost a single man. They captured 350 prisoners, and 50 Union soldiers lay dead that day in a solid victory for the CSA. The Union forces would never again threaten Texas in a major confrontation until the Battle of Palmito Ranch (also a CSA victory), which was fought over a month after the Civil War had ended. The victory at the Battle of Sabine Pass was one of the reasons that Texas was the only southern state to never be successfully occupied during the Civil War.

President Jefferson Davis was so pleased with the underdog victory that he asked the Confederate Congress to approve the commission of medals for the Davis Guard.

The medal is thought to be the only one commissioned by the Confederate Congress. Each Guards member would receive a silver round medal attached to a green ribbon (in honor of their Irish background) that was engraved with Sabine Pass| Sept: 8th| 1863 on one side, and on the other D.G. with either a Maltese cross or the CSA flag below the initials. Naturally, being an honorary member of the Davis Guards, President Davis was also given a medal along with every Davis Guards member.

The Confederate flag was the shortest reigning flag in Texas’ history, and even though the “war of northern aggression” would bring this chapter in our history to a close, it provided us with local Texas heroes.

In Texas! The Exhibition there are amazing artifacts from Texas’ proud past. Don’t miss the chance to see a rare part of history that is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

And don’t forget to join us in October for our new special exhibition Discovering the Civil War!

The Texas Longhorn

Did you know that the cattle now known as the Texas Longhorn were bred specifically to handle Texas’ hot, dry climate?

In Texas! The Exhibition, visitors can pay homage to the Texas Longhorn with a set of actual horns mounted high on the wall. If you have read my bio, you may think “she’s only talking about the Longhorn because she graduated from The University of Texas at Austin.”

You’d be a little right, but all college allegiances aside, this is one magnificent animal.

 No two Texas Longhorns are alike. They all differ in color pattern, size, horn length, and
personality. – Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America
Creative Commons License photo credit: DiAichner3 

Less Water, Leaner Meat

The Texas Longhorn is a cross between an English and Mexican breed of cattle (by way of Spain). The result was a unique and durable cattle breed.  For example, the Texas Longhorn does not require a lot of water to survive compared to typical cattle.  Longhorns have long legs, powerful muscles built for speed, and sharp horns (sometimes up to seven feet from tip to tip) that can be used for protection against dangerous enemies. Over the years, the breed developed a natural immunity to parasites and disease.  The Texas Longhorn also produces leaner, lower cholesterol meat. Longhorn cattle are now even kept in colder climates as far north as Canada.

Paving The Way For Industry

As the buffalo population in the South decreased after the Civil War, the interest in the Texas Longhorn increased. They were a sturdy breed which could bring in high prices at meat markets in the North and East. Longhorns began roaming the range in larger numbers all over Texas and up north to Nebraska and Wyoming. The Texas Longhorn paved the way for a new industry known as the cattle drive.

In Texas! The Exhibition, visitors will have the chance to view an original map of the Texas cattle trails which includes the Chisholm, Goodnight-Loving, and Western/Dodge City trails. By the end of the Civil War, longhorns numbered in the millions in the South. Due to a surplus in supply, a rancher could only fetch around $3 a head for a Texas Longhorn in its native region. In Chicago, Cheyenne, and Kansas City for example, this cattle breed would go for $35 to $40 a head.

Something had to be done!

The intelligence of the Texas Longhorn came in handy when men came up with a plan to “drive” these robust animals to the northern meat markets themselves. Thus the cowboy was introduced into history. Charles Goodnight, of the Goodnight-Loving trail, said of the Texas Longhorn, “As trail cattle, their equal never has been known. Their hoofs are superior to those of any other cattle. In stampedes, they hold together better, are easier to circle during a run, and rarely split off when you commence to turn the front. No animal of the cow kind will shift and take care of itself under all conditions as will the Longhorns. They can go farther without water and endure more suffering than others.”

It is no surprise, then, that the Texas Longhorn is Texas’ official State Large Mammal.

By the 1880s, the Texas cattle drives were coming to an end with the extension of the “modern” railroads and the heavy use of barbed wire. (While in the exhibition, take a moment to look at the variety of barbed wire used to close the open range.) The Texas cattle industry would never be the same, but the gentle and beautiful Texas Longhorn would endure.

Barbed Wire of Texas
Barbed wire on display in Texas! The Exhibition
See more photos from inside the exhibition on Flickr.

