Review of Island #10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley, by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock

20 Oct

The infamous Island #10, the tenth island in the Mississippi River south of the mouth of the Ohio, no longer exists, having long ago been swallowed up by the ever-changing course of the Mississippi River. That seems only fitting as the island’s significance in the Civil War has long since been forgotten as well. The position, once an important Confederate bastion blocking Union penetration southward along the river, was the target of a combined-forces siege in the spring of 1862 which remains among the war’s more forgotten campaigns. Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock seek to put the island and the battle for its control back in the spotlight in their book Island #10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley.

Island #10 sat in a bend in the river near the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. Confederates pinned high hopes on the island serving as a fortress to secure control of the northern reaches of the river passing through Southern territory. To that end they mounted one of the largest concentrations of artillery assembled in the west along its perimeter and garrisoned it with an army of nearly 4,000 men. Union forces led by John Pope sought to capture the island and the surrounding vicinity in early 1862. After capturing key points nearby such as New Madrid, Missouri, the fort became untenable and eventually fell after a twenty-three-day siege.  With the island’s capture, a strategically important Confederate position was surrendered, a large swath of Southern territory came under Union control, an entire rebel army sent off to prison camps, and important locations to the south, including Memphis and other key river ports, left vulnerable to attack.

The authors stress several important aspects of the campaign in their narrative. One is the failures of both contending naval forces. Union Admiral Andrew Foote had simply lost his nerve following the punishment his ships took at Fort Donelson and he refused to press the action. Daniel and Bock believe a stronger naval push would have ended the campaign much sooner. Confederate naval leader George Hollins likewise refused to risk his fleet as well and provided little to no support to the garrison. The authors also point out the glaring failures of Confederate leadership. Commander John McCown performed dismally at defending New Madrid and his replacement, William Mackall, took over too late to have much time to make any positive impact. P.G.T. Beauregard had simply hoped Island #10 could hold out long enough for a larger concentration of forces to win a major battle near Corinth which they could then use to relieve Island #10. Shiloh failed to provide a major victory, however, and the troops around Island #10 were sacrificed for little gain for the Confederates. The authors make their strongest argument at the end of the book when they point out the Confederacy’s repeated mistake of depending on armed fortifications at places like Donelson, Vicksburg, Arkansas Post, and Port Hudson to defend its lengthy borders. This led to the surrender of over 64,000 soldiers, manpower the South desperately needed to survive.

Island #10 is the most comprehensive study of this lesser known Union campaign in the effort to wrest control of the Mississippi River from the Confederacy.  It is expertly researched and readers gain an appreciation of the difficulties encountered by the soldiers and how this struggle fits into the total picture of war in the west. However, the book does not seem to flow as easily as others and simply fails to keep the reader engaged.  At times the complexity of the terrain being described and the surrounding area’s relationship to the Island’s position make it difficult to follow the action. In truth the book is so full of details on every aspect of the movement of troops and ships in the campaign that it at times is a dull read. It might have been rendered both more easily understandable and engaging had the authors kept the pace moving by summarizing extraneous events and focusing their blow-by-blow recounting of events on only those most pivotal to the outcome of the campaign. Nevertheless, historians should add this book to their collection to gain a complete understanding of the Union’s successful operation of a poorly-understood campaign that played an important role in, as Abraham Lincoln famously observed, seeing the Father of Waters go unvexed to the sea.


Review of How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill

13 Oct

I recently listened to an audio version of a book that was first recommended to me by a college professor some twenty-five years ago. I think what took me so long to get around to it, in addition to all the normal things that always delay us from doing something we intend to do, is that I so thoroughly knew the main point of the book before I ever opened it. I am not a scholar of European history and in truth barely conversant in some of the major books on the historiography of early Western civilization, but it would be hard indeed to take any sort of college-level course on the subject in the past several decades and have not at least heard of Thomas Cahill’s groundbreaking and award-winning book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. The book ranked on the New York Times’ bestsellers list in nonfiction for an extended period after its publication in the 1990s and continues to enjoy robust sales today as it finds its way into reading lists in courses on world history. According to the publisher’s website, as of 2020 it is sold nearly 1.5 million copies! Cahill’s thesis is that Irish monks, by their dedicated work in copying books and preserving scholarly pursuits as the Roman Empire fell apart and Europe was descended  into the chaos of the Dark Ages, did nothing less than preserve some of the most treasured, foundational pieces of literature to be produced in the course of western civilization.

