Like the vast majority of people interested in the American Civil War, my interests and focus are upon the great land battles. Living near Antietam guarantees such, along with the abundance of hundreds of little stories and incidents throughout this Washington County of Western Maryland. Even as I type this, I am able to glance out my window at a historic home that surely housed wounded soldiers from Sharpsburg, and my address in on a road oft traveled by Civil War soldiers watching the C&O Canal at Dam Number Four. I live less than a mile from the end of Lee’s defensive line upon the retreat from Gettysburg. My home – situated on the high ground near a crossroad – would be the place where soldiers may well have bivouacked. So, it is easy to focus upon land battles only.
Adding to that proclivity is the fact that 95% of those who served in the Union war effort were in the army, and well less than 5% of Confederate forces served upon the waters. Yet the point may be accurately made that the contribution of the Northern fleets was well in excess of 5%. And while Southern efforts were unable to begin to match the Federals in terms of resources and tonnage, they more than held their own in conflicts while also contributing in technological innovations.
A key to understanding the ultimate victory of the North is to not only see the cumulative effects of Union blockades of Southern ports, but to also grasp the significance of Union control of much of the Mississippi for the bulk of the War. New Orleans and Memphis were captured by Union fleets. Vicksburg was the lone holdout, and the victory there by Grant on July 4, 1863 would have been impossible without the contributions of the navy. This was, of course, a major turning point of the war, along with the concurrent Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln wrote in the late summer of 1863, “Nor must Uncle Sam’s Web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks.” And of the capture of Vicksburg he wrote, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Chronologically detailing the primary contributions of the Union Navy in particular, James McPherson writes in his easy style to take the reader from one end of the war to the other. The marshalling of resources from next to nothing at the beginning, to a significant factor in but four years, is a story not dissimilar to the national resolve and advance during a similar time frame in the 1940s. McPherson develops the naval chronology with a parallel overview to the land efforts defining the four-year struggle: initial Union victories in 61-62, successful Confederate resistance in 62-63, revival of Union momentum in the second half of 63, Southern resuscitation in early 64, followed by final Union triumphs through the end of the war.
McPherson’s The War on the Waters (publication date being on the 150th anniversary of Antietam) got me through four recent plane flights, though I confess that the introduction of so many heretofore unknown personages and places will mean I’ll have to refer to this over and over in coming years… not a bad problem however.