- West Wind, Flood Tide: The Battle of Mobile Bay
Civil War historians traditionally have neglected naval and coastal operations when examining Confederate defeat and Union victory. Despite groundbreaking studies by William N. Still Jr. and Rowena Reed in the 1970s, the preponderance of Civil War historiography focuses on land battles and campaigns. Fortunately that has been changing in the last ten years or so, thanks to Robert M. Browning Jr., Robert J. Schneller Jr., Stephen A. Wise, Craig Symonds, and Spencer Tucker, among others. Even the current dean of Civil War historians, James M. McPherson, recognizes the void and reportedly is writing a general history of the waterborne war.
Enhancing our understanding of the naval war and its impact on the conflict is West Wind, Flood Tide: The Battle of Mobile Bay by Jack Friend, a U.S. Army veteran, board member of the CSS Alabama Association, and the recognized authority on the Mobile Campaign. Friend's book is the definitive study of the naval campaign to date, supplanting Chester Hearn's Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign (1998) and John C. Waugh's Last Stand at Mobile (2001). Unlike Arthur W. Bergeron Jr.'s excellent social history, Confederate Mobile (1991), Friend's focuses on the 1864 naval battle of Mobile Bay.
Mobile, Alabama, was the last port open to Confederate blockade running in the Gulf of Mexico. By the spring of 1862, U.S. Navy and Army expeditionary forces had captured or closed all other major Southern seaports except Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Atlantic coast. Inspired by his victory at New Orleans in April, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut was anxious to strike Mobile and deny Southern importers access to world markets. But the admiral's ambitious plans were cancelled and then delayed for more than two years as offensive operations along the Mississippi River and in Virginia took precedence. In the meantime, blockade runners brought in vital supplies by way of Mobile, assisting gray-clad forces in the Deep South.
By the time Farragut received the green light from the Department of the Navy to move against Mobile in midsummer 1864, the port's significance, Friend admits, was more symbolic than strategic. Union forces controlled the Mississippi corridor and most of the Gulf coast, and Gen. William T. Sherman threatened Atlanta. Moreover, only twenty blockade-running ships entered Mobile in 1864, hardly classifying it as a major commercial port. Indeed, by then blockade-running shipping firms had largely shifted their operations to Wilmington.
Even with Mobile's diminishing importance, there were still advantages to sealing the bay and capturing the city, Friend argues. Confederate maritime trade still needed to be halted, for both symbolic as well as logistical reasons. Additionally, if Federal forces took the city at the head of the bay, the army could then [End Page 172] advance northward along the Alabama and Tallapoosa rivers to assist Sherman's campaign to subdue the heartland of the Confederacy. Just as important that hot season, President Abraham Lincoln needed good news from the battlefronts to improve his flagging popularity in the North and his chances at reelection in the upcoming political contest in November.
Friend examines the military and political reasoning behind Farragut's determined effort to seal Mobile Bay, but his work is at its best when he describes the naval battle itself. On August 5, 1864, Farragut's eighteen warships, including the screw sloops Hartford and Brooklyn, blasted their way past the gun batteries of Forts Morgan and Gaines to reach the bay, where they engaged a small Confederate flotilla of only four vessels under the command of Adm. Franklin Buchanan. Friend debunks the myth that Farragut, lashed to the rigging of his flagship Hartford, implored his gunboat commanders to "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!" as they entered the bay under heavy enemy cannon fire. Perhaps no other episode in Civil War naval history stirs the public's imagination quite like that scene, beautifully depicted in William Heysham Overend's painting An...