Book Review: Texas Coastal Defense in the Civil War

Texas Coastal Defense in the Civil War. By William Nelson Fox. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2024. Softcover, 159 pp. $24.99.

Reviewed by Neil P. Chatelain

When one thinks of coastal military and naval activity of the Civil War, the large-scale sieges and assaults of Mobile Bay, Charleston, and Wilmington come to mind. But as William Nelson Fox demonstrates in Texas Coastal Defense in the Civil War, there was a series of coastal campaigns over whether the United States or Confederacy would control the Lone Star State. Fox’s book outlines the varied military and naval efforts made by the Confederacy to protect the Texas coastline. From small beach skirmishes to fortifications guarding ports, to counterstrokes by inland forces against advancing U.S. marches and landings, Fox demonstrates just how the Confederacy kept control of Texas throughout the war.

There has been a growing historiography in recent decades adding to the dialogue of wartime Texas military, blockading, and coastal operations. Fox’s book, while not greatly adding to the historiography, does serve as a good introductory manuscript for readers unfamiliar with Texas and the campaigns within the state. For those in that category, Fox’s book is a solid introductory package to the coastal war in Texas.

The book is small, with its central narrative only 114 pages long. This makes it a relatively easy read, and the text is clear to understand. It is set well, looks good, and is packed with relevant imagery. There is also a timeline of major events along the Texas coast in the back. The book’s bibliography contains a host of archives and various source materials in its bibliography, including many sources from local Texas archives. The only drawback with the book’s actual presentation is that some of the maps are difficult to read.

Fox manages to pack four years of coastal campaigning into his book. To fit the length, that means that most events covered are done in a cursory manner, with little minute-by-minute tracking of battles and skirmishes. Major campaigns such as at Galveston, Sabine Pass, and Brownsville are included, as are early efforts to defend against U.S. blockaders and lesser-known operations. There is not, however, a chapter explaining or evaluating whether the Confederacy’s coastal defense was part of a cohesive strategy or an evaluation of its effectiveness.

Despite its clear presentation, there are some shortcomings that require comment. The book could use some editing work. Paragraphs are often packed with separate asides within the text, set apart in parentheses. Fox makes clear there were a host of organizations defending the Texas coastline, including the Confederate Army, Texas militia, the Confederate Navy, and the Texas Maritime Department. However, Fox makes the common mistake of denoting gunboats in the Confederacy’s Texas Maritime Department with the CSS designation that is generally reserved for vessels of the Confederate Navy, intermixing the two major Confederate naval organizations.

Fox also makes the claim that “if the Union could stop the export of Texas cotton, it could prevent the Confederacy’s access to war supplies and weapons” (9). However, there is no actual statistical analysis of how much cotton was exported from Texas in the war and how much war material entered Texas either via Mexico or by slipping through the blockade. A better statistical presentation of such would have added great value to the work. Finally, Fox lists a good number of primary sources in his bibliography, but often has quotations directly referenced from other secondary sources instead of from where the original firsthand quote comes from.

William Nelson Fox’s Texas Coastal Defense in the Civil War is a solid introductory narrative of U.S. military and naval activity in Texas, as well as Confederate efforts to defend the Lone Star State’s coastline. Those unfamiliar with the Civil War in Texas will find it a useful initial text.

4 Responses to Book Review: Texas Coastal Defense in the Civil War

  1. Do you think Paul Hebert’s judgement was sound in effectively giving up Galveston? Seems similar to R.E. Lee’s evaluation of the situation in South Carolina and Georgia.

    1. Hey Lyle, the evaluation may be similar to Lee’s, but the situation was different. Galveston was the largest city in Texas in 1862 (and thus also the state’s largest port city). Hebert largely evacuated the city without much of a struggle in fear of being cut off. That being said, The Confederacy does not really do this to a coastal city at any other time in the war (barring Brownsville and a few places in coastal North Carolina). To me, it is tough to justify Hebert’s decision to not try to resist a move into Galveston more directly. However, hindsight being what it is, he may have ultimately made a good call in that the Confederacy does recapture Galveston soon after and hold on to it for the remainder of the war (though not thanks to Hebert’s own actions as he was relieved by Magruder).

      1. Thanks for the response, Neil!

        What naval forces did Hebert have at the time to counter the Union contingent?

        Hebert definitely wrecked himself politically in Texas with his decision.

      2. Hebert’s available ships were not much, honestly. At best, there were the ships that later were used in recapturing Galveston – a handful of lightly armed or unarmed civilian ships impressed into service. This fact likely weighed heavily in his mind when making the decision to evacuate the town in 1862.

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