To say that these reclusive scholars made for an unlikely set of heroes is an understatement, and no small point of pride for a nation that has historically been on the short end of things. What is now Ireland stood of the very fringes of the mighty Roman Empire at the time of its decline, a lush but forgotten land viewed by sophisticated Romans as inhabited by people who were mere savages. Yet Christian monks in the 500s and 600s AD, following in a tradition of placing a high value on learning initiated by the legendary Roman-born Christian missionary, St. Patrick, dedicated themselves to establishing places of learning and to the preserving of nothing less than world literature as they knew it. Their work included copying all worthwhile known history, poetry, philosophy, and commentary gathered from the libraries of Europe and the Middle East.

Cahill spends a good portion of the book introducing readers to the world in which all this happened. Nearly half the book, in fact, is essentially a sketch of the Roman world as it began to descend into chaos. Speaking broadly, the book communicates the stage of enlightenment which had been reached in the western world by the time of the fall of Rome, and the quickness of its descent into prolonged barbarism in the aftermath. The volume is full of references to ancient literature and poetry, and at times seems to make slow progress indeed in getting to the main point. When it does, though, the argument is thorough, straightforward, and compelling. How the Irish Saved Civilization is certainly worthy of its position as essential reading for those interested in understanding the long arc of western civilization.


The Loss of Two Icons

6 Oct

The historical community recently lost two major contributors to our field with the passing of Civil War writer and tour guide legend Ed Bearss and author/historian Winston Groom.

Edwin Cole Bearss (1923-2020) was a veteran of World War II, seeing action in the Pacific Theater.  Following the war, he gained a B.S. degree in Foreign Service studies from Georgetown and later M.A. in history from Indiana University.  He quickly learned that he rather interpret his beloved Civil War history while in the field than in a classroom and became historian with the National Park Service at Vicksburg in the 1950s.  While there, he helped locate the sunken Union ironclad Cairo as well as lost forts at Grand Gulf. He served as Chief Historian of the NPS from 1981 to 1994. And when he retired in 1995, he was given the title of Chief Historian Emeritus.

Bearss is best known for his sensational tours at these battlefields. His passion, flair for the dramatic and distinct voice made his tours and presentations experiences that audiences would never forget. History enthusiasts would hang on every word while even those with only a precursory interest were mesmerized. There is no telling how many came to study the great conflict simply due to witnessing his theatrical displays. His contribution to the field is unparalleled with a number of books and too many awards and honors to recount here. 

The death of world-famous author Winston Groom (1943-2020) is a huge loss for those of us who both write and study history. While he is closely associated with his novel, Forrest Gump, which was adapted into the acclaimed movie of the same name, Groom actually wrote more works of nonfiction than novels. He had a unique flare for storytelling which made his books the sort of compelling reads most historians aspire—or in our opinion should aspire—to write.

We have reviewed some of Groom’s outstanding historical works in the pages of this blog, including Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville, The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War, and Shiloh, 1862. We both consulted his engrossing account of the Battle of New Orleans, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte at the Battle of New Orleans while researching our own book on the Creek War and War of 1812, and we look forward to one day reading his Vicksburg, 1863. But Groom also wrote about the World Wars, among other topics in the American past, to acclaim: A Storm in Flanders: The Triumph and Tragedy on the Western Front, 1942: The Year that Tried Men’s Souls, The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II, and The Allies: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and the Unlikely Alliance That Won World War II.

Both men increased our understanding and appreciation of our nation’s history and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for their influence. They both made the past come alive for the general public in a way few academics, who often miss the big picture in their search for obscure details or comparisons, could ever achieve. At heart, that is why all historians study and write about the past, but few did it as well as them. Rest in peace, Mr. Bearss and Mr. Groom.


