Best Books on the Mobile Campaign

4 Jan

It has unfortunately been all too easy for generations of historians to dismiss the Mobile Campaign—the last major combined-forces operation of the Civil War, involving over 55,000 troops and over three dozen warships—as some sort of inconsequential mopping up operation largely due to the simple fact that it occurred in 1865. While it certainly cannot be said to be as pivotal to the overall course of the war as events at places such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg, the months-long campaign which led to the ultimate capture of the last remaining major port and city in Confederate hands is nonetheless a significant event which has long deserved more attention than it has received. In the past few years, I have reviewed most of the small, but thankfully growing, body of literature on this intriguing but relatively little-understood campaign in this space. Today I am offering my thoughts on the best books about this incredibly interesting but largely overlooked campaign and the city which was its target.

The Campaign of Mobile, by Christopher Columbus Andrews

Major General Christopher Columbus Andrews commanded the portion of the federal forces which assaulted the center of the Confederate lines at the Battle of Fort Blakeley on April 9, 1865, the pivotal battle in the campaign for Mobile. He visited the battlefield just a year later in the course of research for a book about the Mobile Campaign, during which he sketched or arranged for the sketching of key parts of the battlefield as they appeared at the time. The book he published shortly after that visit (in 1867), The Campaign of Mobile, was the first about the effort to capture Mobile to appear in print and for many generations remained the only one. By any measure, it is an authoritative, day-by-day account, coming as it did from an eyewitness involved in creating many of the official orders he drew upon for the arrangement of the book. Anyone interested in the Mobile Campaign needs to have this book, for it is a key part of the foundation for virtually all the scholarship on the subject that has come after. Plus, it has those incredible sketches which show the battlefield as it stood just months after the pivotal clashes at Spanish Fort and Blakeley.

Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign, by Chester Hearn

Hearn’s book analyzing the Mobile Campaign is superbly researched, constructing into narrative form vast amounts of information unearthed in extensive research into original resources, especially official reports filed by the contending armies. It takes readers all the way back to 1862 and the beginnings of the campaign for Mobile, and allows them unprecedented insight into the planning, logistics, and ultimately dramatic fighting for the city that raged on both land and water. As Hearn demonstrates, the campaign for Mobile did nothing less than foreshadow the future of warfare. It featured ironclads, torpedoes, land mines, hand grenades, advanced rifled artillery and repeating rifles, coordinated amphibious assaults, elaborate earthen fortifications, instantaneous electronic battlefield reports via telegraph, and skillful deployment of troops. It involved combat between some of the war’s most celebrated veteran units and one of the highest concentrations of black troops in combat anywhere in the war. While Hearn’s book excels in its execution to the point of being the unquestioned standard resource on its subject, this is no work of engrossing literature. It is as dry as a textbook and as straightforward a recitation of facts about military maneuvering as ever was written. Nevertheless, the book presents the story of the Mobile Campaign with as much detail as anyone before or since.

Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy, by Sean Michael O’Brien

Sean Michael O’Brien’s compelling account of the Mobile Campaign, Mobile, 1865, is one of the best tellings of this overlooked campaign. Written by an Alabama librarian who preferred to publish under a pen name, the book deserves far more attention than it has received for its comprehensive detail and engaging style. O’Brien’s handling of the campaign involves both overview strategy and poignant individual stories, all woven together in a book that anyone with an interest in Mobile’s Civil War experience should consult. He trods some well-traveled ground in parts of the book, relating the basics of the context of the campaign, but particularly shines in his meticulous accounts of the fighting at both Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley. Readers familiar with Christopher Columbus Andrews’ book on the campaign will easily recognize his reliance on the publication for portions of his narrative, but he nonetheless makes the story his own.

The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865, by Paul Brueske

In Last Siege author Paul Brueske chronicles in its totality the fighting on land and water which led to the capture of Mobile, including cavalry skirmishes along the Florida-Alabama line, sieges at Spanish Fort and Blakeley, and naval actions in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. With a keen eye for unique details, Brueske brings to light many personalities and occurrences otherwise lost to history, such as the fact that future governors of both northern and southern states fought in the campaign; the story of a female soldier who participated in it disguised as a man; the tale of the Union army’s attempt to bombard Confederate lines with mortars fashioned from the trunks of sweet gum trees, the use of land mines and underwater torpedoes by outnumbered Confederates; the actions of one of the largest contingents of African-American soldiers to fight in any battle of the Civil War; and numerous other colorful details that have rarely, if ever, been discussed in books on the Mobile Campaign. Brueske makes a convincing plea for the campaign’s relevance in the pages of Last Siege as he fashions a sentimental but insightful overview of the definitive campaign of the war in the Gulf Coast region.

