As we approach the commemorate years of the American Civil War, one must consider all theaters and aspects of the conflict. From the firing of Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox, the Civil War proved to be a conflict spanning the continental United States and beyond. Why then is the Civil War Navy largely overlooked? The opening to Jay W. Simson’s 2001 book, Naval Strategies of the Civil War, opens with this statement:
“One of the most little known aspects of the American Civil War has been the naval strategies followed by the Union navy and the infant Confederate navy.”
He goes on further to declare naval actions “an untold story lost in the general histories of the war.” Although James McPherson devotes some of his seminal Battle Cry of Freedom to the Union and Confederate navies, general histories focus primarily on Generals and soldiers, not Captains, Commodores, and sailors.
A simple Google search with competing terms might shed some light on this. When one searches “American Civil War Navy,” there are roughly 288,000 website hits. When “American Civil War Army” is typed into the search bar, there are over 20,000,000 website hits. Does this take away from the four years of conflict waged by sailors on rivers, blockading the ocean, or fighting in foreign waters?
America exists largely as a hero culture. As young children, we revere our earliest Americans heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Our earliest military heroes include (again) George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, etc.
…and the naval heroes?
Regardless of the Civil War itself, there are only a few names thrown around in popular culture or general history: John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, and Matthew Perry. Is the courage displayed by Admiral David G. Farragut at Mobile Bay during the Civil War no less heroic than Thomas Jackson’s participation at Manassas which earned him his famous nickname? What about the USS Kearsarge and its engagement with the CSS Alabama off Cherbourg, France? What of the common sailor operating on the countless campaigns throughout the war? In Virginia, one would be hard pressed to find any elementary school student who knows the names John Worden or Franklin Buchanan when discussing the legendary Battle of Hampton Roads, let alone the men who bravely fought to the end on the USS Cumberland. And why? Has the American Civil War in public memory come down with a bad case of tunnel vision? There is no sense to point fingers, but to acknowledge the simple fact that the navies in the Civil War are more often than not overlooked.
It is the hope of the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial to shed light and commemorate the efforts of the navies in the years to come.