Air Force Football Remembers the Tuskegee Airmen

29 Sep

As college football fans, Clay and I have drawn attention to interesting commemorations of important historical events via special football uniforms worn by Army, Navy, and other universities from time to time.

Today we recognize a special uniform to be worn in an upcoming game by the Air Force Academy remembering the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily African-American fighter and bomber pilots who served with distinction in World War II. Part of what the Air Force is calling its “Air Power Legacy Series,” the uniforms feature helmets with paint schemes based on the P-51 aircraft flown by the Tuskegee Airmen along with the signature red tails and nose that helped identify each squadron. There are four variants of helmets, decorated with squadron patches for the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd units. In special lettering on the back of the jerseys is the unit’s nickname, “Red Tails.”

Thanks to the Air Force Academy for finding this unique way to help us remember an important part of our nation’s distinguished military heritage.


Review of War in the West: Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, by William L. Shea

22 Sep

Leadership is often the determining factor between victory and defeat in military encounters.  This characteristic has been discussed often in prominent Civil War campaigns and battles such as Vicksburg and Atlanta, but is just as important in other theaters of the war. Author William L. Shea hammers home the importance of effective battlefield command in War in the West, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, a succinct volume that provides brief overviews of the two largest battles in Arkansas.

Shea, who co-authored the definitive book on Pea Ridge with Earl Hess, provides a concise summary of the battles of Arkansas. As part of the “Civil War Campaigns and Commanders” Series of short, introductory volumes on a number of significant campaigns, the book also contains brief biographies of all the key leaders, both North and South. Personally, we found these disruptive to the book’s narrative and too long. Perhaps these were deemed important to the series, but we would have preferred them in an appendix rather than interspersed throughout the text.

As for the battles, Shea states no Confederate Army ever marched off to battle with greater relative numerical superiority than the one that fought at Pea Ridge.  Confederate forces under Earl Van Dorn failed to capitalize, however, on this rare advantage. Seeking to attack isolated Union forces, Van Dorn sought to split his force to achieve victory. One of Van Dorn’s wings, led by Ben McCullough, who had led forces to victory at Wilson’s Creek, attacked an inferior Union force, but McCullough was quickly shot and killed. His second in command was killed shortly afterwards leading to a lack of leadership and a lost opportunity to bring victory. Van Dorn, leading the other wing, was unaware of this development and launched disjointed attacks on other Union forces. Union General Samuel Curtis outgeneraled Van Dorn and brought his divided forces together to defeat and ultimately rout the Confederate army at Pea Ridge. Eventually, Van Dorn led his remaining forces across the Mississippi River to assist Confederate forces there but they arrived too late to participate in the crucial battle of Shiloh. This departure of troops, however, did leave Arkansas defenseless.

Months later, a new Confederate force under the command of Thomas Hindman sought to also attack isolated Union commands which resulted in the Battle of Prairie Grove. Shea describes Pea Ridge as a boxing match with lots of sparring whereas Prairie Grove was a pure slugfest with extremely high casualty rates considering numbers involved.  Shea gives high praise to Union division commanders Francis Herron and James Blunt whose relentless energy and aggressiveness prevented Hindman from achieving total victory. Union superiority of artillery, a common theme in Arkansas, also proved an important factor. By the end of 1862, war in the Ozark Plateau was on the backburner; Missouri was safely secure for the Union and Confederate authority in Arkansas was rapidly diminishing.

War in the West provides an adequate overview of these campaigns in Arkansas, but leaves the reader wanting more. Shea did emphasize the role that Union superior military leadership played in these Union triumphs while conversely saying Van Dorn and Hindman tried to do too much. Historians will surely agree that McCullough’s death and its resulting void in leadership was a huge factor in Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge. We also understand the practicality of combining these campaigns into a single volume, but it did seem to lessen the importance of each battle. Readers will be satisfied if they simply seek a quick synopsis of war in Arkansas. Anyone wanting more will need to look elsewhere.


