Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Review - "A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862" by Mark Bielski

[A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862 by Mark F. Bielski (Savas Beatie, 2021). Paperback, 4 maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, orders of battle, suggested reading. Pages main/total:xx,151/192. ISBN:978-1-61121-489-5. $14.95]

In discussing a conflict that lasted five long years, it can be difficult to convincingly maintain that any single event from the first twelve months of the Civil War constituted a "mortal blow," but the Union capture of New Orleans in April 1862 was by all estimates a devastating setback to the Confederacy's bid for independence. The blockade had already effectively choked off international trade by the time Union forces launched a direct assault on the city, but the strategic, material, and morale losses that attended its fall remained considerable. By far the most populous city in the seceded states, cosmopolitan New Orleans controlled the mouth of the great Mississippi River and contained a large proportion of the American South's irreplaceable Gulf State industry. Even with all of this obvious significance, a definitive-level study of the fall of New Orleans still escapes us, and Mark Bielski's A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862 marks just the third book-length account of any kind. In addition to being an influential early proponent of the 'mortal blow' theme, Charles DuFour's 1960 book The Night the War Was Lost was a milestone in that it was the first serious study of the topic and perhaps the work that most shaped our modern understanding of those factors most responsible for Confederate failure to adequately defend the city. That book was followed in 1995 by Chester Hearn's The Capture of New Orleans, 1862, which was well-received overall but nevertheless did not constitute a truly major advancement toward a more definitive modern study. Part of the prolific Emerging Civil War series of introductory-scale titles, Bielski's new book combines popular appeal in text and presentation with sound synthesis and analysis.

As every book, chapter, and article addressing the campaign has noted to some degree or another, the Union army and navy expedition launched from the eastern seaboard struck the protective ring around New Orleans at the worst possible moment for the defenders. By the time the attacking Union fleet steamed up the Mississippi, a series of defeats far to the north had already led the Confederate high command to strip the New Orleans garrison to just a gaggle of militia and order the theater's naval forces to focus their efforts along the Upper Mississippi, where it was assumed the chief threat lay. Though converted vessels of some military value remained behind, the massive ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi were still unfinished when Union forces attacked, as were the city's woefully inadequate inner defenses. Michael Pierson (see his 2009 study Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans) has also contended that the two downstream masonry forts (Jackson and St. Philip), in combination with a massive chain stretching across the Mississippi the chief barriers to the river-based southern approach, were manned by a rank and file of dubious commitment and loyalty. In this book, Bielski addresses all of these factors contributing to Confederate defeat as well as the events of the campaign from beginning to end with narrative verve and admirable clarity.

Located just off the Gulf coast of Mississippi and covering the eastern approaches to New Orleans, Ship Island contained an unfinished fort, fresh water, and a useful anchorage. After some debate Confederate authorities evacuated the island to the approaching enemy, and Bielski is highly critical of that decision to relinquish control of a strategic point that in turn proved highly useful as a final staging area for the Union expedition. Clearly, denying Ship Island to the enemy would have proved beneficial but unexplained is how the author believes the place could have been held for any length of time against a Union naval might that had already proved highly efficient in swallowing up Confederate garrisons isolated on barrier islands.

During the rest of the war and for long after, the local Confederate commander at New Orleans, General Mansfield Lovell, served as a convenient scapegoat for the shocking southern defeat. An innovative aspect of DuFour's book was its redirection of primary responsibility for that defeat toward national-level strategic blundering and miscalculation. Among the worse of those high command missteps was the maintenance of multiple layers of competing command responsibilities along the Lower Mississippi. Other authors have since expanded upon those key flaws in the Confederate river defense system, most recently Neil Chatelain in his excellent 2020 book Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Operations in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865. A great strength of Bielski's book is its persuasive arguments regarding when and where the Confederate lack of command unity hindered, perhaps even decisively, New Orleans defense efforts at key junctures. Of course, the other side also did much to bring about the result. In evaluating the most important factors that led to the fall of New Orleans, it is appropriate to point to the multitude of Confederate shortcomings, mistakes, and even instances of sheer bad luck. However, where there was disunity and confusion among the Confederates there was unity of command and purpose among the Union civilian and military leadership, and ranking U.S. Navy officers demonstrated considerable boldness and skill in planning and directing a major combined operation of a scale and type no one had previous experience in conducting. Bielski certainly recognizes this, but one might argue (though it is only a minor complaint overall) that his narrative still too heavily stresses Confederate failure over Union achievement when it comes to assessing credit and blame for the campaign's outcome.

In augmenting the text with a sizable abundance of artwork, drawings, modern photos, and archival images along with a handful of fine maps, the volume typifies the best of the ECW series. In addition to shouldering a large part of the responsibility for the fall of New Orleans, Confederate president Jefferson Davis also had a significant postwar relationship with the city and nearby Biloxi, Mississippi, and this can be seen in the appendix section. Located in that part of the book are supplementary essays discussing Louisiana history between European settlement and 1860, the story of the Beauvoir estate made famous by Jefferson Davis's residency, a history of Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans, and sections of an interview detailing a secondhand account of Davis's New Orleans death and funeral.

As both a popular first-line approach to the topic as well as a solid historical summary for readers of all backgrounds to consider, Mark Bielski's A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy is highly recommended reading for those seeking modern answers to the many how and why questions attached to Union triumph and Confederate failure in the critical New Orleans campaign of 1862. Hopefully, this fine volume might also inspire some up and coming scholar to finally complete the definitive treatment the subject so richly deserves.


  1. Thanks for this in-depth review, Drew. It is one of my favorites of all he ECW titles.

    After having done extensive work investigating Mansfield Lovell for my own work (Lovell commanded in NO and operated powder mills there), I am convinced he did as well as anyone could have done, and history has treated him unfairly. He was a capable field officer.

    If I was a younger man I would endeavor to produce a detailed study of the entire campaign. There is a mountain of primary source material. Surprising no one has done so yet.

    1. He remained in demand among his fellow officers, but his hesitant performance as a division commander at Corinth didn't do his career restoration effort any favors (though, in hindsight, an aggressive attack following orders on Day 2 probably would have only increased the casualty list).


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