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

14 Mar

The Battle of Mobile Bay, fought in August 1864 and featuring Union Admiral David Farragut reputedly exclaiming “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Steam Ahead,” is one of the more iconic moments of the Civil War. Many do not realize that although Farragut’s victory sealed off the bay from blockade running in that battle, the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands. The city did not fall until some eight months later in one of the final major campaigns of the Civil War. Historian Sean Michael O’Brien details the events of the combined-forces operation in Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy.

O’Brien is a pen name for a deceased Alabama author who published several works of history anonymously. He was also author of a favorite volume of ours entitled In Bitterness and Tears, which provides a thorough account of the Creek War. In Mobile, 1865 he chronicles the Union efforts to finally capture Mobile. By the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was nearing its end. Its Army of Tennessee had been basically destroyed at Franklin and Nashville the previous winter and its remnants had either been shipped to North Carolina or Mobile. Those troops sent southward boosted Confederate General Dabney Maury’s force to 9,000 men stationed at earthworks surrounding the city and at several positions across the bay including Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley. General Edward Canby held overall command of the approximately 45,000-man army sent for the task of capturing Mobile, and was to coordinate his efforts with a Federal fleet of nearly three dozen warships operating in the upper areas of Mobile Bay. Prodding by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who hoped Canby might begin the campaign much earlier, finally helped put the operation in motion in March of 1865. Canby hoped to capture Mobile and then move northwards towards Selma and Montgomery. Following sieges of Eastern Shore defenses at Spanish Fort and Blakeley, Canby was able to secure the surrender of the city on April 12, 1865, but by that time his other objectives had already fallen to other Federal forces.

O’Brien uses most of the book to highlight the various units and men who participated in the campaign. He spends several chapters describing the Confederate men and units who had transferred from the Army of Tennessee as well as those men who had long served in Alabama both around Mobile and in other locales. O’Brien’s description conveys an atmosphere of despair and sadness where men continued to fight if only for their fellow soldiers in the trenches. Conversely, other chapters are devoted to chronicling the Union soldiers from all over the Midwest as well as far away states such as Vermont who would take part in this final struggle. Of special interest are the African American troops which made up 10% of Canby’s forces. These men, mostly former slaves, volunteered to serve as part of the United States Colored Troops regiments. Many of them looked to the campaign to prove themselves as well as gain a measure of revenge for their fellow soldiers who were shot down needlessly at Fort Pillow. These accounts provide a wealth of information on the soldiers who fought in these engagements, but at times tire the reader who seeks to get the action itself.

Joseph Johnston described Mobile as “the best fortified place in the Confederacy” and the author describes in detail the siege tactics used by the Union troops to approach the bastions defending approach to it prior to attack. The Union army bombarded Spanish Fort for nearly two weeks with an overwhelming force of men and artillery and captured the position on April 8, but its garrison stealthily slipped away the night beforehand. The next day, the same day Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in Virginia, 16,000 Union soldiers conducted the final significant charge of the war to capture Blakeley. Union soldiers entered Mobile a few days later after capturing the few remaining defensive positions between the Eastern Shore and Mobile.

O’Brien calls this campaign a “needless military operation,” since Mobile’s significance had long since been diminished with the capture of the bay. Lives were needlessly lost on both sides in his assessment. An earlier capture of the city might have altered the course of the war, but of course by this time, the Confederacy only had days left. Mobile, 1865 provides a detailed telling of a forgotten but consequential story with special emphasis on the men who participated in it. Those seeking the more human side of this affair will be extremely satisfied; those seeking more on tactics and the battles themselves will likely be frustrated by the slow pace of the narrative and the lack of focus on the fighting itself.


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