When Ulysses S. Grant looked back at the 1865 Mobile Campaign, he had an uncharitable view of the victory, writing that it was “eminently successful, but without any good result. Indeed much valuable property was destroyed and many lives lost at a time when we would have liked to spare them. The war was practically over before their victories were gained. They were so late in commencing operations, that they did not hold any troops away that otherwise would have been operating against the armies which were gradually forcing the Confederate armies to a surrender.”
Historians mostly agree with Grant’s view of the Mobile campaign. It was a backwater, compared to operations in Virginia and North Carolina. The Union moved too slowly, and while the operation did keep five brigades from being transferred to North Carolina, these men hardly numbered more than 4,000 troops even by generous estimates.
Paul Brueske, head coach of the University of South Alabama’s track & field program, takes the received wisdom to task in The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865. This is his first book, and it shows the strengths and weaknesses of a first-time author writing about a subject they feel a personal passion for. I had the same feeling when I crafted The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, so The Last Siege struck a nerve.
Early books often suffer from minor errors that, upon reflection, are cleaned up with experience. The Last Siege lacks first-rate maps and even an order of battle, which is must in any campaign or battle study. The operations against Spanish Fort are treated in detail but by comparison Fort Blakeley is not.
Surprisingly, the book has more Confederate perspectives and voices than Union ones, which is often the opposite given primary sources. For anyone with a strong anti-Confederate interpretation, Brueske may seem a little too impressed by the ability of the Spanish Fort garrison to hold out. They will also take exception to his discussion of atrocities at Fort Blakeley and Ship Island, where USCT men were accused of murdering Confederate prisoners. Brueske’s treatment is fair. He does not hide that it happened but makes clear it was more incidental than widespread. Brueske is an unapologetic reconciliationist, easy with praise for soldier heroics and the lenient surrender terms offered to Richard Taylor by E. R. S. Canby. Such views are not currently fashionable among a vocal phalanx of scholars, but I am glad they have not been extinguished. Diversity of thought and opinion is a sign that a field is not about to atrophy into dogma, and therefore become sterile over time. As the saying goes, “every dogma has its day.”
As a student of the evolution of warfare in the age of horse & musket, I was annoyed with Brueske’s insistence that the stand at Spanish Fort was remarkable or the campaign was extremely “modern.” Smaller garrisons have held out against longer odds and the tactics used at Spanish Fort were close to the sieges of previous wars. In general, military historians of the American Civil War are only just now beginning to think of the conflict in terms of western warfare during the era, and I hope Brueske’s next book does not commit the same parochial sin of omission that has even plagued books by great scholars.
The Last Siege excels in the art of anecdote. It might grate some people, but I love stories of individuals, great and small, trying to survive in trying times. We know so little about the experiences of common soldiers before 1800, and the American Civil War was one of the first where the average private told their story, whether in letter, memoir, or article. Among the best tidbits are Fredrick Steele, who loved animals, losing his horse, which rode into the Rebel lines. Another is of the 1866 surrender of six Confederate diehards who lived in caves after the fighting stopped. He also recounts the complicated experience of the USCT, including the humiliation of being segregated by race when they had to share ship space with white Union soldiers.
Lastly, Brueske succeeds in refuting Grant’s verdict, which was written in hindsight by a sick man who was not friendly with Canby, nor his second in command, Gordon Granger. I think if one of his friends was in charge, he would have been more charitable towards a successful campaign. Grant wrote “I had tried for more than two years to have an expedition sent against Mobile when its possession by us would have been of great advantage. It finally cost lives to take it when its possession was of no importance, and when, if left alone, it would within a few days have fallen into our hands without any bloodshed whatever.” Both Brueske and I believe that Grant is only partially correct.
The fall of Mobile secured the Confederacy’s last bastion, kept veteran troops away from North Carolina, and was launched when the war’s end was still undetermined. As Brueske makes clear, the Confederates at Mobile were die-hards, and they fought as if the war was still worth their sacrifice. Although the refusal of Lee, Beauregard, and Johnston to wage a guerilla war was more important to ending the conflict, the seizure of Mobile, and the follow up march on Montgomery, were decisive in breaking Confederate morale in Alabama. The fall of Mobile sped up the end of the war.
The Last Siege is a flawed but solid work of history. Brueske has potential to be a good and consistent contributor to the history of the war, particularly as it relates to Alabama. I met him at a recent presentation he gave at Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans. He told me he plans to write a more extensive account of the fighting at Spanish Fort. In addition, he has also resurrected the Mobile Civil War round-table. I wish him best of luck in both endeavors.