Read War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson Free Online
Book Title: War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865|
The author of the book: James M. McPherson
Edition: Blackstone Audiobooks
Date of issue: September 17th 2012
ISBN 13: 9781470827373
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 1.21 MB
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Reader ratings: 5.6
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“Accompanied by two gunboat consorts, the [CSS] Virginia headed toward Newport News, where two sailing frigates were anchored: the fifty-gun USS Congress and the twenty-four gun USS Cumberland. Firing a broadside at the Congress as he passed, [Captain Franklin] Buchanan steamed toward the Cumberland as the Virginia’s powerful 7-inch Brooke rifles riddled the helpless frigate, whose shots in return “struck and glanced off,” in the words of one Northern witness, ‘having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.’ Following up on [John Mercer] Brooke’s experiments with tallow grease, Buchanan had the ship coated with it ‘to increase the tendency of the projectiles to glance.’ The Virginia plowed straight into the starboard side of the Cumberland and sent her to the bottom. Virginia’s ram stuck in the Cumberland and almost took her down with the Union frigate until the ram broke off and freed the Confederate ironclad. The guns of the Cumberland kept firing until the water closed over them…”
- James McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865
Rhett Butler sent me.
Recently, I finished Gone with the Wind, the controversial classic set in Georgia during the American Civil War. Despite many virtues, Margaret Mitchell’s novel has a certain penchant for historical distortion. Her take on Reconstruction, for instance, has only a tenuous grasp to reality.
Nonetheless, the one thing Mitchell gets perfectly right is the slow stranglehold of the Union blockade. Derided as ineffective by Unionists and Confederates alike, it exists in the shadows of Civil War historiography, often ignored in favor of the titanic battles on land, the blockade is mostly remembered for the blockade runners that stole through it on moonless nights.
Mitchell’s Rhett Butler, of course, made his fortune stealing away from Southern shores, bringing cotton to London, selling it at fabulous profits, and then purchasing luxury goods for resale on the black market. As Gone with the Wind progresses, though, those luxury goods start to become scarcer, along with more important items such as flour, sugar, and salt. Some of Mitchell’s best-drawn scenes show her protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, trying to survive in a land that has been cut off from resupply.
Gone with the Wind set me to thinking about the naval operations of the Civil War. And that, in turn, led me to James McPherson’s War on the Waters.
McPherson is best known for his expansive Pulitzer Prize-winning doorstop Battle Cry of Freedom, which might be the best one-volume book on the Civil War ever produced. War on the Waters is much different. At 225 pages of text, it is slim and concise and shorn of extraneous details. It provides a crisp, fast-paced overview of naval operations, but lacks that extra-something that the best histories provide.
As for coverage, McPherson states at the outset what he plans to show:
The four years of the Civil War can be divided into five overlapping parts in which naval clashes paralleled and in part produced a first wave of Union victories in 1861-62, successful Confederate resistance in 1862-63, a revival of Northern momentum in the latter half of 1863, Confederate resuscitation in early 1864, and final Union triumph from the second half of 1864 through the end of the war.
Of course, the respective successes for North and South were relative to their efforts and abilities. The North scored big strategic victories, especially with combined operations that captured Fort Henry, New Orleans, Vicksburg, Mobile Bay, and Fort Fisher. These battles, with the exception of Vicksburg, don’t really have the cachet of Chancellorsville or Gettysburg. Yet they were just as important – if not more so. The capture of New Orleans, for instance, took the South’s largest city and busiest port off the chess board.
The South was always on the defensive, meaning that a “win” for them meant, for example, keeping Charleston out of Union hands, rather than conducting offensive operations of their own. Still, McPherson shows how well the Confederacy conducted asymmetric warfare. Despite having a much smaller industrial base, they utilized advanced (for the time) technologies such as underwater mines (known then as torpedoes) and a submarine. (Ironclad vessels predated the American Civil War, meaning the eventual clash of the Monitor and the Virginia, a.k.a., the Merrimac was more an inevitability than a turning point in naval warfare).
The through-line of War on the Waters is the Union blockade. The brainchild of General Winfield Scott and his much-maligned (though ultimately successful) Anaconda Plan, the blockade was always a work in progress. With the help of Great Britain (who eventually had to pay up), the South took advantage of ever-faster, ever-sleeker runners, swift ships burning smokeless anthracite coal to outrun their pursuers. Most blockade runners were successful. But that is not nearly the point.
When [Confederate diplomat] John Slidell presented to French officials yet another list of vessels that had run the blockade, they asked him “how it was that so little cotton had reached neutral ports.” Slidell answered that most of the successful runners had small cargo capacity, and “the risk of capture was sufficiently great to deter those who had not an adventurous spirit from attempting it…” The true measure of the blockade’s effectiveness was not how many ships got through or even how many were captured, but how many never tried.
War on the Waters is gracefully written, it has very nice maps, and it comes with McPherson’s easy knowledge of the Civil War, which he has spent a lifetime accumulating. Still, this isn’t a great book. It’s just too thin. It lacks in-depth treatment of the battles, colorful portraits of the participants, and the extra details that bring history to life. (For instance, when McPherson discusses sailors greasing the sides of their vessels, he refers to “ship’s slush,” without defining the term. I figured it was something gross. Turns out, it’s the grease skimmed from the top pot of boiling salt pork. So, yeah. Gross).
Despite this, McPherson does a commendable job of highlighting the importance of the blue and brown water navies of the Civil War. The Union Navy, despite being grossly underfunded in comparison to the Army, did as much as anyone to secure a Northern triumph. Their capture of Southern ports, their disruption of rebel supply lines, and their severing of the Confederate states, did much to make a Union victory a military (if never a political) probability.
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Read information about the authorJames M. McPherson (born October 11, 1936) is an American Civil War historian, and is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, his most famous book. He was the president of the American Historical Association in 2003, and is a member of the editorial board of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Born in Valley City, North Dakota, he graduated from St. Peter High School, and he received his Bachelor of Arts at Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota) in 1958 (from which he graduated magna cum laude), and his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 1963. Currently he resides in Princeton, New Jersey, and is married with one child.