Raiders & Blockaders: The American Civil War Afloat & USS New Ironsides in the Civil War. – Review – book review
Wayne J. Rowe
Still, William N., Jr., John M. Taylor, and Norman C. Delaney. Raiders & Blockaders: The American Civil War Afloat. New York: Brassey’s, 1998. 263pp. $16.95
Roberts, William H. USS New Ironsides in the Civil War. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999. 2O9pp. $49.95
Mention of the American Civil War invokes images preserved for us by Matthew Brady–the encampments, the battlefields, and the aftereffects of the battle–in short, images of conflict on land. Somewhere in our education we viewed the portraits of famous generals like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, who led Confederate and Union armies. We studied the major battles of Gettysburg and Antietam, and the surrender at Appomattox. We were made to understand the moral struggles confronted by President Abraham Lincoln and the reasons for his Emancipation Proclamation. The works of many fine authors have chronicled all these events. Yet rare is the mention of naval action. An avid reader of the war may be able to identify the four most famous naval battles (Mobile Bay, New Orleans, the battle between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, and the engagement between the USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama), but little thereafter. Until recently there has been a lack of research on this topic, but within the last two years, new attention has been given to the U.S. Navy and the Civil War.
Raiders & Blockaders: The American Civil War Afloat is an excellent primer of Civil War naval history. While its depth of material is good, it is its breadth that makes it stand out.
Three dedicated Civil War naval historians have written nineteen essays for this collection. Thoroughly researched and well documented, these accounts take the reader from the lively action of major battles to the details of small engagements; from the vivid accounts of famous admirals to tales of the average sailor. Each is written and illustrated in a style that is easy and enjoyable to read. Fifteen essays have appeared elsewhere, in the Naval War College Review, Civil War Times Illustrated, and America’s Civil War. While all the famous men and their engagements have been included, it is the mention of little-known facts, perhaps about the Confederate ironclad CSS S Louisiana or the feisty Union admiral Louis Goldsborough, that sets this book apart from others.
Bernard Brodie, eminent scholar on world politics and military policy, and thought by many to be the founder of modern strategic theory, wrote this about the Civil War: “For the first time the achievements of the industrial and scientific revolution were used on a large scale in war.” “Technology Afloat,” by William N. Still, Jr., the fourth essay in Raiders & Blockaders, examines how new inventions and key technologies were incorporated into naval warfare in the 1860s. Among these were the adoption of steam propulsion on warships and the developments in naval ordnance, such as shell guns, improvements in interior ballistics, rifling, and the transition to breech loading. In addition, while mine warfare, undersea warfare, and ironclad warships were not new in the 1860s, the Civil War became a proving ground for these new ships and weapons. The origins of many of today’s weapons, ship designs, and strategies can be directly traced back to the Civil War.
In 1861, the U.S. Navy had a three-point strategy to help win the Civil War. The first was to blockade the Confederate coastline, the second was to support the army in river operations, and the third was to counter Southern advances in technology, especially ironclad warships. The Union navy approached the new threat of ironclad warships by building vessels of three experimental classes. The first ship was the USS Galena. While representing an attempt at innovation, it was still a conservative design and proved to be not very successful. The second effort was the class that began with the USS Monitor. These ships were small, inexpensive, and quick to build. However, their high-risk design was viewed with some reservation by the Navy Department leadership. Therefore, for security, the U.S. Navy contracted for a third design, which became the USS New Ironsides.
An armored frigate, it was the first American seagoing ironclad. Many innovations in the areas of gunnery, protection (armor), and seaworthiness made this ship far ahead of any ship of its time. Although USS New Ironsides was unique and capable, it was the only one of its class; in contrast, “monitor mania” resulted in fifty ships. The author does a nice job explaining the reasons and choices in the shipbuilding process.
New Ironsides’s operational exploits were as unique as the ship itself. It took more hits from enemy guns than any other Federal ship but did not lose a single man to them. Its endurance was unmatched; it maintained uninterrupted blockade duty for sixteen months during the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. The account by William Roberts, a retired U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, of the first torpedo attack delivered by a semisubmersible, the CSS David, against the New Ironsides is excellent in its detail. The section on the contribution of New Ironsides during the capture of Fort Fisher is an early vision into the “looking glass” of future warfare and joint operations.
Even knowledgeable Civil War enthusiasts will be surprised to discover that the naval action in the Civil War was so broad, varied, and intriguing. These two books bring these adventures to life. Both books are enjoyable and informative, and they offer an enhanced appreciation of the growth of naval technology that has shaped the Navy of today.
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