Gunfire Around the Gulf: The Last Major Naval Campaign of the Civil War, by Jack D. Coombe, Bantam Books, New York, 1999, $23.95.
In most published accounts, the history of the Civil War is the history of massive land armies in blue and gray slugging it out in bloody brawls at places with such evocative names as Devil’s Den, Burnside’s Bridge and Shiloh. Those same histories sometimes make passing mention of the naval battle between the ironclads at Hampton Roads, and usually recount Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s famous words: “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.”
Few historians, however, have made much effort to recount the pivotal campaign waged by the initially small Union Navy to strangle the South into submission by depriving it of critical weapons, munitions and raw materials carried by blockade runners from overseas. Indeed, a strong case could be made that the Union’s “anaconda” strategy of blockading and eventually capturing Southern ports, so grandly stated in 1861 but not effectively carried out until three years later, allowed the North to ultimately subdue the South.
Civil War naval historian Jack D. Coombe, also the author of Thunder Along the Mississippi, has finally made this case in a highly readable and intellectually satisfying book that focuses on the critical Union naval successes of 1862 through 1865 at New Orleans, Galveston and Mobile. In Gunfire Around the Gulf, Coombe’s premise is based on the argument that the cat-and-mouse game between blockading Union warships and fast, sleek Confederate blockade runners could have turned out much better for the South had not Union naval forces finally captured these three ports and held them until the end of the war. The devastating effect was to cut off the South from the necessary supplies and foodstuffs that might otherwise have allowed her armies to stay in the field and drag out the conflict until a weary North eventually compromised or sued for peace.
Coombe devotes most of the book to the planning and execution of the successful campaigns to capture New Orleans in April 1862 and Mobile in August 1864, with brief detours to Vicksburg, Galveston and smaller engagements. In doing so, he presents a gripping, exciting and detailed portrayal of the men who fought for their respective causes with courage and determination, and of the ships and forts that they served. The reader may be distracted by the author’s tendency to digress in his treatment of the war. In fairness, however, the effort to cover the entire four years of the conflict and the mammoth geographic scope of the Atlantic, Gulf and riverine conflicts can be likened in some ways to the North’s effort to enforce its blockade.
Coombe presents his main argument effectively and convincingly. The often-neglected conflict in the Gulf of Mexico was much more than a mere sideshow to the capture of Vicksburg or the initial clash of ironclads at Hampton Roads. Indeed, Coombe proves that sealing off the Gulf was essential to the success of Union land campaigns.
The success of the Union strategy was never predetermined, however. As Coombe recounts, the South acquired powerful forts and harbor defenses captured from Federal forces in 1861, and the Confederates were able to cobble together a formidable floating defense force. When the Lincoln administration announced the international blockade, Union naval commanders surveyed their own meager flotilla and cringed at the herculean task before them. Were it not for their daring and skillful use of the warships, gunboats and ironclads eventually available to them, it is likely that the war would have lasted much longer.
David Christopher Baker