Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Van Tilburg: "A CIVIL WAR GUNBOAT IN PACIFIC WATERS: Life on Board USS Saginaw"

[A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw by Hans Konrad Van Tilburg (University Press of Florida, 2010). Hardcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:338/380. ISBN:978-0813035161  $69.95 ]

In the Civil War naval literature, the role of the United States Navy's Pacific Squadron always gets short shrift. No full length monograph exists, and an otherwise excellent recent study of Union naval leadership leaves out the Pacific altogether! From this, one might get the impression its ships and men did nothing important, but that would be far from the truth. Often by simply "showing the flag", the Pacific Squadron protected American citizens and interests all across that vast ocean during the Civil War years. Its vessels were also tasked with keeping an eye on the French in Mexico, as well as the political instability of Central and South America, the former especially important in the transshipment of gold. Ships also ranged up and down the U.S. coastline investigating suspected pro-Confederate political plots and attempts to outfit privateers. Far flung merchant and whaling fleets also needed protection from Confederate commerce raiders. An important element in all this was the relatively new USS Saginaw, and its fourteen year career is recounted in A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters by Hans Konrad Van Tilburg.

Constructed at Mare Island in San Francisco Bay, the U.S.'s first Pacific naval yard, and commissioned in 1856, the lightly armed Saginaw immediately joined the small group of U.S. ships stationed in Chinese and Japanese waters. There, it helped bolster American political, trade, and missionary interests, providing protection for citizens of the U.S. and other western countries threatened by China's civil conflicts and Japan's intense antipathy toward foreigners.

The Saginaw was still on station in the Far East when the American Civil War broke out, but it would be 1863 before the vessel could limp back to Mare Island for extensive upgrades and repairs. At Mare Island, it was put on alert to repel an attack on the facility by a group of Confederate sympathizers, a situation that turned out to be a non-event. The ship also traveled north to Washington Territory after it was reported that a privateer was being outfitted in Puget Sound. Similar rumors abounded for the rest of the war, but the Saginaw never did encounter a privateer face to face. However, it did transport some of the captured Confederate agents who had attempted to seize the armed steamers Salvador and Guatemala. Another wartime mission undertaken by the Saginaw was oversight of the salvage of the SS Golden Gate, which wrecked off Manzanillo, Mexico, spilling into the surf $1.4 million in gold. Other Mexican adventures included contending with incompetent consular officials and a French blockade of Mexico's Pacific ports.

Like on board was rough, with tropical disease rampant during duty in the lower climes, with "seasoning" killing or disabling many men.  Discipline was also a significant problem, with drunkenness (even with the abolition of the daily grog ration) and desertion constant companions, although the author seems to suggest that poor leadership was a contributing factor.  Van Tilburg does hint at the international and interracial flavor of the American navy's manpower, but it is somewhat unfortunate that he did not go into detail about the Saginaw's crew composition. In terms of political allegiances, the author does mention that, during on board voting for the 1864 presidential election, ten white members voted for McClellan and twenty black crewmen voted for Lincoln.

Although the book's title suggests a Civil War concentration, much more than half the text covers the Saginaw's brief post-war career, which included visits to Hawaii and an extensive exploration of Alaska. However, the events surrounding the ship's 1870 sinking at remote Kure Atoll (near Midway) is the primary focus. At the time, Midway's location was viewed with favor as a major coaling station. It is unsurprising that so much of the book is devoted to the end of the Saginaw's career, the marooning of its crew, and the dramatic rescue voyage, as Van Tilburg headed the team that discovered and documented the wreck. Its archaeological features are discussed in the book's final chapter.

While one might wish for more detail and focus on the Civil War career of the Saginaw and its crew [and the inclusion of the type of multi-view schematic ship drawing of the type common to studies of this type would have been nice], A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters nevertheless provides an excellent overview of a largely, and undeservedly, forgotten aspect of the Union navy's wartime operations. Its comprehensive summary of the variety of duties fulfilled by squadron vessels like the Saginaw is a fine contribution to our understanding of the Civil War in the Pacific theater. Hopefully, this book will inspire other scholars to study this vast area of largely untrodden ground. For those whose interests lie elsewhere, Van Tilburg's study is also a valuable historical and archaeological account of one vessel's involvement in the infant stages of the projection of U.S. power in the Pacific.


  1. Funny that you should review a book about the Saginaw. I was just in China and have written about the East India Squadron. Your post was very timely, and I referenced your review (see http://dclawyeronthecivilwar.blogspot.com/2011/01/searching-for-war-in-china-east-india.html). Perhpas you know the answer to the question I pose in the post?


  2. Hi Ron,
    I just left a comment there.



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