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Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War

by Stephen R. Taaffe, Naval Institute Press, 2010, $37.95

History as collective biography has been an accepted methodology since Plutarch in classical antiquity. Stephen R. Taaffe adopts this tactic to recount the evolution of the Union Navy into an efficiently run, strategically important engine of war that played an important role in the eventual defeat of the Confederacy.

Taaffe makes clear that early in the war the Union’s real naval heroes never walked a pitching deck or felt the spray of salt on their faces. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, his assistant secretary Gustavus Fox and chief clerk William Faxon “formed the triumvirate that capably operated the Navy’s administrative machinery throughout the war.”

That’s not to say all the Navy’s heroes pushed pencils. By April 1862, Rear Admiral Louis Goldsborough and his flotilla of junior officers “had sealed off almost the entire North Carolina coast to Confederate shipping, enabling the Navy to twist the blockade that much tighter.” David Glasgow Farragut captured New Orleans, and “deprived the Confederates of their largest city and all the resources it contained, and placed a good chunk of Louisiana under Union control.”

But it was not all calm winds and following seas for the blue jackets, especially when they were forced to fight on the brown waters of America’s heartland. The ill-fated Red River Campaign, given disappointingly short shrift by Taaffe, revealed that cooperation between the Army and the Navy was still the exception rather than the rule.

Taaffe’s writing is crisp, and he tells his story in an organized, straightforward manner. Readers looking for an introduction to Union naval operations will gain an increased understanding of how the Navy contributed to eventual victory. The personalities of the Union naval officer corps come alive to remind us again that it was the high caliber of the men who wore the blue jackets that brought victory on the water to the Union.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here