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Reviewed by Keith Miller
By William H. Roberts
University of Nebraska Press, 223 pages

William H. Roberts expands on his reputation as one of today’s best Civil War naval historians with his recent Now for the Contest. In his prior works, such as Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization, Roberts, a retired Navy commander, explained Northern naval mobilization and the building of Union ironclads. In Now for the Contest he evaluates Northern and Southern naval strategies.

The book chronicles the efforts of both sides to rapidly improvise navies at the start of the war. It details how they met the challenges of emerging technologies in steam propulsion, iron plating and submarine torpedo warfare. As the title states, the focus is on the ocean war, with little mention of riverine combat. Roberts devotes whole chapters to ironclads, blockaders and blockade runners, as well as Confederate privateers and raiders.

Throughout, Roberts takes on the challenge of comparing the two combatants, eventually concluding that the North did the better job of marshaling its resources. Southern partisans may take exception to that conclusion, but Roberts delineates faults on both sides. Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory is described as suffering failures of “leadership or of perception,” while Alabama‘s captain Raphael Semmes is described as egotistical and arrogant. For the Union’s part, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox and Monitor engineer Alban Stimmers are blamed for tinkering with subsequent Monitor designs, delaying ship construction and wasting resources. Roberts also explains how the lack of cooperation between Rear Adms. Samuel Du Pont and John Dahlgren and the Army cost the Union thousands of lives in their failed effort to take Charleston.

In addition to pointing out failures, Roberts gives credit to Southern creativity in underwater mine warfare and James D. Bulloch’s acquisition of ships in Europe; and Northern creativity is found in the Monitor program and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ foresight in ignoring the Confederate raiders and maintaining the pressure of the blockade.

Roberts’ book does a good job of covering the broad scope of the war at sea. He goes beyond battles and heroics like the MonitorVirginia or AlabamaKearsarge duels to describe the technical, organizational, economic and political situations that the North and South faced in building navies, and the strategic importance of the naval war.