The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865
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Within a Week of the attack on Fort Sumter, Presidents Davis and Lincoln issued proclamations that shaped significant elements of their respective naval strategies. On April 17 Davis offered letters of marque to private ships authorizing them to capture American-flagged merchant vessels. As the weaker naval power in two wars against Britain, the United States had commissioned swarms of privateers to prey on British ships and force the Royal Navy to divert its warships to commerce protection. Now the Confederacy proposed to pursue the same strategy against the United States. In a proclamation issued two days later announcing a blockade of Confederate ports, Lincoln declared that captured privateers would be tried for piracy.
Lincoln’s proclamation contained an internal inconsistency. The definition of privateers as pirates was grounded in the theory that the Confederacy was not a nation but an association of insurrectionists—“rebels” in the common terminology. At the same time, however, the declaration of a blockade seemed to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederacy, for blockades were an instrument of war between nations. For that reason, some Northerners—most notably Secretary of the Navy Welles—urged the president simply to announce a closure of ports in the rebellious states. To enforce such closure, however, would require warships stationed off these ports, which amounted to a blockade. The British government warned the United States that it would not respect a proclamation closing certain ports to international trade. The British minister to the United States, Lord Lyons, pointed out that a declaration closing Southern ports would cause foreign powers to recognize the Confederacy as controlling these ports de jure, as they already controlled them de facto, so they could trade freely with the Confederacy. Having relied on blockades in their own numerous wars, however, Britain would respect a blockade imposed under international law. Lincoln took these points seriously and decided against the closure option. In effect, by imposing a blockade, the United States treated the Confederacy as a belligerent power but not as a nation.
That compromise was not forged immediately, however, and did not resolve the question of the status of privateers. Two dozen of them soon swooped out along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They captured at least twenty-seven prizes, mainly in the spring and summer of 1861. The most notorious and successful privateer was the brig Jefferson Davis (a former slave ship), which captured eight prizes in July and August. One of them was the schooner S. J. Waring, whose cook and steward was William Tillman, a free Negro. A prize crew of five men took the S. J. Waring toward the Jefferson Davis’s home port of Charleston. Tillman and two other crew members of the Waring remained on board. Certain that he would be sold into slavery when the Waring reached Charleston, Tillman killed the sleeping prize master and two sailors on the night of July 16–17. He released the two Yankee crewmen, and they sailed the recaptured prize back to New York, where Tillman was hailed as one of the war’s first heroes.
From WAR ON THE WATERS: THE UNION AND CONFEDERATE NAVIES, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Review by William C. Davis
“Nor must Uncle Sam’s web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks.”
No one could match phrases with Lincoln, and in that simple, rather amusing August 1863 understatement, he paid tribute to what the Union Navy had thus far achieved during the Civil War. Indeed, the accomplishments of both Northern and Southern water-borne forces were remarkable, fighting a new kind of war, with new technologies, on a floating battlefield that had never seen serious naval action in its history. Moreover, for the Confederacy it seems especially noteworthy, given that until 1861 the South had never been a maritime region in any sense of the word.
James M. McPherson, Pulitzer and Lincoln Prize-winning author of some of the most distinguished Civil War books of our era, takes a penetrating new look at the war “wherever the ground was a little damp” in his new War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. We have had several overall histories of the naval war, many of them excellent. What sets this one apart is the emphasis that McPherson gives to the results of the naval war in influencing the outcome of the overall conflict. Granted that it is commonplace for authors to assume more importance for their topics than may be merited, in this instance it is difficult to argue.
The capture of New Orleans in April 1862 by David G. Farragut gave the Union control of the lower Mississippi, the greatest artery for commercial and military movement on the continent. Farragut’s capture of Mobile Bay in August 1864 was one of the contributing factors to keeping Northern voters sufficiently encouraged to be willing to risk another presidential term for Lincoln. It was naval forces under David Dixon Porter who played a vital role in allowing U. S. Grant’s daring plan to isolate and capture Vicksburg to succeed, thereby taking complete control of the Mississippi in 1863.
Against a background of almost constant Union naval success, McPherson does not slight Confederate achievements in forestalling complete Union success on the waters. Throughout history the underdogs have always resorted to unconventional means to even disparate odds, but no one in history did it more effectively than the South. Submarines, “torpedoes” [mines], ironclad warships, and more, all saw their practical introduction at the hands of sailors in gray. Confederate blockade runners kept vital supplies from abroad from coming into the beleaguered South almost until the end, while Rebel cruisers on the high seas sent shocks of terror through Union merchant shipping. One vessel, the CSS Shenandoah, virtually put the United States out of the whaling industry for good.
James M. McPherson has done many fine books, but in stepping aside from his usual haunts on the land war, he has given us perhaps the most trenchant, digestible, and interesting overview to date of the enduring tracks made by those daring web-feet of the Civil War.
Hardcover Book : 288 pages
Publisher: Univ. Of North Carolina Press ( September 17, 2012 )
Item #: 13-595171
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 0.72inches
Product Weight: 16.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
The writing makes an easy read but it is a much abbreviated naval history. While all aspects get some coverage the emphasis is on joint Army Navy operations and the development of naval leaders both military and civilian. Naval tactics and technology developments are mentioned but I have read general histories that have more details.
I recommend it for a quick overview that is an enjoyable read but I am surprised that this distinguished author published a cursory overview of this major subject.
Reviewer: Allen F