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Regular reader Mike sent along this post from Christian Schneider at Atomic Trousers that I thought worth sharing, especially in light of my own gels’ burgeoning baseball fanaticism:

Okay, real quick story from this weekend that demonstrates what a stellar parent I am: On Saturday, my wife took my 4-year old daughter to the grocery store. But when they get there, my daughter starts throwing a fit and refuses to go in the store. Why, you may ask? Because the store was “Cub.” And my daughter kept telling my wife that she hates the Cubs. Honest to God true story. That is a young woman that is on the right path.

Heh. Of course, we’re solid Nats fans at home, so our arch-enemies are to be found in the NL East, the current Numero Uno villains being the Phillies. But what one might call the secondary team politics in my family are a bit more complicated than that – the Missus’ father is from Brooklyn, so she grew up as an unquestioning Yankees fan. I, on the other hand, being a Real American, dislike the Yanks intensely. The gels are aware of these varying points of view and use them whenever they think they can reap some political advantage.

BTW, while up in Maine, we hope to take in at least one Sea Dogs game. Apart from my general friendliness to the Sawx organization (although I admit it’s starting to wear a bit thin), since the Dawgs will be playing the Altoona Curve, who are in the EAS South along with the Nats’ Harrisburg AA club, we’ll be able to cheer heartily.

How nice it is to have a household full of young ladies so enthusiastic about the game.

Yes, although it’s officially another couple days until the vac, the reality of the situation is that while my body is still moored, my brain has already left the dock.

At the same time, however, it doesn’t seem to have any steam up and thus is simply wallowing about on the tide. Hopefully it will be able to creep out of harbor on the ebb.

BTW, for those of you who do not recognize her, I chose this photo in particular to illustrate my little metaphor because this is the ferry that runs about the waters of my corner of the Maine coast, known to the locals as the Island Tub, although her proprietors give her a somewhat more poetic moniker. During the season, she brings boatloads of touron day-trippers up from Portland. While she’s waiting for them to be done loading up on gew-gaws and getting gouged by the local sell-out lobstah house, you can spend a couple hours tooling about the islands in her, wondering if and when the kid piloting her will hang her up on a reef because he’s too busy flirting with some babe to notice that he’s wandered out of the channel. (It’s been known to happen.)

We haven’t taken a ride in her in the past year or two and the gels are making noise about doing so again. Eh – it’s a pleasant way to spend an early afternoon.

Mobile Bay.jpg

The Battle of Mobile Bay: U.S.S. Hartford brushes past the Confederate ram Tennessee. Admiral Farragut is in the rigging of the Hartford at upper right.

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864.

A few years back now (yikes!), over at the Llamas I reviewed a book about the battle recommended to me by a local attorney with whom I was working at the time.  I reprint it here for your amusement:

West Wind.jpg

West Wind, Flood Tide: The Battle of Mobile Bay by Jack Friend.

Popular history states that at the height of the battle Union Admiral David A. Farragut exclaimed, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” (“Torpedoes” actually meant “mines”, with which the channel into Mobile Bay was liberally strewn.) Although these were not Farragut’s actual words (his order was something closer to, “Go on, go on!”), the sentiment is more or less accurate. The Union monitor Tecumseh had just struck a mine and gone down with heavy losses. In order to keep his attack from stalling in the narrows opposite Fort Morgan, Farragut led a portion of his squadron straight through the mine field to continue the attack.

Let me start out by saying that this is the most comprehensive description of the battle of Mobile Bay that I have ever read. The maps and diagrams are particularly illuminating and the detail of the action is exquisite. On these grounds, I would recommend this book. Nonetheless, I have two beefs with it, one stylistic and one substantive.

The stylistic beef is that Friend has a very bad habit of repeating himself. For example, I lost count of the number of times he described the Union Fleet’s preparations for battle – specifically, the striking down of superfluous yards and masts and the rigging of splinter netting and other defensive devices. Also, Friend quotes the same passage from the same letter more than once. A good editor should have caught these faults and demanded some paring.

More importantly, however, I question some of the strategic premises Fried sets out, primarily because his own narrative is not able to keep up with them. Friend contends that in the summer of 1864, with the war bogging down, Lincoln’s presidency was in crisis. Grant and Sherman faced stalemate in their respective campaigns against Richmond and Atlanta and other Confederate forces – notably those in the Shenendoah Valley under Jubal Early (who famously raided the outskirts of Washington) and those to the west of the Mississippi under Kirby Smith – were free to wreak havoc. All the Confederates had to do was to hold out in the sieges of Richmond and Atlanta for a few months more, a task Lee and John Bell Hood, respectively, were undertaking masterfully, and the Union, sick and tired of the war, would have thrown Lincoln out, leaving President McClellan to sue for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. According to Friend, the Union absolutely had to capture Mobile from the sea, thereby cutting off a critical Confederate supply line to Atlanta and also giving Sherman an out in the event that the Rebels, under Kirby Smith, were able to operate effectively in Sherman’s rear.

