Archive | August, 2022

Review of West Wind, Flood Tide: The Battle of Mobile Bay, by Jack Friend

23 Aug

Union Admiral David Farragut referred to the August 5, 1864, naval engagement at Mobile Bay as “the most desperate battle I ever fought.” Such a pronouncement is worthy of our contemplation considering Farragut’s long and illustrious career as a naval officer. Author Jack Friend provides a riveting narrative of the affair in West Wind, Flood Tide, The Battle of Mobile Bay.

The late Friend, who passed away in 2010, was a noted businessman who was considered by many as the premier historian of the Civil War naval battle at Mobile Bay. Published in 2004, West Wind, High Tide was the culmination in a life spent researching the titanic struggle. Mobile Bay was one of the last remaining ports of the Confederacy and had long been a target for Farragut as well as William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant by the time of the battle. Various other expeditions and other political considerations prevented Union forces from mounting an expedition until the summer of 1864 when plans were put in motion for a joint army/navy operation aimed at capturing not only the outer forts and Confederate fleet, but the important town of Mobile itself.

Mobile was well protected. Forts Morgan, Gaines, and Powell defended the entrance to the bay along with a line of underwater mines, known during those times as torpedoes. A small Confederate fleet also guarded the bay, highlighted by the ironclad ram Tennessee, a much-feared warship led by Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who had captained the famed ironclad Virginia. Farragut would lead a fleet that included a dozen wooden warships, two Mississippi River ironclads and two monitors. The army would also conduct amphibious landings to put Forts Gaines and Morgan under siege. Farragut instructed his fleet to enter the bay by sailing close to Fort Morgan, avoiding the dreaded torpedo “field” to the west of the narrow ship channel Rebels had kept open for blockade runners. Farragut feared the encounter would be a costly one, but knew the attack had to be made.

Friend provides a thorough background of the preparations being made by both Union and Confederate authorities. At times, the first half of his narrative is a bit tedious as the reader reads pages upon pages of Farragut waiting for the ironclads to arrive. The book’s highwater mark occurs when Farragut’s ships enter the channel, and the monitor Tecumseh sinks upon veering off course and striking a torpedo. Friend states the battle’s key moment was at hand as the entire fleet froze upon the monitor’s destruction while the guns of Fort Morgan and the Confederate fleet hurled scores of shells at them. At this point, Farragut’s legend was born when he bravely led his ships past the dangers and into the bay. Apparently, Farragut never did yell the famous words of “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Steam Ahead,” but the several instructions he shouted in the pivotal moments of the battle from high atop the mast of his flagship essentially communicated the sentiment and orders clear enough.

After Friend describes the Union Fleet taking care of the other inferior Southern ships Gaines and Selma, his story reaches a crescendo again with the description of the Tennessee’s daring fight against the entire Union armada, a fight that was dramatic but doomed to failure as the ship could not overcome the overwhelming odds against it and eventually surrendered when it could no longer put up a fight. The naval battle was over. Within a few weeks, all the forts had also surrendered. Mobile Bay was in Union hands, but Farragut’s ships could not penetrate the shallow waters and get close enough to bombard the city and there were not enough Union troops on hand to assault the city and hold it. Not until April 1865, after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, did the city fall into Union hands.

The capture of Mobile Bay was a critical victory for Union forces that according to Friend helped boost sagging Northern morale and propel Abraham Lincoln to victory in the 1864 presidential election. Farragut’s victory was costly, resulting in the loss of two vessels and over three hundred men. Again, the Union navy flexed its muscles over an overmatched Southern navy and proved again that forts could not defeat them. Friend expertly describes the preparations, action, and aftermath in a clear way. His references to Homer’s Odyssey might be a bit much to some readers during the action, but it illustrates the battle as one of the more epic struggles of its time. As it has since its original publication, Friend’s book still stands as the definitive study of the Battle of Mobile Bay.


In Memory of David McCullough

9 Aug

Today we mourn the passing of a legend. David McCullough, one of the foremost masters of historical writing, died over the weekend at his Massachusetts home at the age of 89. He will of course be remembered for his iconic books such as Truman, John Adams, 1776, Mornings On Horseback, and The Wright Brothers, among an impressive body of work that included service as a narrator on popular video documentaries such as Ken Burns’ famed Civil War series. If you ever have a chance to listen to him narrate one of his audiobooks, you will quickly learn that he was a master storyteller in whatever medium he chose to work.

It was the stellar example he set as a practitioner of narrative history that we want to draw to attention to as we contemplate his legacy. McCullough inspired us, and countless others, to be better writers and to always remember our primary audience is the general public. He encouraged us to understand all history is the story of individual human experience, and when related in comprehensible and compelling fashion it is as interesting as any work of fiction—perhaps even more so. Above all, though, his work is a reminder that the most fundamental and impactful work a historian can do is to write history in a readable, accessible fashion. McCullough was no insular academic, writing for his peers and focusing on the minutia of historical topics or urging some sort of reconsideration of one preconceived notion or another. His audience was always the general public, and his stories were always straightforward accounts on a grand scale. He excelled in telling these engrossing tales in a way that readers connected with, learned from, and were inspired by. In so doing, he had a tremendous influence on the enthusiasm for the study of the past by the public during his time and far beyond.

He will be missed.