The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865 (Paul Brueske)

I appreciated that Brueske, in his Prologue, offered a rationale for his book. Why has the Mobile Campaign been so overlooked? He makes a strong case in the Prologue and the book itself about why it deserves more attention – the strategic importance of Mobile, the resiliency of a remarkable and remarkably small group of Confederate soldiers or graycoats against a far larger number of bluecoats or Union or Federal soliders, that it marked the true end of the Civil War. I wish he’d returned to the question in more depth than he does at the end. Certainly, General Lee’s surrender makes for a ‘neater’ ending, but Brueske and Paula Lenore Webb in her excellent account, Moblie Under Siege, make it clear that it’s not the right place to end the story.

Like Webb, Brueske makes amazing use of primary sources. The bibliography is 15 pages long. I particularly enjoyed the soldier’s eye view of the war, so often found in letters home. So often, narratives about wars focus on leaders and winners. It’s refreshing that while Brueske does do much to present vivid portraits of both Confederate and Union leaders, that’s not his focus. That said, had I been Brueske’s editor, I would have made three suggestions. First, the inset quotations are presented in a pretty small font. It’s likely I am getting old, but I wished they were easier to read. I always found them illuminating. I just had to slow down which broke the momentum of the story. Second, I wish Brueske had offered some blanket statement – even in the Prologue – that the grammar and language of the primary sources were not always perfect and to allow for that. Instead, both in the inset quotations and the integrated ones, he insists on using the correct notation [sic], sometimes as often as three times in one quotation, which again, derails the momentum of his account. Third, I once had a Professor in college tell the class with regard to another wartime narrative (Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War): “God is in the details.” I think, though I resented the test the professor was rationalizing, that he was right. Brueske certainly thinks so, and I would suggest that a judicious pruning of the details would have made this a more compelling read. At one point, he points out how one group of soldiers is composed of experienced soldiers from various other regiments. I thought the point of this was to illustrate both that the soldiers were experienced and the way the army kept having to re-organize itself. Two worthwhile points. Instead, Brueske gives us an exhaustive and exhausting list of the battles these soldiers had experienced. “I believed you,” I wanted to shout. “Move on!”

Even though I felt bogged down at times and I knew the ending of the story, it was easy to keep reading. Brueske’s use of details and amazing descriptions of both people and places were amazing. The moments when both armies were camped so close together that they could have conversations will stay with me for a while as will the Confederate army’s escape from the Spanish Fort. (Again, as with Webb’s book, some vocabulary help here, please? What’s a tread-way? What’s a monitor?)

I don’t think it’s possible to write or review a book about the Civil War without talking about the presentation of slavery. Brueske is quiet about it for a while, and the first issue seems to be that he doesn’t know what language to use. Again, this is something that could have been addressed in the Prologue or in an Author’s Note. Should he use ‘African-American’? ‘Black’? Considering the time period, the use of the word ‘Negro’ is appropriate, but when? And by whom? And Brueske’s decision to include a moment when a white Union soldier is rude to a black Union solider is laughable when one considers how the Confederates treated their slaves.

Brueske’s language can be hyperbolic at times and shows a definite bias. The enthusiasm is welcome and the bias is named, so both elements were fine. Most importantly, he and Webb have done a great service by providing primary-source based accounts of a seemingly overlooked story. Like war (I imagine), history is not always neat and should not be tidied up or simplified for history books.

In her TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story,” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” She also says, “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Both Webb and Brueske show that they understand Adichie’s message quite well and as a reader, a minor Civil War buff, and as a Northerner, I am grateful.

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.

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