Saturday, May 10, 2008

Smith: "Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander"

[ Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland ph.800-253-2187, 2007) 7x10 case binding hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total: 358/424. ISBN: 978-0786429752 $55 ]

Mid-level navy officers, especially those that plied the western river systems and contributed mightily to the ultimate success of the U.S. war effort, comprise a neglected segment of Civil War biographical scholarship. Happily, Myron J. Smith's fine military biography of Indianan Le Roy Fitch goes a long way toward remedying the situation. Bookended by chapters covering the subject's early years and postwar career, Smith's main narrative is a broadly inclusive, and incredibly detailed, recounting and analysis of Fitch's Civil War naval service.

Le Roy Fitch made a name for himself with the organization and protection of supply convoys up the Cumberland River after the fall of Nashville. In addition to the Cumberland, he also conducted successful counter-guerrilla operations along the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. For his book Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander, author Myron Smith has researched and recounted these actions in such depth as to place all future investigators of the logistics of the 1862-1864 western campaigns in his debt. Smith highlights the unpredictable nature of these rivers as supply conduits, and the lack of appreciation by high ranking army officers [especially William S. Rosecrans, and to a lesser extent Grant] for the natural and man-made difficulties to be overcome.

In addition to suppressing attacks by guerrillas and guarding supply convoys, Fitch also played a pivotal role in trapping John Hunt Morgan's raiders near Buffington Island in July 18631. Smith's account of the navy's critical contribution to Morgan's defeat is the most detailed I've come across, and will likely be a bibliographical mainstay of future historians of the "Great Raid". The next year Fitch commanded a failed relief force at Johnsonville, but later performed admirably in breaking up Confederate attempts at blockading the Cumberland during Hood's Tennessee campaign.

With brief interludes, tinclad commands characterized Fitch's Civil War naval career, and, viewed through this lens, Smith's study might also be considered a treatise2 on the capabilities and operational use of this gunboat class on western waters. Performing the lion's share of patrolling, escorting, and reconnaissance duties during the war, the tinclads were the true workhorses of the Brown Water Navy.

Smith's research and explanatory endnotes are extensive. His heavy use of internet sources for general background information (e.g. Wikipedia) might be questionable; but, overall, the author consulted a satisfying range of source materials (including manuscripts, newspapers, government records, theses, books, and articles in a lengthy bibliography). Concerns with the book center around editing and presentation issues. While a nice array of illustrations were included, there are too many typos, and the archival map reproductions are lacking in number and detail commensurate with the text.

Above complaints aside, Smith's study is one of the more important additions to the Civil War naval literature in recent years. Beyond providing a solid account of the life and career of a neglected, yet important officer, Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander makes numerous original contributions to the study of riverine combat and logistics in the western theater.

1 - Frequent citing of Horwitz (in the text, consistently misspelled as Horowitz) would not be my first choice for background information on the raid, but that incidental material is largely divorced from the naval aspects presented in the forefront.
2 - This book is surely one of the more remarkable specialized CW naval histories available, at a degree of detail that's unusually dense. At 424 pages, Smith's study is much lengthier than the publisher's typical CW-related offering. Additionally, the print on the book's 7 x 10 pages is closely packed and relatively small. It's a big study for the serious student.

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