Monday, July 31, 2006

Coski: "Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron"

[Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron by John M. Coski (Savas Beatie: El Dorado Hills, CA., 2005). Softcover, photos, illustrations, maps, notes, ironclad drawings, softcover, pp. 366, ISBN 1-932714-15-4)]

Author John M. Coski is certainly correct in mentioning the burgeoning number of Civil War navy related works (esp. Confederate) that have surfaced since Capital Navy was published in 1996 by Savas Woodbury Publishers. He is also right to assert that his earlier work still stands the test of time (by the way, the author includes a note stating that the new paperback edition is a straight reprint of the original hardback with no additions. I wish more publishers would include such declarations, as I am always interested if new material is included, but feel it is just as important to mention to prospective buyers that the new edition is the same as the old).

For the most part, readers expecting a book full of stirring naval battles will not find them here. Stalemate reigned throughout most of the war. The James River Squadron was really only involved in two significant or potentially significant engagements--an aborted Confederate naval attack in early 1865 (Trent's Reach) and a ship-vs-shore engagement in 1862 at Drewry's Bluff (even then the relative contributions of army and navy to Confederate victory were hotly disputed). Coski does not attempt a micro history of the squadron's fights, but he does provide well-written summaries backed up by several helpful visual aids (some more fine maps by Mark A. Moore). A suggested source for those seeking more detail dealing with Drewry's Bluff is Ed Bearss' River of Lost Opportunities.

The core of Capital Navy is a well-researched history of the Confederate military-industrial center on the James River, and the civilians, officers, and men who supported its operation of building and maintaining the CSA's naval presence in Virginia. The navy's torpedo program is also discussed in some detail. Combined with the heavy use of channel obstructions, torpedoes contributed greatly to the lack of decisive action on the upper James after the Union navy was turned back at Drewry's Bluff. Coski keenly analyzes the successes and failures of the Confederate naval programs, along with the political, economic, and military factors behind them.

Coski's paperback is beautifully presented by Savas-Beatie. Aside from the maps mentioned before, each chapter ends with a full-captioned photo gallery and many of the images cannot be found in any other publication. A nice bonus was the inclusion of detailed, multi-angle drawings of the squadron's ironclads (the details are speculative to some degree, however, as complete blueprints did not survive the war).

Although certain elements of the Richmond naval experience can likely be read about in more detail elsewhere (or will be written about in the future), Capital Navy is as broad a history of the James River Squadron as we are likely to get. His book may be modest in length but, backed by an impressive range of research, Coski has included just about every subject of conceivable relevance to his study of the Confederate capital's naval defenders at a level of detail that will likely satisfy any interested reader. Capital Navy is highly recommended reading for Civil War naval scholars and enthusiasts.

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