MCPHERSON: War on the Waters (2012)

Posted: 9/12/2012
Reviewed By: Barbara Brooks Tomblin

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson. University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Cloth, ISBN: 0807835889. $35.00.

War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, is a comprehensive account of naval operations during the American Civil War by prize-winning historian James McPherson. Union and Confederate navies have been the subject of several recent studies, but in general historians have devoted far less attention to naval forces than on land based military operations in that conflict. Yet, as McPherson cogently argues, navies played a crucial role in the Civil War.

In this admirably written, well researched study, McPherson examines not only the war’s famous naval engagements, but lesser-known operations along the Atlantic coast and inland waters. The author also devotes attention to naval leadership, logistics, and the development of new technologies in the epic struggle between North and South.
   
McPherson divides his narrative into eleven chapters covering the efforts of both navies to mobilize for war, the Union blockade of the South, successful Union operations to seize New Orleans, Roanoke Island, Hatteras, and Port Royal as well as the significant early Union failures to take Charleston and Vicksburg. Later chapters include joint army-navy operations against Charleston, victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Union attacks on Fort Fisher, the Red River Campaign, operations on the James River, and Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay.
   
To this reviewer’s mind, McPherson’s best chapter is his clear, thoughtful summary of the oft-maligned Union blockade. Blockade running was the “lifeline of the Confederacy,” but most successful early blockade runners were intra-coastal vessels. As McPherson argues, “The most important statistic is not how many blockade-runners got through, but how many ships and how much cargo would have come in and gone out of Confederate ports if here had been no blockade.” Without a blockade, he writes, “the Confederacy might well have prevailed.” 
     
Although the Union navy dominates McPherson’s narrative, he does discuss Confederate Naval Secretary Stephen Mallory’s leadership and the Confederate navy’s often daring and innovative achievements. The cruises of the Florida, Alabama, Shenandoah, and other Confederate raiders proved effective in a period of defeat as did their use of “torpedoes” or mines in southern rivers and bays. The loss of the USS Cairo to one of these “infernal machines,” McPherson asserts, gave the weapon new respect and led to a form of “torpedo fever.”

Confederate attempts to employ submarines enjoyed less success, but the semi-submersible David damaged the New Ironsides and the Hunley sank the Housatonic before going down in Charleston harbor. Confederate programs to build ironclads had mixed results. They had finished only 24 of the 59 ironclads under construction by war’s end.
   
Although the author occasionally quotes from junior officers and sailors, he devotes much of his narrative to the leadership of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and senior naval commanders such as Andrew Hull Foote, David Glasgow Farragut, John Dahlgren, and David Dixon Porter. Welles’ gamble on the choice of Farragut, McPherson writes, “paid off handsomely” and he credits Porter’s leadership in dealing with Confederate guerillas, organizing convoys and expeditions, and capturing Vicksburg in 1863. McPherson makes the case that the Union army and navy did not always work amiably or effectively together, but argues Grant and Foote set an extraordinary record on western rivers. He also resurrects some positive contributions of Louis M. Goldsborough who has so often been lambasted by historians.
    
A strength of War on the Waters is McPherson’s judicious use of quotes from a variety of participants in the war. In this narrative he relies heavily on primary sources, but also refers to more recent secondary works on Civil War navies. The general reader and students less familiar with the conflict, however, would have benefited from more citations from secondary sources in his end notes.
   
Historians will have few quarrels with McPherson’s conclusions, although some may question his assertion that the battle of Plum Point was a Confederate victory. Others may disagree that the victory in the famous battle of Hampton Roads went to the USS Monitor, but not his observation that Congress and Cumberland’s losses in that engagement made it the worst day in the history of the U.S. Navy until December 7, 1941.
   
In his brief epilogue, McPherson acknowledges that the Union navy was cost effective and credits Welles for the buildup of what was by 1865 the world’s largest navy. One wishes that McPherson had offered more specific details about the Union navy’s ability to change strategy and tactics to swing the war in the navy’s favor, but cannot argue against his conclusion that, “The navy won some of the most strategically important victories by itself (Hatteras Inlet, Port Royal, Fort Henry, New Orleans, Memphis) or as an essential partner in combined operations with the army (Fort Donelson, New Bern, Island No. 10, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Mobile Bay, Fort Fisher).”
   
War on the Waters is an excellent introduction to the role of navies in the Civil War and a welcome addition to the literature of that conflict. 
 

Barbara Books Tomblin is a naval historian and the author of Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy.

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