Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Taaffe: "Commanding Lincoln's Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War"

[ Commanding Lincoln's Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War by Stephen R. Taaffe (Naval Institute Press, 2009). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 283/341. ISBN: 9781591148555 $37.95]

Civil War readers will recall Stephen R. Taaffe as the author of Commanding the Army of the Potomac1. While that book assessed corps leadership in the North's chief army, the author's latest study, Commanding Lincoln's Navy, takes to the seas with an overview and analysis of the performance of the navy's squadron commanders.

Taaffe's prose, pleasant and informative, will appeal to both specialist and general audiences, and his narrative is well organized, devoting roughly comparable attention to the major naval squadrons [North Atlantic, South Atlantic, East Gulf, West Gulf, Mississippi, and West India2], although it should come as no surprise that the arguably more important Atlantic and Mississippi fronts are given greater emphasis. The squadron commanders themselves are dealt with in a comprehensive manner. Each is accorded a short biographical sketch, a service history outline, and an analytical summary.

Additionally, Taaffe emphasizes the roles seniority and intra-service politics played in the appointment, support, and/or removal of squadron commanders. In fact, the author is quite complimentary in his discussion of the political and military management performance of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles (and Asst. Secretary Gustavus V. Fox)3. The manner in which Congress, at the instigation of the navy secretary, dealt with seniority -- a pressing issue which threatened to saddle the navy with superannuated leadership -- was perhaps the war's preeminent, and most underrated, example of direct legislative action facilitating the means of appointing the best and most energetic officers in a given service, regardless of previous rank. Taaffe also makes a strong case that Welles demonstrated marked growth as a cabinet secretary, with his appointments achieving demonstrably greater results over time. He could also be prickly and unfair in his treatment of his naval commanders, but the author maintains it was rarely a case of mere personal spite.

From the bibliography, one finds the usual primary and secondary source material composition. The author consulted the unpublished papers of most of the book's major players. In presentation, the study could have used more illustrations, as maps and photographs are few.

At a glance, Commanding Lincoln's Navy might appear similar in nature to Craig Symonds's Lincoln Prize-winning study published last year, but they are actually very different works that complement each other nicely4. Both books are equally worthy of a prominent place in the Civil War naval literature. Stephen Taaffe's Commanding Lincoln's Navy is an instructive narrative summary of the wartime roles of the Union navy's squadron commanders and the political world that surrounded them. It should also prove to be a useful reference guide. Recommended.

1 - Commanding the Army of the Potomac (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2006). An examination of the 36 officers that came to lead corps in the Army of the Potomac.
2 - The Pacific Squadron is dealt with only in passing. A curious omission, as it had some interesting duties.
3 - According to Taaffe, with a few notable exceptions [e.g. the promotion of Lincoln favorite John Dahlgren to South Atlantic Squadron command], the president's oversight and interference with Welles was minimal. Taaffe also seems less concerned than other historians with Fox's self-serving nature.
4 - Review of Lincoln and His Admirals (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). Symonds focuses on Lincoln, and his relationship with Welles and his admirals, to a far greater extent than Taaffe does. Taaffe's primary interest lies with Welles and the squadron commanders. In fact, one might argue that Taaffe's characterization of Lincoln as a more distant manager of naval affairs to be in conflict with the notions of Symonds on the matter.

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