Dick Dowling and the Immigrant’s Call to Arms
On Sunday I was honored to give the address at the 45th Annual Dick Dowling Statue Ceremony in Houston. It was a fine time, full of good cheer and warmth despite the rain (which I understand to be traditional to the ceremony, as well).
I had the opportunity to meet several descendants of both Dick Dowling and John Thomas Browne, the former Houston mayor and veteran who inaugurated the tradition of cleaning the statue every St. Patrick’s Day back in 1905. I would like to thank my hosts, the Miggins family, for the warm welcome I received and for the many years of work they’ve put into this project. Houston and Texas owe them a great deal.
Descendants of Dick Dowling gather for the placement of a memorial wreath.
Larry Miggins, founder of the annual statue ceremony, reflects on his tenure. Color guard from the John Bell Hood SCV Camp of Galveston.
Sunday’s ceremony, like the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday, was dedicated to four Houston firefighters — Matthew Renaud, Robert Bebee, Robert Garner and Anne Sullivan — who lost their lives last year in a tragic event. The ceremony was also dedicated to Houston Fire Captain William Dowling, who was severely injured at the same time but survived. Captain Dowling, I understand, is a distant relation to Dick Dowling, which would not be a surprise, given the long family ties to HFD. Dick Dowling was one of the original members of Houston Fire Company No. 1, organized in April 1858. And it was Mayor “Honest John” Browne who, in 1895, oversaw the transition for the fire department from a volunteer force to a professional, paid city fire department.
Although I had not attended this event previously, I did know that lots of folks attend every year, and probably know Dick Dowling as well as one of their own family. As a result, I decided to pull back the focus of this address a little, and look more broadly to the reaction of Irish immigrant communities to secession and the coming of the war.
Dick Dowling and the Immigrant’s Call to Arms
The story of Irishmen in the American Civil War is one that gets a lot of attention. The fighting withdrawal of the 69th New York at First Manassas, the courage of the Irish Brigade at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg, and the absolution given by Father Corby on the second day at Gettysburg are all well-known and rightly-revered stories.
The Irish immigrant Union soldier is a fixture, a stereotype, in popular culture, as well. In the film, Gangs of New York, one of Martin Scorsese’s long camera sequences follows a group of young Irish men tramping down the gangplank of their immigrant ship, being forced to make their mark on enlistment papers, being outfitted with a blue uniform and musket, and herded back onto a military transport headed for the South, with little idea of what they’re getting into. (One of the newly-enlisted Union soldiers inquires where they’re going, and when told Tennessee, asks, “where’s that?”) That was not the reality for most men, but it is a popular notion, deeply embedded in the remembrance of the war, and one played up at the time by Southerners, where newspaper editors and fire-eating orators heaped scorn on what they described as Lincoln’s “Hessians.” And then there’s Buster Kilrain, the one fictional character of Michael Shaara’s novel Gettysburg, whose iron determination and quiet advice to Colonel Chamberlain helped save the Union left flank on Little Round Top, in the face of repeated assaults by equally-determined Alabamians. Buster Kilrain is now such a fixture in the mythos of Gettysburg that visitors to the national cemetery there routinely ask staff members for directions to his grave.
All told, immigrants from Ireland, Germany and other nations made up about a quarter of the Federal army during the conflict, and nearly half of wartime enlistees in the Union navy. The story of the Union war effort in the Civil War is one best told with an Irish brogue, or perhaps a Prussian akzent.
But the role of immigrants in the Confederacy’s war effort is less well known, less understood. In Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, about three-and-a-half percent of the soldiers were foreign-born, but half of those were native Irishmen. A majority of the foreign-born troops in Lee’s army were from Deep South states, and they were, on the whole, older than their native-born counterparts. They were quick to volunteer, as well; eighty percent of immigrants who served under Lee through the war enlisted in 1861, compared to just over half of those who were native southerners.
Across the South as a whole, foreign-born free persons made up only a tiny fraction of the overall population, but here in Texas foreign-born persons constituted about one person in ten. The proportion was even larger in the cities, where the opportunities offered by fast-booming trade and commerce attracted men and women from foreign shores. If you were to walk the muddy streets of Houston in 1860, on the eve of the war, three free persons out of every ten had emigrated from some foreign land, and in Galveston the proportion was even higher – about forty percent of Galveston County residents were making their home in a country other than the one of their birth. One Irish-born Texas soldier, Walter Paye Lane, who had been born in County Cork, achieved the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army near the end of the war.
Immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, have always made up a sizable proportion of this nation’s fighting men in all our wars since 1861; military service has long been the way newcomers have proved their patriotism and themselves to their new countrymen. In the South as in the North, Irish communities formed their own militia companies. These included the Emerald Light Infantry of Charleston, the Jasper Greens of Savannah, the Emerald Guards of Mobile, the Shamrock Guards of Vicksburg, the Montgomery Guards of New Orleans, and of course, Dick Dowling’s own Jefferson Davis Guard of Houston.
Confederate soldiers had many individual reasons for enlisting, but Dowling and other Irishmen may well have seen the South’s secession through the prism of the ongoing struggle against the British Crown. The Montgomery Guards of New Orleans, for example, carried their Confederate flag on a pike alleged to have been used in the Irish uprising of 1798. Dick Dowling himself was an enthusiastic secessionist, having petitioned Texas Governor Sam Houston to convene a special session of the legislature to respond to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860. Houston refused, and was ultimately deposed as governor, but by then Dowling and the Davis Guard were off on an expedition to the mouth of the Rio Grande, to seize Federal property and arms along the border with Mexico.
The majority of Irishmen who entered Confederate ranks, though, probably didn’t serve in companies or regiments composed of their Hibernian brethren. Much more typical is the case of John Thomas Browne, a native of Ballylanders, County Limerick, recently profiled by an Irish colleague of mine, Damian Shiels. Browne’s family emigrated to New Orleans in 1851, when John was only six. His father died soon after, and John’s mother Winnifred eventually moved the family to Houston. They were there in 1860, when fifteen-year-old John was clerking with the Houston & Texas Central Railroad. When the war came he enlisted in the Second Texas Infantry but, perhaps because he was sole adult male in his household – keep in mind he was only sixteen when the war began – he was detached from the unit and assigned to work as a fireman on the railroad. It was hard, dirty, exhausting work, but nonetheless essential to the war effort.
After the war, Browne worked at a variety of jobs before going into a partnership with Charles Bollfrass to form a wholesale and retail grocery in 1872. At the same time he was building the business of Browne & Bollfrass, John Browne was also embarking on a political career, serving on Houston City Council before serving as mayor from 1892 to 1896, during which tenure he established the Houston Fire Department as a paid, professional force. “Honest John” Browne went on to serve twice in the Texas House of Representatives. When he died in 1941 at the age of 96, John Thomas Browne was said to be the last living Confederate veteran in Texas.
John Browne left another important legacy, one that we celebrate here today. Because it was John Browne, the “Fighting Irishman,” who established the tradition of the annual cleaning of this monument in 1905, in a 109-year-old chain that remains unbroken to this day.
So while we gather today to commemorate Dick Dowling and the Davis Guards, let us also remember the other men, Sons of Erin like John Thomas Browne, whose military service earned neither medals, nor fame nor glory. They were men – some very young – who enlisted for reasons as varied as they themselves were, but yet with a common purpose, to serve their adopted nation and their fellow citizens, native-born and immigrant alike.
This is their monument, too.