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War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865

James M. McPherson, University of North Carolina Press

No serious student of the war would deny that the Union and Confederate navies had a significant impact on the conflict’s course and outcome. Confederate commerce raiders inflicted significant damage on the U.S. merchant fleet, boosting Southern morale in the process. And the Union blockade, for all its problems, hogtied the Confederate economy. Naval forces also made vital contributions to critical Union victories at battlegrounds such as Fort Henry and Vicksburg. Perhaps it’s not too much to say that one of the main reasons for the notable contrast in the fortunes of Ulysses Grant and George McClellan in 1862 was the far greater level of cooperation the former received from his naval counterparts.

In War on the Waters, James McPherson joins scholars like Craig Symonds, Steven Ramold and Spencer Tucker in the effort to help us better understand and appreciate the men, forces and events shaping the struggle along the Confederacy’s rivers and coastline, as well as on the high seas. Drawing on the work of earlier authors, as well as his own extensive research, he provides a wide-ranging narrative history of the naval contest that is both insightful and informative.

McPherson is justifiably generous in his praise of Gideon Welles, for example, who at the end of the war could boast of having transformed the Union navy into one of the world’s finest. As for the Southern sailors profiled, Stephen Mallory’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to counter Union superiority through innovation also receives its due in War on the Waters.

Union and Confederate army operations have understandably attracted the lion’s share of attention as time has brought perspective to our studies. The conflict was, after all, principally a land war, in which both sides committed most of their resources to and placed their hopes for victory on their land forces. But after 150 years it would be a mistake to overlook the naval war and the contributions to Union victory made by “Uncle Sam’s Web-feet,” as Abraham Lincoln called the navy. McPherson’s compelling study is a worthy contribution to efforts to assure that never happens.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.