X-POST: Review Wexler on McPherson "War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865"

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James M. McPherson.  War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate
Navies, 1861-1865
.  Littlefield History of the Civil War Era Series.
Chapel Hill  University of North Carolina Press, 2012.  Maps. 277 pp.
 n.p. (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3588-3.

Reviewed by Charles Wexler (Auburn University)
Published on H-CivWar (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz

A Brief Look at the Civil War at Sea

The US Navy and its role in the Civil War has received increased
attention from Civil War historians. Robert Browning's 2005 book
_Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading
Squadron during the Civil War_, for example, reveals valuable
insights into operations along the Confederate coastline, and Craig
Symonds's 2012 study _The Civil War at Sea_ provides a contextual
overview of the conflict. It is in this increasing swell of
literature that James M. McPherson wrote War on the Waters: The Union
and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Although the title suggests a
balanced look, McPherson predominantly focuses on how the Union navy
contributed to the overarching war effort.

McPherson's introduction outlines two key tenets that governed the
direction of this operational narrative. He articulates that the war
itself could be broken down into "five overlapping parts": "a first
wave of Union victories in 1861-62, successful Confederate resistance
in 1862-63, a revival of Northern momentum in the latter half of
1863, Confederate resuscitation in early 1864, and final Union
triumph from the second half of 1864 through the end of the war" (p.
2). He also believes that the Union navy more directly contributed to
the Northern strategy than its Confederate brethren. This fact
informs his decision to invest most of his writing toward the Union
navy. By highlighting its accomplishments, McPherson demonstrates
that the Union navy deserves more credit than others have previously

McPherson accomplishes this through a linear progression of the war
in an eleven-chapter narrative that details the operations of both
the Union and Confederate navies. The first chapter mentions the ways
in which both sides mobilized for war and the decisions of April
1861. This includes backgrounds on Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon
Welles, his Confederate counterpart Stephen Mallory, the sailors in
each navy, and early policy decisions about Confederate privateering.
He then follows this in his second chapter with the creation of the
Union blockade in the second half of 1861; the capture of Port Royal;
and the _Trent _affair of November 8, 1861, where Union Captain
Charles Wilkes boarded the British steamer _Trent_ and apprehended
Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell on their way to
Europe. In the next two chapters, McPherson focuses on developments
along the Mississippi River into late spring 1862 before returning to
the Atlantic in chapter 5 to look at the Peninsula Campaign and
foreign-built Confederate commerce raiders. The upside of this
approach is that it de-emphasizes the Battle of Hampton Roads and
instead highlights greater naval contributions to the war, such as
the capture of New Orleans, Forts Henry and Donelson, and Port Royal,
South Carolina. However, a downside is that McPherson does not
successfully connect Confederate defensive efforts in New Orleans,
Memphis, and Virginia as part of a larger strategy, particularly
Mallory's domestic construction program.

Throughout his book, McPherson relies on his extensive Civil War
background and previous readings to flesh out his analysis. He
specifically draws on the papers of David Farragut and David Dixon
Porter, but his remaining sources are either printed primary sources
or existing manuscripts. This allows McPherson to write an easily
accessible text driven by operations and key commanders. Both
Farragut and Porter feature predominantly throughout, which is
unsurprising given their impact along the Mississippi River and later
campaigns, such as Farragut's victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay in
August 1864 or Farragut and Porter's involvement in the January 1865
capture of Fort Fisher near Wilmington, North Carolina. McPherson
wisely moves beyond these two and highlights other major naval
figures, including Samuel Du Pont of the South Atlantic Blockading
Squadron, Samuel Phillips Lee from the North Atlantic Blockading
Squadron, and Confederate agent James Bulloch. Through these
officials, McPherson highlights the international perspective of the
war at sea. He discusses the exploits of the British-built
Confederate commerce raiders _Florida_, _Alabama_, and _Shenandoah_
and notes how these vessels forced American merchants to register
their vessels in foreign countries to avoid capture or destruction.

One major way the navy contributed to the war effort came through
coastal and riverine operations against Confederate targets.
Beginning with the August 1861 capture of Fort Hatteras in North
Carolina, naval commanders achieved major victories that aided the
war effort, including New Orleans. The navy also participated in
joint operations with local army units. McPherson highlights, for
example, a combined operation against Brownsville, Texas, in November
1863 to restrict trade across the Rio Grande from Mexico. While he
rightly downplays the significance of the Brownsville occupation in
the larger scheme of the war, the Brownsville expedition demonstrates
how these forces worked together throughout the war. Naval support
for army units on shore had a direct impact on Union victories,
including Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, Vicksburg, and Fort
Fischer outside Wilmington, North Carolina.

Outside of naval campaigns, McPherson devotes a significant portion
of his book to the Union blockade of the Confederate coastline and
its emergence as the navy's primary mission throughout the war.
Abraham Lincoln's April 1861 declaration of the coastal blockade took
months to become effective as the navy required sufficient ships and
a forward base to maintain operations off major Confederate ports and
smaller rivers and inlets. Du Pont's November 1861 capture of Port
Royal provided the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron a forward base
situated between Savannah and Charleston to allow their ships to
remain on station without returning North for resupply. The
acquisition and construction of new steam-powered warships also aided
with blockade maintenance and allowed Du Pont and other commanders
the ability to occupy the numerous smaller inlets that litter the
Confederate coastline. Despite these provisions, Confederate forces
regularly ran the blockade and brought in much-needed supplies.
McPherson asserts that of the near 1,300 attempts to either export
cotton or import war material, about 1,000 ships made it through. The
blockade, however, significantly reduced cotton exports and Southern
merchants could not reap the benefit of higher prices due to
increased shipping expenses and inflation. This in turn significantly
weakened the Confederate economy and in McPherson's mind had a direct
impact on Confederate ironclad construction as well as railroad

McPherson's emphasis on recounting Northern naval significance
unfortunately results in an unbalanced work that does not fully
reflect the book's title. He underrepresents the Confederate navy
throughout the book, particularly domestic Confederate naval
construction. He briefly mentions the rise of Confederate naval
defenses in New Orleans and the Virginia conversion of the USS
_Merrimack_ into the CSS _Virginia_, but neglects to mention how
similar developments shaped defensive preparations in other
locations. A brief section on Confederate defensive preparations in
Charleston would have substantially strengthened his treatment of the
multiple campaigns against the South Carolina port. He instead
intersperses content concerning Charleston across multiple sections
within several chapters. This makes the text difficult to follow at
times, particularly if someone is not knowledgeable about Civil War
chronology. The complexity of the war at sea does not easily lend
itself to a brief narrative, and in the process some subjects receive
only a brief retelling. McPherson deserves credit for trying to cover
many different topics within a relatively short text but needed to
elaborate more on the Confederate navy.

In _War on the Waters_, McPherson highlights the growing importance
of naval history within the voluminous Civil War historiography.
Whether from the blockade or other operations, he successfully
demonstrates the navy's importance to the Union victory in 1865.
Although the book contains notable flaws, McPherson accomplishes his
stated goal throughout his brief narrative. The book introduces the
different ways both navies affected proceedings and can ultimately
serve as a gateway for others interested in the larger war at sea.

Citation: Charles Wexler. Review of McPherson, James M., _War on the
Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865_. H-CivWar, H-Net
Reviews. June, 2015.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42054

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States