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Review: James M. McPherson's 'War on the Waters' gives vivid detail of Civil War naval battles

James M. McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the highly regarded general history Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era among other works, has written a concise, fact-filled and exciting work on the Civil War's naval aspects in War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865.

According to McPherson, it was the North's blockade of the South's Atlantic and Gulf coasts, along with the cooperative efforts between the Union Army and Navy in creative operations along the South's inland waterways, that ultimately contributed to Union victory.

The author informs us that it was in May 1861, one month after the battle at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., that U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott outlined his famous Anaconda Plan. Its purpose was to strangle the Confederacy by closing it off from trade with the rest of the world by coastal blockade and by control of the Mississippi River. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles went along with this strategy.

No sooner was the Union's blockade put into effect, however, than the Confederacy found ways to avoid it. Fast, nimble, shallow-drafted Confederate ships — designed to evade the big, slow, steam-powered Union frigates — were immediately deployed. Five out of six made it through the blockade. And, McPherson points out, not only were Rebel ships breaking through the blockade, Confederate commerce raiders also wreaked havoc upon Union merchant shipping.

McPherson describes the war along the South's strategic inland waterways, the Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. He recounts how inventor James B. Eads' "Pook's Turtles" — Union ironclads named after contractor Samuel Pook — were used successfully to conquer Fort Henry in Tennessee in 1862 and how eccentric genius Alfred Ellet's specially outfitted ramming ships, inspired by ancient Roman triremes, were effectively deployed at the Battle of Memphis.

On July 15, 1862, after the Union attack on Vicksburg, Tenn., the CSS Arkansas escaped past the Union fleet, which "fired heavy broadsides at her" but "could not stop her." The Arkansas, however, had 25 men killed and 28 wounded. McPherson, never losing sight of the horrors of combat, cites one of the Arkansas’ master mates, who wrote that "the scene around the gun deck ... was ghastly in the extreme. Blood and brains bespattered everything, whilst arms, legs and several headless trunks were strewn about."

Union Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont's attack on Charleston's defenses in 1863, using Monitor inventor John Ericsson's ironclad gunboats, and Rear Admiral David Farragut's 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, in which Confederate "torpedoes" (mines) filled the harbor — these decisive battles McPherson describes in palpable, vivid detail.

Equally powerful are his descriptions of the world's first ironclad battle — forever changing naval warfare — between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (previously the Merrimack) at Hampton Roads, Va., and the Confederacy's introduction of the world's first combat-ready submarine, the ill-fated H.L. Hunley.

Also covered is the famous sea battle between the USS Kearsarge and the South's most hated commerce raider, the CSS Alabama, off the coast of Cherbourg, France.

But the main point of this book is that, despite the Confederate military's technological innovations (advanced mines, ironclads, submarine), the sustained Union blockade was eventually successful in depriving the Confederacy of necessary commodities and thereby economically strangled the South. War on the Waters, a short, riveting read, undeniably shows that the Civil War — a war of intense technological innovation on both seagoing sides — was won in large part by the Union Navy.

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

By James M. McPherson

University of North Carolina Press, 277 pages, $35

Review: James M. McPherson's 'War on the Waters' gives vivid detail of Civil War naval battles 10/27/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 4:30am]
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