Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review - "The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865" by Paul Brueske

[The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865 by Paul Brueske (Casemate, 2018). Hardcover, maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiii,185/278. ISBN:978-1-61200-631-4. $32.95]

Involving 45,000 Union troops opposed by perhaps little more than 8,000* Confederate defenders, the 1865 Mobile Campaign was a major late-war military operation with considerable drama that has nevertheless oddly lacked a truly comprehensive history. Minor works from Russell Blount and John Waugh have been published, but even the full-length studies from Chester Hearn [Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: The Last Great Battles of the Civil War (1993)] and Sean O'Brien [Mobile, 1865: Last Stand of the Confederacy (2001)] do not approach definitive status by any estimation. Boasting a deeper and wider range of research than these earlier studies, Paul Brueske's engagingly written The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865 possesses a historiographical heft that, given the brevity of its campaign narrative, exceeds expectations by a fairly wide margin.

The famous Battle of Mobile Bay (really a campaign that consumed much of August 1864) captured the forts guarding the entrance to the bay and essentially closed one of the Confederacy's last remaining havens for blockade runners (an achievement often criticized as a year too late), but the city of Mobile itself remained defiant. It would be March of the following year before the Union high command finally marshaled the full power of its military might in the Gulf and directed it toward capturing the last major enemy port east of the Mississippi. During that month, a Union army of two reinforced corps under General E.R.S. Canby, supported by General Frederick Steele's flying column out of West Florida's Fort Barrancas, advanced up the east side of Mobile Bay and began to clear out the formidable Confederate defenses located there. In his coverage of these initial stages of the 1865 Mobile Campaign on last and sea, Brueske devotes considerable attention to Confederate preparations while also recounting in some detail a multitude of Union-initiated recon missions, feints, and skirmishes. The vessels of Admiral Henry Thatcher's naval squadron directly supported Canby's operations but ran into frequent trouble in the shallow waters of the bay from Confederate mines, obstructions, and remaining ships. As the book demonstrates, Confederate prepared defenses on land and sea had a major impact on the pace of the Union advance.

As March turned to April, Confederate-held Spanish Fort was invested and quickly evacuated, its garrison moving north to nearby Fort Blakeley, which was similarly surrounded but was more vigorously defended and fell to direct assault on April 9. In addition to covering those events in moderate detail, the book also recounts the taking of Batteries Huger and Tracy, which were essential cogs in the upper bay defenses. Utterly exposed, Mobile was evacuated on April 11. Its garrison fled upriver to Meridian, Mississippi, and federal occupying forces moved into the city on the following day.

The Last Siege also contains a fairly extensive epilogue to the active phase of the campaign, describing at some length the department surrender negotiations, the experiences of Mobile Campaign prisoners of war (which ran the gamut from good to strikingly poor), and the parole process. The actions of the 12th Mississippi Cavalry after the campaign, when it continually skirmished with Union forces north of Mobile and even raided the streets of the occupied city, are singled out for special mention. The author also devotes some attention to the post-war lives of many campaign participants. The study concludes with a pair of appendices, the first a discussion of the preservation and ownership conflicts over the 8-inch columbiad Lady Slocomb and the second a very brief overview of the current state of historic sites related to the campaign.

As is the case with most conflicts, published Civil War campaign studies come in a wide variety of complexities, from breezy popular histories intended for introductory audiences to densely detailed microstudies fully appreciated by only the most dedicated students of military history. The Last Siege sits squarely in the middle of this spectrum. Though weighted toward the Confederate perspective (but not overly so), the breadth of Brueske's overview of the campaign should satisfy the more demanding reader. However, the book does clearly leave room for more detailed future treatments of the fighting.

The text is supported by maps and photos, but the value of the former is inconsistent. Area maps borrowed from previously published sources like the atlas to the O.R. are too shrunken in size to be of much use. The choice was unfortunately also made to forgo commissioning any original maps of the Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley operations or of any of the multitude of smaller skirmishes recounted in the text. On the other hand, the operational-scale maps depicting the approach marches on both sides of the bay are well done, with historical movements and fighting locations traced over modern satellite photographs of the area.

