Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review of Tomblin: "THE CIVIL WAR ON THE MISSISSIPPI: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign to Control the River"

[The Civil War on the Mississippi: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign to Control the River by Barbara Brooks Tomblin (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). Hardcover, map, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:292/372. ISBN:978-0-8131-6703-9. $50]

During innumerable Civil War campaigns fought along the littorals and inland waterways of the country, the army and navy of the United States formed a military partnership that was instrumental to Union victory. It was a combination the bureaucratically and industrially challenged Confederate armed forces could not match and only occasionally defeat. Nowhere was this Union might demonstrated to better effect than in the Mississippi River Valley from 1861-63. During that period, a sustained sequence of combined operations would overcome the best defensive measures the Confederacy could muster, in the process capturing multiple armies (big and small) and opening the Father of Waters to navigation from Cairo to New Orleans. Of course, contemporary observers and modern writers alike have recognized the importance of this achievement. Some classic studies on the subject exist like Fletcher Pratt's Civil War on Western Waters (1956) and John Milligan's Gunboats Down the Mississippi (1965), and more recently Jack Coombe's Thunder along the Mississippi: The River Battles that Split the Confederacy (1996), Gary Joiner's Mr. Lincoln's Brown Water Navy (2007), and Benton Rain Patterson's The Mississippi River Campaign, 1861-1863: The Struggle for Control of the Western Waters (2010) have documented the riverine war on the Mississippi. The newest addition to the arena is Barbara Brooks Tomblin's The Civil War on the Mississippi: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign to Control the River.

The Civil War literature is well known for producing a multitude of overview histories of varying size and quality for its grandest subjects, and even for many smaller events and themes. Among those dealing with the naval war on the Mississippi and its major tributaries, Tomblin's book is especially remarkable for its comprehensive coverage and depth of detail. Lengthy chapters are devoted to major campaigns like Fort Henry/Fort Donelson, Island No. 10, the passage of the New Orleans forts, Arkansas Post, and Port Hudson. Multiple book sections recount the navy's direct participation in the 1862-63 Vicksburg campaigns, and whole chapters address the Yazoo Pass and Steele's Bayous expeditions along with the subsequent bombardment of Grand Gulf. Solid treatments of the fleet battles at Plum Point Bend and Memphis are also presented in the book.

The construction, strengths and weaknesses, and operational uses of the Union's inland navy's large array of offensive tools – the timberclads, tinclads1 (though this vessel class isn't really mentioned much until the concluding summary), rams, mortar boats, and ironclads – are appropriately featured, as are Confederate countermeasures like the marine torpedo and their own river navy, the latter including the cottonclad rams featured in the fleet actions mentioned above and the ironclad CSS Arkansas (an entire chapter recounts its famous run through the Union fleet in 1862). Tomblin also documents the many human and material challenges the Union's Brown Water Navy needed to work around in order to get the job done. The ironclad vessels often handled poorly on the rivers and had defensive design weaknesses that the Confederates were able to exploit. Crews could only do so much on the scene and their ad hoc measures at covering up vulnerable areas had only minimal impact. In the main, the mortar boats, though they had their champions, never lived up to expectations. Ships of all types were also chronically short of full crews, a situation exacerbated by persistent and lengthy sick lists.

Tomblin's earlier scholarship2 focused heavily on the ways ex-slaves assisted the Union's Atlantic blockading fleets, and many of these features carry over to this book. While the navy performed extensive humanitarian work in rescuing large numbers of black refugees crowding the Mississippi's riverbanks, the fleet in turn benefited from the local knowledge of contrabands and its undermanned vessels received significant labor and crew accessions from them. In addition to participating directly in the ranks of the Union armies assaulting and besieging Confederate Mississippi River strong points like Port Hudson, black recruits also freed up veteran white troops for active operations by guarding government plantations and military depots located along the river. In regard to the latter, the book highlights the invaluable assistance the navy provided to the black and white defenders at Milliken's Bend and other places.

Basing her narrative on the ORN combined with a judicious synthesis of the secondary literature, Tomblin demonstrates a firm grasp of the current scholarship. While her Union leadership assessment and naval campaign analysis are both conventional in nature, the author's depictions of crew life and accounts of the fighting are exceptionally enhanced by the unpublished material she was able to find and incorporate into the narrative. While land campaign researchers fairly swim in available manuscript material, Civil War naval historians constantly lament the paucity of surviving diaries, journals, and letters written by the tars that manned the ships that blockaded the coast or the vessels that patrolled the rivers of the South. Though not large in the number, the fresh voices that Tomblin features in this regard add unique value to her study.

Problems are relatively few. There's only one map in the book, a rather spare theater-scale drawing showing key points mentioned in the text, so readers will have to look elsewhere to supplement their reading in this way. During the Battle of Memphis chapter, Confederate cottonclads are mistakenly called ironclads by the author (though the error is rectified in the conclusion), and the book's discussion of the origins of the Arkansas Post operation is a bit muddled. Like most studies, a few grating yet peripheral errors (ex. Confederate General John Stevens Bowen is called "James" Bowen) creep in here and there. Some fairly significant naval events also receive short shrift. For example, the battle at Head of Passes between the Union blockading fleet and the CSS Manassas is covered in just a few sentences.

Above quibbles aside, on the recommendation spectrum it wouldn't be overly bold to say that Barbara Tomblin's The Civil War on the Mississippi effectively supplants the competition when it comes to overview histories of the Union naval effort to open the Mississippi River. Beyond being a learned synthesis of a well covered topic, the book also possesses some fresh elements that even the most jaded reader can appreciate.

1 - For an exhaustive study of the tinclads, one should seek out Tinclads in the Civil War by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland, 2009). Smith is also the author of numerous other leadership, vessel, and operational studies of similar depth that deal with the Union Navy's timberclad and ironclad contingents.
2 - Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy (Kentucky, 2009).

More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth
* For Brotherhood and Duty: The Civil War History of the West Point Class of 1862
* Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase
* A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant
* The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War
* One of Morgan's Men: Memoirs of Lieutenant John M. Porter of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry
* My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans
* Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War
* Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy
* Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History
* Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee
* Kentuckians in Gray: Confederate Generals and Field Officers of the Bluegrass State
* Virginia at War, 1863
* Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

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