Saturday, December 29, 2012

War on the Waters – How the Navy Saved the Nation

by Bill Doughty

When the USS Monitor was lost in a storm Dec. 31, 1862, exactly 150 years ago, the future of the nation hung in the balance.

In his insightful new book, “War on the Waters,” James M. McPherson shows how Union naval leaders, technology and strategies combined to overcome setbacks and losses to the Confederacy – and eventually win the war.

Civil War SECNAV Gideon Welles
“To say that the Union navy won the Civil War would state the case much too strongly.  But it is accurate to say that the war could not have been won without the contributions of the navy,” concludes McPherson.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author writes about the wisdom of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, the courage of Rear Adm. David Glasgow Farragut and the power of working jointly.  General Ulysses S. Grant worked hand-in-hand with Rear Adm. David D. Porter, the son and namesake of the War of 1812 hero.

Rear Adm. David D. Porter
We also meet Cmdr. John Rodgers (another son and namesake of a War of 1812 Captain) and Cmdr. George H. Preble (grandson of one of the Navy’s greatest leaders, Capt. Edward Preble).  The ties to the War of 1812 – in people, foreign alliances and brown-water naval tactics – are enlightening.

President Lincoln ordered the Army to provide its fleet of vessels to the Navy but promoted the idea of one-two punches by the Navy and Army from river ports to river forts. McPherson describes the fearless leadership of 19-year-old ship driver Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet.

Quoting letters, diary entries, first-person reports and dispatches, the author presents a broad history of naval warfare on both sides of the Civil War.  He describes “asymmetrical war on the waters” in blockades and blockade running, riverbank guerrilla warfare, subterfuge at sea, and night attacks, and he follows the development of ironclad ships, submersible vessels and mines (torpedoes).

Civil War gunship USS Commodore Perry.
The Civil War saw the watershed shift from wooden ships of previous centuries that would lead to the development of battleships by the end of the century.  Innovation would continue.  Less than 50 years after end of the Civil War the era of naval aviation would begin.

Well-worn strategies of blockading commerce and targeting blockade runners would be expanded into the next century.  A naval embargo against Imperial Japan in 1941 led to the beginning of the War in the Pacific.

Against the Confederacy in the 1860s, blockades were important in preventing the exporting of cotton and importing of salt.  The role of salt in the southern economy and the targeting of salt production in the south by the Union Navy are fascinating side notes showing the importance of a healthy economy to a strong military.

McPherson describes the overall sociological effect of naval strategies on people in the north and south, too.

“Modern historical scholarship has shown how the Union army became a powerful force in the liberation of slaves, and how the 180,000 liberated black Union soldiers (most of them liberated slaves) in turn helped the Union army win the war.  Less well known is the role of the Navy in freeing slaves and the vital contribution of black sailors to the navy’s campaigns.  In 1861-1862 the Navy penetrated earlier and more deeply than the army into tidewater regions of the South Atlantic coast and into the valleys of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries...”

“War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865” starts as a dry treatise but picks up steam.  With nearly two dozen photos and illustrations and 19 easy-to-read maps, this book is filled with information, details and insights.  It deserves a place on every military historian’s book shelf.

McPherson proves his conclusion: The Navy played a key role in winning the Civil War and saving the United States – a mere 150 years ago.

Photos courtesy of National Archives and Naval History and Heritage Command.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice Holiday reading, Bill. I find this very interesting and informative.