Cover image for Gunfire around the Gulf : the last major naval campaigns of the Civil War
Gunfire around the Gulf : the last major naval campaigns of the Civil War
Coombe, Jack D.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Bantam Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
xii, 239 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
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E591 .C75 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From 1861 to 1865, some of the most horrific land battles in history were fought at places called Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. But while the soil ran with blood, it was the lesser-known naval battles raging for control of the Gulf of Mexico--the lifeline of supplies and weapons to the Confederacy--that would determine the outcome of the Civil War. In this vivid and powerful account, acclaimed historian Jack D. Coombe combines meticulous research with a breathtaking narrative to re-create the fierce naval battles for the ports around the Gulf, including those at New Orleans, Mobile Bay, and Vicksburg, with all the adventure and immediacy of a great novel. This is an extraordinary story of the ingenuity, daring, courage, and--all too often--human folly upon which the fate of a nation rested. Coombe takes us inside the suffocating hulls of steam-powered ironclads shuddering under the impact of cannonballs and battering rams, into nights lit by the fires of burning ships, and into harrowing battles as gunships hammer away at each other from virtually point-blank range, often unable to tell friend from foe. From the politicians, industrialists, and engineers on both sides who scrambled to build navies almost from scratch, to daredevil blockade runners and privateers, and from wily Confederate commanders such as Raphael Semmes, who bagged sixty-nine Union ships, to a virtually forgotten old naval officer from Tennesse named David Glasgow Farragut, whose bold and courageous leadership on behalf of the Union would become the stuff of legend, here are the stories of the men who made history. Here, too, is a compelling look at the ships, strategies, and pioneering technology that proved the difference between victory and defeat: the potentially invincible Confederate ironclad Tennessee; the squat, ugly, much-feared Manasses; the South's explorations into torpedoes, fire rafts, and even the first successful submarine; and the Union's relentless drive upriver, braving hazards both natural and manmade to run a fearsome gauntlet of stone citadels bristling with firepower. Filled with colorful historical characters and unparalleled battle scenes, Gunfire Around the Gulf is an important addition to the history of a little-known but crucial theater of the Civil War as well as a gripping and unforgettable read.

Author Notes

Jack Coombe is the author of "Thunder along the Mississippi," which was nominated for the Fletcher Pratt Award. He & his wife live in Oak Park, Illinois.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

