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Union Combined Operations in the Civil War

edited by Craig L. Symonds, Fordham University Press, 2010, $45

Anthologies compiled from papers presented at conferences often vary greatly in substance and style. Fortunately, the 10 essays editor Craig Symonds has gathered on the Union’s various combined Army and Navy coastal operations is a striking exception.

Only a book by Rowena Reed has previously focused on this topic, and many authors now take issue with her conclusions because, according to Symonds, “they are overwhelmed by her determination to portray [George] McClellan as a military genius of war.” In this book, the authors do agree that “Successful combined operations were…not only more often the exception than the rule, they were also subject to misunderstanding, confusion and subsequent bickering.”

Two essays focus on Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s invasion of coastal North Carolina at Roanoke Island and New Bern early in the war. Two others detail operations on the James River: one successful at Eltham’s Landing, the other “a humiliating repulse” at Drewry’s Bluff.

John P. Fisher points out that “naval leaders soon discovered that without army support, the navy alone could not hold positions on the [Texas] coast against Confederate counterattacks,” making the Union victories at Galveston and Sabine Pass “both incomplete and temporary.”

Not all combined operations failed. The second attempt to take Fort Fisher, which guarded the Confederacy’s last open port at Wilmington, N.C., in January 1865, was, according to Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., “a model of cooperation, execution, and efficiency between the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army.”

Edward H. Wiser’s fine essay reviews lessons learned and lessons forgotten based on Union combined operations in the Civil War. He concludes that had Army and Navy leaders “chosen to embrace combined operations on a strategic scale along the littoral periphery as they did on the Mississippi River, the war might well have progressed toward its just conclusion more efficiently and with fewer casualties.”


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