Kansas can wait one more day. It’s been there since 1854, after all.
Back when I started this blog, in the savage age when the internet ran on carrier anomalocaris, I thought that I might review some books from time to time. I use quite a few regularly, in addition to period sources. Then a project to describe the election of 1860 turned into a short summary of major events leading to the war. How long could that really take? A week or two? By geological standards, that summary remains short.
Also in that distant past, I consulted Google to see what the internet had to offer in the way of Civil War blogging. Some guy out there made and photographed these amazing models of Civil War ships. Only later did it dawn upon me that Andy Hall did all that on a computer instead of with physical models. And then he wrote a book about the Texas blockade, a story featuring just those ships and the exploits of their crews.
So I had to have it. I went to my locally-owned, independent bookseller to get a copy on order. It’s a running joke there that I never want anything she actually has in stock. When she put Andy’s book into the computer, she got back the mysterious note that it was not available. The owner of the store had never seen that one before. Books came either in print or out of print, either in stock or out of stock. But she ordered it up anyway, just to see what would happen.
A week later it arrived. “Not available” must mean “available just like everything else.” Who knew? I took an unaccustomed walk out to collect it, but the ailing state of my calf muscles (Exercise and I don’t get on so well.) and my excitement prevented an uninterrupted trip home. I sat down in a park and read the Acknowledgements and part of the first chapter. It was worth the stop.
So let’s do this review properly, then:
Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast by Andrew W. Hall.
I have no prior experience with The History Press, but to judge from their catalog this book seems a typical offering. It weighs in at 141 pages, including endnotes and index. The text comes generously illustrated with both period photographs and drawings and the author’s maps and renderings of various ships. Unlike many histories, you could read it in a single sitting without doing much harm to your hindquarters or risking starvation. The clear writing will surprise no readers of Andy’s blog, but its frequent absence in the field makes it all the more appreciated.
I know relatively little about Civil War naval operations so most everything Andy wrote came as news to me. The work naturally focuses on his native Galveston, the premier port on the Texas coast at the time, but we do venture elsewhere when the subject warrants it. The war might have begun in 1861, but Andy takes us all the way back to the 1820s to briefly sketch out the history of Texas to that point and takes some time to lay out Galveston’s geography and the region’s economy for context. From there he moves into the opening of the war and the legal complications of declaring the blockade, something that international custom held could only occur between two nations at war rather than one nation suppressing a rebellion.
Then we come back to the Texas coast for the story of the blockade runners and their enemies. Andy gives us chapters on particular ships and their daring escapes. We read about their tactics, both clever and brazen. I found myself especially taken by the captain who dusted himself with flour and hid in a dark cabin, declaring that he had yellow fever. Nobody would want to inspect that vessel, right? A Navy officer and the ship’s surgeon boarded the blockade runner, but fell for the ruse. So far, so good. But then:
Alden [captain of the USS South Carolina] was getting suspicious; he thought he recognized the schooner. He then went over to the schooner, opened the hatch to the master’s cabin wide to admit more light, and climbed down into the cabin to get a good look for himself. After a moment, Alden said quietly, “You’ve played this one out, Johnson, and you’d better get up.” Johnson immediately admitted the ruse.
Memorable stories like this flesh out the narrative spine of the book and provide the occasional welcome laugh along the way. In another we learn that William Henry Seward, alcohol, and diplomacy appear to have mixed memorably, if not exactly well.
To add to the history, Andy gives us the story of how the wrecks of some of the blockade runners have been rediscovered in recent decades. The actual ships can tell us things that written accounts neglected to share. I can’t say that I’d relish that work, groping blindly by touch in muddy, turbulent water and hoping to find an artifact rather than annoyed wildlife. But I’m glad that others, Andy included, get it done and so expand our understanding of the past. Catch him in the act on page 120.
Check it out. When the chance comes to combine fun reading and fun learning in one package, why pass it up?