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The Best Station of Them All: The Savannah Squadron, 1861-1865

Maurice Melton, University of Alabama Press, 2012, $69.95

While Civil War historians generally avoid writing much about the Confederate Navy, adhering to the common sentiment that it was inferior, Maurice Melton has found the subject a source of great intrigue. His new book focuses on the little-known Savannah Squadron, which roamed the Atlantic Coast between Savannah, Ga., and Cape Fear, N.C. Melton is like an expert pilot reading a nautical chart in describing the region’s unique topography—a porous maze of barrier islands, marshes, rivers and creeks that proved to be a defender’s nightmare.

When Georgia seceded in 1861, Savannah native and aged naval hero Josiah Tattnall had the task of trying to defend this area of the coast with a ramshackle flotilla of steamers and tugs that became known as the “Mosquito Fleet” because of the swarms of pesky insects that bedeviled the ships’ crews. Melton maintains that in the war’s first few months, Tattnall’s coastal guardians “plied the river from the city docks to Tybee and Cockspur Islands and occasionally ran to Port Royal and Charleston.” They rarely saw an enemy vessel.

This changed dramatically in November 1861 when Tattnall’s band of makeshift mariners encountered the largest armada ever assembled by the United States off Port Royal Sound. Melton describes the Union’s first naval victory by carefully balancing the tactical strategies of the combatants with compelling anecdotes about some of the conflict’s lesser-known personalities. The result clearly illustrates why combined Army–Navy operations for both sides proved difficult at best, disastrous at worst, throughout the war.

Melton has mined the voluminous records of the Savannah River Squadron along with personal letters, diaries and newspaper accounts to chart the history of the unit and its relationship to the people of wartime Savannah. He describes the symbiotic and often contentious relationship between naval affairs and blockade running and the critical role played by African-American pilots, both slave and free, in guiding ships over sandbars and along swampy river banks.

After William T. Sherman captured the squadron’s home port and Wilmington, N.C., fell, the sailors became soldiers and fought with the Army of Northern Virginia until captured at Sailor’s Creek on April 6, 1865.


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.