The Civil War at Sea

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Civil War at Sea


Byline: John M. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Battle Cry of Freedom, by Princeton's James M. McPherson, won a Pulitzer Prize for the author in 1989 and remains the best single-volume history of the American Civil War. If it had any shortcoming, it was the author's limited treatment of the war at sea. This brisk volume attempts to meet that perceived shortcoming.

In referring to the sea war, Mr. McPherson uses a term much loved in the Pentagon: asymmetrical. Indeed, the two navies were asymmetrical, for the Union had 10 times the number of ships the Confederacy had and an overwhelming preponderance in firepower. It also had the daunting challenge of blockading its enemy to prevent the export of Southern cotton and the import of military equipment. As the author points out, To patrol a coastline of 3,500 miles from Virginia to Texas, with 189 harbors and coves where cargo could be landed, was a herculean task.

The effectiveness of the blockade has long been debated among historians. Mr. McPherson acknowledges that 5 out of 6 Rebel blockade-runners got through - making about 8,000 successful voyages - while the South lost 1,500 vessels to the Yankees. About 400,000 rifles, a million pairs of shoes and tons of other supplies made their way into the embattled Confederacy.

Mr. McPherson says that without the blockade, however leaky, the Confederacy might have prevailed. He points out that the most important statistic is not how many blockade-runners got through, but how many ships and how much cargo would have [transited] Confederate ports if there had been no blockade.

The author devotes much of his attention to the brown-water war to control the rivers of the Confederacy. The Federal command structure was ill-suited to the conduct of joint operations. By law, neither Army nor Navy officers could give orders to individuals in the other service. Thus, joint operations were heavily dependent on the personal relations between commanding officers with a common objective. Along the Mississippi, Mr. McPherson writes, both [Gen. Ulysses S.] Grant and [Commodore Andrew] Foote were free from the overwhelming egotism that seemed to infect so many other officers, and they were therefore able to work well together.

The outmanned Confederates sought new technology to compensate for the disparity in numbers between themselves and the enemy. …

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