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Galveston and the Civil War: An Island in the Maelstrom by James M. Schmidt (review)

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 328-329 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0002

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Note regarding changes to the book reviews section: The publishing world is undergoing a revolution in product delivery that no longer restricts the choice in book form to cloth or paperback. Electronic and print editions in various formats each require a separate ISBN, prices vary on a frequent basis, and there are increasing opportunities for self-publication that defy traditional bibliographical organization. Consequently, with this issue the editorial board of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly has decided to streamline the headers that introduce book reviews by removing ISBN, format, and pricing information. The rest of the publication data will be provided based on the print copies from which reviews are done, and in those cases where a book appears in electronic format, the publisher’s listing will be employed. We hope the change does not produce too much inconvenience.

Galveston Bay has often been overlooked as inconsequential in United States frontier history during the early 1800s, but the recent work of James M. Schmidt reveals a deeper history of the “jewel of the Gulf Coast” (9). The booming island city served as a base for infamous pirates, unscrupulous privateers, and ruthless slave traders, where domestic, commercial, plantation, and maritime labor prospered. Texas’s location on the western periphery of the Civil War’s Trans-Mississippi theater limited its participation in major military engagements, but did not insulate the state from the war. Schmidt correctly points out that Galveston operated as the largest southern port and slave market east of New Orleans, where 1,178 enslaved persons resided by 1860. The port was a hotbed of secessionist sentiment, and despite the public misgivings of Governor Sam Houston the people of the ‘Seventh Star’ of the Confederacy voted to protect the institution of slavery by seceding from the Union on March 5, 1861. Ultimately, at least 1,500 Galvestonians enlisted in the Confederate military, while local women raised funds and supplied materials through volunteer aid societies.

The Union’s blockade against southern ports brought scarcity, suffering, and misery to the people of Galveston. On October 4, 1862, Union naval commander William B. Renshaw’s fleet consisting of the USS Westfield, Clifton, Owasco, and Harriet Lane arrived. The subsequent surrender of the city by a disgraced Confederate General Paul Octave Hebert initiated a brief federal occupation of Galveston. The combined efforts of Confederate Brigadier General John Bankhead Magruder, Colonel Tom Green, and Leon Smith led to “the strangest battle of the war,” in which improvised ‘cottonclad’ steamships, artillerymen, and ‘horse marines’ forced the surrender of the Union forces, the USS Harriet Lane, and adjoining Union fleet. Texas Governor Francis Lubbock called the victory, “the most dashing affair of the war” (89). The subsequent sinking of the USS Hatteras by the infamous CSS Alabama contributed to “still another disaster off Galveston” (94). It is noteworthy that the USS Hatteras was the only Union warship sunk as a result of combat in the Gulf of Mexico during the war, and recent high-resolution sonar has revealed detailed 3-D maps of the wreckage. On land, the city’s dedicated Ursuline community cared for injured soldiers, as well as those suffering from outbreaks of yellow fever during 1864. On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger’s arrival and delivery of General Order No. 3 legally abolished slavery in Texas forever. Ultimately, Galveston overcame the devastation of evacuation, invasion, abandonment, and occupation.

Schmidt’s clear and concise overview extends beyond the Battle of Galveston to provide readers with a valuable account of the port city by addressing a range of issues including slave labor, Unionist dissent, the ‘Texas Troubles,’ blockade running, yellow fever epidemics, Galveston’s Ursuline sisters, and the declaration of “Juneteenth.” The author cleverly utilizes a variety of manuscript collections, Galveston Daily News, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies, letters, diaries, slave narratives, as well as essential secondary works. Schmidt’s skillful method of interweaving his eleven chronological and topical chapters contributes to the work’s strength of highlighting Galveston’s role in events related to the tragedy of the Civil War.

Copyright © 2014 The Texas State Historical Association
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Brett J. Derbes...

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