Come visit us at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see our Texas Longhorn and cattle trail memorabilia in Texas! The Exhibition. (I wouldn’t be a good Texas alumnus without ending this the proper way — Hook ‘em Horns!)

Different Presidents, Same Notes

When Sam Houston became the first elected president of the Republic of Texas in 1836, the new country was recovering from a tough-fought war for independence from Mexico. In December of 1838, the young Republic of Texas would readily welcome its first peaceful transfer of power.

Even as Sam Houston gave his farewell address to his constituents, Mirabeau B. Lamar’s government was already on the job. In fact, Lamar was so anxious; he gave his acceptance speech to his secretary, while he left for work. One of his first actions Lamar had was to sign that day’s bank notes.

In Texas! The Exhibition, you are able to observe two particular bank notes printed and dated on Lamar’s day of acceptance. The Presidential Transition Notes in the exhibit displays notes from the morning signed by President Sam Houston and notes from the afternoon signed by President Mirabeau Lamar.

These common notes, however, do not reflect Houston and Lamar’s opposing governmental policies.

Sam Houston – 1858

Sam Houston was the Major General of the Texas army during the Texas Revolution. Once Texas won its independence, he was elected as the first President of the Republic by a landslide. His opponent was another Texas icon and well known man at the time, Stephen F. Austin.

President Houston immediately began work building the Republic of Texas. However, Houston was in favor of annexation to the Untied States for several reasons. Houston hoped that annexation would provide much-needed funds for Texas. Also with the United States’ protection, Texas could avoid another war with Mexico, as there were still questions about Texas’ southern border. Since most of its inhabitants were U.S. citizens, annexation would not be a radical change for the people. He was also in favor of reducing the Texas’ military spending.

President Houston would continue to hold Texas’ purse strings tight and push for annexation throughout his two year term. Houston, who had a past connection with the Cherokee Indians, was very compassionate in his dealings with the Native Americans. He understood their love of the land and desire to live as they wished. As president, Houston would negotiate several peace treaties with Native Americans throughout Texas.

President Houston’s vision for the Republic was altered just as it was being fulfilled.

The Texas constitution was written to avoid giving any one man too much power. Therefore, Presidents could not serve two consecutive terms. For Houston, this meant he must hand over the reins. This transfer of power, while the first peaceful one in Texas’ history, was made to a man with beliefs profoundly dissimilar to his predecessor’s.

Mirabeau Lamar

Mirabeau Lamar had been a private in the Texas Army and was later promoted to Colonel due to his bravery. He was placed in charge of the cavalry before the Battle of San Jacinto by then General Sam Houston. After the war, Mirabeau Lamar was elected Vice President of the Republic of Texas.

According to the Texas Handbook online, Lamar spent most of his vice presidency touring Georgia and speaking about the new Republic of Texas. With President Houston’s term coming to an end, Lamar decided to run for President. Mirabeau Lamar’s two opponents in the presidential campaign committed suicide shortly before the election, thus giving him a unanimous victory.

From the day of his inauguration, the policies of Republic of Texas did an about-face.

Lamar preached that it was Texas’ destiny to expand to the Pacific Ocean. He had no desire to see Texas become part of the United States. He also pushed for Texas to build up its Navy to help protect against Mexico.

President Lamar also worked to drive Indian tribes off Texas soil, which was a reversal of the policy under Sam Houston.  President Lamar even battled with Chief Bowl of the Texas Cherokees, who was a personal friend of Houston. Chief Bowl and the Texas Cherokees were settled near East Texas, but they were forcibly removed under President Lamar’s order in the Battle of Neches. During the battle, Chief Bowl was killed on his horse while holding a sword given to him by his friend Sam Houston. (You can view a letter from Sam Houston to Chief Bowl in Texas! The Exhibition.)

Some of President Lamar’s lasting accomplishments lay in the area of education.

Lamar created a public school and university system that still flourishes today because of land, which had little worth at the time, he had set aside to be used as an endowment. For this, he was nicknamed “Father of Texas Education.” Lamar once said to Congress, “Cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” which was translated into Latin and became the motto of The University of Texas.  Another lasting impact of Lamar’s term in office was the movement of the capital of Texas from Houston to Austin. Austin has been the home of the capital since October 1839.

By the end of his term, Lamar’s ambitions left the Texas Republic in near bankruptcy. Sam Houston once again took office in 1841. With the Texas paper currency worth only pennies to the U.S. dollar, Sam Houston once again advocated annexation to the United States. Houston would restore economic control in Texas, and the Republic would finally become part of the United States one year after his second term ended.

