The story of the fall of the essential Confederate port of Mobile in 1864 is well known, in whole or in part, among collectors of patriotic lore. Rear Adm.David Farragut led the Federal fleet through the (relatively) treacherous pass at Mobile Bay and (may have) said: “Damn the torpedoes!Full speed ahead!”

Far less well known is the strategic importance of Farragut to the outcome of the Civil War. “That little man,” wrote a fellow U.S. Navy officer, “has done more to put down the rebellion than any general except Grant and Sherman.”

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).

’War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865’ by James M. McPherson (Univ. of North Carolina)

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.

In McPherson’s view, the Union’s “much maligned blockade” of cotton and the money-starved Confederates’ emphasis on shipping cotton bales through the Caribbean islands and thence to Britain are main themes of the blue -water conflict. But McPherson also argues for a fuller appreciation of the “brown water” navies, particularly on the Union side. The Union’s greater facility for building shallow-draft gunboats and coordinating their movements with ground-warfare and transportation needs was largely the work of one man, Foote, a Lincoln favorite who died of kidney disease in 1863. McPherson shows that in a fairer world, this Connecticut Yankee, who could “pray like a saint and fight like the devil,” would rank near Farragut in postbellum fame.

Fans of glorious Rebel tidbits will appreciate the credit given Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory’s “strategy of countering Northern naval superiority with Southern ingenuity.” The result was a technological head start for the South on saltwater ironclads and submarines. One of Mallory’s two submarines scored history’s first sinking of a surface ship by an underwater craft. His Confederate Submarine Battery Service also put out thousands of mines; these were the “torpedoes” that Farragut may have damned.

A crewman near Farragut on his flagship at Mobile heard no such words when Farragut ordered the ship forward. There’s no dispute, however, that he personally led the fleet into harm’s way and lashed himself to the USS Hartford’s rigging as it passed under the guns and snipers at Fort Morgan. With worse luck, McPherson reminds us, the hero of Mobile Bay could have wound up martyred like Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar.

McPherson has spiced his book with lots of true but largely unexploited facts and vignettes. His summation seems imminently fair: “To say that the Union navy won the Civil War would state the case much too strongly. But it is accurate to say that the war could not have been won without the contributions of the navy.”

Howell Raines , a former executive editor of the New York Times, is working on a novel set in the Civil War.


The Union and Confederate
Navies, 1861-1865

By James M. McPherson

Univ. of North Carolina. 277 pp. $35