The USCT formed a sizable contingent within Canby's army, and their participation in the storming and capture of Fort Blakeley ended with controversy when they, in revenge for Fort Pillow and similar actions elsewhere, wantonly killed Confederate soldiers in the act of surrendering and afterward. At Ship Island, there were also reports that USCT guards murdered prisoners. In these areas, the book records the events but doesn't offer significant new information regarding the scale of these offenses and the validity of reports.

How Mobile residents reacted to the Union occupation is also examined. It is unclear to this reviewer's recollection how pervasive the impression that Mobile was a heavily Unionist city actually is in the literature, but Brueske does effectively counter some specific claims that that was the case.

With Forts Powell and Gaines along with much of the bay already secured by mid-1864, the strategic value of the port itself was limited over the ensuing eight months, but Brueske persuasively argues that the city's rail network and river communications along with its intrinsic resources retained strategic value worth being the target of a major operation. Reinforced by elements of the Army of Tennessee after that command's near destruction, the Mobile garrison was also a significant force worthy of taking off the chessboard. That the war was essentially over already is the judgment of aftersight. Lee's army surrendered the same day that Fort Blakeley fell, and definitive word of Appomattox did not reach the Mobile defenders until a week later, so the war was still in full swing during the campaign.

The book also usefully addresses contemporary and modern complaints regarding the actions of the Union and Confederate commanders. Dabney Maury, the major general in charge of the bay's defenses, was assailed from both sides, criticized by fellow Confederates for not keeping the evacuated Spanish Fort garrison inside Fort Blakeley and by his Union opponents for deciding to defend Blakeley at all after Spanish Fort was lost. The author does not weigh in himself, but Maury himself offered a reasonable retort that timing issues (particularly the risky nature of water evacuation during daylight hours) prevented the immediate moves suggested by some of his critics and Union caution up to that point in the campaign did not raise high expectations that a full-scale assault on Blakeley would be in the offing on the day after Spanish Fort was captured.

Canby also came under fire from both sides. Maury criticized Canby for moving up the east side of the bay instead of investing and assaulting Mobile directly, citing the flat nature of the ground and the humanitarian pressures that the presence of so many noncombatants crowding the city would have had on Confederate decision-making. However, Brueske keenly points to Mobile's swampy northern face and the multiple lines of earthwork defenses built up over years and finds it a reasonable determination on the part of Canby that the forts on the east side would be easier to approach and attack. Union officers, particularly U.S. Grant in his memoirs and engineer Cyrus Comstock, the latter present at the siege, heavily criticized the pace of Canby's movements. The entire campaign did only take a month from beginning to end, and the author justly contends that Comstock's objection was unfair and that Canby's measured approach was merited given the "(i)nclement weather, strong fortifications, deadly land and sea mines, and the unexpected fighting tenacity of the Confederate defenders." Time was on the Union side and unmentioned also is the quite humane determination to minimize friendly casualties. Grant's Memoirs were even more harsh in their treatment of Canby, advancing the opinion that the operation moved so slowly that by the time it ended the gain was worthless and losses in lives and ships without justification. In addition to being criticism from the safety and certainty of hindsight, Grant's assessment also, according to Brueske, unfairly downplays the importance of the campaign and the scale of captured men and materiel. Perhaps some of his harshness stemmed from Grant's frustration looking backward that the place wasn't targeted earlier in the war, as he wished.

Well researched, conceived, and executed, The Last Siege is a rather impressive first effort from author Paul Brueske. Among the short list of available candidates for best single-volume study of the 1865 Mobile Campaign, this book deserves heavy consideration for the top recommendation.



* - I've come across Confederate strength figures ranging from 6,000 on up to 10,000. The book doesn't include an order of battle for either side, but one can infer some estimate from Brueske's text. According to the author, after the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay approximately 4,500 troops remained to garrison the city and surrounding fortifications. If it is assumed that none were transferred elsewhere in the meantime, in early 1865 Mobile received 1,500 surplus artillerymen from the Army of Tennessee along with Gibson's brigade of 600 men, Holtzclaw's Brigade, and French's Division of three brigades (those of Cockrell, Ector, and Sears). So 8,000 might be a reasonable estimate of total Confederate strength in infantry, cavalry, and artillery at the onset of the campaign.

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