Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Walker: "Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A."

[Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A. by James L. Walker Jr. (Dram Tree Books, 2005) Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, appendix, bibliography. Page total/main: 440/402 ISBN 0-9723240-7-0 $32]

With his book Rebel Gibraltar, James Walker provides the reader with perhaps the broadest modern wartime history of the port city of Wilmington. Recognizing the great prior work of both Chris Fonvielle [The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope*] and Rod Gragg [Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher], the author wisely elected to shift his focus from the well covered Dec. 1864-Jan. 1865 campaigns. Walker chronicles Wilmington's entire wartime experience from secession to its ultimate fall to Union forces in February of 1865. That's not to say that the Butler and Terry expeditions are not covered sufficiently (they are); but Rebel Gibraltar illuminates best the town's critical role as a supply conduit and facilitator of blockade running.

The author writes well, and effectively conveys to the reader an native's knowledge of the ground. Readers are also shown snapshots of what civilian life was like in the bustling port city. Other chapters closely follow the construction of Wilmington's extensive system of defenses, to include Fort Fisher and a host of other outlying forts and batteries. The contributions of the citizens of Wilmington to the overall Confederate war effort are also detailed. While Walker lauds the diligence and skill of General Chase Whiting and Colonel Lamb, he is unsparing in his criticism of General Bragg, holding that officer chiefly responsible for the rapid loss of both Fort Fisher and Wilmington in Jan-Feb 1865.

A particularly interesting military facet of Walker's study is his description of the impressive long term ability of Confederate authorities to effectively aid the ingress and egress of blockade runners. The author attributes much of this success to Colonel William Lamb's system of utilizing mobile Whitworth batteries, often from pre-planned positions, to consistently push U.S.N. blockading stations as much as five miles offshore. These batteries were also able to successfully assist in the cargo salvage of a number of grounded runners.

If not exhaustive in depth, a broad range of source materials were consulted, including archival materials. The text is supported by maps reproduced from the previous work of respected cartographer and historian Mark Moore [see The Wilmington Campaign and the Battle for Fort Fisher]. While these maps are fine, more were needed, especially for the Sugar Loaf defenses and Schofield's final drive on Wilmington after Terry's capture of Fort Fisher. Such events are heavily discussed in the text but lack map coverage.

Rebel Gibraltar
is worthy of recommendation as a comprehensive overview of Civil War Wilmington, North Carolina. Readers interested generally in the blockade, blockade running, and combined operations in coastal areas should also find this densely detailed, and often fascinating, study of use.

* = Of the two works, Fonvielle's is my personal preference, and a truly great study. The list of archival sources is astounding.

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