Monday, December 15, 2014

McCaul: "TO RETAIN COMMAND OF THE MISSISSIPPI: The Civil War Naval Campaign for Memphis"

[To Retain Command of the Mississippi: The Civil War Naval Campaign for Memphis by Edward B. McCaul Jr. (University of Tennessee Press, 2014). Cloth, maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:186/270. ISBN:9781621900887 $55]

Given the strategic importance of the Upper Mississippi Valley, it is surprising that the naval struggles for control of this vital stretch of river have not received more attention in the literature. Given the rarity of true squadron versus squadron battles during the Civil War and the fact that two gunboat clashes of this scale were fought in close succession in this naval theater at Plum Point and Memphis, the neglect becomes rather extraordinary. Finally addressing this deficiency head on is Edward McCaul's To Retain Command of the Mississippi: The Civil War Naval Campaign for Memphis, the first book length study of these events.

Partisans of both sides early on recognized the need for strong naval forces on the western waterways and large (and expensive) public and private initiatives went toward their creation. Unfortunately, this unity of thought did not extend to unity of command. During the period covered in the book (The Battle of Plum Point was fought on May 10, 1862 and Memphis on June 6) there were essentially four navies operating independently on the Upper Mississippi. Two Union forces, the Western Flotilla of timberclads and ironclads (commanded by US Navy Commodore Charles H. Davis but accountable to the US Army) and volunteer Colonel Charles Ellet's ram fleet directly answerable to Secretary of War Stanton, were opposed by the same number of Confederate commands, with Captain Joseph E. Montgomery's River Defense Fleet operating independent of the regular Confederate Navy, its vessels on the Mississippi commanded by Captain George N. Hollis. Fortunately for the Union, this potentially harmful arrangement did not derail successful operations. It was worse for the far more materially limited Confederates, who could not coordinate their defense of the upper and lower flanks of the Mississippi, leaving the River Defense Fleet to fight alone at Plum Point and Memphis.

Detailed design specifications don't exist for many of the vessels that fought at Plum Point and Memphis, but McCaul deftly points the reader toward the general strengths of weaknesses of the gunboats and how these would be positively and negatively exploited in the upcoming battles. For instance, the unarmored rear of the federal City Class ironclads and their inability to operate sufficiently in reverse, increased vulnerability during downstream movement. At Memphis, in order to hold their position in line, they had to present their backs to the Confederate ram fleet. However, they cleverly deployed in water too shallow for the deeper draft Confederate rams to enter. On the other side, the combat effectiveness of the River Defense Fleet at Plum Point was significantly enhanced by M. Jeff Thompson's trained gunners and upper deck sharpshooters and their later absence at Memphis was sorely felt. The ironclads's dominant features have already been thoroughly discussed in the literature but the book's critical examination of the combat effectiveness of the ram fleets tell an underappreciated story. Ellet's modifications transforming civilian vessels into formidable weapons of war gained the grudging respect of turf conscious navy professionals and the Confederate rams, popularly regarded as "cottonclads," similarly benefited from engineering expertise with vital control and propulsion components protected by reinforced wooden beams and railroad iron. The element of surprise combined with the ram's superior speed and maneuverability would prove fatal to ironclads on more than one occasion during the war.

With Plum Point only lasting between thirty minutes and sixty minutes and Memphis around two hours, the battle narratives are necessarily brief but tightly written affairs. McCaul skillfully traces the action on a ship by ship basis while always reminding readers of the insurmountable boundaries imposed by the river itself through its physical course and currents as well as channel location and width. The clarity of these accounts are greatly enhanced by a series of line drawings depicting the location of each vessel at short battle intervals, all superimposed over the backdrop of constraining river features mentioned above.

Through many long stretches of the narrative, the chief (and often only) reference is the ORN but other sections are supported by a comparatively small but broad range of source categories (mostly published). Apparently, manuscript material for these battles does not exist in any abundance, especially from the Confederate perspective.

The author's command assessments are largely positive in nature. With the narrow channel forcing the ironclads of Davis's flotilla to go into battle one behind the other, the Union commander allowed himself to be surprised at Plum Point, with two ironclads struck and badly damaged by Confederate rams. Complete disaster was averted as their captains were able to reach shallow water and both beached vessels were quickly raised and back in action within weeks, a remarkable achievement. At Memphis a few weeks later, the ironclads were outfitted with extra ramming defense measures and Davis took advantage of a wider river to deploy his ironclads abreast in a more mutually supportive formation. Ellet's impetuous charge through the ironclad line fatally disrupted Montgomery's formation, his two rams disabling three opponents and rendering the Confederates helpless against the approaching ironclads. McCaul's view of Montgomery as an unjustly forgotten Civil War naval figure seems justified. It's difficult to find much fault in his dispositions at either battle, though McCaul feels that it might have been a mistake to position the slower, heavier rams toward the rear of the Confederate line at Plum Point (where they never got into action). Bad luck figured prominently at Memphis, with a friendly fire collision and an ill timed engine failure quickly ending Confederate hopes of dealing crushing blows of their own. A logistics blunder (Mansfield Lovell refused to ship a full supply of coal to the River Defense Fleet) also limited Montgomery's operational options. After Memphis, Montgomery is justifiably criticized for discharging all of his surviving manpower instead of making these experienced river men available to other naval commands like that of the CSS Arkansas.

The book contains an informative supplementary chapter examining the broader picture of rams and ram technology within world naval history. Appendices include brief vessel histories, capsule biographies of the commanders, and a chapter length outline of William R. Hoel's Civil War career as a volunteer naval officer and one of the few non-professionals uniformly respected by regular navy peers. In addition to the Plum Point and Memphis battle diagrams mentioned above, McCaul also made use of the well known Simplot engravings (several of which grace the jacket cover), interpreting their content and accuracy.

The Confederate stand at Memphis is often viewed in the literature as an almost suicidal gesture, but McCaul renews a strong argument for the effectiveness of steam rams versus ironclad vessels and his book persuasively enjoins readers to see the result of the struggle between the contending navies as far from predetermined. Even if outright Confederate victory at Memphis was unlikely, a surviving "fleet in being" could have significantly delayed for many months co-dependent Union land and river operations along the Mississippi and its tributaries. According to the author, the loss of the River Defense Fleet was a much greater blow than the surrender of Memphis itself, an arguable point for sure but not one to be dismissed. In addition to providing solid descriptive accounts of Plum Point and Memphis, To Retain Command of the Mississippi effectively reminds scholar and enthusiast alike of the pivotal nature of the spring 1862 naval battles that decided who would control the upper gateway to the Mississippi River Valley.

More CWBA reviews of UT Press titles:
* Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi - Volume 1: Essays on America's Civil War
* Rethinking Shiloh: Myth and Memory
* Ruined by This Miserable War: The Dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet, a French Diplomat in New Orleans, 1863-1868
* The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee
* To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond: Stabilization and Reconstruction in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1864-1866
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 3: Essays on America's Civil War
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War
* Great Things Are Expected of Us: The Letters of Colonel C. Irvine Walker, 10th South Carolina Infantry, C.S.A.
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War
* Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South
* Yale's Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary
* The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged
* The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion
* Echoes of Thunder: A Guide to the Seven Days Battles
* Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863–1864
* Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River
* Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West

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