Well. I’m sorry, but I have to file rather a lot of this under the heading Confederate Pipe Dreams. It’s true that the South (and Northern Copperheads) certainly hoped this scenario would play out (and Friend is a Southerner). And it’s also true that Lincoln fretted about it as late as August, 1864. But in reality, there was never much more than a very slim chance that all of these pieces could have fallen into place.

First, Friend spends a good bit of time describing the preparations for a trans-Mississippi attack in Sherman’s rear by Kirby Smith. However, that attack never happened because of Union control of the Mississippi. Friend simply stops talking about it half way through the story.

Second, although Jubal Early managed to humiliate the North by burning Chambersburg and striking the outer defenses of Washington (and thereby making Lincoln the only sitting U.S. president ever to come under enemy fire), this was largely a psychological victory: nobody seriously thought Early, with his small army, could actually attack the massive fortifications of Dee Cee in earnest. Furthermore, it was not long after this raid that Phil Sheridan began his famous ride down the Shenendoah Valley, eventually crushing all remaining Confederate resistance there.

Third, Friend talks of the heroic defense of Atlanta by John Bell Hood, comparing it to Lee’s masterful defense of Richmond and Petersburg. Every other history I’ve ever read of the war either criticizes Hood’s handling of his forces or else contends that Sherman’s move on Atlanta was essentially unstoppable.

Fourth, Friend seems to suggest that the siege of Richmond was an elegant trap set by Lee to immobilize the Union juggernaut. But the fact of the matter is that he was driven to it by Grant’s relentless pursuit of him across Virginia in the spring and summer of 1864. Furthermore, while Friend contends that the siege was a stalemate, the truth is that Grant made slow but steady progress, gradually strangling Lee and driving him further and further into his internal lines.

Fifth, Friend’s premise is undercut by the fact that although Farragut won the battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, the Union army did not actually get around to capturing Mobile itself until April 12, 1865, three days after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.

Finally, although Lincoln fretted about losing the 1864 election as late as early August, the fact of the matter was that the collective victories of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan radically altered the mood of the North. Furthermore, once Lincoln started actively campaigning against McClellan and his Copperhead allies, public sentiment quickly turned against the party of appeasement. (Note to Donks: pay attention to this.) When the election was finally held, it wasn’t even close. Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay certainly was a psychological boost to Lincoln and to the Union in general, but I simply can’t agree with Friend’s apparent contention that, but for this victory, Lincoln would have lost, the North would have conceded defeat and the South would have won a negotiated settlement.

No, to me, the Battle of Mobile Bay was important for three basic reasons. First, as I have said, it was a great victory for the Union Navy, wiping out virtually the entire remaining Confederate battle fleet. Second, it closed an important blockade-running port, thereby intensifying an already critical Southern supply problem. And third, it marked the dawn of a new kind of naval warfare in that it was the first major naval battle in which iron-clads played a critical tactical part: The Confederate Fleet consisted of four ironclads. Although Farragut had a fleet of fifteen sloops and gunboats, he would not attack until he had collected four Union monitors to match against them. In this, the battle rather reminds me of the first appearance of tanks on the Western Front in World War I: clunky, crude, but terrifying in that they upset all the old military calculus.

While Friend certainly makes this point himself, I think he emphasizes the strengths of these new iron monsters – the Tennessee in particular – but does not pay enough attention to their weaknesses. Most notably, although he often cites the fact that the Confederate ram Tennessee was the single most powerful vessel afloat, he skirts over the fact that she was also extremely slow and sluggish, and had inherent design problems: during the battle she passed down the entire Union line of ships but was unable to manuever into a position to effectively ram any of them. In the end, with half her gunports jammed shut and her steam drastically reduced by incessant shelling and ramming, she was simply mobbed by the Union fleet and forced to strike. Friend does everything he can to play up the threat the Tennessee posed to the Union ships and the gallantry of her crew (which was genuine), but I feel that from the beginning they were mathematically doomed. Again, I suspect this presentation is a function of what I believe to be Friend’s romantic Southern bias.

And really, this bias permiates the book, not just at the strategic level I’ve already talked about, but at the tactical level as well. There is no denying the valor of Confederate Admiral Buchanan and General Maury who, faced with extremely limited resources, did the best they could. But the fact of the matter is that Farragut coolly and methodically built up an extremely powerful fleet and simply bulled his way into the Bay. Once he had cleared the narrows, the surrender of the Confederate forts that guarded them – Morgan, Gaines and Powell – was virtually assured. In fact, it was never really that close.


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August 2008