The Civil War on the Mississippi: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign to Control the River by Barbara Brooks Tomblin (review)
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The Civil War on the Mississippi: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign to Control the River. By Barbara Brooks Tomblin ( Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Pp. 370. $50.00 cloth)

Accounts of operational history of the American Civil War along the Mississippi River have long dotted the historiography in both stand-alone accounts and as parts of larger narratives. Barbara Brooks Tomblin, a naval historian, former lecturer at Rutgers University, and author of numerous other works including Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy (2009), puts forth a work that brings more of the officers below command rank into view. Tomblin uses sources from junior officers, midshipmen, and ordinary sailors to accentuate the view at the command level. The author argues that the Union army and navy had to cooperate, at the command level, to develop tactics and weapons to conduct amphibious operations in the west—especially along the Mississippi River.

Tomblin's eighteen chapters follow a fairly traditional operational approach to the history of naval activity and joint operations on the western waters during the American Civil War. The author's narrative, however, is punctuated by remarks from officers who commanded or [End Page 683] served aboard the warships on the rivers, including Captain Henry Walke on the City-class ironclad USS Carondelet, and Captain Augustus H. Kilty on the City-class ironclad USS Mound City. Tomblin does an excellent job of interweaving officers' and crews' opinions of their new implements of war—for good or ill. She includes Commander (later Admiral) David D. Porter's point of view on his new ironclad warships after the Union victories against Forts Henry and Donelson as he claimed, "'though struck pretty often, [they] were still intact and fit for any service'" (p. 60). Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Commander) Seth L. Phelps, commanding the timberclad USS Conestoga, observed a steam boiler explosion on Mound City after combat and thought them "miserable craft" and that their co-inventor Samuel Pook should be hanged (pp. 120–21).

The multi-layered views from officers and crew continue throughout the remainder of the book, highlighting the campaigns around Memphis, New Orleans, the sinking of the Confederate ironclad CSS Arkansas, the final surrender of Vicksburg, and several engagements in between. A few other elements of the western campaign, such as the role of black troops, also make an appearance. The ranking officers, such as General Ulysses S. Grant and Captain (later Admiral) Andrew H. Foote, are never too far from Tomblin's account but do not overwhelm her work's broader scope.

The military approach of Tomblin's The Civil War on the Mississippi introduces the perspectives of officers and crew members into the brown-water navy historiography. The valuable sources she utilizes, including the papers of Captain Henry Walke and her attention to ship logs, such as those from the timberclad CSS Lexington, add a new dimension to recent works such as Craig Symonds' The Civil War at Sea (2012), James McPherson's War on the Waters (2012), and Gary Joiner's Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy (2007). Like those books, Tomblin's work will similarly appeal to scholarly and general readers. Scholars may enjoy the dive into the other ranking officers' narratives and sources, while the general reader may find themselves well immersed in mid-nineteenth-century joint operations. [End Page 684]

Gregory N. Stern

GREGORY N. STERN is the 2016–2017 Secretary of the Navy's Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation History at the United States Naval Academy. He is a member of the Society for Military History, for which he currently serves on the Facebook/Twitter Committee.

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