Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-098
20 Nov. 2019
Review by Neil P. Chatelain, Lone Star College–North Harris
Life in Jefferson Davis' Navy
By Barbara Brooks Tomblin
Annapolis: Naval Inst. Press, 2019. Pp. vii, 318. ISBN 978–1–68247–118–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 19th Century, US Civil War, Naval Warfare Print Version

Although scholarship about the US Civil War is voluminous, certain aspects of the subject receive less attention than others. Naval operations is one of these, particularly those of the Confederate States Navy (CSN). In Life in Jefferson Davis' Navy, naval historian Barbara Brooks Tomblin[1] provides welcome insights into the dangers and drudgeries of daily life for CSN officers, sailors, and marines.

Most research on naval matters in the Civil War focuses on battles and campaigns, highlighting the Union blockade, the arms race between the two sides to build ironclad warships, and the operations of Confederate commerce raiders. Throughout, Tomblin stresses the often overlooked CSN point of view.[2] She does this by targeting the quotidian life of sailors on high-seas raiders, aboard coastal and river ironclads, torpedo boats, submersibles, in shore batteries, and even as improvised infantry forces. Combat was only a small part of the experience of these men; boredom and monotony posed other, more inescapable challenges.


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The author's deep research into primary source materials, published or not, allows CSN personnel to speak for themselves in their own words, be they common sailors, conscripted soldiers forced into the navy, highly trained officers, or government officials. The following passage is typical.

When there were no enemy merchantmen to pursue, officers and men serving on Confederate raiders also suffered from boredom. One of the Shenandoah's midshipmen, Francis Chew, noted that the drill routine "is repeated from day to day with dreadful monotony." He read Germaine de Staël's romantic novel Corrine for the second time and began Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions. Midshipman Mason delved into Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit but penned, "I don't think much of the first chapter, but intend to wade through at all hazards." Mason, like many sailors, was war weary and had bouts of homesickness. "What a blessed thing it would be! and how pleasant it would be to steam into a Confederate port in the Shenandoah." (56)

Tomblin adopts a thematic rather than traditional chronological approach to her subject. The first five of her book's eleven chapters concern day-to-day life of sailors and marines as they joined and became acclimated to service in the navy. They address shipboard routines, discipline, morale, and the struggle to organize medical services for sick and injured personnel. The key factor throughout was that, "to safeguard military and naval personnel, at war's outbreak in 1861 the Confederacy had to improvise" (92). Such improvisation extended as well to making good manpower deficiencies by employing soldiers from nearby positions on land. Other factors that required commanders' ingenious solutions included lack of supplies and materials, shortfalls in construction and operations, and low morale.

The book's next four chapters concentrate on sailors' combat experiences on the high seas, along coastlines and inland rivers, and in experiments with "torpedoes" (i.e. mines). The author enlivens her narrative with specific stories of the many tasks CSN sailors and marines were called on to carry out. Examples include service aboard the ironclads Chicora and Palmetto State in their January 1863 raid from Charleston Harbor, the climactic ship-to-ship battle between the Confederate raider Alabama and the USS Housatonic, the improvisation of shore fortifications and gun batteries at Drewry's Bluff, and the cutting out of the USS Underwriter by a combined sailor-marine force. Entire chapters are devoted to the lives of sailor POWs and the efforts of commanders to preserve morale, contrive a medical corps, maintain discipline, and deter combat desertion. Such topics do not normally bulk large in the scholarly literature on naval operations in the Civil War.

The volume's final two chapters concern the Confederacy's collapse, including the sufferings of CSN sailors in prison camps and during the war's final months generally. We learn here about the turmoil on the Confederacy's eastern seaboard, as sailors destroyed their ships and marched north to join ad hoc infantry units serving under generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston.

An epilogue describes the often difficult postwar careers of former CSN officers, sailors, and marines, ranging from serving in foreign navies to finding scarce civilian maritime employment or shifting to a more traditional peacetime life on a farm.

Although the book has its flaws,[3] they are minor and do not obscure the vivid, carefully researched, firsthand accounts of the men of the Confederate navy. Life in Jefferson Davis' Navy should be required reading for all students and specialists concerned with the CSN, the homefront experience of the Confederacy as a whole, or US naval history more broadly.

[1] She is also the author of Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy (Lexington: U Pr of Kentucky, 2009).

[2] For an excellent study of the Union navy, see Dennis J. Ringle, Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy (Annapolis: Naval Inst Pr, 1998).

[3] Tomblin regularly uses the rank designations "ensign" and "lieutenant commander" instead of "passed midshipman" and "1st lieutenant" to describe Confederate naval officers. See Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the Confederate States to January 1, 1864 (Richmond, 1864) 3–25 and Regulations for the Navy of the Confederate States, 1862 (id., 1862) 4–5. Neither the Pioneer nor the H.L. Hunley was ever commissioned as a naval warship. The former received a letter of marque and was officially a privateer, while the latter remained under the jurisdiction of the Confederate army. See Tom Chaffin, The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (NY: Hill and Wang, 2008) 74–76, 147–48. Image 9 in the book's central image collection is miscaptioned "CSS Manassas and USS Brooklyn during the battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, April 24, 1862." This describes image 10 (= Photo NH 79908, US Navy History and Heritage Command). Image 9, should be captioned "Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864" (= Photo KN-843).

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