Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Review - "The Assault on Fort Blakeley: The Thunder and Lightning of Battle" by Mike Bunn

[The Assault on Fort Blakeley: The Thunder and Lightning of Battle by Mike Bunn (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:139/158. ISBN:978-1-4671-4863-4. $21.99]

Union strategists set their sights on the major Gulf port city of Mobile, Alabama at several points during the Civil War from 1862 onward. To the dismay of armchair generals and admirals since, however, serious plans to neutralize Mobile Bay as a haven for blockade runners and capture the city itself were repeatedly sidetracked until very late in the conflict. The successful August 1864 army-navy assault that breached the bay's seaward defenses and seized the guardian forts was a major achievement, but the follow-up campaign to take Mobile itself was not launched until the following spring. Both phases of the military contest for control of Mobile and Mobile Bay have been addressed through book-length studies in the literature, though none are truly exhaustive in nature. Jack Friend's West Wind, Flood Tide (2004) focuses most closely on the 1864 battle for the bay, while Chester Hearn's Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign (1993) presents a more balanced treatment of the entire breadth of 1864-65 operations. Notable minor works include slim volumes from John Waugh, Russell Blount, and Paula Webb, and Art Bergeron is the author of the standard city study of wartime Mobile. Two books, Sean O'Brien's Mobile, 1865 (2001) and Paul Brueske's The Last Siege (2018) are wholly devoted to the final land campaign. Of the pair, Brueske's study arguably offers the finest coverage of the 1865 advance up both sides of the bay that captured the two most powerful earthwork fortifications (Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley) and forced the evacuation of Mobile itself. However, the dramatic storming of Blakeley (the defining event of the campaign that also happened to be fought on the same day Lee's army surrendered at Appomattox) receives rather cursory coverage. Though not approaching the status of being the last word on the topic, Mike Bunn's The Assault on Fort Blakeley: The Thunder and Lightning of Battle does finally provide readers with the first book-length study of the battle.

While Union commander E.R.S. Canby had an overwhelming force at his disposal for Gulf Coast operations in early 1865, some 45,000 men eager to put an end to the conflict, he conducted the campaign in a manner fully in keeping with his well established reputation for cautious generalship. Though Canby's deliberate tempo irked an impatient General Grant to no end, it undoubtedly saved lives in a war that was in hindsight all but already won. His multi-pronged advance launched from bases in both coastal Alabama and West Florida is summarized well in the early sections of the book, as is the the week-long investment of Fort Blakeley itself. During the latter operation, Union engineers and soldiers braved constant artillery and sharpshooter fire to excavate siege parallels close enough to Blakeley's outer walls to ensure a successful mass assault.

The late afternoon April 9 assault itself, which pitted 16,000 Federals from the Thirteenth and Sixteenth Corps along with a full USCT division against roughly 3,500 (other estimates say 4,000) defenders consisting of a mixture of Army of Tennessee survivors, garrison troops, and new conscripts, was well coordinated and over very quickly. The Confederate defenses, erected around nine numbered earthwork redoubts, were overwhelmed in perhaps as little as 30 minutes, but the fighting in many sectors was fierce. The book examines the contest for control of each redoubt in sequence (1 through 9) from north to south as well as the final mop up operation along the bay shore.

Author Mike Bunn has a background in public history (he currently serves as the director of Historic Blakeley State Park), and he brings both lively writing and abundant visual aids to the project. In addition to providing a host of supporting maps of all scales, Bunn incorporates into each chapter practical elements useful for battlefield touring along with photographs of both historical participants and modern images of park grounds. The material is not presented in the format of traditional battle narrative. While Bunn does provide a good series of descriptive summaries of the fighting in the trenches—these are arranged into four chapters covering battle sectors consisting of two or three adjacent redoubts—those parts of the book exist mainly to provide necessary context to the collection of extensive first-person accounts that follow them. Those compilations of lengthy quoted passages are categorized further by unit and side. As is the case with most Civil War military histories, especially those covering events from 1865, Union sources vastly outnumber Confederate ones, and that inescapable disparity is even more pronounced here. In presenting history in this manner (rather than by incorporating reports, letters, and diary materials into a more standard continuous narrative), Bunn very much wants the reader to follow the action mostly through the words of those who were there. From the reader perspective, liking or disliking this mode of historical engagement and presentation will largely be a matter of personal taste. The book does end a bit abruptly. There isn't a casualty discussion, and a few paragraphs bridging the period between the fort's capture and Union entry into Mobile three days later would have capped things off nicely.

Since the result of the battle was pretty much a foregone conclusion and was over quickly, there isn't much in the way of enduring mythology attached to the Blakeley assault or major questions surrounding command decisions to readdress. The greatest source of controversy surrounds allegations that black troops, in revenge for past treatment of USCT soldiers and prisoners, killed surrendering Confederates in large numbers. That topic is only briefly addressed by Bunn. Sources quoted in the book from both sides mention that surrendering defenders were killed by USCT troops, including one lieutenant of the 51st USCT who claimed his unit took no prisoners, but Bunn concludes that there isn't enough solid evidence to support claims of a more general massacre. Instead, Bunn finds that a small number of isolated killings did occur, but they were the work of renegade soldiers who were quickly brought under control by their officers.

Occupying a middle ground between introductory-level topic treatment and exhaustive microhistory, this book designed for broad appeal serves a useful dual purpose in drawing more detailed attention toward the April 9 assault on Fort Blakeley while also providing a practical handbook for touring the park (which sounds like a very impressive place to visit). As things stand now, the complementary pairing of Bunn's The Assault on Fort Blakeley with Brueske's general history of the entire land operation offers readers the best modern historical account of the 1865 Mobile Campaign.


  1. Drew:

    One of the things I appreciate about your reviews are your references to other related books your readers may find of interest. Thanks to this review, I picked up Jack Friend's West Wind, Flood Tide at a reasonable price in nice condition. The Chester Hearn book starts around $100.00 so I will stick with the Friend book! Your book recommendations are always appreciated.


    1. Glad you find it useful, John. I tend to do it most for reviews of new books that usefully augment a small existing library of titles.

      You'd think there would be more interest in the big Gulf battles. Like New Orleans, Mobile Bay is still covered only in 'okay, not great' fashion while more sedentary areas of naval operations (like those of the James River and Savannah squadrons) get treated with excellent studies. It's an odd imbalance. BTW, there is a paperback edition of Hearn's book that is still in print.


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