Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade
Author: Paula Lenor Webb
Publisher: History Press
Price: $ 21.99 (Paper)
When I commenced reading “Mobile Under Siege,” I believed it would be the story of the Port City during most of the Civil War, under Union naval blockade, with plucky blockade runners dashing out in the fog with contraband cotton bound for the mills of England by way of Havana, Cuba, and dashing in with a fresh load of fine wine and cigars.
It is not.
This book begins with Farragut and the Battle of Mobile Bay. “Damn the torpedoes” and all that.
Starting on August 3, the Union took Fort Gaines, then forts Morgan and Powell and controlled the Bay, all except a couple of miles from the city itself, where there were shallows and defensive coastal batteries.
The period under siege lasted eight months, and although it had to be clear to all but the slowest Mobilian that the war and the city would soon be lost, and there was considerable tension, most people carried on most of the time in denial.
The Mobile River was still open, and citizens, especially women and children, had the option, and were urged, to move to Montgomery, Pickensville or Demopolis, or some other up-country town, safe from the shelling. Few did, and most of those, after a few days, returned.
The theatre stayed open, with almost daily performances, and there were, of course, dances, balls, band concerts, parades, home entertainments of every imaginable kind. Many were fund-raisers for the military.
There was, amazingly enough, an ample supply of meat, especially pork, although the prices rose steadily.
Vegetables became scarce, and Webb quotes the “Mobile Advertiser and Register”: “They say it is useless to attempt to raise vegetables… for the straggling soldiers will allow nothing green to sprout from the ground without pouncing upon it.”
Coffee was yet another matter and was made from various mixtures of parched and ground “grains, okra seed, rice, peanuts, cotton seed, English peas, beans and sweet potatoes.” Molasses was the sweetener, no sugar available.
Whiskey was made from sorghum, pine knots and chinaberries. Webb describes this concoction as “the vilest.”
There is concise but illuminating discussion of more serious matters.
Escaping slaves caused great consternation and there was increased fear of a slave uprising.
Might not a gradual emancipation of the slaves, even now, placate the Yankees?
Might men of color, with the proper inducements, be inducted into the Confederate armed forces? The Union Army had certainly made use of this manpower.
The last hours of any war always hold the possibility of unspeakable irony and pity. Imagine the soldier killed at 10:59 A.M. on November 11, 1918.
If there had been a telegraph, the Battle of New Orleans might never have taken place. The War of 1812 was over, but nobody knew it.
The same kind of thing is true here. The battles of Spanish Fort and of Blakeley ended in surrender on April 8 and 9, 1865. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9.
Perfectly bizarre, if less bloody, the last slave auction was held in Mobile on March 17, 1865.
The proud owner took possession but then, 23 days later, his “purchase” was repossessed, so to speak, by the Union Army.
That has to be one of the great cases of buyer’s remorse.
On the other hand, the seller was paid in Confederate money, and saw his cash turn worthless.
Here we have one of the great lose-lose situations of all time.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.