Both Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar were extraordinary men that shaped the landscape of what Texas is today.

The two transitional notes on display in Texas! The Exhibition are a fascinating reminder of these two significant leaders of the Republic of Texas. On that day in December of 1838, these identical notes were printed, but the signature at the bottom represented two very different political administrations and ideals.

Don’t miss your chance to see Texas! The Exhibition, on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through September 7.

Iconic Phrases and the Texas Revolution

Today’s post was written by our volunteer Pat Hazlett

“Come and Take It!” “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember Goliad!” What Texan is not familiar with these phrases?  Phrases to stir the soul, inspire courage, and incite rebellion. Each phrase is associated with a pivotal point on Texas’ road from revolution to independence.

 “Come and Take it Cannon”
On display in Texas!

On October 2, 1835 the Mexican commander at San Antonio ordered the people of Gonzales to surrender their small brass cannon. Local officials refused and sent runners into the surrounding areas to gather armed men. The Mexican colonel ordered about 100 soldiers to take the cannon by force.  Buried until reinforcements arrived, the cannon was then mounted on a wagon and decorated with a white flag proclaiming, “Come and Take It.” The Mexican soldiers arrived to confront 160 armed Texans and a brief battle ensued. One Mexican soldier was killed, but no Texans. The Mexicans withdrew to San Antonio.  News of the “battle” spread and ignited fervor among Texans.

By early 1836 the Texans in San Antonio occupied the abandoned mission, San Antonio de Valero. The old mission had once housed a Spanish company from Alamo de Parras in Mexico. So, most people referred to it as the Alamo. Colonel James Bowie and his men joined Colonel James C. Neill, commander, in January 1836. In February, William B. Travis and his men joined them. Bowie was chosen commander of the volunteers, Travis of the regular army.  However, Bowie became ill and passed the entire command to Travis. Although the Alamo was a fairly good defensive position, Travis knew they had too few men (less than 200). There were also gaps in the Alamo walls, closed only with sticks and dirt. Regardless, Travis was determined to hold the Alamo, which had come to symbolize much for its defenders. This would also tie up Santa Anna’s army and give Sam Houston more time to raise a Texas army. Despite written appeals for help, help did not arrive in time. As Mexican troops encircled the Alamo, Travis explained that remaining would mean certain death. According to legend, he drew a line in the sand with his saber, asking those who wished to stay to cross over the line.  All but one stepped across.  At about 5:00 a.m. on March 6, 1836, the battle began. Mexican buglers played the notes of “El Deguello,” an ancient chant indicating that no mercy would be shown. The Texans put up a stubborn fight, but the third assault by the Mexican troops successfully breached the walls. By 8:00 a.m. the battle for the Alamo was over. Bowie, Travis, and volunteer Davy Crockett were all killed. “Remember the Alamo!” became a battle cry for Sam Houston’s army.

Creative Commons License photo credit: travelswiss

Also by 1836, the Spanish presidio, La Bahia, near the town of Goliad was under Texas control, commanded by Colonel James W. Fannin. General Sam Houston had ordered Fannin to retreat to Victoria, but Fannin delayed and found himself surrounded by Mexican forces at the Battle of Coleto. He and his men surrendered and were imprisoned inside the presidio at Goliad. Many Texans believed they were prisoners of war and would be treated fairly by their Mexican captors. Though the surrender document, in Mexican archives, shows no such promise, eyewitnesses testified that Mexican general Urrea assured Fannin that he and his men would be treated fairly. General Urrea even wrote to Santa Anna, requesting that the lives of the prisoners be spared. Santa Anna replied with immediate execution orders. On March 27, 1836, Palm Sunday, Fannin, his men and other Texan captives were divided into columns and marched out onto the prairie. They believed they were going on work detail; some even assumed they were going home. Upon a signal, Mexican soldiers opened fire on them, killing them all. Colonel Fannin was the last to be shot, forced to watch the execution of his own men. “Remember Goliad” joined “Remember the Alamo” as the battle cry of Sam Houston’s army, soon to be victorious at San Jacinto. 

Don’t miss your chance to see Texas! The Exhibition, on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through September 7.


Anderson, Adrian N., et al. Texas and Texans. Columbus, Ohio: Glencoe/McGraw Hill. 2003.

Barkley, Roy R. and Mark F. Odintz. The Portable Handbook of Texas.  Austin: Texas State Historical Association. 2000.