Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Schmidt: "GALVESTON AND THE CIVIL WAR: An Island City in the Maelstrom"

[Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom by James M. Schmidt (The History Press, 2012). Softcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:129/155. ISBN:978-1-60949-283-0 $19.99]

It is often said that not much happened in Texas during the Civil War, but the citizens of Galveston would beg to differ. The most famous Civil War event attached to the city is undoubtedly the dramatic and improbably successful Confederate January 1, 1863 combined operation that ejected Union forces and retook the port. It's history has been ably recounted in books and articles, most notably by Edward Cotham's excellent study Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston (University of Texas Press, 1998). Although the military situation remains an important part of James Schmidt's Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom, the book also highlights the tribulations of the local civilian and slave populations.

Having a fine natural harbor and a rail link to the Texas interior via nearby Houston, Galveston was an important port city in peacetime and war. It was deeply invested in the institution of slavery [according to Schmidt, Galveston had the largest slave market west of New Orleans] and Schmidt's book begins with background on the city's long history with the slave trade and importance of slave labor to it's antebellum marine economy.

From there, the book moves quickly to secession, a movement very popular in Galveston, at least until it's consequences were brought to the island's very shore. This happened quickly with the arrival of the U.S. naval blockade in the summer of 1861. Inadequately prepared for defense, the whole island was evacuated by the Confederate army in late 1862, setting up the land-sea battle that ultimately decided who would hold the city for the rest of the war.

Like many other Civil War local histories from this publisher, Schmidt's book seeks to engage a wider audience through a focus on lively writing and human interest storytelling. What sets Schmidt apart from the majority of local history writers with similar goals is his discontent with the all too common practice of dressing up poorly documented history with tale spinning. His book is a story-centric narrative but it is well researched and footnoted using a variety of primary and secondary sources.

The following are a few examples of the type of historical material presented in the book. There's an appreciation of the Ursuline nuns of Galveston, who tended to the sick and wounded of both sides. How the Confederate authorities dealt with trouble in the ranks, as well as pro-Union civilians, is also discussed. Galveston's role as a haven for blockade runners, one that became even more significant as the war dragged on and the other Gulf ports were closed, is traced. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1864, which killed far more soldiers than all the 1861-65 fighting combined, is another important event explored in the book.

Most Civil War local history writing is primarily directed toward area residents that are interested in some aspect of their community's past but are coming to the subject with little background knowledge. Galveston and the Civil War will serve this audience well, but with the added bonus of being able to extend its reach to satisfy outside readers with specialized interests.

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