- Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War
Retrieving the naval war into the Civil War is one of the goals of Robert M. Browning's Success Is All That Was Expected. The leading authority on the Atlantic Blockading Squadrons, Browning contends that the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron fixated on the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, to the detriment of the blockade and the Union war effort. This fixation was borne not of strategy but upon political goals and the personal demons of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavas Vasa Fox. As the birthplace of the Confederate rebellion, the symbolic power of the capture of Charleston was obvious. Less obvious were the misguided energies that Fox expended on the capture of Charleston. Browning argues that Fox, who led the aborted rescue mission to Fort Sumter in 1861, never forgot his failure to relieve the beleaguered garrison. This failure created a fixation on the part of Fox and the navy to capture Charleston—similar to that of the army's on Richmond—whatever its cost of success.
The book is the first comprehensive study of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. As in his previous work, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North [End Page 102] Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (1993), Browning canvasses all of the strategic, logistical, personal, and economic facets of the blockade. He skillfully connects political and strategic events in Washington with events on water of the South Atlantic coast. This is no easy feat. At times, the detail provided concerning this portion of the blockade almost overwhelms the reader. Much of this attention to detail arises from the fact that Browning is unearthing fresh history. In addition, Browning provides new ways of looking at the war from the logistics of the blockade to the often stressful cooperation between the navy and the army in combined operations. Both of these topics have been understudied. Browning is doing the heavy shovel work which historians have neglected for more than 130 years.
This is not to say that the book is a poorly told tale: in fact, Browning has given us some of the finest historical narrative to date. This accomplishment cannot be understated. Too often, historians have lost sight of the fact that one of the craft's missions and one of the sources of its power is the telling of a good story. Browning recreates one of the initial meetings planning the South Atlantic Expedition. In attendance were Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox, and Rear Admiral Samuel F. DuPont. Fox arrives late, plants himself on the couch next to Lincoln, and lights a cigar. DuPont watches in amazement as the assistant secretary proceeds to blow cigar smoke into the president's face.
The book does have its problems. At times, it fails to develop fully its analysis of the blockade's weaknesses. Part of the problem with warfare generally and naval warfare particularly, is that it is more difficult to wage war than anyone realizes. As the book shows, a lack of strategy and a lack of supplies, when added to personal agendas of the strategists, can unravel the best laid plans of generals and admirals. One does receive the impression from Browning that war is a difficult business but an examination of why it is difficult in 1861 would have enhanced the book's analysis. To that end, the conclusion of the book might be better suited being placed in the introduction because it displays the themes that Browning will explore in the narrative. Another criticism is that like too many other naval historians, Browning succumbs to the use of unexplained jargon. If the field is to grow, novices need to have nautical and naval terms explained to them in the text. Readers may not be acquainted with the expressions "slush" (refuse grease and fat), "Thunderbolt moorings" (a device by which a ship...