Friday, April 10, 2009

Underwood: "Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War"

[Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War by Rodman L. Underwood (McFarland ph. 800-253-2187, 2008-pb). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 169/207 $35]

Rodman Underwood's Waters of Discord is a sound synthesis of the blockade literature that pays special attention to the ports and coastline of Texas. Recognizing the existence of detailed accounts of several of the major military campaigns in the region [e.g. Galveston, Sabine Pass, Rio Grande Expedition, etc.], the author does not spent an inordinate amount of text covering well trodden ground. Geographical features of Texas relevant to the blockade are well described by Underwood, supplemented by a mixture of original and reproduced maps that aid reader comprehension. While the importance of amphibious invasion to the effectiveness of the blockade is not understated by the author, much of his study's attention is directed toward the blockade's international dimensions and logistical considerations (for both Union enforcement and Confederate evasion).

One of the book's best sections is the discussion of the Texas-Mexican border situation, a constantly shifting political environment that was both a source of frustration for both sides and a vital economic conduit for the Confederacy. Open by treaty, the mouth of the Rio Grande River could not be blockaded, and it became a booming trade highway for the export of southern cotton and importation of needed war materiel.

The various French and Confederate diplomatic overtures are well outlined. The author also delved into a number of interesting historical background vignettes, perhaps the oddest being a pre-Civil War French emissary's proposal of a colonization charter with the government of the Republic of Texas. It would have allowed thousands of French families to settle in Texas, protected by a chain of forts operated by the colonists themselves. Although the bill died in the legislature, it is hard to conceive any Texas lawmaker supporting such a venture, trading short term economic development with the likely potential of a myriad of domestic and international problems.

Sometimes the author's lengthy presentation of background material gets a bit far afield. This can be good or bad, depending on the reader. The general reader will appreciate the broader political, economic, and military contexts, but others might lament the loss of an opportunity to devote more attention to Texas-specific issues not otherwise covered at length in the literature (e.g. the state's fixed coastal defenses and intercoastal trade).

Underwood also summarizes the published views of a number of historians seeking to assess the degree of success enjoyed by the Union blockading squadrons. Predictably, opinions are all over the board, with wide disagreement over which objectives were met and what metrics should be used for their evaluation. Underwood himself argues persuasively that the blockade did indeed largely satisfy the goals set out by President Lincoln and Secretary Welles. More of a synthesis and analysis of the available literature than a work of original research, Waters of Discord is nevertheless a solid military, economic, and political evaluation of the West Gulf blockade's effectiveness.

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