Book Review: Capital Navy

Posted October 13th, 2015 by Devin and filed in Review

Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, And Operations Of The James River SquadronCapital Navy: The Men, Ships, And Operations Of The James River Squadron by John Coski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To say the Naval history of the American Civil War gets short shrift in most accounts is a massive understatement. Indeed, most people with a casual knowledge of the conflict have little idea how big of a role the Navy played in the ultimate Union victory. Some can name the Battle of Mobile Bay, know there was a battle between two ironclads named Monitor and Merrimack, and are aware that there was a blockade. That is usually considered the bulk of it, whereas the truth is that the naval units of the conflict shaped it profoundly. In Capital Navy, John Coski takes a look at a little known aspect of this in his study of the Confederate’s James River Squadron, stationed just outside of Richmond on the James River.

Coski gives a good overview of Richmond as a shipbuilding city before the war, and how it laid the foundation for what was to come. While the city built four ironclads and had a fifth building at the end of the war, they were only utilized offensively on one occasion that resulted in no contact with Union ships, and caused severe damage to some of the Confederate ships. In fact, the construction of the Confederate ironclads, with their heavy displacement and deep drafts, severely limited their ability to maneuver and in effect kept them as a “fleet in being” near the city of Richmond: A formidable force that the Union respected, but not much of a threat as long as they were left alone.

Capital Navy does a good job of explaining all of the factors that hamstrung the Confederate Navy, particularly the ironclads, during the Civil War. While it specifically focuses on the James River Squadron, the author points out the issues in Richmond (lack of materials, work force, etc.) were experienced in other theaters throughout the South. And while the ships themselves could be considered failures from the point of view of their purpose — they never engaged Union warships or reduced fortifications — their existence as that “fleet in being” helped tie down the Army of the Potomac and delayed the movement on Richmond for many months.

Overall a pleasant read of interesting subject matter that has been rarely covered before. Another compelling aspect of the naval war.

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