A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy book cover

Journal of Southern History Review of A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy

S.A. Cavell of Southeastern Louisiana University recently reviewed A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862 for the prestigious Journal of Southern History.

The Journal of Southern History (ISSN 0022-4642) is published four times a year, in February, May, August, and November, by the Southern Historical Association, which has its editorial offices at the Department of History, Rice University. For eighty-five years, the Journal has published the best of southern history.

As Cavell notes, “Bielski has written a heavily illustrated, approachable introduction to the subject for a general audience—an achievement by any standard. The narrative is offset by marginal notes featuring character sketches to humanize the action, and useful maps provide a visual anchor for the battle sequences, making A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862 a worthwhile contribution to the literature.

Read Cavell’s entire review is below.

A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862. By Mark F. Bielski. The Emerging Civil War Series. ( El Dorado Hills, Calif.: Savas Beatie, 2021. Pp. xx, 171. $14.95, ISBN 978-1-61121-489-5.)

Mark F. Bielski’s slim volume on the capture of New Orleans by U.S. Navy flag officer David Glasgow Farragut in April 1862 offers a concise look at the buildup and the battle, which took place at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, seventy miles below the city. Bielski balances Confederate and Federal perspectives on the action and reasserts the arguments presented in Charles L. Dufour’s The Night the War Was Lost (New York, 1960) and Chester G. Hearn’s The Capture of New Orleans, 1862 (Baton Rouge, 1995), which blamed shortsighted strategy at the highest levels of the Confederate government, interservice rivalries, and military-civilian tensions for the loss of the largest and, arguably, most important city in the South. Bielski explains how Jefferson Davis and his War Department repeatedly siphoned off Major General Mansfield Lovell’s troops and artillery for operations elsewhere and denied his requests for overall authority in directing a unified defense of the city. These decisions allowed naval officers on station to maintain operational independence and spawned catastrophic command and control problems. Moreover, Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen Mallory refused to acknowledge the threat of Farragut’s fleet massing on the Gulf Coast, insisting that the real danger to New Orleans lay in a riverine attack from the north. Finally, community leaders refused to place their civilian river defense fleet under naval or military control, while labor strikes in the shipyards slowed work on the city’s two primary defensive weapons, the monstrous ironclads the Mississippi and Louisiana, neither of which was ready when the time came.

Clearly, Bielski has researched his topic, yet the absence of any notes or bibliography leaves the reader wondering about his sources and precludes the use of this book for undergraduate-level courses. The narrative reveals insight into the deep political and military-naval problems occurring within Confederate leadership, although treatment of the Federal position is not as complete. The principal source appears to be U.S. Navy commander David Dixon Porter’s self-serving memoir, which leaves little room for an appreciation of Farragut’s detailed planning and effective tactical and strategic decision-making. The fact that Farragut exercised full control of the Union operation—of his fleet and of the movement of Major General Benjamin Butler’s 18,000-man army—is less than clear as a factor in Federal success. Some repetition and a few minor errors do not impede the overall value of the storytelling. (For example, the Federal Unadilla class gunboats were not ironclads; Farragut had no ironclads at New Orleans.) It would be helpful to note that Farragut became the first rear admiral in U.S. naval history in 1862, as a result of his victory at New Orleans, before discussing his step to vice admiral in 1864.

Bielski has written a heavily illustrated, approachable introduction to the subject for a general audience—an achievement by any standard. The narrative is offset by marginal notes featuring character sketches to humanize the action, and useful maps provide a visual anchor for the battle sequences, making A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862 a worthwhile contribution to the literature.