Review of Where the South Lost the War: An Analysis of the Fort Henry-Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862, by Kendall Gott

15 Sep

Historians love debating the key moment when the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Many point to the twin calamities of Vicksburg and Gettysburg while some even point to the firing upon Fort Sumter as where the South lost its chance at independence. Retired U.S. Army officer and army historian Kendall Gott claims the Confederacy headed towards defeat in early 1862 with his Where the South Lost the War, An Analysis of the Fort Henry–Fort Donelson Campaign, February 1862. Gott’s superb narrative and thoroughly researched examination of this crucial campaign has us believing his answer is correct.

Gott provides a traditional narrative of Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s offensive push at the Confederacy’s weakest point in its long defensive front in the West. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers provided convenient avenues of invasion for Northern forces and with the help of armored gunboats, Grant aimed his force at exploiting this advantage. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston served as department commander, but instead of providing critical oversight over the entire region, he limited his focus to the Confederate center at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Confederates constructed Forts Henry and Donelson to defend the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, but Johnston never paid enough attention to what was clearly the most vulnerable area of his several hundred mile-long line. After Union naval forces overwhelmed the poorly-constructed Fort Henry (with ample help from the rising river water), Grant then proceeded to march on Fort Donelson. A more formidable bastion, this site withstood naval attack, but its convoluted command structure eventually led to the fort’s surrender with its more than 12,000 irreplaceable soldiers. Gott states the South never recovered from these disasters as it lost an entire army and it gave easy access to the two principal rivers that the Union would use to advance into the heartland.

Gott concludes each chapter with hard-hitting analysis that makes this book so valuable to historians and history buffs alike. His final chapter summarizes all his main points in clear and concise fashion.  Some of his strongest points include his praise of Gideon Pillow for there being any defensive effort at Fort Donelson at all. He then heavily criticizes Simon Buckner whose poor battlefield performance, personal feud with Pillow, and defeatist attitude doomed the fort. Grant gets complimented for taking the initiative at the battle’s critical moment by authorizing an attack. Finally, Johnston gets the ultimate blame for the Confederacy’s defeat by not paying enough attention to these forts. He never visited these sites himself, which Gott finds inexcusable, and failed to provide a worthy commander to oversee their defenses. Instead, Confederate troops were led by a hodgepodge of leaders including Pillow, Bucker and the hapless John Floyd. These leaders surrendered the fort when, according to Gott, there was really no reason in what he calls “one of the most amazing examples of the collapse of command in the annals of American warfare.”

As one reads this account, it is hard to argue against Forts Henry and Donelson being where the South lost the war. The ineptitude is of an epic nature with major blunder following major blunder. Gott believes it may have even been the most mismanaged affair of the entire war, noting that “there was no other parallel of such incompetence and incapacity.”  The long list of missteps in the campaign is indeed remarkable: building Fort Henry in a low-lying area below the regular high-water mark of the river; launching a successful break-out attack at Donelson but not taking advantage of the opportunity due to the dithering and lack of direction of bumbling leaders; the rush to surrender a post that was still defensible; and a disastrous command structure that failed to provide clear goals or allow for concerted action. The list goes on and on and Gott basically dares readers to find another campaign in the war where worse decisions were made. Gott concludes his study with the ominous comment on wondering how the eventual battle of Shiloh might have concluded had Johnston had the 12,000 men from Donelson under arms rather than languishing in prison camps in the north. Unfortunately, he only had himself to blame. Those Confederate soldiers deserved better. Historians of the war owe it to themselves to read this account and decide for themselves.


Review of The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, by Rick Atkinson

8 Sep

There are some stories in America’s storied past that, even if they have been recounted several times, virtually demand retelling every generation. The incredible saga of the opening years of the Revolutionary War is on that short list. Encompassing the first shots of the war at Lexington and Concord, legendary action at Bunker Hill, dismal setbacks in New York, and a bold and stunning surprise attack at Trenton, the military events of 1775-1777 are at the very heart of American heritage.

Here with a much anticipated account of those pivotal years in the struggle for American independence is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson with The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. The book is the first of a planned three-volume series on the Revolutionary War from Atkinson, a former journalist who has established himself as among the foremost American writers of non-fiction. His acclaimed “Liberation Trilogy” on World War II (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, The Guns at Last Light) have been hailed as masterpieces on their subjects. It is a pretty safe bet that his effort at telling the story of America’s birth on the battlefields of the Revolution will soon be receiving the same praise.

