Short Review: War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James McPherson


War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a unrepentant, biased American Civil War naval enthusiast, so when I saw War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 at my local library, it was a selection that didn’t require much thought, especially with the added spur of the author being James McPherson, author of one of my favorite overall Civil War histories, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. In War on the Waters, McPherson narrows his focus somewhat to do justice to an underappreciated pillar of the great Union victory. Both Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses Grant (who worked hand in hand with Western Admiral David Porter, so he knew what he was about) lauded the Union Navy in the highest terms, giving them credit for contributing to the ultimate outcome of victory. Indeed, the Union Navy in particular, was a good value. Of the 3 billion dollars spent by the Union on the American Civil War, the entire naval budget for all years of the war came to less than 18%. For that amount, the Navy maintained an active (if only gradually effective) blockade, and either contributed to or was the sole participant in the capture of several Confederate cities and fortifications, including three Confederate state capitals. McPherson does not allow his history to become partisan, though he does, perhaps, linger on the accomplishments of the Union Navy overall– which I suspect is a result of poor or non-existent record keeping on the part of the Confederate Navy more than anything else. Credit is given to the strategic focus of the Confederate Navy– they could not match the Union Navy hull for hull, so they had to innovate to force the blockade and keep their ports open. Blockade running and shallow draft casemate gunboats were the main focus of Confederate naval ingenuity, which matched the South’s greatly diminished industrial base. McPherson recounts the events, great and small, with a masterful pen. Along with the facts and figures is an engrossing account of the political side of the Union Navy– one reads of the intrigues and back-biting, the political infighting inside the service and outside. I was left with a greater appreciation of the true naval hero, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells– riding heard on a squabbling pack of Admirals and Commodores, forcing a giant leap in naval innovation from wooden sailing frigates to ironplated steam powered cruisers, and all the while closing off and constricting the Confederacy’s strategic options. It was a monumental task. McPherson’s book is hardly in depth but it is a good broad brush history of the naval action on both sides during the American Civil War, and I enjoyed reading it.

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