Book Review: A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw


by Hans Konrad Van Tilburg

Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010. Pp. xiv, 361. Illus., maps, plans, notes, biblio., index. $69.95. ISBN: 0813035163

A volume in the series “New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology”, A Civil War Gunboat is an excellent ‘biography” of Saginaw, a 450 ton side-wheel wooden hulled gunboat, the first U.S. warship built on the West Coast, at the new Mare Island shipyard between 1858 and 1860, by maritime historian van Tilburg, who is also the author of Chinese Junks on the Pacific.

Saginaw saw extensive service along the West Coast, and also operated as far south as Central America, across the Pacific and in the China Seas, showing the flag, pursuing pirates and poachers, filibusters and Confederate raiders, until she was wrecked in1870 on the reef at Midway Island.  In telling the story of the Saginaw, van Tilburg also gives us a very good look at life aboard an American warship in the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in a very fine account of shipwreck and survival.  But he does more, using the story of the ship to tell us something about the early history of California, the beginnings of America’s relations with China and Japan, and the Civil War on the West Coast and in the Pacific. 

The book not only has  extensive details about the ship, including plans and operating routine, but includes an interesting discussion of archaeological work on her wreck.

Highly recommended for those interested in the Navy in the period of the Civil War, this book will also appeal to anyone with a general interest in naval history or underwater archaeology.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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