After Texas seceded from the Union at the onset of the Civil War, the state's ports were included in a Union blockade of the South. The proximity of Sabine Pass to Galveston made it a strategic point for both the Union and Confederacy. In January 1863, Gen. John B. Magruder, commander of the Confederate Military District of Texas, in an attempt to open Sabine Pass for shipping, ordered an assault on the two sentry Union warships. Using "cottonclads," riverboats armored with cotton bales that afforded effective protection from enemy fire, Confederate forces under command of Maj. Oscar W. Watkins engaged the Union blockaders. Consisting of the Uncle Ben and the Josiah H. Bell, this bantam fleet was designated the "Second Squadron of Magruder's Navy." On board the Josiah H. Bell, the Davis Guard of the First Texas Heavy Artillery, an all-Irish unit, served under Lt. Richard "Dick" Dowling. It manned a Columbiad artillery piece, supported by sharpshooters from the 2nd Texas Cavalry and Spaight's Battalion; additional forces from Spaight's Battalion served similar roles on the Uncle Ben.
In the ensuing battle on Jan. 21, 1863, the cottonclads seized the initiative, and the engagement lasted roughly two hours. The frigate Morning Light was neutralized first, compelling the lesser-armed Velocity,
a converted blockade runner, to strike its colors. Union casualties were minimal, but the battle resulted in the capture of the two ships, $10,000 worth of supplies and 109 Union prisoners of war. Although only temporarily lifting the Union blockade and presaging a decisive battle later in 1863, the battle demonstrated the Davis Guard had the ability to defend the Texas coast successfully.