The Salt Water Civil War: Thalassological Approaches, Ocean-Centered Opportunities
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The Salt Water Civil War
Thalassological Approaches, Ocean-Centered Opportunities

Beginning with this journal’s 2011 inaugural issue, its contributors and readers have witnessed the conceptual power of oceanic place-names. “Atlantic,” “Caribbean,” and “Pacific rim” perspectives have been prominently featured, and each has significantly enhanced our understanding of the North American 1860s.1 This watery nomenclature has involved both more and less than it implies. As an exercise in innovative metageography, the “worlds” of oceans and seas have reconfigured vast networks of interaction and influence that earlier histories often separated by national, continental, or hemispheric boundaries.2 Yet, both in this journal and across the field of Civil War studies more generally, the terminology has mainly applied to terrestrial locales situated on the dry (or semidry) edges of dynamic maritime zones.

While we have gained much in looking out from ports and coastlines upon and across the high seas, there are a series of Civil War–era maritime conflicts, controversies, and programs that need to be viewed from the decks of ocean-borne ships surrounded by nothing but water. This essay’s chief concern—to explore how and with what effect the Confederate rebellion sprawled across the oceans—begins with a simple suggestion: to consider the “blue water” theater as an integrated whole, whose sea lanes connected Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific waters to those of the Indian Ocean and the Bering Sea. This far-flung salt water complex confronts us as the largest and the least conceptualized spatial arena of an ever-more globalized Civil War.3

The notion of a Salt Water Civil War offers more than a new spatial category. By drawing attention to a series of war-related developments in international waters, the terminology addresses how American belligerency mattered to all members of a global community, which in the mid-nineteenth century was fixated on the terms and possibilities of oceanic sea power, trade, exploration, and reform. A key goal of this essay [End Page 243] is to survey the burgeoning specialized literatures devoted to war-related maritime incidents, beginning with that spate of Civil War naval histories capped recently by authoritative overviews of James McPherson and Craig Symonds.4 Another objective is to demonstrate how such impressive summations, and the increasingly sophisticated and ambitious research agendas of naval history as a subfield, can benefit from a more sustained engagement with the economic, scientific, diplomatic, and cultural studies of the 1860s high seas.5 Setting Civil War narratives aside from work developed apart from U.S. history can be a step toward embedding Union and Confederate initiatives within world history, broadly conceived.

In combining synthesis and agenda-setting, this essay uses the New Thalassology as a point of departure and framing device. A bit more than a decade ago, Mediterranean specialists deployed the ancient Greek term thalassa (“the seas”) to a distinctive mode of historicizing the waters of the Earth.6 As the approach was taken up and applied to an increasing array of blue water settings, a set of defining thalassological principles have placed sea-based human endeavors at the center, rather than on the margins, of historical narratives, thus offsetting a prevalent “terracentric bias.”7 Thalassological approaches consider the high seas a realm of meaningful human activity in its own right and insist that the economic, legal, and imaginative construction of these spaces involved historical developments of enormous consequence. 8 Rather than the spaces “in between” continental land-masses and “around” island archipelagos, oceans in these renderings have been forums for international economic development, intercontinental migration, scientific discovery, war-making, and resource management, to name the most critical topics.9

A similar ocean-centered approach can provide new vantages on the international dimensions of the American Civil War. Naval accounts of warships and commanders take on new significance when situated in relation to mid-nineteenth-century patterns of commerce, technology, diplomacy, and international law and to slaving voyages from West Africa. Of perhaps greatest importance was the high seas’ centrality to this period’s statecraft, whose agenda was set, more than by any other single factor, by the high seas’ dual status as the lynchpin of international commerce and proving...