I have read about the Civil War and, I am somewhat ashamed to admit now that I’ve finished Paula Lenor Webb’s excellent book, Mobile Under Siege: Surviving the Union Blockade, I don’t think the word ‘Alabama’ has ever come up in my reading or teaching. I simply wasn’t aware of the importance of Mobile, particularly its port, and I don’t know why it’s so overlooked.
Webb’s short and sharp account makes wonderful use of primary sources to describe the vantage point of the locals as the Union Army made its way ever so slowly into Mobile. Why so slowly? Webb doesn’t go into that, and that’s fine. This is not a Union story.
As Mobilians both prepared and waited, there was a definite effort to carry on with normal life. I loved the accounts of how the theatre persisted in presenting productions even as cannons and soldiers approached. There were special functions designed to raise money for soldiers. I was reminded that this was not a war that took place in some isolated space, but one that necessarily impacted the lives of ordinary citizens on a daily basis. There is a funny passage from a woman’s journal about how she and her friends decided that battles were not necessarily the best spectator sport.
I have three concerns about the book, only one of which I’m convinced is legitimate. As someone who not too well versed in the vocabulary of the military or the geography of Alabama, I longed for both a glossary and some clearer maps.
I also wondered if Webb could frame her account differently to appeal to a wider audience, such as people like me, who consider themselves to be competent when it comes to discussing the Civil War, but know nothing of the story of Mobile, but this may be a selfish wish. Webb may not have wanted much of an audience outside of Alabama. I think the book deserves it, but that’s not my decision, so that’s why I am not sure if this concern is legitimate.
The third concern is a tricky one. I had questions about how she wrote about blacks in Mobile. Now I am from the North. I recognize that I bring that bias to this discussion. I also kept reminding myself of Webb’s goal for her book, a goal that is embodied by her subtitle – Surviving the Union Blockade. This is not, I kept reminding myself, a book about slavery. Still, there were a few moments when I thought she painted issues with too broad a brush. For example, in her discussion of the hotly contested question of whether to allow slaves to fight for the Confederate Army in exchange for their freedom, I never saw any consideration of whether they would fight. Second, after the Union does take over the city, there is a question about whether former slaves will seek to exact some kind of revenge. Webb describes how this is handled in a few brief sentences, and it seemed like, as with the issue of turning slaves into soldiers, that it deserved a more nuanced treatment. But I offer this tentatively. I’m sure, for example, that there were not many primary sources available to Webb that were written by slaves.
This is how I like to read history. Works by James McPherson or even Ken Burns tend to overwhelm me. This is specific and based on primary sources. Webb’s descriptions of life in Mobile at the time are vivid and therefore memorable. Though this book is short (a quick 115 pages), it gives me confidence that the next time I discuss or, more importantly teach the Civil War, I will know enough to include Alabama.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.