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

By Carroll, Francis M. | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Carroll, Francis M., Canadian Journal of History


War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, by James M. McPherson. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2012. vii, 277 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

James M. McPherson is the leading historian of the American Civil War. The author of numerous books and articles on the war and its leaders, winner of several prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for his Oxford History of the United States volume on the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson brings a wealth of knowledge and understanding to any topic related to the conflict. It is significant that he has turned to consider the naval dimension of the war, a subject that has been largely the preserve of naval historians. Indeed, during the past twenty-five years this has become a well-researched field, with impressive studies of the leading Union and Confederate naval officers, the coastal blockade, the river war, the development of ironclads, the capture of coastal ports, and the commerce raiders.

McPherson's gift is to place this naval scholarship in the larger context of the war. For the most part, he follows a chronological narrative which enables him to show the ebb and flow of success and failure that characterized the fortunes of both the Union and Confederate navies. He sees five "overlapping" sequences: (1) Union naval victories in 1861-62; (2) effective Confederate counter moves in 1862-63; (3) renewed Union success in the second half of 1863; (4) Confederate success in early 1864; and (5) Union victory in late 1864 and 1865. This structure enables McPherson to discuss all of the elements of the naval war. For example, the series of Union naval victories in 1861-62--Hatteras Inlet, Port Royal, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, New Orleans, Roanoke Island, and Memphis--are shown as a tonic for Northerners at a time when the land war seemed lost in one disaster after another. However, by Match of 1862 the Union navy was seriously threatened in a single day by ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) with the destruction of USS Cumberland, with 121 dead, and the USS Congress, with 240 dead, the worst disaster for the US Navy until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The arrival of the USS Monitor the next day retrieved the situation, but just barely. 1862 also saw the war on the Mississippi River and the James River bog down and the launch of the dramatic commerce raiders CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. McPherson is able to show that despite all of the disadvantages under which the Confederate navy operated, it could challenge the larger Union forces remarkably well until late 1864.

Several figures stand out in McPherson's narrative. Gideon Wells, the US Secretary of the Navy, is seen as a judicious and careful planner, managing the expansion of a small flotilla of mostly obsolete ships into the largest, most technologically sophisticated navy in the world in about four years' time (671 warships). …

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