Question of the Week: July 20, 2015


The Civil War began with a battle over possession of Charleston Harbor, and ended with the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah. Why, then, is the Civil War’s naval aspect so neglected?

10 Responses to Question of the Week: July 20, 2015

  1. Lack of drama; lack of great fleet actions; lack of great fleet admirals. The U. S. Navy had two important, if not critical, but only supporting roles: blockade of ports, transport and artillery support for Army movements along rivers and inlets. The C. S. Navy had one critical role, harbor defense. There were no great fleet actions and only two U. S. Navy officers, David Farragut and David Porter, achieved national fame for ‘fleet’ actions; at New Orleans, Vicksburg, Mobile Bay they successfully ‘ran’ past the guns…dramatic, but not as dramatic as fleet-on-fleet leadership against Confederate fleets.

    1. Lack of drama?? Don’t think so. Lack of knowledge more like it. Great fleet actions aren’t the only dramatic events at sea. How about ship actions like Monitor vs Virginia, Alabama vs. Hatteras, Alabama vs. Kearsarge, Florida vs. Wachusett, Shenandoah vs. the whole Arctic whaling fleet? How about the Trent Affair that almost started a war between the U.S. and Great Britain? How about the virtual elimination of the U.S merchant fleet and many of the whalers. How about the ironclad CSS Arkansas running through Farragut’s fleet above Vicksburg? Island No. 10? The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff? The Battle of Nashville? Lt. Cushing’s sinking of the ironclad CSS Albemarle from a small boat with a spar torpedo? Blockade runners? Other great naval officers of both sides: Semmes, Maffitt, Reid, Waddell, S. P. Lee, Dahlgren. I would call the taking of New Orleans, Mobile, Nashville, Port Royal, Hatteras Sound, Wilmington, the attempts on Charleston, etc. much more than “transport and artillery support.” These were almost wholly naval operations or combined operations with the Army. You might consider Vicksburg primarily an army victory, but Grant had no such delusions. He admitted he could not have done it without the Navy, and so did Lincoln. No sir, no lack of drama there and no lack of importance or consequence either. Maybe a little more education would help.

  2. I didn’t know much about naval operations either, until I took a class for my Masters and started reading more–a LOT more! Robert Smalls is one heck of a compelling story, and very timely! Everything Dwight spoke of as well is very dynamic history. At last year’s Symposium, Chris K told the story of the Alabama & the Kearsarge, and I was on the edge of my seat. It was the highlight of the conference for me.

    As I did more research into Lincolnian politics, I was captivated by the Trent affair. I kept imagining it played out today, with dueling news broadcasts! And, as a Common Core teacher, Grant’s willingness to work with the inland navy again and again for success in his endeavors is about as inspiring a story as there is. He built a successful coalition with the Navy for that victory, and the cottonclads sneaking down the river in the middle of the night is just as compelling a story as anything I have read. There is so much more, and I hope each will get a nod in other replies. If not, I will return with hospital ships, blockade running, New Orleans and Yellow Fever, . . .

  3. First of all, I would say it was a matter of numbers–of roughly 3 1/2 million service men, only a small number were in the navies. Which means there were that many few diaries, reports, books and such written by naval men. Therefore, less source material for historian and writers. The same would apply to number of engagements– far fewer were naval.
    Secondly, as David L. mentioned– the navies provided supporting roles, even if those services were important and even vital. There were few occasions when the Navy scored a victory single-handedly, such as Ft. Henry. It is simplistic to say, but basically true, that although the blockade was important, It was the Yankee infantryman stepping over a dead Rebel, that won the battles and the war.

  4. The naval forces did not produce the extremely famous – even legendary – names like Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Stonewall and Sherman, even with the crucial actions and important officers already mentioned.

    Plus, many of the actions mentioned were not in “the East” (I.e. Virginia) so maybe it suffers from that sort of like the western theater and trans-Mississippi department do.

  5. I appreciate Dwight and Richard’s postings (not trying to slight anyone, here), but there are what I call peripheral actions of the war that lack some of the fame of land based operations. I would add logistical challenges (especially railroads), economical analysis and some of the political events (only to be ignored at one’s peril) of the war to the naval list. They ay lack the some of the pizazz that dominates the campaigns on land and it’s famous characters starting with Generals Grant and Lee and so many others. It’s much easier to walk and interpret battlefields than to attempt to recreate an understanding of those critical events that Dwight listed on water. Personally I’d prefer to walk the fields of Gettysburg and a dozen others than to stand upon a shoreline and try to imagine what occurred near there. On the other hand, there’s the interest generated by the discovery and recovery of the Hunley to argue that water based Civil War history is very exciting and perhaps not so neglected after all! I had the honor of meeting a descendant of one of the men who perished on the Hunley’s last mission..nothing like that to excite one’s interest.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. The lack of accessible battlefields made it impossible to use them for reunions or place monuments. Naturally, this precludes much in the way of a tourism industry. It was compounded by the relatively small number of personnel and the fact that they entered as individuals in federal service, not as members of a state regiment raised in their hometowns. So, you didn’t get the same kind of cultural ownership of the naval war that you can get over campaigns on land.

      1. Thanks Eric…that’s a good point and a great addition to this discussion!

  6. Reading some of these comments, I’m reminded of Ludovic Kennedy’s (himself a Royal Navy veteran) perceptive comment that “Navies by their nature, exist on the periphery not the centre of their country’s events.” Perhaps that is part of the explanation.

  7. Thanks for the great exchange. Just a few more thoughts. Navies by their nature operate out of sight and out of mind of most citizens. As noted above, there are no monuments on the sea, no familiar crossroads, towns, and streams to mark the battlefields, almost nothing to look at and remember. Not only are seamen and their ships remote from normal life, they operated in a totally different world with their own language, social structure (no less hierarchical and authoritarian in its way than slavery), and culture, customized over millennia to the unique demands of the alien environment. If you haven’t been there, it is hard to imagine and if you have, it is difficult to describe. This is the primary, and understandable, reason the wet side of the war is not widely understood, not that it lacks importance, drama, or consequence. My particular ambition as a historian (if I may call myself one) is to present this world in an educational and entertaining manner and to help fill that gap of understanding. It was my profession once. Can’t do it anymore but can write about it.

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