Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Review - "After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865" by Myron Smith

[After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865 by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,252/327. ISBN:978-1-4766-7220-5. $49.95]

In now nine major Civil War books published in rapid succession over a fifteen-year period, Tusculum University emeritus library director and professor Myron Smith has documented in unprecedented fashion the stories of the builders, machines, men, and operations involved in the 1861-65 naval war conducted along the Mississippi River and its major tributaries. While what came to be called the US Navy's Mississippi Squadron is understandably Smith's primary focus, both sides have received ample attention in the series. The latest volume, After Vicksburg: The Civil War on Western Waters, 1863-1865, weaves together threads previously explored in Smith's other books with large amounts of new information.

By the end of the first half of the western naval war, a transition accentuated by the Union army and navy's capture of the Vicksburg and Port Hudson river fortresses and their clearing out of the Yazoo Delta, remaining Confederate resistance in the form of capital ship threats and support facilities capable of producing them had been largely eliminated. That next phase of the river war, which would last until the end of the conflict, would be characterized almost entirely by ship versus shore engagements of all kinds, and those matters are the focal point of this study.

Much of the material covered in the book (especially big topics such as the US naval operation that accompanied the army's push up the Red River in 1864) has been explored before in bits and pieces spread across numerous published monographs, book chapters, and articles, but After Vicksburg is the first noteworthy attempt at compiling and addressing this information in a single volume. In remarkably detailed fashion, Smith explores actions fought all across the Mississippi Squadron's area of operations, a vast area through which the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, White, and Red rivers, along a host of lesser waterways, ran. Without enough remaining armed vessels to directly confront the United States's "Brown Water Navy" during this 1863-65 period, Confederate forces were largely reduced to interdiction efforts conducted by both regular and irregular forces. As Smith recounts at length, that combination did achieve some notable successes in harassing armed vessels, interfering with civilian trade, and capturing or destroying army logistical support shipping. However, as Smith and other writers note, those achievements were isolated and fleeting in nature. Confederate interdiction forces simply did not possess the resources (or high command support) necessary to seize control of any important stretch of river for more than a brief time.

Much has been written about the strengths and weaknesses of the army department and district systems of military administration employed by both sides, but far less attention has been paid to the districts comprising the Mississippi Squadron's interconnected command network. Each was headed by a trusted officer who operated semi-autonomously under a certain set of rules, one of the most important being that ships could not leave one district for another without permission from above. Smith's positive assessment agrees with those who have argued that the system worked as designed, making sure that none of the major western rivers was undefended for significant periods of time. Exceptions were few, but notable. For example, Smith is justifiably critical of the unprecedented concentration of naval forces assembled for the 1864 Red River Campaign, as that action placed the entire district defense system in disarray until those vessels returned to their stations. As a whole, though, effective Union naval district coordination across the West and Trans-Mississippi succeeded admirably in thwarting both interdicting forces and more grandiose enemy plans aimed at moving men and supplies across major rivers.

Far from scaling back their own efforts upon the successful neutralization of the Confederacy's western river fleets, the Union naval presence there was continually expanded from an original six districts to eleven (and new vessel construction continued apace). That process is thoroughly documented in the book. Smith's discussion of the creation of a new flotilla of gunboats above Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River, a remarkable feat completed quickly and without the benefit of existing shipyard facilities, demonstrates both the strategic prioritization that the US placed in its western navy and the economic, industrial, and transportation might that went into it. In addition to some well-documented events such as the aforementioned Red River Campaign, the destructive Confederate attack on the Union logistical base at Johnsonville, and a few others, Smith's book offers excellent coverage of a great many obscure military actions involving US ships and Confederate ground forces. The claim that After Vicksburg contains more Upper Cumberland and Upper Tennessee river naval affairs information in one place than any other publication is almost certainly correct.

The end of the conflict and the demobilization of the Mississippi Squadron is also addressed in the book. Though one might have hoped for a bit more information about the last remaining major Confederate naval facility at Shreveport (especially given the enduring controversy over exactly what classes of ships and in what numbers were present there), Smith does delve into the capture of the last surviving Confederate ironclad, the Shreveport-based CSS Missouri, which was stationed on the Red River and surrendered to advancing Union forces at the end of the war. In the time-honored tradition of nineteenth and early twentieth-century American wars, western naval demobilization was far reaching and incredibly rapid. Smith recounts the collection of military shipping at designated points where the boats were stripped of armaments and armor before being immediately auctioned off to eager buyers. Though a more in-depth examination of the Mississippi Squadron's end phase is beyond the scope of this book, Smith strongly hints that those big-event auctions, in which hundreds of steamboats were sold at often rock-bottom prices, proved to be a major factor in stimulating postwar commercial revitalization and regional economic recovery.

As is the case with all of Smith's books, the research that went into this volume is impressive in the number and variety of primary and secondary sources utilized. Both the extensive endnotes and the book's nearly thirty-page biography are wonderful resources in themselves. Limited map support is the least appealing hallmark of Smith's naval histories, and we see that deficiency here as well. On the other hand, the book's pages are stuffed with a substantial photographic record of ships and men along with numerous contemporary illustrations.

After Vicksburg is the only truly comprehensive account of the much less heralded, but no less important, second half of the Civil War as it was fought afloat and alongside the West's vast river network. That marks it as one of the most essential of Smith's many in-depth contributions to the conflict's naval literature. Highly recommended.

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