War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865


Although previously undervalued for their strategic impact because the represented only a small percentage of total forces, the Union and Confederate navies were crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. In War on the Waters, James M. McPherson has crafted an enlightening, at times harrowing, and ultimately thrilling account of the war's naval campaigns and their military leaders.
McPherson recounts how the Union navy's blockade of the Confederate coast, leaky as a sieve in the war's early months, became increasingly effective as it choked off vital imports and exports. Meanwhile, the Confederate navy, dwarfed by its giant adversary, demonstrated daring and military innovation. Commerce raiders sank Union ships and drove the American merchant marine from the high seas. Southern ironclads sent several Union warships to the bottom, naval mines sank many more, and the Confederates deployed the world's first submarine to sink an enemy vessel. But in the end, it was the Union navy that won some of the war's most important strategic victories--as an essential partner to the army on the ground at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Mobile Bay, and Fort Fisher, and all by itself at Port Royal, Fort Henry, New Orleans, and Memphis.


In September 1864 Captain Charles Steedman of the U.S. Navy praised Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut for his decisive victory over Confederate forts and warships in the battle of Mobile Bay. “That little man,” wrote Steedman of the wiry Farragut, who was just under medium height and clean shaven with a determined jaw, “has done more to put down the rebellion than any general except Grant and Sherman.”

Steedman’s comment was not simply another example of naval boastfulness in the age-old interservice rivalry typical of the nation’s armed forces. After many years of studying the American Civil War, I am convinced that Steedman was right. Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay and his even more spectacular achievement in the capture of New Orleans in April 1862, plus the part played by his fleet in the Mississippi River campaigns of 1862 and 1863, did indeed entitle him to equal status with Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in winning the war.

But Steedman was making a larger point, with which I also agree: the Union navy deserves more credit for Northern victory than it has traditionally received. General Grant made a similar point in his famous Memoirs when he praised the role of the navy’s Mississippi River Squadron in Grant’s most significant victory, the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863. “Without the navy’s assistance,” wrote Grant, “the campaign could not have been made.”

No less a personage than President Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to the contribution of the navy to the opening of the Mississippi and to other Union successes. “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” said Lincoln in August 1863. After praising his armies for recent victories, the president added: “Nor must Uncle Sam’s Web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks.”

Jefferson Davis never wrote anything like this about the Confederate navy; Lincoln’s style was sui generis. But the Confederate president might have praised “Uncle Jeff’s Web-feet” for their technological innovations and notable achievements with limited resources. Unable to challenge the . . .

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