Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review - "Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Operations in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865" by Neil Chatelain

[Defending the Arteries of Rebellion: Confederate Naval Operations in the Mississippi River Valley, 1861-1865 by Neil P. Chatelain (Savas Beatie, 2020). Hardcover, 8 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,304/334. ISBN:978-1-61121-510-6. $32.95]

It is easy to see why the Union "Brown Water Navy" dominates the western and Trans-Mississippi naval literature of the Civil War. Though there were a number of isolated setbacks, federal gunboats and oceanic vessels effectively swept their enemy counterparts from all major inland waterways and forged indispensable combined operations partnerships during innumerable Union Army campaigns. With book, essay, and article publication of Confederate officer biographies, ship and squadron histories, and both ship vs. ship and ship vs. shore engagement studies, the other side of the story has not been neglected altogether, but it is rare to encounter a theater or national-level examination of Confederate naval operations and strategy. Readers are treated to just that kind of uncommon contribution in Neil Chatelain's excellent new book Defending the Arteries of Rebellion.

The heart of Chatelain's narrative is a skillfully organized description and analysis of Confederate naval operations on the Mississippi River and its vast system of tributaries and deltas. Combining his own manuscript research with a solid grounding in the published literature, the author traces the fortunes of Confederate naval power from initial planning in February 1861 through the final surrender of the Red River ironclad C.S.S. Missouri on June 3, 1865. Coverage of squadron-level engagements and smaller ship vs. ship battles is comprehensive with detail suitable to an overview of this length. The geographical breadth of the study extends beyond the length of the Mississippi River south of Cairo to nearby coastal sounds of Louisiana and Mississippi. Given how well these major naval actions have already been addressed in the literature, often on a standalone basis that includes many excellent book-length treatments, seamless synthesis is the chief value that Chatelain brings to his descriptive chronology of events.

Hand in hand with the comprehensive operational narrative referenced above is the author's perceptive analysis of why western inland Confederate naval forces experienced such rapid defeat. While CSN ships operating in ones and twos were able to score impressive tactical victories throughout much of the conflict, squadron-scale Confederate gunboat and ram fleets were largely swept out of organized existence by the middle of 1862. This is commonly attributed to Union superiority in industry, manpower, and resources, but Chatelain correctly points out that those disparities (extreme though they were) do not adequately explain the scale and rapidity of Confederate defeat. The author recognizes that it was the aggressive urgency displayed by U.S. naval and civilian leadership in placing high priority on early-war combined offensives on both ends of the Mississippi that most robbed the enemy of the time needed to complete their New Orleans, Memphis, and Tennessee River ironclad programs. The rapid seizure of the best naval construction facilities at New Orleans, Memphis, and other places also meant that Confederate plans for a second generation of river ironclad projects had to be scaled back tremendously. The author also effectively demonstrates how the disjointed and indecisive manner in which Confederate authorities handled those concurrent threats on both ends of the Mississippi led to comprehensive defeat. Chatelain very clearly highlights several moments in the western river war when constantly shifting priorities regarding upriver and downriver defenses resulting in key Confederate naval assets being absent at decisive moments.

Chatelain does credit Confederate authorities for early recognition of the need for a powerful inland navy. Additionally, their proactive adoption of a defense plan that combined both land fortifications (to be augmented by mine and obstruction innovations) and gunboat fleets was sound. What is most questioned by the author and others is how scarce resources were distributed. Some sort of stop-gap measure in the form of wooden gunboat conversions was necessary until ironclads could be finished, but the vast (by Confederate standards) investment of money, military manpower, guns, labor, materials, and technical expertise directed toward building or converting large numbers of civilian steam vessels (many of which turned out to be near useless as naval combat ships) into wooden warships directly competed with ironclad construction programs that were themselves scrambling for limited iron, skilled craftsmen, mechanics, and materials of all kinds. Exacerbating the resource scarcity issue even more was the top-level competition between Confederate, state, and even private fleet construction and investment. All of these factors resulted in critical time delays in ironclad construction. Excluding the civilian-built Manassas, only one ironclad out of the five vessels comprising the first wave of construction (the C.S.S. Arkansas) became full operational. The rest were lost, and, even worse, the uncompleted Eastport was captured and converted into a Union ironclad. One can easily imagine an alternate reality of a dangerous squadron of Confederate ironclads operating in the open rivers of the West had even a slightly more timid Union naval leadership and approach been taken there.

In addition to highly questionable resource allocation, Confederate contributions to the loss of New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi River Valley extended to leadership. As demonstrated in the book, there was consistently poor coordination between the army and navy during the most critical early war period in the West, with no Confederate partnerships emerging that were analogous to the hearty ones forged by the other side. Command within naval forces was also divided. Though Confederate authorities were able to unilaterally seize some important ships (such as the ironclad Manassas) for their use, the fact remained that no centralized control over Confederate, state, and private ships was ever fully established. As Chatelain shows, Commodore George Hollins was the closest the Confederates went toward appointing a single commander to coordinate Mississippi River operations, but Hollins's independent authority was still limited and he ended up getting relieved at a particularly inopportune time.

In Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, readers finally have a worthy Confederate companion to the many studies of Union naval operations along the Mississippi River. In addition to providing a uniquely comprehensive survey of Confederate naval operations, the volume very astutely gets to the heart of the many internal factors that lay behind the CSN's catastrophic failure to defend the strategic waterways of the Mississippi River Valley. In this study, author Neil Chatelain conclusively demonstrates that, while Confederate ships would continue to score occasional tactical successes, greater aspirations of maintaining permanent control over any major stretch of the Mississippi was essentially rendered impossible by the decisions and events of 1861-62.


  1. Thanks so much for the thorough review! I greatly appreciate the kind words.

  2. Good thorough review. Thanks Drew for sharing.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.