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

The USS Saginaw, a 450 ton sidewheel wooden hulled vessel, was the first U.S. warship built on the West Coast, at the new Mare Island shipyard between 1858 and 1860, and this is an excellent “biography” of her life and adventures.

Saginaw saw extensive service along the West Coast, down to Central America, and across the Pacific as far as the China Seas until she was wrecked in1870 on the reef at Midway Island.  In telling the story of the Saginaw, van Tilburg, an avid sailor, Coordinator of the Pacific Islands Region Maritime Heritage Program, and the author of  Chinese Junks on the Pacific, also gives us a very good look at shipbuilding and life aboard an American warship in the mid-nineteenth century, culminating with a very fine account of shipwreck and survival.  On top of that, he also uses the story of the Saginaw 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. 

A volume in the series “New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology”, A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters is highly recommended for those interested in the Navy in the period of the Civil War, and will  also appeal to anyone with a general interest in naval history.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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