In the past decade or so, the history of the American Civil War has seen a revival of interest and a correspondingly high number of books published about all aspects of the naval war. There are some fine biographies of officers and bureaucrats, and a plethora of works on sexier subjects, such as the Confederate cruisers CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah. A few excellent studies on specific theaters of the naval war and the everyday lives of the common sailors have also been produced.
One major omission in this upswing of interest in the naval war is a synthesis. Enter James M. McPherson's War on the Waters. Comparable works include Bern Anderson's By Sea and by River (1962; reprinted in 1989), Divided Waters (1995) by Ivan Musicant, and, most recently, Spencer Tucker's Blue and Gray Navies (2006). However, these books are much longer than War on the Waters, with Musicant and Tucker's exceeding four hundred pages. McPherson deftly covers the same subject matter much more efficiently, without losing the detail important to the narrative. The book is eloquently written, well-paced, and highly readable, making it very accessible to a broader audience, which proves again how effective a writer McPherson is.
McPherson's thesis is twofold: though the Union navy did not singlehandedly win the war, the war could not have been won without the navy's significant contributions; moreover, the Confederate navy should be duly recognized for its contributions to the development of new technologies such as ironclad ships, torpedoes, and submarines and for its few successes, which created setbacks for the Union war effort. McPherson views the naval war in five phases and uses that framework to organize the book. First, from 1861 to early 1862, mobilization and early Union victories such as Hatteras Inlet occurred. Next, in 1862 and early 1863, the Confederate navy put up a successful resistance. Fueled by the capture of Vicksburg in July, the Union regained the momentum in the latter half of 1863. The Confederates enjoyed another brief period of success in early 1864. Finally, from late 1864 through the end of hostilities, the Union took control. [End Page 85]
McPherson adeptly covers the full scope of the naval war. Aside from the battles and trials and tribulations on the water, he manages to examine the politics behind the Union navy very succinctly. He showcases the personalities and internecine conflicts that plagued the navy, particularly in the war's early stages. Much credit is given to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles for successfully navigating these disputes. Assistant Secretary Gustavus Vasa Fox receives some credit for the navy's success as well, though probably not enough. Anyone who has read Ari Hoogenboom's Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy (2008) will likely agree. McPherson recognizes Union naval officers for both brilliance and shortcomings. He focuses a great deal of attention on the top commanders, such as Samuel Francis DuPont, John A. Dahlgren, David Glasgow Farragut, and David Dixon Porter. However, he does give credit to lesser known officers as warranted.
Though McPherson covers every significant incident of the naval war, he spends more time on the Mississippi River and Charleston than other areas. This has the effect of shortchanging other theaters. For instance, events occurring between August 1864 and the end of the war, including the battles for Mobile Bay and the Cape Fear River, are covered in a mere sixteen pages—hardly adequate to do those topics justice. Some smaller, less noteworthy events are completely left out, which is inevitable in a work of this length. One would also like to see more attention given to the Confederate naval effort. While McPherson acknowledges the successes of the Confederate navy, considerable achievements—such as the development and use of the submarine H. L. Hunley and the cruise of the CSS Shenandoah—are briefly mentioned but not more deeply explored. With the exception of the duel between the USS Monitor and...