Historian McPherson talks about Civil War sea power
NORFOLK, Va. — Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson is coming to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum at Nauticus on Tuesday to discuss his latest book, "War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies 1861-1865."
McPherson, an emeritus professor of American history at Princeton University, is the author of some 15 books, mostly on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Ahead of his visit to Norfolk, he spoke with The Virginian-Pilot in a telephone interview.
You've said the role of the navies in the Civil War has been underappreciated. Why do you think that is?
I think it's because the land battles of the Civil War seem much more dramatic. They were more violent in terms of casualties, and they've attracted the attention of historians much more than the navies.
The principal task of the Union Navy was the blockade of Southern ports, and with some exceptions of dramatic chases and captures, that seems pretty dull compared to, let's say, Gettysburg or the Wilderness campaign. The Navy has just sort of sailed under the radar.
What were the most important factors in the Union's ultimate dominance on the water?
Nearly all the ships of the United States Navy remained in the United States Navy, and the Confederate Navy had to be built from scratch. Most of the officers of the United States Navy, 75 percent of them, remained loyal to the Union.
But I think the most important thing is that nearly all the shipbuilding facilities in the nation and nearly all of the merchant marine in the United States were in the North. The United States Navy was able to charter and buy and, most important of all, contract with shipbuilding firms to build a huge Navy almost overnight in 1861 and 1862, and the South just couldn't match that.
To what degree was the Confederate Navy outmanned, out-equipped and outgunned?
It was probably a factor of at least 10-to-1. In terms of personnel, more than that. Altogether, something over 100,000 sailors served in the Union Navy during the course of the war, and I don't think any more than 5,000 served in the Confederate Navy. In terms of ships and guns, it was equally one-sided.
Despite that (or perhaps because of that), you've said the Confederate Navy developed some sophisticated technological innovations. What were the most important ones?
They were first off the mark in ironclads, but the Union quickly caught up and soon surpassed them.
Otherwise, in terms of what were called torpedoes - naval mines - the Confederacy really was quite innovative, and that became their principal naval weapon. They sank or damaged more than 40 Union warships.
They also developed the David class of torpedo boats, which damaged the USS New Ironsides and the Minnesota. And then there was the famous H.L. Hunley, the submarine that sank the USS Housatonic off Charleston in February 1864.
These were all pretty striking innovations, and while they were not able significantly to damage the Union Navy, they certainly did a lot of harassment.
Everyone knows about the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac. But can you put it into context? How significant was it in the overall course of the war?
It was significant in that it prompted both sides to put on a kind of crash program of building ironclads.
It was the world's first combat between ironclad ships, and it proved that these could be proof against most kinds of enemy firepower.
The Union completely outbuilt the Confederates in ironclads, and they became key to many of the Union efforts. "Monitor fever," it was called.
Other than the Monitor and the Merrimac, what were the most important naval engagements of the war in Hampton Roads?
The day before, the Merrimac (renamed Virginia) had sunk the Cumberland and the Congress and a couple of small Union tenders. Other than that, several Union gunships attacked the Rip Raps.
When the Confederates had to evacuate Norfolk after Gen. Joseph Johnston decided to abandon the Yorktown line, the Confederates had to blow up the Virginia because it was too deep-drafted to go up the James River.
Once the Union forces gained control of the Hampton Roads area in May 1862, they maintained control of it for the rest of the war.
What proportion of U.S. naval officers from the South stayed loyal to the Union? How important were their contributions to the Union victory?
A substantial minority of them. Several score remained loyal to the Union. The outstanding example of that was David Glasgow Farragut (the first admiral in the U.S. Navy).
He was born in Tennessee, and when he was onshore in the antebellum Navy he made his home in Norfolk. Without Farragut, there would have been a different story, I think, in several of the important naval engagements.
How much use did the Union Navy make of "contrabands," as fleeing slaves were called? How big an advantage were they to the Union cause?
They played a crucial role, I think. Along with free blacks, they constituted about 18 percent of Union (Navy) personnel. While they served mostly in lower-ranked roles, some of them were gun crews and were very good at it.