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5.0 out of 5 stars Web-feet in the Civil War, October 12, 2012
This review is from: War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era) (Hardcover)
In his breadth of knowledge, lucid writing, and passion for his subject, James McPherson remains among the best of Civil War historians, For many years Professor of history at Princeton University, McPherson has the rare gift of appealing to both academic and lay readers. In his latest book, "War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861 -- 1865 (2012), McPherson focuses on the role of the navies in the Civil War. He argues persuasively that students of the war tend to understate the importance of the navies in the war's outcome. This is particularly the case, he argues, for the Union Navy. The book enhanced my knowledge of a sometimes overlooked aspect of the war.

The focus of the book is on the Union Navy in that it was far larger than the Confederate Navy and ultimately more successful. Thus, McPerson begins by quoting Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the navy's role in the Vicksburg campaign. "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." In McPherson's book, the reader follows "Uncle Sam's Web-feet" in the oceans, rivers, swamps, and bayous.

McPherson also praises the Confederate navy for its ingenuity and spirit and for doing much with little. Without the industrial resources of the North, the Confederacy led in the development of ironclad ships, torpedoes, and submarines.In its Secretary of the Navy, Steven Mallory, the Confederacy had a gifted and innovative leader whom McPherson obviously admires.

In a relatively short book McPherson explores naval battles, large and small, on the sea and on the rivers. For both the Union and the Confederacy, he describes battles in which the navy had the sole responsibility as well as battles showing the cooperation, or its lack, between the navy and the army. The book describes naval leaders and heroes on both sides as well as the mixture of boredom and hard, dangerous fighting that awaited the sailors. McPherson also emphasizes the activites of the navies as they impacted politics and the conduct of foreign affairs.

The Union instituted a blockade of the South at the outset of the war, and the effectiveness of the blockade has long been a subject of debate among students. McPherson argues that the blockade was a major factor in the Union's success, concluding that by isolating and weakening the South and depriving it of supplies, the blockade "may have been just enough to tip the balance to Union victory."

The book is organized chronologically following, so to speak, the ebb and flow of battle. McPherson sees the history of the Civil War and of naval activity as falling into five overlapping parts, developed in his text: 1.a series of early Union naval victories in 1861-1862 on the Eastern seabord and the captures of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson which paved the way for Union success in the West, and Farragut's taking of New Orleans; 2.Successful Confederate resistance in 1862, including the construction of the Virginia, the development of torpedoes,and the use of commerce raiders, including the CSS Alabama, 3. The Union success culminating with the taking of Vicksburg, in which the navy played a critical role 4. Confederate victories in the Western theater and its development of the submarine. These successes were short lived given Farragut's dramatic victory at Mobile Bay, Alabama. 5. The final months of the war, including the fall of Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast.

There is a good narrative thread in the story. For example, I always was puzzled about how the Union navy was able to run past the formidable batteries of Vicksburg prior to set up Grant's land campaign below the city. McPherson's discussion about running fortifications at Vicksburg and elsewhere earlier in the war, helped me understand what was at stake in this type of action. The book is also filled with details about naval actions I hadn't heard of before. For example, McPherson describes the Union's near disastrous 1864 Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Union Admiral Porter's fleet sailed up the Red River and almost became stranded when the water level of the river lowered. An Army Lieutenant Colonel, Joseph Bailey,who had built dams in logging operations in civilian life, was able to organize the building of a dam on the Red River which allowed the stranded ships to retreat safely.

McPherson writes with flair, treats the characters in his book with respect, and illuminates the role of the navies in the conduct and outcome of the Civil War. The book will have most appeal to readers with a good broad overview of Civil War military history. It is an impressive, readable account of the importance of the Union and Confederate navies.

Robin Friedman
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 12, 2012 8:44:34 PM PDT
H. Schneider says:
Very interesting ( but for me too specialized)

Posted on Dec 19, 2012 2:21:46 PM PST
Excellent review. Agreed with your comments - this is McPherson's best book in years.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 20, 2012 6:59:57 AM PST
Wonderful moniker, "Hancock the Superb". I am glad you enjoyed the book and the review.
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Robin Friedman
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Location: Washington, D.C. United States

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