A brief survey of Union and Confederate naval activities in the Gulf of Mexico, Coombe's latest (following Thunder Along the Mississippi) joins a growing list of books reexamining naval warfare during the Civil War. From Admiral David Farragut's masterful attack on New Orleans (April 1862) to the Battle of Mobile Bay (August 1864), Coombe covers the major operations that shut down Southern blockade running and established Union mastery along the coast from Texas to Florida. While Coombe's main focus is on the Union's capture of New Orleans and Mobile, he puts those events in context by detailing Union naval failures in Texas at Galveston and Sabine Pass, the saving of Pensacola for the Union in 1861 and the operations of Southern commerce raiders and blockade runners. Coombe touches upon the problems of naval warfare in an age when wooden sailing vessels were giving way to armored ships; he also writes about the material lives of sailors in the 1860s. Most of the book, however, consists of blow-by-blow re-creations of battle, and of the cool decision-making of Farragut and lesser-known figures. Coombe's clear, often vivid narrative will please buffs and noninitiates alike. Maps and illustrations not seen by PW. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Coombe (Thunder Along the Mississippi: The River Battles That Split the Confederacy) has written a companion volume describing naval actions on the Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola to the Mexican border. Thousands of books and articles have been published on the Civil War, but Coombe feels the campaign in the western part of the Gulf of Mexico is not well known. He concentrates on the capture of New Orleans in 1862, the capture and loss of Galveston in 1863, and the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Coombe is correct in his assessment that the Union Navy played a major part by conquering the Mississippi, cutting off Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the rest of the Confederacy. He finds that the Union blockade of the South was a direct contributor to the defeat of the Confederacy. This is a well-done study, clearly written and suitable for those unfamiliar with Civil War naval operations. A worthwhile addition to Civil War collections.ÄStanley Itkin, Hillside P.L., New Hyde Park, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Soon after the war began on April 14, 1861, with the capitulation of Fort Sumter, tall, thin President Lincoln stood beside the short, massive General of the Army, Winfield Scott, scrutinizing a map of the United States. The septuagenarian general, hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, was convinced that the Union was facing a potentially long and bloody conflict with the rebellious Southerners, and that a swift, decisive victory, with minimal bloodletting, was needed.1  Scott, euphemistically called "Old Fuss and Feathers" by his men, may have placed a pudgy finger on the East Coast and suggested as the first phase of the plan a massive, snakelike blockade winding around Florida, along the rim of the Gulf of Mexico, to the Texas coast. Such a blockade would prevent the Rebels from receiving military and material aid from foreign sources. Then he may have pointed to the midwestern section of the country, particularly the Mississippi River at its confluence with the Ohio. There, in this second phase of the plan, 660,000 well-trained troops, backed by a fleet of gunboats and transports, would push down-river, taking enemy fortifications along the way until they reached the Gulf of Mexico. This move would split the South in two and cut it off from those states bordering the river, rich in agricultural, industrial, and manpower resources, thereby strangling it into submission. Although Lincoln approved the plan, it was never officially adopted. Yet during the war, curiously, it was followed almost to the letter. A carping press derisively labeled it the "Anaconda Plan," in reference to the South American reptile known for squeezing its prey to death before devouring it. But as the plan uncannily proved its validity in the long, bitter conflict, the carping went into nothingness. To the South, the Mississippi River was of immense strategic importance. It was a major highway of commerce, upon which steamboats and river rafts endlessly plied, carrying raw and manufactured goods as well as manpower. The railroads had not yet spread their tentacles sufficiently far and wide to handle the monumental traffic, except for a few feeder lines leading up to and away from the Mississippi; therefore the river remained the main mode of transportation. From its humble beginnings at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, as a stream less than a foot deep and eighteen feet wide, the Mississippi River snakes southward for a distance of roughly 3,710 miles, touching Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. (When one steps into that fairly narrow stream in Itasca, as this author has done on occasion, it is difficult to imagine its evolving into that wide, deep body of water that it becomes after it meets the Ohio.) The Father of Waters has more than 250 tributaries and literally splits the country in two. To the Confederacy, control of the river meant control of a vital waterway. The South desperately needed the resources that the river brought, because of its shortage of machine shops, foundries, rolling mills, and powder factories, so necessary for production of arms and ammunition. For the Union, gaining control of the river would mean cutting off the Confederacy from these vast resources. Isolating this region, coupled with a successful blockade, would prevent a prolonged conflict and hasten the end of the war. Unfortunately for the Union, however, at this juncture most of its military eyes were on the blockade of the East Coast. But Southern eyes were quick to fasten on that western anchor that would become known as the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy. Not all states along the Trans-Mississippi fell within the Confederacy's influence: Kentucky and Missouri seesawed in their loyalties to either side. Thanks to quick handling by a few astute Union military leaders and an underlying sentiment of loyalty to the North, these states remained in the Union. But because Kentucky bordered on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, it became a defense perimeter for the Confederacy. After Lincoln's call for troops, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin flew into a snit and declared his state neutral. Yet he failed to utter a peep when Confederates established fortifications on Kentucky soil. For the Union, Cairo, Illinois, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, became the fountainhead of military power in the Western Theater. Late in 1861 the astute Lincoln tagged industrialist James Eads to build a fleet of seven ironclad gunboats to support any military campaign downriver to the Gulf. The vessels, based on a design by the elusive Samuel Pook, were constructed at shipyards in Carondelet, Missouri, and Mound City, Illinois. Each vessel was of 500-ton displacement, 175 feet long, 50-foot beam, and seven-foot hold. The casements were of 13-inch charcoal iron plating, which protected 10 to 13 guns of various calibers. Five boilers, each with a 36-inch diameter and a 28-foot length, would feed two powerful reclining engines that drove two 22-foot paddlewheels located in the stern.  Crew consisted of 200 officers and men. The gunboats, named after midwestern cities, were especially designed for maneuvering in shallow waters; their nine-foot draft allowed them to navigate in the shoal waters prevalent in major river systems. Eads turned them out in a record one hundred days, using his own funds whenever the government was delinquent in payment. This remarkable fleet of ironclads had an aggregate of 5,000 tons, an average speed of nine knots, and an approximate total of 107 guns. Also part of this riverine fleet were three "timberclads," former freight passenger steamers of 500 tons' displacement, with conventional side paddlewheels, sporting an armament of eight guns. They were so called because of five-inch oak bulwarks that protected the boiler and engine rooms. This formidable fleet, plus a well-trained army, came under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, a veteran of the Mexican War who had received two citations for gallantry and one for meritorious conduct. Grant had resigned from the army after the Mexican War and settled on a farm in Missouri with his wife. When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered his military expertise and was given command of the 21st Illinois. Not long afterward, he was appointed a brigadier general by Congress and given command of a district in the Western Theater, with headquarters in Cairo. Armed with the trained army and the remarkable fleet of gunboats, he began planning the downriver assault on Confederate strongholds outlined in the Anaconda Plan. The small river town of Cairo was transformed into a bristling army and naval base. The Confederacy, for its part, was shackled by a lack of shipbuilding facilities, manpower, and other war materiel, yet it did manage to put together a fleet of 20 fighting craft of all descriptions. Labeled the River Defense Fleet, it would be used to counter the Union threat on the Mississippi. It was to be backed by two ironclads at New Orleans and two more at Memphis, Tennessee. Under the direction of the indefatigable Stephen Mallory, the Confederate secretary of the navy, this fleet took to the waters. The stage was now set for some fierce naval action on the mightiest of rivers, between two factions locked in a life-or-death struggle. Excerpted from Gunfire Around the Gulf: The Last Major Naval Campaigns of the Civil War by Jack D. Coombe All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.