James M. McPherson agrees, but ranking generals and admirals is not his main interest. The aim of this compact book is to prove to modern students of the war that naval superiority throughout the conflict—on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern river systems — was an indispensable ingredient of Union military victory. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “War on the Waters” displays the technique that has become something of a trademark for the Princeton historian. He uses impeccable scholarship in the service of narratives that have appeal for the general reader. He gives context for what we already know from the war’s celebrated tales, including the USS Monitor’s battle with the CSS Virginia, a.k.a USS Merrimack, off Norfolk, and the defeat of the Confederacy’s best Atlantic commerce raider, the CSS Alabama, in a theatrical sea battle that drew thousands of French spectators to the shoreline at Cherbourg.
This big-picture approach points up one of those intriguing trends in Civil War historiography: In the public mind, dramatic elements often get more attention than the strategic leitmotifs. After all, the tragic grandeur of Gettysburg, which broke the Confederacy’s spirit in a mere three days, is a more satisfying set piece than the grinding, multi-year war in the West, which gradually wore through the spine of the Rebel nation.
As in all war histories, the spin depends greatly on who survives to tell the tale. It is understandable that the best Union memoirs, those of Gens. Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, would reflect greater glory on the army than the navy (and in Sherman’s case, on the Union infantry rather than the Union cavalry, which in his view dashed about ostentatiously while the mud soldiers won the battles).
In summarizing the symbiosis between land and marine elements, McPherson follows the example of the ever fair-minded Grant. He included Rear Adm.Andrew Hull Foote’s gunships as key elements of his battle plans at Vicksburg and his pivotal, if underappreciated, victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The latter two, coming in 1862 and leading to Federal occupation of Nashville, amounted to an early stab into the Confederacy’s vitals from which it never recovered.
In terms of such toehold victories, McPherson also calls our attention to New Orleans and, once again, to Farragut. The doughty admiral sensed that the Confederacy’s largest city was lightly defended and took it with relative ease on April 24, 1862, in what was both a military and public relations coup. Perhaps if the fall of New Orleans had been more difficult, we’d hear more today about its debilitating effect on the Confederacy’s morale and its international commerce in cotton.