Monday, September 26, 2005

Cotham: "Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston"

The coastal cities of the American South have fascinating wartime stories. On the military side, from blockade running to commando raids to desperate full-scale land assaults and ship-to-shore engagements, memorable episodes abound. They also seem to attract some of the most colorful characters and inventive individuals from both sides of the conflict. The citizens of these port cities also had to deal with the enormous economic and social problems that went along with their new-found national prominence in a continental war, not the least of which was a constant fear of naval attack, bombardment, or amphibious assault.

Edward Cotham Jr.'s Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston (University of Texas Press, 1998) is one of the best, and best-written, Civil War city studies. Contrary to what the title implies, this volume is actually a comprehensive social, political, and military history of the wartime experience of Galveston from the secession crisis through Reconstruction and reunion. There is a bit of something for everyone as the stories of private citizens, soldiers, privateers, blockaders and blockade runners are all told.

Cotham provides interesting insights into the personalities and command styles of the leading Confederate figures (especially Major Gen. John B. Magruder) who were charged with the defense of Galveston. The author’s account of the 1863 New Year’s Day recapture of Galveston is the best to date. Land and sea operations are recounted with equal skill and the reader is treated with stirring prose to a truly exciting episode in Civil War history. Additionally, the experiences of the men and ships of the federal naval blockade form an important part of the story.

The unrelenting pressures on the civilians as they strove to maintain some sense of normalcy are also well chronicled. All along the political spectrum, the town’s struggles in dealing with secession, martial law, and enemy occupation are retold in the book in fine fashion. I would like to have seen a list of military units stationed in and around the city during the war, but that is a minor complaint. Anyone interested in Civil War seaports and coastal operations should read this excellent book.

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