Archive | August, 2020

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.


Review of Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, by William G. Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III

11 Aug

Every Civil War historian and buff knows the first major battle of the war took place at Bull Run/Manassas in Virginia. Few know that just three weeks later, the second significant clash took place hundreds of miles to the west near the Missouri/Arkansas border. Authors William G. Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III seek to educate us about this crucial campaign with special emphasis on the soldiers who participated with their book Wilson’s Creek, The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It.

Piston and Hatcher

Missouri was one of the few slave states which refused to secede from the Union with other Southern states and thereby attempted to play a neutral role in the conflict. Many Missouri leaders with Southern sympathies tried to push the state towards the Confederacy while the federal government sought to keep the state loyal to the Union. Union commander Nathaniel Lyon took the lead in securing Missouri for the future and took it upon himself to gather forces and seek out a campaign to punish those who he deemed traitors. His force would be a widely diverse set of men from the “Show Me State” as well as neighboring states of Iowa and Kansas. Many of his men claimed German descent and would be led by one of their own, Franz Sigel, who would play a huge role in the battle to come.

Men from Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas would join native Missourians to not only try to wrangle the state for the Confederacy but also serve to protect other regions further south. Their leadership was divided by Missouri native Sterling Price who sought to liberate the state and Ben McCullough, a Texan whose orders were more conservative as he sought to simply protect Indian Territory and parts further south. McCullough would eventually assume overall command but a constant friction between the two remained throughout the coming campaign.

Piston and Hatcher seek to not only provide a standard narrative of the campaign and Battle of Wilson’s Creek but also focus on the soldiers themselves so we can understand them in context of their society and analyze their experiences in relation to their home communities. The book’s first 150 pages basically focuses on the soldiers themselves, their enlistments and their desire to proudly represent their homes. Nothing epitomizes this more than the colorful names of the companies they formed as well as their homemade flags they carried, many of which were made by the ladies of their communities. Preserving not only their personal honor but that of their homes was of utmost importance to all of them.

Lyon achieved great success initially in his campaign as he disrupted early attempts at pro-Confederate gatherings and then marched his force southward from St. Louis, basically securing Missouri for the Union. After taking Springfield, located in the southwestern portion of the state, he would have been prudent to retreat further northward towards reinforcements and supplies, but Sigel convinced him of a two pronged attack on Southern forces who had camped around Wilson Creek. Ironically, the attack featured initial success as the Southern forces were caught off guard by Lyon and Sigel’s separate forces. Unfortunately for them, Sigel’s forces disintegrated after gaining some momentum and Lyon’s forces were eventually overwhelmed by the numerically superior forces of McCullough. Lyon’s force defended a prominent location on the battlefield for hours, known forever as Bloody Hill, until they eventually withdrew. The authors trace the chaotic battle which was defined by poor communication, inexperienced men and officers, and uniform identification problems; kudos to the authors for providing ample maps to trace the action.

Wilson’s Creek presents a fine account of this early struggle of the war. The authors have provided a strong narrative, but at times, the story does seem to drag on a bit as the authors focus their energies on detailing the backstories of soldiers and how their experiences were understood and celebrated in their hometowns. Readers should know that although this is admittedly the stated goal of the authors, the stories of the organization and veneration of numerous regiments on both sides of the conflict takes up at least half of the book. All in all, we recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about the relatively little known second battle of the war.


Review of A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause, by Ben H. Severance

5 Aug

Ben Severance’s new book, A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause, is the most thorough examination of its topic to be published. A groundbreaking study revealing the details of state politics and commitment to the Confederate cause over the course of the entire four years of the war, it is certain to become an essential reference source for many years to come. While the book is chock full of information on political figures both well-known and obscure, the one major point Severance makes consistently and strongly is that Alabama was steadfast to the Confederate war effort even to the last days of the conflict. In fact, he argues, it may well have been indeed the most committed Southern state to the war effort overall.


Severance is chair of the History Department at Auburn University at Montgomery. An authority on the Civil War era, he is author of Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War and Tennessee’s Radical Army: The State Guard and Its Role in Reconstruction, 1867-1869. In A War State All Over, he draws on years of research to address an aspect of Alabama’s Civil War experience long unexplored. Many have taken for granted that Alabama’s two gubernatorial administrations during the war defined its commitment to the Confederacy. The first, of John Gill Shorter—an outspoken secessionist—has commonly been described as militantly pro-Confederate. The second, of Thomas Hill Watts, has long been described as coming to power after the “hard war” approach wore thin on a suffering public.

Severance takes an unprecedented deep dive into the realities of Alabama’s wartime political environment to see how well these assumptions hold up to scrutiny. What he finds is a much greater degree of continuity in approach to support for the war than many have credited. While there were periods of frustration and doubt, Severance demonstrates that the Yellowhammer state’s commitment to the cause of Confederate independence never wavered until the bitter end. He looks at elections for the state legislature and Confederate congress in the pages of the book, providing some of the most detailed analysis of wartime election returns to be published. But the heart of Severance’s study revolves around the pivotal 1863 gubernatorial election pitting Shorter versus Watts and is the campaign covered in most depth. Anyone with an interest in Confederate politics or Alabama will find it interesting and informative.