BOOK REVIEW: ‘War on the Waters’

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WAR ON THE WATERS: THE UNION AND CONFEDERATE NAVIES, 1861-1865

By James M. McPherson

University of North Carolina Press, 268 pages illustrated, $29.95.

Reviewed by John M. Taylor

“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. They pioneered the use of mines (then called torpedoes) to protect Southern ports. A primitive submarine, the Hunley, recorded the first known sinking of a surface vessel by a submersible. The ironclad Merrimack, whose drawn battle with the Monitor sounded the death knell for wooden warships, was only one of several ironclads built by the Confederacy in an attempt to neutralize the enemy’s numerical superiority.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, most naval men regarded rams, dependent on wind for their speed, as relics of the past. But Mr. McPherson points out that the advent of steam revived interest in rams, which were capable of inflicting fatal blows below the waterlines of wooden warships. Both sides used them in the brown-water war.

The author calls attention to a little-known aspect of the river war, the Federal war on salt, which was essential not simply for seasoning but also for curing and preserving meat before refrigeration existed. Federal gunboats raided hundreds of saltworks. In December 1863, a single Federal vessel destroyed 290 saltworks along the Florida coast.

For all its virtues, “War on the Waters” gives short shrift to the blue-water campaign, in which a handful of Confederate cruisers dealt the Northern merchant marine a blow from which it would take decades to recover. Half the U.S. merchant marine fleet vanished during the war. About 110,000 tons were destroyed and an additional 800,000 tons were sold to avoid capture. The Alabama alone captured 65 Northern merchantmen.

Mr. McPherson concludes, “The victories of Northern fleets contributed much more to the ultimate success of Union strategy than Confederate ships and torpedoes — effective as they sometimes were — did to Confederate strategy.” Readers of “Battle Cry of Freedom” well may wish to add this sequel to their bookshelf.

John M. Taylor’s books on the Civil War period include “Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama” (Brassey’s, 1997).

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