Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Review - "Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy" by Barbara Tomblin

[Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy by Barbara Brooks Tomblin (Naval Institute Press, 2019). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,240/325. ISBN:978-1-68247-118-0. $54]

Even after taking into account the fact that the total number of sailors who served in the Union and Confederate navies was almost tiny when measured against the millions of soldiers that took the field, comprehensive exploration of what life was like aboard Civil War fighting vessels remains underrepresented in the literature. Less than a handful of Union studies of this type exist, and arguably none of similar scope have been produced for the Confederate side until now with the publication of Barbara Brooks Tomblin's Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy.

With armies prioritized from the start, both navies struggled with meeting their manpower needs. Not surprisingly, the problem was much more acute for the CSN, which basically had to start from scratch. By the time large numbers of sailors could be employed on newly commissioned vessels, many individuals with prior nautical experience were already in the army and authorities there were understandably reluctant to approve transfers. In the early chapters of the book, Tomblin informatively covers the recruitment, enlistment, and induction processes. According to the author's figures, peak strength eventually hovered around 5,000 men. Interestingly, unlike the Confederate Army, the navy had regulations in place that allowed free blacks and slaves to serve on vessel crews (to be employed as pilots, servants, coal heavers, landsmen, and ordinary sailors) as long as the ratio did not exceed 1 to 5. More specifically, the Savannah Squadron capped black service at 5% of total strength. However, in what would become a common theme throughout the book, surviving Confederate naval records are far too incomplete to come to any conclusion on whether the reality ever approached those proportions. Foreign citizens were another source of manpower, particularly for service aboard commerce raiders.

Another chapter discusses the acclimation process of raw recruits into naval culture and shipboard routine. Contemporary observers frequently noted that Confederate ships did not exhibit expected levels of discipline and order. While many of these negative statements were made by Union captives and understandably disgruntled prize ship passengers, Confederates themselves frequently lamented the loose manner in which many of their ships were run and often ascribed the result to the scarcity of proven officers and the high proportion among ship crews of foreign enlistees lacking patriotic motivation.

Most Confederate naval officers keenly recognized the value of maintaining morale through generous shore leave and various kinds of onboard entertainment, and these important ways of relieving crew stress and boredom are highlighted. How discipline was enforced and punishments meted out for offenses large and small are also discussed at some length in the book. While hard numbers are not available for comparison to the U.S. Navy's rate of six percent, desertion did prove to be major problem in the Confederate Navy. The loss of already scarce manpower was not the only negative consequence, too, as deserters proved to be vital sources of information for the enemy.

As one would suspect, disease killed far more Confederate sailors than enemy action, and medical care (both on ship and in naval hospitals established ashore) is another major focus of the book. Once again statistical data is generally unavailable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that officers and sailors suffered and died from the same maladies that affected soldiers on land, with additional problems like scurvy when undertaking especially long ocean cruises.

The experience of naval combat is also addressed in Tomblin's study. A trio of chapters examine Confederate naval actions fought along coastal sounds, rivers, and the deep ocean. Coverage is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather limited to representative sampling of fighting by Confederate ironclads, wooden "mosquito fleets," and commerce raiders. These examples, greatly enhanced by numerous firsthand accounts, offers readers a good sense of the CSN's range of operations. In her consideration of Confederate submarine, torpedo boat, and mine warfare technology, Tomblin also appropriately emphasizes Confederate innovation as a frequently effective countermeasure to overwhelming Union naval might.

Confederate naval personnel manned batteries onshore and later in the war formed infantry units that served alongside their army comrades. These ad-hoc aspects of naval service are covered in the book, as are the travails of captured personnel. Apparently, few POW camp accounts written by Confederate sailors exist, but those that do tell of experiences similar to those of army comrades in the service.

As repeatedly mentioned above, the body of record data that would allow more complex statistical analysis of many important aspects of Confederate naval service is unavailable to researchers; however, through focused archival research and skilled synthesis of the current literature, Tomblin is nevertheless able to piece together a richly expansive portrait of officer and sailor life at sea and on land. A very useful addressing of a neglected topic, Life In Jefferson Davis' Navy is highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds very interesting. Confederate naval affairs have always interested me and I think I will pick this one up.

    We have an interesting book coming in the spring by Neil Chatelain on Confederate defense of the inland rivers (Arteries of Rebellion). I am anxious to get it out.


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