The naval history of the Civil War is by and large a neglected topic. This book, among a few others, seeks to rectify that. The basic thesis of this book is that the naval history of the Civil War holds the key to its outcome. This thesis can be unpacked in the following way: 1. The Union blockade against the major port cities of the Confederate States of America (CSA) was one of the key strategies of the Civil War and defined the war itself and the Union victory.
2. Lincoln, through his benign neglect of the naval services, permitted to organizational geniuses within the Department of the Navy, Gideon Wells and Gustavus Fox, free rein to run this all-important department as they saw fit. A basic methodological focus of this book is on individuals: in other words, without talented individuals, even the best strategies and strongest materials would amount to nothing. 3. While some might say that he downplays the role of the Confederate Navy, the lack of such an institution in 1861 has much to do with the outcome of the war itself.
What little the Confederacy was to develop was based on ingenuity and luck. This is not to say that he does not give the CSA its due on the seas. He most certainly does, but it was the clear superiority in every respect of the Union naval forces and personnel that won the war from the North as quickly as it did. Now, let’s take each of these three thesis points in turn, and deal with them in more detail. 1. The CSA was an economy to be reckoned with. Her cotton and tobacco crops were slowly financing an industrial revolution.
Had the CSA broke away a generation later, it is likely the war would have been won by the South. But in 1860, the southern economy was based on agriculture, specifically cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. Their greatest trading partner was England, and hence, to shorten the war, the naval department under Lincoln realized that a primary strategy was to shut down the major souther ports (New Orleans, Mobile, etc. ) In order for this to work, several things needed to be done. First, the union navy needed to be placed on a shallow water footing.
The union navy was largely deep water. Second, supply systems needed to be put in place and a long term strategy thought out (10, 291ff). Third, an amphibious tactic needed to be developed to increase the power of the blockade. By 1865, all of this had been done, with tremendous success. It was the result of first rate organization, strategy and the industrial base mobilized to supply the services of war. The northern navy drew from the large merchant marine corps throughout the northern ports, and this served as a solid base to build up the competent manpower of the navy (241). . The personnel of the union navy was first class.
The author spends a great deal of time on three figures, Wells, Fox, and the famed Admiral Farragut. As far as Wells was concerned, his ability was the very grey area of decentralization versus centralization. While all three of these major union figures took personal control of their offices, they also knew how to delegate in a mix that is often very hard to balance perfectly (291). It was largely Wells that developed the excellent supply system that waw so lacking in the CSA.
The blockade was never broken largely due to this administrative talent, to keep the blockade supplied for long periods of time and under a long term strategy of deployment that was to remain the standard of US Naval warfare right up to the 1940s (215ff). Fox was another major figure, though technically a subordinate to Wells. It was Wells’ ability to delegate to Fox that helped diversity the planning and spread the responsibility without taking the fight out of the former’s hands.
Fox is described (291-292) as an organizational genius, one extremely loyal to Wells and the union cause, sw to his responsibilities personally and was part of the reason why the naval department was involved in so few dishonest dealings. All other branches of the service were marred by corruption: the navy was known a rather clean in this respect. Farragut, on the other hand, though in the field, was the perfect compliment to the two above. He has a powerful confidence in his abilities and, importantly, something the CSA did not have, confidence in the navy’s ability to win the war.
He was a planner and strategist, and is somewhat responsible for the long term planning fo the naval department. This focus on strategy over time (rather than to the ad hoc approach of the CSA) enabled a plan and the supplies to feed that plan to be focused on. This cannot be understated. 3. The southern strategy was several-fold: first, to hit union shipping. Once it became clear that the blockade was to stay, hitting union shipping became a major priority, and this is a strategy that the CSA capitalized un, and was relatively successful.
Union shipping was demonstrably damaged severely throughout the war (216). Second, the use of mines in this respect. Mines are a “poor man’s strategy” to deal with union superiority in naval craft and materials. Third, the defense against the dreaded union amphibious landing, something pioneered at this time by the naval department: bombard the city, soften defenses, then let loose the marines to establish a beachhead and an inland base. This put many southern ports out of commission and drove the war straight into southern territory. If anything, this was a part of the blockade strategy and a variation of it.
This becomes the real thesis of the work: the marines won the war. Fourth, the CSA needed to maintain shipping through the blockade runners, an originally ad hoc strategy that become “professionalized” by 1962 or so. Fifth, the use of the ironclad to break the blockade in shallow water. This failed for several reasons: first the lack of materials, second, the terrible conditions of service inside the “tank,” and third, its slow moving vulnerability. They were underpowered and hard to steer (298). Hence, in conclusion, the blockade was a major reasons for the Union victory.
While the runners were significant, they were never enough to maintain an economy on a war footing. The marines who hit southern ports as an extension of the blockade strategy eliminated the only real part of the CSA that functioned: its sea based marine. The CSA was choked, and that ad hoc approach of the CSA given the blockade, while irritating, could never do enough damage to force the union out of the war. And this point the author demonstrates extremely well. And the book, because of this, is necessary to fully understand the CSA defeat and its causes.