Every Old Mobile family worth its salt will claim a blockade runner somewhere in the family tree. Heaven knows plenty of daring men attempted to run the formidable Yankee cordon into the Gulf ports, and quite a few succeeded. But over time, the Union effort improved, and by the war’s end, the Confederacy was suffocating for want of desperately needed weapons, ammunition, clothing, medicines and other supplies.
The story of the Union blockade in our part of the world is beautifully and thoroughly told in a new book, “Lincoln’s Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, ” by Robert Browning Jr., chief historian of the U.S. Coast Guard and author of several books. In this latest offering, Browning focuses on the genius of Adm. David Glasgow Farragut, who commanded the squadron from January 1862 until after the Battle of Mobile Bay two and a half years later. Farragut patrolled some 1, 300 miles of shoreline from St. Andrew’s Bay, Florida, to the Rio Grande, and his achievements included the capture of New Orleans, the opening of the Mississippi River and the closure of Mobile Bay. The book is the result of about 10 years of research and writing, minus some intervening time that Browning worked on other projects.
Have you always been interested in the history of the Civil War?
From a young age, I was interested in military history. My attraction to the Civil War and specifically naval matters intensified in 1975 when I participated in an underwater archaeology field school. We dove and documented blockade-runners and Union vessels along the coast near Wilmington and the Cape Fear River. During the summer of 1981, I worked in Charleston with author Clive Cussler, who was trying to find the Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel. I have visited dozens of battlefields and museums that interpret Civil War history, which has increased my enthusiasm.
Were there any surprises you came across during your research?
There were no major ones, only a number of smaller ones. For instance, I found a couple unpublished quotes for Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes” utterance at the Battle of Mobile Bay. These discoveries made research exciting.
Farragut is the hero of this tale and one of the brighter lights in the Union officer corps. What were the qualities that made him so effective?
My initial approach was cautious. I wanted to determine for myself if he was the hero that everyone had made him; once the research was complete, I was in agreement. Several qualities made him so successful. First, he always led from the front and was present at all the major battles. He also managed to get the best efforts from his officers so that they were a strong supporting staff. He had a great command of strategy and could determine where he could best strike to weaken the enemy or to aid the army forces in their missions.
If Farragut had failed at Mobile Bay, what do you think the national implications might have been?
I have a different opinion than others about the significance of Mobile Bay. It did come at an important time in Lincoln’s presidency and his bid for re-election. At least one historian believes that the victory substantially helped Lincoln, but I disagree. Northern press headlines were focused on the Atlanta Campaign. News of the victory at Mobile Bay was mentioned, but the papers went quickly back to the news of Atlanta, where the two great armies were struggling. The public was not as invested in the victory as they might have been. Had Union forces immediately made a move to take Mobile, it probably would have received more traction in the news, in part because it would have had an impact on the Atlanta Campaign.
“Lincoln’s Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War” by Robert Browning Jr. is available for purchase through the University of Alabama Press at uapress.ua.edu or on Amazon.
text by John S. Sledge • illustration by dean Mosher