Stephen Russell Mallory: A Biography of the Confederate Navy Secretary and United States Senator
by Rodman L. Underwood, McFarland & Company, 2006, 256 pages, $35.
Rodman L. Underwood’s biography of Stephen R. Mallory expands our appreciation for the accomplishments and character of the Confederate naval secretary, particularly during his Senate years from 1851-61, but Joseph T. Durkin’s 50-yearold biography Confederate Navy Chief: Stephen R. Mallory remains the standard.
Underwood’s effort begins by clarifying Mallory’s birth date and lineage. He then provides a discussion (comparable to the one by Durkin) in terms of Mallory’s early life in Key West and his courtship of his wife, Angela Moreno. Throughout these early years, Mallory is presented as an optimistic, energetic, outgoing, self-confident and self-educated man.
The best and most unique part of the book is the discussion of Mallory’s service in the U.S. Senate representing Florida. Underwood highlights Mallory’s qualifications to ultimately become the Confederate Navy secretary. Building on his prior experience as a salvage lawyer in Key West, Mallory pitched into naval matters and eventually earned the position of chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs. There, he labored to modernize the U.S. Navy’s equipment and leadership. During his Senate tenure, Mallory remained a defender of Southern slavery, and his political thought evolved from that of a Unionist to a Secessionist.
Much of the rest of the book recounts his actions as Confederate Navy secretary. Durkin covers the same ground, and the same information can be found in other books, including Raimondo Luraghi’s A History of the Confederate Navy or William Still’s many books on the Confederate Navy, as well as countless monographs on specific subjects such as CSS Virginia, Albemarle and Alabama, or biographies of John L. Porter, John Mercer Brooke or Franklin Buchanan.
Throughout the book, Underwood praises Mallory while regrettably shedding little light upon Mallory’s critics. He provides only a brief three-page discussion of a joint special committee that investigated the Confederate Navy. This is an unfortunate ommision, since Mallory was pilloried by Southern editors and Davis detractors. An examination of these issues could have expanded our understanding of the internal forces combating the Confederacy as well as our appreciation for the obstacles faced by Mallory.
The book is marred by many errors. Some are minor and seem to occur when Underwood strays from his main topic. The book incorrectly says Lincoln was nominated in May 1859 and Davis was president-elect during the January Fort Pickens crisis. Other errors are more important: Davis is blamed for constricting the flow of cash to the South by prohibiting the export of cotton from the summer of 1861 to the spring of 1862, when in fact there was no sanctioned embargo.
Underwood repeats the allegation that the South failed to acquire and outfit warships in Europe between February 1861 and the firing on Fort Sumter without suggesting how such ships were to be purchased or financed. He also gives Mallory credit for identifying the potential ability of Sea King to act as a commerce raider when credit is due to James Bulloch.
Underwood’s discussion of technological innovations contains numerous mistakes. He claims Louisiana was to be armed with rifled guns cast at Norfolk. Norfolk banded but did not cast guns. He also gives erroneous specifications for rifled guns on several Confederate ships and ambiguously describes Hunley as a Navy submarine, when it was constructed by private individuals.
Underwood’s book complements Durkin’s biography by providing additional information, but for this reviewer Durkin’s work remains the best reference.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.