Tuesday, July 27, 2010


[Union Combined Operations in the Civil War edited by Craig L. Symonds (Fordham University Press, 2010).  Cloth, maps, notes, index. 176 Pages. ISBN: 978-0-8232-3296-4 $45]

The ten essays presented in Union Combined Operations in the Civil War spawned from a conference at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. In contributor and general editor Craig L. Symonds's introduction, he raises critical operational, organizational, and leadership issues that popped up again and again during the Civil War, one or more of which made the difference between success and failure in a long string of Union combined operations spanning the entire war. These are a lack of unified command, flaws in communication, and absence of doctrinal structures for defining areas of responsibility. At their core, the defining feature of successful operations were cordial cooperation between local army and navy heads, simple to ask for but immensely difficult to execute. Symonds also mentions the only book to study Union combined operations as a whole, Rowena Reed's Combined Operations in the Civil War (1978), which he believes promoted valid points but was nevertheless seriously flawed by the author's enamorment with the genius of General George McClellan.

The first two chapters deal with the 1862 Burnside expedition that captured much of Confederate North Carolina's seaports, forts and coastline.  David Long's essay is more of a descriptive account, one that demonstrates Ambrose Burnside able planning, organizing, and execution of the wildly successful campaign, as well as the general's smooth working relationship with his naval counterpart.  David Scaggs's follow-up is more of an analytical piece, arguing that historians have not appreciated enough the strategic possibilities of Burnside's occupation of eastern North Carolina. While he, like Rowena Reed, appreciates McClellan's strategic vision on the matter, he is critical of the general's refusal to detach from the main army the men and resources required to advance and hold indefinitely inland points astride enemy lines of supply and communication in North Carolina.  However, much of this line of argument is flawed. Before assigning all the blame to McClellan, perhaps a re-examination of the timeline is in order. Lincoln relieved McClellan of his duties as general in chief (reverting the general to command of the Army of the Potomac only) on March 11, a date by which Burnside had not yet captured even New Bern, Beaufort, and Fort Macon (which fell on April 26). Thus, perhaps it is a bit unfair to hold McClellan solely or even largely responsible for unwillingness to exploit Burnside's gains.

By the time of the Civil War, there was no body of officers specially trained in planning and coordinating combined operations, but Mark Snell's piece highlights the impressive performance of engineering officer Major Barton Alexander, the central figure in the successful amphibious operation at Eltham's Landing during the Peninsula Campaign. Snell notes that, in addition to excellent leadership at the subordinate level, sea-land communications were unusually effective during the landing. For the same campaign, Robert Sheridan offers his analysis of the Drewry's Bluff battle, one that failed because it was not conceived as a combined operation (difficult as that maybe have been given the distance involved and force required to maintain the position).

John Fisher's essay summarizes Union combined operations along the length of the Texas coastline, reinforcing a central theme of the book that the single most important factor determining success or failure was the level of cooperative spirit between army and navy commanders. Of course, Confederate weakness always helped, and Union efforts in seizing the barrier islands and the mouth of the Rio Grande River benefited from this. Francis DuCoin's Charleston article also highlights failure as a consequence of interservice jealousy and lack of cooperation. The army-navy command teams of Hunter-Du Pont and Gillmore-Dahlgren could never see eye to eye or subordinate personal prerogatives enough to exploit the several reasonable opportunities to capture the city that arose between 1861 and 1863.

However, some progress was made, with Craig Symonds's article finding that some of the institutional barriers to unified command were breaking down by the end of the war. Along the James River in 1864, navy commanders were allowing themselves to be directed by Grant. Increased late-war efficiency is also demonstrated in Chris Fonvielle's chapter, where failure in 1864 was converted to ultimate success in 1865 with the capture of both Fort Fisher and Wilmington; but, once again, command change rather than structural or doctrinal improvement was the leading factor.

In his chapter assessing British reactions, Howard Fuller found that their analysis of U.S. Navy attacks on fortified Confederate cities, most particularly Charleston, led the Royal Navy to reassess its own strategy of relying on its deep water fleet capability for rapid, decisive strikes against enemy coastal targets. However, while reports about the success of American fortifications, heavy guns, and obstructions raised concern, none of this was enough to spark British development of littoral strike forces. The old system was sustained.

Finally, Edward Wiser concludes the volume with a fine essay contextualizing the Union's Civil War land-sea effort within the entire length of U.S. military history, citing the failure to create any kind of institutionalized combined operations doctrine, even after witnessing the effectiveness of the Vera Cruz landing in 1847. Perhaps its profound success made leaders complacent. Wiser also does a good job of recapping the problems raised in the previous essays. He also goes further than any of the others in citing Lincoln's failure to develop a unified command structure for combined operations and the seriousness of its consequences. The president clearly saw the problem personally on the James River in 1862, yet did nothing to change it. It was a major failure on the part of the commander-in-chief, and lack of precedent cannot be an excuse as Wiser cites temporary codified army-navy command arrangements that were developed during the War of 1812. According to the writer, there is simply no reason why a brilliant leader willing to aggressively push radical systemic changes on social and political fronts could not also have done so with the army and navy, yet nearly all historians of Lincoln as commander-in-chief give the president a pass on such a glaring failure. It's a powerful argument.

Union Combined Operations in the Civil War is a most welcome set of essays, both a wide ranging general introduction to the subject and a series of deft analyses of specific joint actions. It is also an excellent example of effectively converting academic conference presentations into publishable essay form, a credit to Craig Symonds. This book is highly recommended.

See also from this publisher:
* Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians
* Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory


  1. I really need to get a copy of this book in the next month or two. Aside from it being in my area of expertise, Symonds is going to be the keynote speaker at the NC Maritime History Conference the first weekend in October. I will be presenting a paper at that conference and I will definitely have to get him to sign the book (along with my copy of "Lincoln and His Admirals" of course). Thanks for posting this review!

    Andrew Duppstadt

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for writing. Is your paper going to be Rev or CivWar related?

  3. I'll be doing a presentation on John Taylor Wood's February 1864 expedition against the USS Underwriter. Since the conference is being hosted in New Bern, NC they organizers asked if I could do a presentation that related to New Bern, which is why I chose to talk about the Underwriter expedition.


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