In the pages of The British Are Coming (I listened to the audiobook version), Atkinson combines smooth, gripping prose with a depth of knowledge on the people and events of the war to produce one of the more compelling and insightful accounts of the first years of the Revolutionary War. Atkinson places great emphasis on the experience of the men in the ranks and the uncertainty of the venture in which they were engaged. Their endurance of privation, struggle against the odds, and determination in the face of setbacks stand out as key themes throughout the book. Equally so does the fact that morale was not always high in the American army as the setbacks accumulated. The leadership and sheer will of George Washington looms large in Atkinson’s narrative, leaving no doubt how indispensable he was to keeping a somewhat ragtag army together in trying circumstances and wresting victory from what on more than one occasion appeared to be certain defeat.

It is obvious that the British Are Coming tells a story that few historians will find unfamiliar. But the flare Atkinson brings to the task is remarkable, and it is easy to see why it has already become one of the most celebrated books on its subject ever written. Anyone with an interest in American history will enjoy this stellar volume, and will eagerly await the next two in the series.


Review of The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, by Stuart W. Sanders

1 Sep

Described by one participant as “the first blow which breaks the back of this rebellion,” the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky deserves much more recognition from scholars and laymen alike than it has customarily received. This Union triumph, which tore open the right flank of the Confederacy’s long defensive line from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and set the stage for further Union incursions, has been the subject of very few studies. In truth the battle has been only hazily understood almost since its ending, as it has been referred to over the years by several names including Fishing Creek, Logan’s Crossroads, and of course Mill Springs; few significant Civil War battles have as many unofficial names. As part of the History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, author Stuart W. Sanders provides a brief, yet detailed analysis of this crucial battle in The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.


The right flank of the four hundred mile Confederate defensive position in the winter of 1861-1862 was manned by forces led by George Crittenden and Felix Zollicoffer. After quickly securing the important Cumberland Gap in the fall of 1861, Zollicoffer made the crucial decision to cross the Cumberland River to put pressure on Union forces in the area.  Zollicoffer bungled the exercise, though, establishing a base with his back to the river. It would be only the first of several missteps and unfortunate circumstances which ultimately resulted in both his death and Confederate defeat following the decision to attack Union forces under George Thomas on January 19, 1862.

Confederate forces outnumbered their opponents in the battle, but two main factors led to Union triumph. On repeated occasions, Sanders discusses the impact of faulty Confederate firearms as too many troops were armed with older muskets and flintlocks that functioned poorly in the wet, dreary conditions of the day. Secondly, poor generalship doomed the Confederate assault. No overall direction and strategy was followed and regiments were sent in piecemeal, especially at the start of the fight when an organized assault with adequate numbers might have led to victory. Sanders’s narrative is well written and researched with ample first-hand accounts and quotes from participants of the struggle, but like so many books we have reviewed in this space, there are not enough adequate maps to help readers follow such a detailed account of the battle.

Stuart provides a detailed examination of the death of Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer. Zollicoffer was shot by Union soldiers (supposedly by Union Colonel Speed Fry) as he mistakenly wandered into Union lines during the battle due to the poor weather and a case of uniform misidentification. His corpse was afterward pillaged by souvenir-seeking Union troops. Being the first Confederate general killed in battle in the war, Zollicoffer became known as something of a martyr throughout the South at the time and much of the early efforts at memorializing the battlefield involved the circumstances surrounding his death. Stuart’s analysis of the strategic importance of the battle is strong. The Confederate defeat in eastern Kentucky led to other places like Bowling Green, Kentucky becoming untenable and, combined with disasters at Forts Henry and Donelson, led to a complete collapse of the Confederate line which led to an almost complete evacuation of most of Tennessee. All these roads eventually led from Mill Springs to Shiloh, the Confederacy’s last ditch effort to overcome these early war reverses. The Battle of Mill Springs Kentucky succeeds in providing a concise overview of the battle, but there is a definite need for more studies that not only discuss the fight itself but also give more thought and explanation of the overall context to the central importance of the struggle for territorial control in the western Confederacy.


