Book Reviews

CHATELAIN: Defending the Arteries of Rebellion (2020)

Posted 12/23/2020 Reviewed By J. Ross Dancy

Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Operations in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865 by Neil P. Chatelain. Savas Beatie, 2020. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1611215106. $32.95.


 

In April 1861, artillery batteries of the newly proclaimed Confederate States of America opened fire on a small United States fort in Charleston Harbor. Since the very founding of the nation, chattel slavery had formed the primary fissure in American politics, and the decade prior to the bombardment of Fort Sumter witnessed a politically divided nation devolve into bloody civil war. In the weeks that followed the reduction of Fort Sumter, Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott proposed the Anaconda Plan: to blockade the seaports of seceding states and then utilize the Mississippi River to cut Arkansas, Texas, and most of Louisiana off from the rest of the Confederacy.

 

The slow and bloody struggle for control of the Mississippi River and its tributaries has received less popular and scholarly attention than the campaigns in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania; however, it played a vital role in the outcome of the war. As the Civil War progressed, these battles effectively gutted the already hemorrhaging Confederate war effort that struggled from the beginning to compete with the Union’s advantages in funding, manpower, organization, industry, and leadership. However, the Confederacy did not give up territory easily, and fighting along the Mississippi River consumed enormous amounts of blood and treasure from both sides before hostilities ended in 1865.

 

Neil P. Chatelain’s new book examines the desperate and unsuccessful attempt by the Confederacy to defend the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The book highlights the problems of a disparate command structure within Confederate forces. Officers often competed for resources and recognition and were not above undermining each other in the process. This ultimately undercut the already difficult military situation for Confederates in the Mississippi River Valley. The highlights of the book are the few tactical successes along the great river, which without overall operational coordination, clear strategic objectives, and a well-defined desired end state from political leaders, never had a chance of success against Union forces. Many tactical victories came at great cost, and the Confederacy, lacking in industrial capability, skilled labor, men to fight—not to mention the raw resources necessary to feed and arm a military—could ill afford the price of such victories. The fall of New Orleans and later Vicksburg sealed the fate of the war along the Mississippi, which Union industrial production had never really left in doubt. Chatelain illustrates that even with victory a forlorn hope, Confederate naval forces fought on until the end. Confederates, for example, mounted a successful defense during the Red River campaign right up until the end of the war. However, the South started the war without a navy, and could never compete with industry and ship production from the North. The Confederate riverine war effort was never more than a delay tactic that could not inflict enough damage on advancing Union forces to alter the outcome of the war.

 

Comprehensive is perhaps the best adjective to describe Chatelain’s new book. It covers the Confederate riverine naval war from secession to defeat. It is fast paced, easy to read, and well supported by archival research. Those who enjoy the history of technology will find detailed ship descriptions, with discussions over steam engines, guns, and the industrial hurdles that Confederate forces never surmounted. For those interested in tactical history, this book is filled with battles narrated from the ground up, and often from the perspective of the individuals who fought them. The book does necessarily look at inter and intra force cooperation, often highlighting an inability of Confederate forces to work together toward common goals. Chatelain does not spend very much time discussing the strategic level of war, and only occasionally rises to the operational level. More detailed discussions at these levels would do more illustrate the futility of the southern war effort from the very top on down. 

 

This is a good book, and the author should be congratulated. For a quality hardback, $30 to $35 is not too much to ask, but the arrival of the paperback will make it more accessible. One major problem can be found in the index, where the page numbers do not match up with the main text. A quick Google search reveals that you have to add six pages to the page numbers listed in the index to find what you are looking for. This issue should have never made it past a final page proof and is more a condemnation of the publisher than the author. One assumes it will be fixed for the paperback; it is a mar on an otherwise good book. Undoubtedly, with the never-ending hunger for the military history of the US Civil War, and relatively few books available on naval operations, many will be rushing to get a copy of this book. For this reader’s money, it is worth the wait for a corrected edition.

 

 

J. Ross Dancy is an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of The Myth of the Press Gang.

 

 

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