Saturday, February 23, 2013

Melton: "THE BEST STATION OF THEM ALL: The Savannah Squadron, 1861-1865"

[The Best Station of Them All: The Savannah Squadron, 1861-1865 by Maurice Melton (University of Alabama Press, 2012). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:436/554. ISBN:978-0-8173-1763-8 $69.95]

In recent years, academic Civil War publishers have taken a real shine to the sub-200 page study, but there will always be room for the massive tome.  Maurice Melton's The Best Station of Them All: The Savannah Squadron, 1861-1865 is certainly that. With Confederate naval squadron studies so rare [the only other full length work being John Coski's excellent Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron (Savas Woodbury, 1996)], when a historian's rare vision meets rare opportunity it is more than appropriate that no effort be spared. This study is clearly a project near and dear to the author, and University of Alabama Press also deserves a great deal of credit for offering Melton such free reign.

Though it was organized and built for the protection of one of the South's premier deep water port cities, the Savannah Squadron actually saw little in the way of heavy combat let alone brief periods of dramatic action. The early U.S. capture of port guardian Fort Pulaski severely limited the squadron's range of operations, primarily to a short stretch of Savannah River below the city and a number of rivers, creeks, and bayous surrounding a handful of adjacent sea islands.

Beginning with the Savannah Squadron's origins as a state navy composed of weakly armed converted steamers, Melton describes 1861-64 operations afloat, as well the actions of those responsible for planning, supporting, and executing them, in minute fashion. Although the roles of the auxiliary steamers (e.g. Isondiga, Sampson, Resolute, Firefly, and Macon) are fully fleshed out, the major focus is upon the ironclad vessels. The story of the CSS Atlanta, from its beginnings as the blockade runner Fingal to its ironclad conversion and embarrassing surrender to Union monitors after running aground in 1863, is related at length, as is that of the CSS Savannah. The Milledgeville was never completed, and the disappointing Georgia only serviceable as a floating battery.  Beyond the Atlanta's brief and disastrous foray, none of the other armored vessels were able to engage enemy blockading vessels in any meaningful way, and all were destroyed after the city surrendered to Sherman's approaching army in 1864.

The squadron's one bright moment, the successful small boat boarding assault and capture of the blockader USS Water Witch, is presented at great length over several chapters. Melton also covers the squadron's efforts to deny the Union army use of the ferry crossings far upriver from Savannah (as well as the skirmish at Argyle Island in December 1864). The squadron's war did not end with the destruction of its ships, however, and the book continues with accounts of the sailors's land service at Augusta, Charleston, and Wilmington before finally meeting their end at Sailor's Creek in Virginia.

In the book, there is little in the way of sociological study of the crews, but the biographical material for the officers (men like Josiah Tattnall, William McBlair, William Webb, Thomas Pelot, J.T. Scharf, and a host of others) is first rate and another of the book's major strong points. It is also through these men that readers become most acquainted with the civilian population of Savannah. Melton also describes the frustrations felt by a succession of squadron commanders, as they witnessed a constant stream of competent officers and trained sailors transferred to other commands. Instead of a destination posting, Savannah was treated like a manpower reserve for Confederate European naval missions and the Charleston and James River commands.

What's missing is a more strategic level analysis of the merits behind the CSN's port defense policy of constructing and operating expensive, resource grabbing ironclad fleets in restricted waterways with little opportunity to actually engage the enemy. It is worth discussing if a combination of land defenses, waterway obstructions, and torpedoes would have had the same effect of ironclad fleets in being bottled up in southern ports. An inland shifting of construction and shipping resources (to the Mississippi Valley for instance) might have created a more effective opposition to the Union's Brown Water Navy.  More information about the army's cooperation with the squadron would also have been enlightening. A number of forts and batteries are mentioned, but only in passing. Finally, the inclusion of only two small maps is a source of significant disappointment.

Rich in primary sources, the bibliography is outwardly impressive. The book's presentation is attractive, with numerous photographs and line drawings of each ship attached to the squadron. The Best Station of Them All is really a monumental achievement of Confederate naval scholarship. It touches quite usefully upon a great variety of subjects. On the Confederate side, Melton's study bridges a significant gap in the military history of Civil War Savannah and materially adds to our knowledge and understanding of Confederate shipbuilding technology, industry, and blockade running. It also comprises an important supplement to existing works, like those of Robert Browning, detailing the Union naval blockade and amphibious operations along the Confederacy's Atlantic coast. Highly recommended.

More CWBA reviews of UA Press titles:
* By the Noble Daring of Her Sons: The Florida Brigade of the Army of Tennessee
* Tried Men and True, or Union Life in Dixie
* The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham
* Trailing Clouds of Glory: Zachary Taylor's Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders
* A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
* Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War
* Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861
* Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat
* Camp Chase and the Evolution of Civil War Prison Policy
* Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida's Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 (Fire Ant)
* Civil War Weather in Virginia
* From Conciliation to Conquest
* Like Grass Before the Scythe
* Navy Gray
* Sherman's Mississippi Campaign
* Confederate Florida (Fire Ant)

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