Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
11 September 2013
Review by Grant T. Weller, US Air Force Academy
War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861–1865
By James M. McPherson
Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 277. ISBN 978–0–8078–3588–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 19th Century, US Civil War, Naval Warfare Print Version

In the vast, hard to winnow scholarly literature of the American Civil War, anything written by James McPherson is well worth reading. Since 1964, he has published eighteen books, including the most respected single-volume history of the period, Battle Cry of Freedom,[1] winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for History. War on the Waters is a less ambitious but still useful and satisfying study of a relatively neglected aspect of the Civil War. "The Union navy deserves more credit for Northern victory than it has traditionally received…. [T]he Confederate navy helped to set back the Union cause on more than one occasion…. Knowledge of the dramatic role played by the navies in the Civil War is essential to an understanding of its outcome. The pages that follow seek to convey both the knowledge and the drama" (1–2, 9). McPherson succeeds admirably on both counts.

The reader is taken on a chronological journey through the asymmetrical naval war. While Johnny Reb and Billy Yank fought on land with similar weapons and tactics, on the rivers and at sea the Confederacy could not challenge the Union navy on anything like equal terms. Further, the two sides had very different goals, the Union aiming to seal off the South from outside assistance, the Confederates to elude the blockade with vital war supplies (and highly desirable luxuries) and to raise the cost of the war to the Union by commerce raiding. Inland, each side used armed river craft, both purpose-built and converted, to support forces ashore in attack or defense.

Throughout the work, which bristles with action, McPherson offers discerning judgments of persons and events. He gives great credit to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, a man with little naval background but immense energy and ability, as well as to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, who oversaw the construction and often innovative use of a technologically advanced force. McPherson notes that even John Slidell, the Confederate envoy to France, had to confess that the Union blockade was an effective deterrent. "Fatal admission! The true measure of the blockade's effectiveness was not how many ships got through or even how many were captured, but how many never tried. [British Foreign Secretary] Lord Russell said as much in a statement on February 2, 1862, when in effect he announced a corollary to the Declaration of Paris…. The Russell corollary drove a stake into the heart of the Confederate efforts to convince European governments of the blockade's illegitimacy" (49).

McPherson also discusses the political impact of naval operations. While most historians see Gen. William T. Sherman's capture of Atlanta as ensuring President Abraham Lincoln's reelection, McPherson shows that Admiral David Glasgow Farragut's capture of the forts protecting Mobile, Alabama, which closed the port, was an equally important factor in the election.

President Lincoln penned his "blind memorandum" (so called because he asked his cabinet members to endorse it sight unseen) stating that, because of Northern war weariness and the lack of important victories in 1864, he was likely to be defeated for reelection. News of the capture of all the forts at Mobile Bay reached the North a few days later. A neighbor of the Farraguts at Hastings-on-the-Hudson in New York wrote to the admiral that this news was "doing a great deal more than perhaps you dream of, in giving heart to the people here, and raising their confidence. Your victory has come at a most opportune moment, and will be attended by consequences of the most lasting and vital kind to the republic." (212)

McPherson's wonderful use of primary sources reflects a lifetime of study as well as new research undertaken in writing the present book. Nearly every page contains a well-chosen voice from the past; yet McPherson's own distinct point of view remains clear, as he frames and interprets the evidence. As for production values, this exceptionally well edited volume features uncluttered, clearly reproduced maps that are always germane to the text they accompany, as well as sharp period photographs and engravings.[2]

The only thing to criticize in War on the Waters is its failure to surprise. Rather than toppling conventional wisdom, the book's well founded conclusions lend nuance to our current understanding of the role of Civil War navies. This is no inconsiderable service, especially coming from a master historian who still has things to teach. I warmly recommend James McPherson's latest book to both academic and general audiences.

[1] Subtitle: The Civil War Era (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1988).

[2] Mostly taken from Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, ed. Louis Shepheard Moat (New York 1895).

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