Review of Jose de Ezpeleta, Gobernador de la Mobila, 1780-1781 by Francisco de Borja Medina Rojas

25 Aug

Guest review by John S. Sledge

Historians of the colonial Gulf Coast have long grappled with materials that are widely scattered and in multiple languages. Happily, the Internet has ameliorated the former challenge significantly, and multiple translation projects, such as LSU’s impressive presentation of Marcel Giraud’s five-volume history of French Louisiana (1974-1991), have partially addressed the latter. Significant gaps remain, frustrating English-language researchers. A massive tome originally published in 1980 by Seville, Spain’s School of Hispanic-American Studies is a prominent example of this still untranslated material. Jose de Ezpeleta, Governador de la Mobila, 1780-1781 by Franciso de Borja Medina Rojas presents an exhaustive study of one Spanish official’s 10-month Mobile tenure. The author, a Jesuit priest and historian in his mid-90s, is a direct descendant of Ezpeleta.


As an intermediate-level Spanish speaker whose current research interest concerns the centuries-long linkages between Mobile and Havana, I decided to tackle Borja Medina’s 869-page doorstop this year, an endeavor considerably accelerated by the corona virus quarantine. Issues of vocabulary, phraseology, and specialized military and naval terminology were resolved thanks to good online Spanish dictionaries, translation help from Giselle San-Roman of the Society Mobile-La Habana, and increasing familiarity with the author’s style as I proceeded.

An indefatigable scholar, Borja Medina visited archives in Cuba, Spain, England, and the United States. He enjoyed enviable access to private family materials, notably reams of correspondence. Throughout his big book he both paraphrases and quotes significant portions of the letters, providing the reader with a strong sense of immediacy. Dozens of Spanish period maps and detailed tables significantly enhance the volume. The tables especially are a terrific resource and include everything from lists of ships, captains, and cargoes to troop strength and rations at Mobile.

Jose de Ezpeleta was born in Navarre, Spain, in 1742 and died peacefully at Pamplona in 1823. During his long career he steadily advanced through administrative and military posts of increasing responsibility. A thorough listing of his titles would run for pages, but in brief, besides his service as Mobile’s governor, he was Captain General of Cuba and viceroy of New Granada. He and Bernardo de Gálvez were close, as is obvious from their warm references to each other in their letters. Gálvez, of course, has dominated the historical literature of Spanish West Florida, but Borja Medina convincingly argues that Ezpeleta was vital to Gálvez’s success, including his spectacular conquest of Pensacola in 1781.

The book thoroughly outlines Ezpeleta’s Gulf Coast tenure in 12 densely packed chapters that focus on Indian affairs, supply difficulties, and invasion preparations. Ezpeleta did not reach Mobile until Gálvez had already taken it. When he stepped ashore Gálvez put him in charge of the battered fort and village. His charge was to hold them against possible British counterattack and to help Gálvez stage an attempt on neighboring Pensacola. This was no easy task. The district’s Indians were restive and more inclined to favor the British, who were lavish gift-givers, over the chintzy Spanish Crown. The colony’s existing English-speaking residents were equally troublesome, reluctant to transfer their loyalty simply because the Spanish flag flew over Fuerte Carlota’s brick ramparts. Ezpeleta struggled to keep his 800-man garrison adequately fed and clothed amid these seething tensions. He found it difficult to secure adequate boats for water-borne transport and chafed at Britain’s naval superiority. Two fully armed frigates at Pensacola prowled the coast at will, creating a de facto blockade against desperately needed supplies coming from Havana or New Orleans.

Borja Medina devotes an entire chapter to the scuffle at the Village, located roughly where Daphne is today. A strong enemy column out of Pensacola that included Indians, Hessians, Loyalists, and British regulars attacked a small Spanish garrison there in January of 1781 but was repulsed after sharp action. Borja Medina describes the battle well and thoroughly discusses its consequences. These included a check on British designs to retake Mobile and Spain regaining the initiative.

The volume closes with a short sketch of the siege of Pensacola. Borja Medina keeps his focus on Ezpeleta, who displayed incredible determination, tenacity, and bravery there. Gálvez’s confidence in his friend was such that he promoted him to major general on the spot. One awed eyewitness described Ezpeleta, waving a cutlass, leaping into the British works during the final assault like a “León sangriento” (bloody lion).

