- Lincoln’s Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron During the Civil War by Robert M. Browning Jr.
Robert M. Browning Jr.’s new book completes a planned trilogy chronicling in meticulous detail the Civil War service of the U.S. Navy’s three most [End Page 683] important deepwater commands: the blockading squadrons of the South Atlantic, the North Atlantic, and now the West Gulf. David Glasgow Farragut presided over the West Gulf squadron for all but eight of its forty-two months of existence, from its formation in January 1862 until November 1864. The long tenure of his command imbued the entire squadron with Farragut’s own resourcefulness, diligence, and relentless determination to pursue the enemy. Perhaps no action better reflects these traits or so impacted the course of the war as the capture of New Orleans on May 1, 1862. In a week of intense river-borne fighting, Farragut’s squadron, led by his foster brother David Dixon Porter’s mortar-boat fleet, bombarded its way past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, forcing the surrender of the Confederacy’s second city “without a siege that would have cost lives, time, and resources” (p. 111). Most remarkable, the squadron achieved this feat before acquiring a true navy yard for supply and repair anywhere within its field of operation.
With an unsurpassed mastery of technical detail, Browning describes the logistical challenges entailed in blockading a thousand-mile coastline from St. Andrew’s Bay, Florida, to the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Texas coast. He charts the events of this campaign with an eye to points as fine as the relative inefficiency of refueling cruisers at sea in order to keep them on station, which required coaling vessels to retain a third of their cargo in ballast for stability. International law presented another set of constraints. U.S. courts expanded the doctrine of continuous voyage, condemning numerous neutral-flagged vessels seized for shipping cargoes from neutral ports in the Caribbean into Texas via Mexico. Despite these extended powers, the squadron remained “powerless to stop legal trade coming to Matamoros” (p. 408). Browning finds that of the at least 800,000 bales of cotton imported to New York during the Civil War, a significant portion came from the South. While it had little strategic impact on the wider war, this trade in the West Gulf so frustrated squadron commanders that they perpetually tested the limits of belligerent rights and thereby “continually flirted with creating a foreign crisis” (p. 514).
The squadron provided more decisive service in offensive operations against Confederate coastal positions, including the battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, where Farragut reputedly uttered his infamous order for Captain James Alden of the USS Brooklyn to “Go ahead, sir, d—n the torpedoes” (p. 451). Browning describes every action of even the slightest significance in elegant yet unforced prose, vividly capturing both the minute detail and the overall spirit of events. His account is punctuated with illuminating character sketches of the most important actors. The magisterial breadth and thoroughness of Browning’s narrative reflects more than a decade of research in the private papers of individual participants, the published Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Navy Department records in the National Archives, and a host of other archival resources. The University of Alabama Press has produced a volume of the highest quality, including nine helpful maps of the Gulf Coast, making Lincoln’s Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron During the Civil War an essential resource for any serious researcher or library interested in Civil War naval history. Though it is a dense and often technical work not [End Page 684] easily accessible to neophytes, it is an engagingly written and informative treasure trove.