Thursday, September 10, 2015

Browning: "LINCOLN'S TRIDENT: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War"

[Lincoln's Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War by Robert M. Browning, Jr. (University of Alabama Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:527/712. ISBN:978-0-8173-1846-8 $69.95]

The naval history of the Civil War has long been a popular avenue for serious study by professional historians and enthusiasts alike and the resulting body of literature ranges deep and wide. Numerous single volume histories of the Civil War afloat have been written, as have a solid collection of ship profiles, blockade and foreign relation studies, industry and design/technology investigations, battle and campaign histories, and officer biographies. Firsthand accounts have also been published, although at a pace and scale far less than that associated with the army participants of both sides. In recent years, some of the most valuable contributions to the naval bookshelf have been authored by U.S. Coast Guard chief historian Robert Browning, whose Union blockading squadron studies remain unmatched in magnitude of research and content. Each new release in his series is a significant event in Civil War publishing and Browning's newest book, Lincoln's Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, is more than the qualitative equal of its North and South Atlantic squadron predecessors*.

The research that went into Lincoln's Trident is broad ranging with a heavy emphasis on primary sources, especially manuscript resources and navy records. All of this went into crafting a remarkably expansive historical narrative. Over five hundred pages are devoted to every conceivable aspect of the men, ships, and operations of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. In addition to describing major battles fought at New Orleans, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Galveston, Sabine Pass, and Mobile, Browning packs into his book a seemingly exhaustive series of accounts detailing smaller naval engagements of all types, including ship vs. ship duels, ship vs. shore bombardments, contested fort passages, shore raids, and all manner of operations in support of the Union army. The geographical area covered is immense, from Pensacola, Florida all the way west to the mouth of the Rio Grande River (and all the bays and inland rivers in between). Devoting significant attention as well to Confederate plans and perspectives, these accounts are fully fleshed out, in many cases rivaling those found in specialized histories. Shipboard life on blockading vessels is also discussed in the book as are many of the blockade's economic and international political dimensions.

While the human focus is understandably centered on the famous figure of David Glasgow Farragut, who led the squadron through most of the war, the book also draws needed attention toward many ranking Union naval officers of ability and distinction that have been largely overlooked, men like Henry Thatcher, Henry Bell, James Alden and many others. The command portrait of Farragut painted by the author is broadly in line with convention. If there was any single necessary man it was Farragut, who was highly aggressive, tactically sound, single minded in purpose, and determined to lead from the front. The native southerner also proved a strong judge of character when it came to selecting subordinates for commanding blockade stations, although his criticisms of many of those same officers sometimes seemed unfair, especially when judged from afar. In terms of command faults, Browning does note that Farragut developed a reputation in some quarters for being a poor administrator but the author doesn't delve into the substance of the charge much himself.

Given its status as the farthest blockading station from northern ports (by far), it's not surprising that logistics became a major concern for the West Gulf Blockading Squadron and Browning devotes a great deal of attention to the matter. Adequate supply and coaling supports were built up at an exasperatingly measured pace and, with Navy Department priorities seemingly always directed elsewhere, steam powered ships numerous enough to cover the major ports and fast enough to overtake blockade runners were always in short supply. The failure to hold Galveston after its capture in 1862 also meant that logistics would always be stretched along the Texas coast, so much so that the squadron was often forced to rely upon sailing ships. Coaling at sea was problematic and New Orleans and Pensacola were too far away to repair and coal steamers without taking the vessels assigned to Texas off station for unacceptably long periods of time.

Browning astutely observes, and argues persuasively throughout the book, that army-navy cooperation excelled on the tactical and operational levels but failed badly at the strategic level. Farragut and his officers worked harmoniously with Gulf Department army commanders Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks but the cabinet heads of the army and navy together with the chief executive never developed any joint strategies in the Gulf. This oversight was far from inconsequential, as events at Vicksburg and especially Galveston would demonstrate. Also, the navy was prepared to attack Mobile at several points during the war only to have each prospective campaign derailed by shifting army priorities. Galveston offered the clearest and most appalling example of how useless it was for the navy to capture key points if army resources were absent or insufficient to hold the gains.

The navy could also be the author of its own problems, its overarching obsession with Charleston keeping Confederate Mobile active far longer than the port city had any reason to expect. Union ironclads were kept from joining Farragut's fleet off Mobile Bay until the middle of summer 1864. Within the navy command structure, there was also a constant push and pull between tightening up the blockade and supporting offensive operations up the Mississippi River and other inland Gulf waterways. Contrary to the oft voiced expectations of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, resources were never adequate for both initiatives and the blockade often suffered. Shallow draft steamers were also in such short supply to the Gulf squadron that Confederate sailing vessels could carry on coastal trade and penetrate the blockade with near impunity.

There are some wish list items missing from the volume. Near the front of the book is a collection of area maps tracing the southern Gulf coastline and identifying the major forts and ports targeted by the Union navy. While these are fine tools for general reader orientation, the narrative describes the squadron's operations in great detail and there are no maps to accompany the chapters covering fleet battles, ship vs. shore engagements, and key fort passages. Many of these naval actions documented in Lincoln's Trident could be quite involved and consequently difficult to visualize without the aid of tactical scale maps. Supplementary reference information that one might expect from comprehensive studies of this type, such as lists of officers, squadron vessels and enemy ship captures, are also absent. Finally, while the final chapter provides a solid summary of the achievements, failures, and challenges of the West Gulf Blockading squadron, it does seem a bit rushed in marking out its conclusions, especially in its assessment of blockade effectiveness. On the other hand, Browning's study is primarily operational in nature and works analyzing the blockade do already exist. In the end, the book's immense strengths far outweigh any complaints. Browning's exhaustive and original squadron study is a clear front-runner for the best Civil War naval study of 2015.

* - From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (Univ of Alabama Pr, 1993) and Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War (Brassey's, 2002).

More CWBA reviews of UA Press titles:
* The Best Station of Them All: The Savannah Squadron, 1861-1865
* By the Noble Daring of Her Sons: The Florida Brigade of the Army of Tennessee
* Tried Men and True, or Union Life in Dixie
* The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham
* Trailing Clouds of Glory: Zachary Taylor's Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders
* A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
* Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War
* Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861
* Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat
* Camp Chase and the Evolution of Civil War Prison Policy
* Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida's Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 (Fire Ant)
* Civil War Weather in Virginia
* From Conciliation to Conquest
* Like Grass Before the Scythe
* Navy Gray
* Sherman's Mississippi Campaign
* Confederate Florida (Fire Ant)

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good.

    Now that we have books on the North and South Atlantic squadrons, and the West Gulf squadron I hope the East Gulf squadron will soon get a similar treatment.


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