Richard William Dowling, businessman and Civil War hero, son of William and Mary Dowling, was born in Tuam, Galway County, Ireland, in 1838. After 1846 the family migrated to the United States and settled in New Orleans. In the early 1850s, after the deaths of his parents, Dick Dowling worked his way to Texas and eventually settled in Houston.
The likeable, red-headed Irishman quickly made a reputation as an enterprising businessman. In October 1857 he opened the Shades, the first of his successful saloons. He probably received financial backing for this enterprise from Benjamin Digby Odlum, whose daughter, Elizabeth Ann, Dowling married in November 1857. By 1860 he had sold his interest in the Shades and had purchased the popular Bank of Bacchus near the Harris County Courthouse. Still later he operated the Hudgpeth Bathing Saloon as well as a Galveston-based liquor-importing firm.
With the outbreak of the Civil War Dowling joined the Jefferson Davis Guards as first lieutenant. Capt. Frederick H. Odlum was commander. During the first part of 1861 Dowling and his associates raided United States Army outposts on the Texas-Mexico border. When the guards were designated Company F of the Third Texas Artillery Battalion in October 1861, Dowling's theater became the upper Texas Gulf Coast. By 1862 the battalion was upgraded to a full regiment, the First Texas Heavy Artillery, under the overall command of Col. J. J. Cook.
Dowling's early Civil War exploits were consistent but not spectacular. On January 1, 1863, he participated in Gen. John B. Magruder's recapture of the port of Galveston (see GALVESTON, BATTLE OF). Three weeks later, after the transfer of his company to Sabine Pass, which controlled access to the Sabine River, he earned his first individual praise. As artillery commander aboard the steamer Josiah A. Bell, he took part in a naval battle on January 21, 1863, with two United States vessels. In a two-hour engagement the Confederate forces achieved a victory, in part because of Dowling's accuracy with the eight-inch Columbiad gun, which he commanded. Not only was he singled out for making some of the "prettiest shots" but also for saving the Bell's magazine from flooding.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1863 Odlum, Dowling, and the guards manned defensive positions at Sabine Pass, including Fort Griffin, a nondescript post on the west side of the pass that controlled both the Texas and Louisiana channels of the river. By August 1863 Odlum was in charge of forces at nearby Sabine City, and Dowling commanded Company F, which consisted of forty-seven men armed with six cannons, at Fort Griffin. On September 8, 1863, the United States forces attacked the area in what became known as the battle of Sabine Pass. Dowling directed such intense and accurate fire from his guns that two of the United States gunboats, the Clifton and the Sachem, were disabled, and the remaining United States vessels withdrew. As a result of federal ineptitude and Dowling's leadership, Dowling and his men captured two ships and 350 prisoners and routed the invasion without a single casualty.
The battle at Sabine Pass was the pinnacle of Dowling's career. During the remainder of the war he was a recruiting officer for the Confederacy, until his discharge with the rank of major in 1865. He returned to Houston, managed the businesses he had owned before the war, and acquired new businesses, including real estate, oil and gas leases, and an interest in a steamboat. His financial successes appeared to ensure a bright future, but he became ill with yellow fever and died on September 23, 1867. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and a son and was buried in St. Vincent's Cemetery, Houston.