Mr. Lincoln's Brownwater Navy: The Mississippi River Squadron

Mr. Lincoln's Brownwater Navy: The Mississippi River Squadron
The Union inland navy that became the Mississippi Squadron is one of the greatest, yet least studied aspects of the Civil War. Without it, however, the war in the West may not have been won, and the war in the East might have lasted much longer and perhaps ended differently. The men who formed and commanded this large fighting force have, with few exceptions, not been as thoroughly studied as their army counterparts.

The vessels they created were highly specialized craft which operated in the narrow confines of the Western rivers in places that could not otherwise receive fire support. Ironclads and gunboats protected army forces and convoyed much needed supplies to far-flung Federal forces. They patrolled thousands of miles of rivers and fought battles that were every bit as harrowing as land engagements yet inside iron monsters that created stifling heat with little ventilation. This book is about the intrepid men who fought under these conditions and the highly improvised boats in which they fought. The tactics their commanders developed were the basis for many later naval operations. Of equal importance were lessons learned about what not to do. The flag officers and admirals of the Mississippi Squadron wrote the rules for modern riverine warfare.

Gary D. Joiner

Rowan & Littlefield 2007 ISBN: 0742550982

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Review by Daniel Sauerwein  (Oct 2008)

History professor Gary Joiner has written a wonderful work discussing the role played by the navy in securing the Mississippi River for the Union during the Civil War. Joiner has added to the historiography on both the Civil War and naval history in general through this detailed account that leaves the reader with knowledge on a relatively unknown subject of Civil War history.

Joiner notes in his preface that the Union navy on the Mississippi River is one of the least studied aspects of the war. He argues for the importance of studying this topic by claiming that the Union may have lost the war in the West and possibly the East if not for the actions of the navy in supporting the land campaign in the West.(p. xi) Throughout the book, Joiner does an excellent job of providing a vast amount of information on this overlooked area, as well as proving the validity of his thesis.

He begins his examination by presenting a background history on the initial Union strategy, the Anaconda Plan, and the major players involved (Gideon Welles, Gustavas Fox, and Winfield Scott), including brief biographies, as well as a brief history of the American navy. He then describes, with incredible detail, the creation of the first vessels that made up the gunboat fleet and the men behind them. Joiner not only discusses the specifications of the vessels, but also delves into the personal squabbles among various persons involved in the creation of these first crafts.

Joiner then tackles the navy’s role in the rivers as the war heats up in the West. He devotes chapters to the major events of the Western Theater of the war. He first focuses on the early stage of the war in the West, with Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh, the capture of New Orleans and the lower valley, as well as failed early attempts at seizing Vicksburg. He then discusses in great detail the role of the brown water navy during the Vicksburg Campaign and later Red River Valley Campaign, finally culminating in the end of the war. Along the journey, Joiner introduces several important figures (including Admirals Andrew Foote and David Dixon Porter) and vessels mostly forgotten by history. Readers will enjoy the vivid detail provided for naval battles, as heroic officers lead their vessels into many battles on the rivers, sometimes with disastrous results.

Joiner’s scholarship is very solid, with notes appearing at the end of each chapter. His bibliography is solid, with many primary sources used in his research, including The War of the Rebellion: the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. His secondary sources are a good collection, with many being recent works, which provide his book with a solid historiography to draw upon on Civil War naval history. His use of photographs is quite helpful, as they illustrate the many ships that he mentions in his work. The only area that he seems to lack in is newspapers, citing only four newspapers in his bibliography. While this is not a major problem and may result from most newspapers not covering the story, it would be interesting to read what Northern papers and more Southern papers wrote about the brown water navy.

Overall, Gary Joiner has greatly added to the historiography of Civil War naval history and has hopefully shed enough light on the subject to motivate other scholars to research the subject further. This book is worth reading by many audiences, including professional historians, Civil War buffs, naval history enthusiasts, and those interested in early examples of joint force operations. This books is also recommended for use by educators for classes dealing with the Civil War, as it provides a new angle for students studying the war and is an easy read. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy is one book that readers will find hard to put down.

Dr. Gary Joiner