Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Stickney: "PROMOTION OR THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER: The Blue and Gray Naval Careers of Alexander F. Warley, South Carolinian"

[ Promotion or the Bottom of the River: The Blue and Gray Naval Careers of Alexander F. Warley, South Carolinian by John M. Stickney (University of South Carolina Press, 2012) Cloth, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:170/198.  ISBN:978-1-61117-065-8  $29.95 ]

University of South Carolina Press's Studies in Maritime History series features a number of Civil War related titles worthy of our attention. The latest is a compact account of the naval career of Alexander F. Warley written by John M. Stickney with the inspired title Promotion or the Bottom of the River. Warley is not a household name in the vein of Raphael Semmes or even Franklin Buchanan, but he served competently at most of the Confederacy's more important naval stations and commanded significant vessels on more than one occasion.  With only a handful of pages devoted to its subject's childhood and post-Civil War years, the book is not a full biography in the traditional sense, concentrating instead almost totally on Warley's professional life.

As an acting midshipman, Warley's first voyage was a three year Pacific Squadron appointment aboard the USS Yorktown, hitting Brazilian and Chilean ports before cruising north. In 1842, he was involved in the capture of Monterey in California, under the mistaken assumption that war had been declared with Mexico. The next three years saw the South Carolinian assigned to a number of different vessels. In 1846, Warley found himself one of the passed midshipmen of the Independence, blockading and fighting in Baja California coastal waters during the US-Mexican War. The next period of service was at the Naval Observatory and then another sea assignment, this time with the Brazil Squadron aboard the Jamestown and later the Savannah. He was also promoted to lieutenant during this time. His last post before secession and resignation from the US Navy was with the Mississippi.

While Warley's overall competence as a naval officer appears to have been accepted by his peers, he frequently ran afoul of superiors, having charges preferred against him on a number of occasions. This flaw in his professional behavior would continue during the Civil War. His first assignment was to a shore battery at Charleston, but soon after he was sent to New Orleans, where he and the gunboat CSS McRae were involved in securing Ship Island. After it became clear that the island defenses could not be held, it was abandoned and Warley received his first command, the Manassas.  Underpowered and suffering from design flaws that limited its effectiveness, Warley nevertheless operated the ironclad to success at Head of Passes.  Forced to abandon and destroy a Manassas crippled in the contest against the massive Union naval force that ascended the river to capture New Orleans in the spring of 1862, Warley was captured and imprisoned.

After his exchange, he received another ironclad command, the Palmetto State at Charleston.  Inactivity there led him to secure a brief transfer to Galveston.  Returning to Charleston, Warley was posted to the ironclad Chicora, but he also led several boat raids in the area.  In 1864, Warley commanded the prize ship Water Witch for a time before being sent to North Carolina waters to take the helm of the celebrated Albemarle.  Unfortunately, the ironclad was sunk by a daring commando raid soon after he took charge.  The rest of the war was spent seeking opportunities that no longer existed, and Warley surrendered to Union forces in Athens, Georgia in May 1865.

Stickney's workmanlike summary of Warley's two naval careers (US and Confederate) is excellent [the section covering the officer's time in command of the Manassas is particularly useful], but his book is unable to offer much of a human portrait of the man underneath the uniform. Some Warley family papers are held by the South Carolina Historical Society archives, but it appears that no substantial body of material written by Warley himself (or writings about Warley by colleagues and other contemporaries) survives. Even so, Stickney's study provides valuable insights into US naval operations during the two decades prior to the Civil War, especially for the South American stations and the Pacific Squadron's role in the Mexican conflict. Clearly, the highlight of Warley's career was skippering the Manassas during the Civil War, and Stickney's account does this period ample justice. An illuminating byproduct of the book is how clearly it demonstrates the wandering gypsy-like nature of the Confederate naval service, with so many commissioned officers vying for dwindling numbers of warship commands. With only brief circumstances favoring the execution of real action, getting the opportunity to shine in the Confederate navy was largely a product of luck. This truth likely had something to do with Warley's determination to find "promotion or the bottom of the river".

More CWBA reviews of USC Press titles:
* Faith, Valor, and Devotion: The Civil War Letters of William Porcher DuBose and A Palmetto Boy: Civil War-Era Diaries and Letters of James Adams Tillman
* Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields: Letters of the Heyward Family, 1862-1871
* Never for Want of Powder: The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia
* Upcountry South Carolina Goes to War: Letters of the Anderson, Brockman, and Moore Families, 1853-1865
* Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio Jose Gonzales
* The Good Fight That Didn't End: Henry P. Goddard's Accounts of Civil War and Peace
* Guardian of Savannah: Fort McAllister, Georgia, in the Civil War and Beyond
* High Seas And Yankee Gunboats: A Blockade-Running Adventure From The Diary Of James Dickson
* Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina

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