Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review--Galveston and the Civil War

Schmidt, James M. Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom. The History Press,  Charleston, SC. 2012. 155 pages, 129 pages of text, index, bibliography, notes, b/w photos, 1 map. ISBN 9781609492830, $19.99.

James M. Schmidt has earned a reputation for quality Civil War writing whether it be his medical column in Civil War News, his regularly updated blog Civil War Medicine (and Writing), his guest posts on various blogs, or his wide range of books.

In his new book Galveston and the Civil War Mr. Schmidt sets out three main goals: First is to provide readers a lively and well illustrated account of Galveston and the Civil War. Second is to add to the scholarship of Galveston by addressing subjects that have previously received little coverage. These include slavery, Unionist dissent, yellow fever, and the heroic actions of the Ursuline sisters. Lastly, to further add to the literature on the city by using previously unpublished primary resources. While I am far from an expert on the history of Galveston and admit to knowing little about the war there, I am convinced that all three goals have been achieved!

The book starts off strong with a discussion of slavery in Galveston and has Schmidt ably refuting the nineteenth century claims that slavery was not a major factor in the Galveston economy and also that slaves loved the island and did not want to leave. Just as the book starts strong towards one of the goals the ending (well, next to the last chapter) covers the yellow fever epidemics and the attempts of doctors to downplay the danger until it was too late. The period of 1837-1860 saw seven epidemics which left approximately 2,000 people dead. An 1864 outbreak left 259 dead with 117 being soldiers (more than double the number killed in the battle). Just after the war in 1867 more than 1,000 lost their lives to yellow fever with around 100 being soldiers.

Those who have read Mr. Schmidt's earlier book Notre Dame and the Civil War (IN): Marching Onward to Victory will expect nothing less than the expert treatment given to the Ursuline nuns, who despite potential danger to themselves treated the sick and wounded on both sides. While opinions were mixed their convent was offered to the Confederates to be used as a field hospital by Mother Saint Pierre Harrington, leader of the Galveston Ursuline nuns.

While these "overlooked" subjects are really the gem of the book in my view, the fighting is given good coverage. The island city was an important one for Confederates to hold. When the island was blockaded in 1861 by Union naval forces the Confederacy ultimately surrendered it in 1862. Almost immediately "Prince" John Magruder began making plans to retake the island leading to the New Years Day 1863 battle that returns Galveston to Confederate control. The land/sea battle produced approximately 150 casualties.

Mr. Schmidt has an enjoyable writing style that is easy to follow. The book is thoroughly researched and the notes and bibliography contain a nice mix of primary and secondary sources. As are most books from The History Press this one contains a large number of illustrations and photos. These are a nice mix of vintage and contemporary and help the reader visualize what is on the page.  This is a great introduction to the subject for those of us not familiar with the battle. For those with knowledge of the 1863 fight the seldom heard human interest stories are a great reason to pick up this book. Highly recommended!

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