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War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, by James M. McPherson

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. x, 278. Illus., maps, notes., biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0807835889.

Well known for his numerous works on the Civil War, in War on the Waters Prof. McPherson reminds us that the naval operations on the seas, along the coasts, and on the inland waters remain one of the more neglected aspects of the great national crisis. 

While the navies played important roles on both sides, their role has tended to be marginalized in the literature due to the general focus on the great land campaigns.  McPherson opens with a look at the naval resources of each side on the outbreak of war, slender for the Union and non-existent for the Confederacy.  Then, noting that both sides had able, intelligent, creative men, civilian administrators and naval officers alike, available to help raise, shape, and lead navies, he discusses how new navies were raised, manned, and organized.  McPherson then follows the fortunes of war on the waters.  The U.S. Navy supported the Union Army in decisive actions from Ft. Donelson to Vicksburg to Ft. Fisher, and single-handedly secured the Carolina Sounds, New Orleans, and Memphis, while establishing the blockade and chasing Confederate cruisers on the high seas.  On the other side, the C.S. Navy, impressively created out of virtually nothing, contested Union control of coastal and inland waters and wrecked havoc with Union commerce on the high seas, resorting to innovative technologies, including ironclads, “torpedoes” (mines), and even submarines. 

McPherson writes extremely well, avoids technical jargon, and is able to interweave political and diplomatic events into his tale, which also includes desperate fights on the waters, bureaucratic skirmishes, boring days and thrilling chases during the blockade, and much more.  He gives us mini-portraits of many officers and politicians, and weaves events on the waters into the overall course of the war. 

A volume in the UNC Press series “Littlefield Histories of the Civil War Era,” War on the Waters is an excellent one volume overview of the naval side of the war, particularly valuable for those unfamiliar with this aspect of the conflict or naval operations, though certainly also useful for the more seasoned student of the war.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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