Thursday, January 9, 2014

Moral Courage On The Water: James McPherson On Union Naval Leadership

 “Damn the torpedoes!"

Followers of this blog will know that I have an interest in the American Civil War, particularly the naval bits.

I was delighted to learn today that one of my favourite ACW historians, James McPherson, recently published a book on the naval side of ACW, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (UNC Press, 2012).   That was news to me.  If you are super-interested in this topic, Prof. McPherson has some comments on the book and on the period on YouTube here.  One of his main points is that the US Navy was far better prepared for the war than the US Army was in 1861, and because of its greater professionalism, was more efficient than the army.   It’s also interesting that the majority of the USN were from the North or were recent immigrants, and so the Navy didn’t split along north/south lines to the same extent than the army did.  Southerners in the Navy, like Virginia’s Farragut, remained in US service and didn’t experience the same prejudice that southern US soldiers like Thomas did.  

McPherson is a big fan of Farragut, who he says showed the same degree of “moral courage” in leadership at sea that Grant did on land.  “Citing Farragut’s decision to press forward at Mobile Bay after his lead ship Tecumseh struck a mine and sank, while Brooklyn, second in formation, veered off course and stopped.  It was at this point that Farragut could have said “Damn the torpedoes!”.  He added that Mobile Bay was the first unequivocal Union victory of 1864, followed by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s takeover of Atlanta and Brig. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s burning of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  McPherson stated that these three victories secured Lincoln’s re-election and the Union’s determination to win the war."

 There’s a brief summary of a talk on this subject given by McPherson to the Society for Military History here.  Fans of the naval side of the ACW should also want to know about this blog, The Civil War Naval Sesquicentennial - lots of good stuff there.


  1. I have a copy of Thomas Scharf's 'History of the Confederate States Navy', which makes interesting reading. Considering the lack of heavy industry in the South - possibly one of the practical as well as moral consequences of too much reliance on 'peculiarly institutional' economy - the Confederates achieved under Steven Mallory's stewardship quite a lot.

    Possibly my favorite episode was the remarkable 3-week career of the 'Arkansas', which, defective engines and all, alone took on David Porter's entire riverine fleet at Vicksburg. Amazing.

    At Mobile, Adm Farragut already had considerable experience of running static defences such as shore batteries, 'torpedos' and floating batteries ('Louisiana' effectively). His successful running of the shore batteries near New Orleans was the benchmark for future operations of that type. I guess he figured that even if he lost three or four more vessels to torpedos and shore guns, he would still have more than enough to conquer 'Tennessee' and its weakling consorts. I agree, the willingness to accept the kind of cost in lives and material - especially when your own flagship and life is as much at hazard - takes a good deal of moral as well as physical courage.

  2. Thanks Ion. It is remarkable what the Confederacy could accomplish with a stack of railroad ties, a few boilers, a wooden hull and some brave men. They deserve full marks for ingenuity - especially the techniques used on their blockade runners, such as retractable funnels and stem vents beneath the waterline. What's interesting about the North, however, is that the Navy and its leaders, like Welles, had a plan (Scott's Anaconda Plan) and stuck to it. Lincoln, who knew less about sea warfare than about land warfare, knew he had the team he needed to manage the naval war, and so could devote himself to the land war, which desperately needed his efforts, given his disappointing generals in the first few years. Farragut was remarkable for his ability to accept losses, where his colleague duPont folded up like a cheap suit at an August wedding at Charleston - two very different men.

    1. I think you're a bit tough on Adm Du Pont. dude!

  3. Very interesting stuff, Mike. I don't know much about ACW naval stuff unfortunately, except where my interest in the Battle of the Atlantic and the submarine warfare spills over into the Hunley. Very interesting to read this; I have to say as well that Farragut cuts an impressive figure in that picture!


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