Last Stand at Mobile, by John C. Waugh

With a narrative consisting of under ninety pages of text, Last Stand at Mobile is admittedly a slim volume, but packs a lot into those pages. In fact, the book is in some ways a model of superb public history, as it communicates a basic understanding of the essential people, places and events associated with the Battle of Mobile Bay and the associated campaign for the city of Mobile, Alabama in accessible prose. Originally published in 2001, it promises to serve for years to come as among the best points of entry for those seeking to understand the events surrounding the capture of one of the last Confederate-controlled port cities during the Civil War. This is no simple task, as the events chronicled include a blockade, a naval battle, a siege, and a military campaign several months long waged for the capture of the city. Engaging and informative, it is a great example of the type of historical writing the public craves and deserves.

The Assault on Fort Blakeley: “The Thunder and Lightning of Battle,” by Mike Bunn

I do not customarily rank my writing among the “best” books on any subject when composing lists such as this, but I feel my publication on the Battle of Fort Blakeley merits inclusion here. It stands as the only book-length treatment of that pivotal battle in the Mobile Campaign ever published. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, some sixteen thousand Union troops launched a bold, coordinated assault on the three-mile-long line of earthworks known as Fort Blakeley in the climax of the weeks-long campaign that resulted in the capture of Mobile. The charge was one of the grand spectacles of the Civil War, and the battlefield where it all happened stands in a state of remarkable preservation in a state park. The book serves as both a history and guide to the battle, explaining how it unfolded zone by zone and featuring the words of participants throughout.

Confederate Mobile, by Arthur Bergeron, Jr.

Arthur Bergeron, Jr.’s overview of the Civil War experience of Mobile, Alabama, Confederate Mobile, first appeared in 1991 and has become a standard reference source on the history of the city. Mobile had been largely overlooked in Civil War historiography prior to Bergeron’s book, even though it was one of the largest and most important cities in the Confederacy. The book consists of some thirteen chapters detailing the city’s strategic position, its role as a point of Confederate supply, the plans made for its defense, and the fighting that took place in late 1864 and early 1865 that resulted in its capture by Union forces. It is a detailed, if not necessarily engrossing, account of military activity in Mobile, unearthing a story that few had ever attempted to tell. Its strength lies in the comprehensive way it deals with that military history, providing details on everything from the purpose and nature of the rings of defenses that encircled the city to the chronic shortage of troops to man them to the special role played by slaves and free blacks in the city’s defense. It is a little less convincing in integrating the story of the civilian experience into the narrative, providing a rather cursory overview of the topic despite the fact that “Confederate Mobile” saw no fighting until the very late stages of the war and life carried on as normal there perhaps more so than any other large Southern city. What it does it does well, though, and it remains a standard reference on its subject today.

Besieged: Mobile 1865, by Russell W. Blount, Jr.

Despite its brevity, the book gives you about as well-rounded and as thorough a picture of the campaign for the “Paris of the South” as one is likely to find. The book chronicles the period between the Battle of Mobile Bay and the fall of the city to Union forces, or a period roughly from January to April of 1865. In a dozen brief, quick-moving chapters, Blount gives readers an understanding of life in Mobile during the time, the strategies and movements of the opposing armies and navies that battled for the city, and the personal experiences of the soldiers who comprised those forces. Utilizing well-selected quotes from those who lived through the events he chronicles, he brings the story to life in convincing fashion.

Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, by Paula Webb

In nine short chapters, arranged as a month by month chronicle of life in Mobile from August of 1864 to April of 1865, Webb discusses life in the city as revealed in newspapers, journals, diaries, letters, and other correspondence involving both civilians and military officials. The progress of the military campaign aimed at the capture of the city is the constant backdrop, and she gives overview analysis of its major developments as she introduces readers to details of morale, devotion to the war effort, social life, economic crises, and political divisions within Mobile. In the process readers come to know a bit of the personalities of some influential figures in the city at the time, such as Confederate General Dabney Maury, socialite Octavia LeVert, and author Augusta Evans, as well as a host of lesser known individuals. Webb’s description brings to light what was on the minds of Mobile’s citizens during the siege, and discusses the military campaign at their doorstep from the viewpoint of what they knew and when. Interestingly, there is considerable attention given to the lively discussion during the period over whether or not to arm the slaves to achieve Confederate independence.

JMB

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