The Magazine

The Civil War at Sea

How the Navy came of age in the War Between the States.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
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The names of the epic Civil War land battles—Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga—have a certain ring to them. Even the term “Sherman’s March to the Sea” is evocative. In contrast, there is little that reverberates in the names of the Civil War’s naval actions, which include the Battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Island 10, Fort Sumter, and Mobile Bay, as well as the occupation of New Orleans. 

a civil war era submarine

The Monitor meets the Merrimac, Hampton Roads, 1862

Yet knowledge of the naval component of the Civil War is crucial for a number of compelling reasons. Arguably the foremost is that it’s essential in determining how that war was lost by the Confederacy and won by the Union. There’s also the matter of the unusual number of technological advances in naval warfare that occurred during the war between the states, including steam propulsion, ironclad hulls, screw propellers, rifled cannons, explosive shells, rotating gun turrets, submersibles, and naval mines. And those technological advances did more than reshape the naval combat of the Civil War; they significantly expanded the ways that naval power would be employed in the future.

In a broader context, the naval component of the Civil War is also a unique chapter of the full narrative of American maritime power. In that perspective, it serves as a historical bridge, connecting the United States’ stunning advance as a major maritime nation during the War of 1812 to the sweeping seapower concepts personified by Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan and President Theodore Roosevelt at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Enter James McPherson’s exceptionally well-illustrated descriptions of the Civil War’s major naval events. Covered with relevant detail and clarity, these events include: the Union’s blockading of the Confederacy’s Atlantic
and Gulf coasts and the resulting blockade-running by the South; the commerce-raiding of Confederate privateers and such legendary ships as the CSS Alabama, CSS Florida, and CSS Shenandoah; and the exhausting and complex warfare fought on the river networks that marked the geography of the Confederate states. 

There are also well-detailed descriptions of specific combat actions, such as the series of Union Navy actions on the lower Mississippi River that resulted in the capture of New Orleans early in the war, and the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, which helped seal the fate of the Confederacy. Between these two historical bookends is a complex and bloody narrative filled with the successes and failures of both sides, and the many lessons learned by a still-young United States.

Of particular interest is the important but often neglected connective tissue between the main events of the war. That connective tissue includes such diverse elements as international trade, interservice rivalry between the Union’s Army and Navy, the potential and actual involvement of Great Britain, France, and other nations, and the oft-overlooked but significant influence of geography. And, by way of connective tissue, McPherson consistently illuminates how key military and civilian leaders influenced the war’s storyline. In the second paragraph of his introduction, for example, McPherson presages his dedication to recognizing the importance of key players with a strong (and, for many, surprising) opinion about the Union’s Admiral David Glasgow Farragut:

Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay and his even more spectacular achievement in the capture of New Orleans in April 1862, plus the part played by his fleet in the Mississippi River campaigns of 1862 and 1863, did indeed entitle him to equal status with Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in winning the war.

Another key leader, in this case a civilian, was Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who served in that job from March 1861 until March 1869. During his tour he became known for his management skills and for refusing to rely on seniority when making key appointments. Early in his study, McPherson describes the secretary:

Welles’s naval experience was limited to a two-year stint as the civilian head of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing during the Mexican-American War. A long career as a political journalist in Connecticut had given little promise of the resourceful administrative capacity he would demonstrate as wartime secretary of the navy.

Later, McPherson leaves no doubt about Welles’s important role in the Union’s victory, and his strength of character in standing up to public criticism: