The (Watery) Margin of Victory

Book Review:


by James M. McPherson

UNC Press, 2012


War on the WatersPulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson begins War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, praising the Union navy for its contributions to the war effort: “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.”

Sailors and marines were a small portion of the Civil War’s combatants—just 5 percent of Union forces and even less for Confederate forces—so most historical accounts have focused on the armies, leaders and battles of the land war. In War on the Waters, McPherson persuasively argues that naval power played a disproportionate role in the war’s outcome. His conclusion: While the Union navy did not win the war, the Union could not have won without it.

The book is a trim 277 pages, including endnotes and index, but do not mistake its compactness for lack of substance. McPherson masterfully and succinctly weaves together a multitude of details about key figures and their relationships, the making of military and political decisions, and the conduct and consequences of naval battles. He manages this while framing it all within the larger context of five phases of the war: initial Union victories, Confederate resistance, renewed Union momentum, Confederate resuscitation, and final Union triumph.

At the outset, the Union navy vastly outnumbered the Confederate navy, and by the war’s end, the Union had built the largest navy in the world. The Confederacy started its navy virtually from scratch but successfully employed privateer tactics that the colonies had used against the superior British navy to pierce the Union’s coastal blockade early in the war. The Confederate navy pioneered sea mines (then called torpedoes) and achieved the first sinking of a warship by a submarine. The Union navy had some solo successes, such as the victory at Hatteras Inlet in 1861, but proved most effective in concert with ground forces, such as the campaign to reclaim the Cape Fear River and Wilmington in fall 1864, which McPherson ranks second only to Vicksburg in terms of decisive combined operations victories. The imbalance of naval power eventually took its toll as the blockade deprived the South of income from cotton exports and access to imported supplies, such as iron needed to maintain railroads and other infrastructure.

McPherson’s narrative takes readers into the heart of the action, capturing the human drama of those who fought, particularly naval leaders who had served together and found their ranks torn apart by the conflict. He accomplishes this using material drawn from nearly 100 primary sources, such as letters, memoirs, and military reports; nearly 200 secondary sources; and his own authoritative voice honed over five decades of writing about the Civil War while a professor of American history at Princeton University. He also visited most of the battle sites he describes and provides several dozen maps and illustrations that augment his text.

Every Civil War buff should add this book to his or her library, but War on the Waters is more than a niche contribution to Civil War scholarship. Its brevity, clarity, and contextualization of the naval role within the larger conflict should draw new readers to the study of this critical period of American history.

Note: James McPherson will speak at the BOOKMARKS Festival of Books and Authors, at 1:30 p.m., September 7, 2013, in downtown Winston-Salem. Don’t miss your chance to attend this free event made possible by BOOKMARKS and its supporters.

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Eric F. Frazier

Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and co-author of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.