The naval struggle of the American Civil War has seen comparatively less scholarly attention than the war on the land. While we have hundreds of works on the campaigns of Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman, scant attention has been paid to men like David Glasgow Farragut or Alfred Ellet for their roles. Finally, one of the nation's leading Civil War historians has turned his attention to the naval war. James M. McPherson has made his contribution to filling that historiographical gap with War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865.
War on the Waters provides an overview of the naval conflict in an engaging and detailed account of just over two hundred pages, explains the importance of the competing navies' roles, and gives due credit to the historically understated successes of the Union Navy. The author divides the book into a simple, five part template that roughly fits the progression of the entire naval war. These parts illustrate the evolving might of the Union Navy and the Confederacy's periodic flares of victory as it struggled to break from the grasp of the tightening blockade. The author emphasizes from the beginning that the Union Navy has never received its deserved credit for the role it played in overall victory for the Union. He notes that the early silencing of Confederate forts at Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal Bay [End Page 159] came as solely naval accomplishments, and that the Vicksburg and Wilmington campaigns marked the two most successful feats of joint-service cooperation in the war. With this in mind, he admits that the work focuses largely on Union naval operations. This does not detract from the overall work, but only comes as a necessary approach to the narrative. As the primarily proactive force in the naval war, Union forces are the natural focal point for explaining the unfolding of each campaign. Confederate efforts and responses are by no means overshadowed. Among others, Confederate privateers and the crew of the ironclad CSS Arkansas receive due credit for their accomplishments against Union fleets.
The progression of naval technology accompanies the narrative at each step, explaining the men and ideas that produced the war's most famous, and lesser known, naval engagements. Since innovation contributed to the changing dynamic of the naval war, it is an integral component of the author's thesis. The war changed as each side reacted to, and attempted to anticipate, the advancements of the other. Aggressive construction and use of ironclads against enemy ships and shore batteries emerged as the war necessitated their production. The progression of strategy and technology also aggravated relationships between commanders and political leaders as well, while additionally precipitating frequent and often highly successful joint-service operations between the Union Army and Navy.
James M. McPherson has provided historians of the Civil War with a comprehensive examination of an essential instrument that helped insure Union victory despite the strong record of technological innovation undertaken by the Confederate Navy. This work, while not the last word on the topic, is likely to remain on the bookshelf of any scholar interested in the Civil War and will garner a significant popular audience. [End Page 160]