Thursday, December 27, 2012

Civil war on the waters

War on the Waters, James M. McPherson

One of the Twitter feeds I've been following lately is Civil War Navy (@CivilWarNavy150), which is tweeting naval engagements and events as they happened 150 years ago.  On December 27, 1862, for example, "USS Roebuck captured British schooner Kate trying to run into St. Mark's River FL carrying salt, coffee, copper, and liquor."  I didn't know much about the naval side of the Civil War before I read Craig L. Symonds' Lincoln and His Admirals some years ago.  I was reminded of it reading Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, about Anglo-American relations during the war, since naval matters like the Confederate purchase of war ships from Liverpool shipyards, and the Union blockade of southern ports, had major diplomatic implications.  Reading the daily tweets made me wish for a good overview of the naval war, to tie all of this together.  My wish was promptly granted with this new book by the dean of Civil War historians, Dr. James McPherson.  It is one of the volumes in "The Littlefield History of the Civil War Era," published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Dr. McPherson argues in his introduction that "the Union navy deserves more credit for Northern victory than it has traditionally received."  The Navy made up only 5% of all the Federal forces, and the Confederate percentage was even lower, yet despite their small sizes, both had a major impact.  As he states in his conclusion, the Union Navy did not win the war, but the war couldn't have been won without it.  He notes that Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant were quick to praise the sailors as well as the soldiers.  Lincoln famously called them "Uncle Sam's Web-feet."  McPherson points out that the Confederate Navy too has been unfairly overlooked.  While the Rebels could not match Federal resources in ships, supplies or arms, they made good use of what they did have, and they developed new technologies like underwater mines (then called torpedoes) that sank many Union ships over the course of the war.  Their British-built raiders, like the CSS Alabama captained by the dare-devil Raphael Semmes, cost Northern merchants a fortune in ships captured or sunk.  In January of 1863 Semmes even lured a Federal warship, the USS Hatteras, out of Galveston harbor into the Gulf of Mexico, where he promptly sank her.  (This was shortly after Federal forces had been driven out of Galveston in a battle on New Year's Day.  I'm not sure how the city is planning to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle next week, but it may be a good excuse to drive the 50 miles down there.)

This book gives a good general overview of the naval war, from the operational side, and it was interesting to see the familiar events of the war from a very different perspective.  McPherson introduces Gideon Welles and Stephen Mallory, the Union and Confederate Secretaries of the Navy, respectively, both excellent and dedicated administrators, but he does not spend much time on departmental matters.  I would have liked to read more about Welles, who kept a famous diary of his time in the cabinet, written with a pen dipped in acid.  There are passing references to clashes with the volatile Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, but the focus here is on the sailors.  McPherson quotes frequently from letters and diaries, of both officers and crews, Union and Confederate, to give first-hand accounts of battles won and lost, and also of the daily toil of blockading, of convoy duty and of defense.

The Federal Navy's impact was felt early in the war, with the capture of forts on the Carolina and Florida coasts that shut down Confederate access to important ports.  In April of 1862, Flag Officer David Farragut took his fleet up the Mississippi River to force the surrender of New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy and an essential port.  Further north, Union gunboats captured river forts and even the city of Memphis.  Army-Navy cooperation was crucial in the Vicksburg campaigns of 1862-1863 and the occupation of Mobile Bay in 1864.  Perhaps the Federal Navy's greatest impact was in the blockade of the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.  A thin blue line, it was far from complete, and fast-sailing blockade runners continued to evade Union ships.  But McPherson argues for its vital role in discouraging many merchants from even trying to import or export goods, and thus crippling the Confederate war effort.  I was surprised to read that the South even imported its salt!  As stocks dwindled, southerners set up sea-water distilleries in coastal areas, which Union boat crews gleefully raided to destroy the stills and the salt so laboriously produced.

I enjoyed this book, which is well-written and informative, as Dr. McPherson's books always are.  I found his accounts of the battles generally easy to follow, though I appreciated the maps and diagrams.  The illustrations showing battle scenes as well as various ships, their commanders and crews, with the frequent quotations from first-hand accounts, are important reminders of the human beings who sailed the ships, many of whom gave their lives for their country.  In Lincoln's words, "Nor must Uncle Sam's Web-feet be forgotten."


  1. This sounds so interesting! I've read a little of Gideon Welles' diary, and it is gossipy and fascinating.

  2. elizabeth, I've only read excerpts from the diary, which is quoted in so many books. I got it from interlibrary loan once but the loan period was so short that I had to give it back unread.

  3. Lisa, presidential historian Michael Beschloss has started a photo stream on Twitter, and he posts some terrific pics. Have you seen it?

  4. Fay, I haven't - thanks, I'll have to look for it. I saw him interviewed recently, I forget on which show.

  5. It's easy to forget that the navy had a hand in the Civil War when we only seem to hear about the land battles. One of the most fascinating things at the Battle of Vicksburg site is a gunboat, the USS Cairo, that they recovered from the river and put together back in the '70's. I really enjoyed touring it when I visited the park.

  6. Anbolyn, this book mentioned the USS Cairo! And coincidentally, I've been thinking about a trip to Vicksburg for some time now - it would be an easy drive from Houston, I think.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!