Book Review: Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War ( Eric Mills) : ACW

Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War, by Eric Mills, Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Md., $29.95.

“On January 9, 1861–the same Wednesday that Mississippi quit the United States–thirty U.S. Marines came up from the Washington Navy Yard and garrisoned Fort McHenry at Baltimore, Maryland. The city sprawling below the fort’s guns was seething with Southern sentiment and was so infamous for violent politics that it had the nickname ‘Mobtown.’ The marines carried weapons and rations and rode up by rail. Three U.S. Army artillery companies, speeding east from Fort Leavenworth, would get here by the twelfth. For now, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Hays and his marines manned the batteries and kept an eye on the hotbed below.”

Thus begins Eric Mills’ rich panorama of Civil War history in Chesapeake country from the months preceding the great conflict to shortly after the death of Abraham Lincoln. Mills vividly relates Lincoln’s journey to Washington to attend his first inauguration, depicting Baltimore as the danger zone it was nearly a century and a half ago. “Abraham Lincoln and a detective and a heavily armed friend left the carriage in the shadows and sneaked onto a train car in a West Philadelphia railway station,” Mills writes. “It was 10:50 p.m., Friday, February 22, and the president-elect was en route to his inauguration. But he had to get through Baltimore first.

“Rumors flew of a plot to stop him. They came in many versions: Lincoln was going to be shanghaied south on a boat waiting in Baltimore Harbor and held hostage. Three thousand Baltimore hoodlums were going to stop his entourage by staging a riot, then consummate the event with a broad-daylight assassination. And so on.”

The explosive situation in Baltimore was not the only concern in Chesapeake country during the Civil War era. Chesapeake Bay was a crucially important piece of watery real estate. Up the Potomac River, the Chesapeake’s second-largest tributary, lay the capital of the United States; up the James River, the Chesapeake’s third-largest tributary, lay the Confederate capital. Obviously, the side that controlled the bay would control the course of the war. In Chesapeake waters, naval warfare would be changed forever, and up the fingers of the bay’s riverine system, the Civil War would finally be won.

Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War is a story of gunboats, smugglers, privateers and mighty armies; of Lincoln on a ship’s deck and Jefferson Davis at a fortress wall; of cavaliers and street brawlers, ironclads and wild piracy, shoreline artillery and tidewater guerrillas, blockade-running oystermen and the unsung sailors of the Potomac Flotilla.

Some officers and soldiers called the Chesapeake home, and at least one returned from years of fighting to find himself homeless. “When Franklin Buchanan returned to the Eastern Shore, his home was gone,” Mills writes. “It had burned down, under mysterious circumstances, in April 1863. The Confederacy’s highest ranking naval officer, its only admiral, was now in his sixties and limping, and he set about rebuilding his life. He has been seriously wounded, again, during the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 6, 1864….Buchanan was hospitalized for three months and finally was able to get around on crutches. He was then imprisoned at Fort Lafayette until March 1865. At one point, he was visited by his brother McKean, against whom he had fought, and whose ship he had burned, at the Battle of Hampton Roads.”

History buffs in general and Civil War buffs in particular will be captivated by Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War. It is a well-written, exciting narrative about the most significant event in American history.

Lila Line

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