Hopefully, an English translation of this important book will soon come to pass. In the interim, however, limited- and even non-Spanish speakers will profit from the many maps and tables. Copies of the long-out-of-print paperbound volume may be ordered online through, where prices start at a hefty $213. Nonetheless, no serious Gulf Coast history collection should be without this book.

John S. Sledge

Sledge is the author of The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History, The Mobile River, These Rugged Days: The Civil War in Alabama, An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork, Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile’s Historic Cemeteries, and The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile.

Review of The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South, by Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr.

18 Aug

Most Civil War studies that focus on actions in the western theater barely cover the confrontation at Belmont, Missouri, which took place on November 7, 1861.  When the battle is discussed, it is usually in the form of a paragraph or two with a summary statement that the affair was the first time Union General Ulysses S, Grant led Union troops into combat during the war. There are but few full length studies of the battle with the late Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr’s The Battle of Belmont, Grant Strikes South, published in 1991, being the most comprehensive. Upon review, Hughes’s richly detailed account definitely gives this rarely studied battle the consideration it deserves.


The Battle of Belmont focuses on the military maneuvers centered on Confederate-held Columbus, Kentucky. General Leonidas Polk first broke Kentucky’s “neutrality” in September of 1861, when he decided to occupy the city and take advantage of the area’s impressive terrain features to turn Columbus into a Gibraltar that would prevent Union excursions down the Mississippi River. Columbus was located on a high bluff along a bend in the river opposite of a crossroads community known as Belmont on the Missouri shore. Grant countered Polk’s move by occupying Paducah, Kentucky, and then made plans to threaten Polk’s operations. More importantly, Grant sought to train his solders by quickly giving them a feel of combat.

Hughes chooses to narrate the battle in an interesting format. Every chapter focuses on either the Union or Confederate perspective, tracing the campaign in alternating chapters. This method, although at times a little confusing, does allow the author to provide in-depth, balanced, analysis from both sides. Using this technique, Hughes traces Grant’s force as it achieved early success, forcing the Confederates from their lines, eventually capturing their camp and sending them scurrying for safety. He then turns his attention to the Confederate response, as reinforcements were ferried quickly across river to reverse the tide and send those same Union forces skedaddling back to their boats. Interestingly, Grant actually disappears in the narrative at times as the action focuses on other leaders at the regimental and company level. The inclusion of several easy to understand maps allows the reader to easily follow the soldiers’ movements, both on the battlefield and aboard the river boats which transported them to and from the scene of the action. Indeed, as a sort of combined-forces action in which riverboats figured almost as prominently in deciding the course of the battle and its outcome, Belmont is rather unique. Both sides claimed the affair was a victory, as Grant’s men destroyed a Confederate position but Polk’s troops, after rallying, drove the Federals from the field.

Hughes’s best chapter might be his last, as he critiques the performance of the various leaders of both armies. Confederates Polk and Gideon Pillow do not shine whereas Benjamin Cheatham does get high marks for assertive action. On the Union side, John A. Logan earned praise and Union naval commander Henry Walke was criticized for not showing more initiative. Had he moved aggressively to contest the ferrying of Confederates from the Kentucky to the Missouri shore, Belmont might have been a complete Federal victory. In regards to the battle’s long-term impact, Hughes points out that Grant’s campaign did serve to put Confederate focus on the Columbus sector, setting the stage for Grant’s second major offensive along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which launched him into legend. We were a little baffled that more emphasis was also not placed on the fact that Confederate forces truly had a chance to capture Ulysses S. Grant himself had they pressed the Union forces retreating harder and not allowed them to re-board their transports. Whereas Walke missed a golden opportunity, the same might be said for the Confederates who could have quite literally bagged Grant’s force as it attempted to make an escape aboard slow-loading riverboats. What a game changer that would have been! All in all, The Battle of Belmont should be praised for its well-written narrative that allows the battle and its participants their just due instead of only allowing them to be only a footnote to larger campaign studies of the war.