Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dissolving in Water: What is Known and Unknown

It is still hard for the most knowledgeable student of the Civil War to grasp the complexities of the conflict. In four years, over 620,000 people died on land and water. Far more met their end from disease than any musket fire or cannonball. But why? Why the bloodshed? Many will say that it was a necessary answer to the problem of the "peculiar institution," while others merit the right of state sovereignty. Although it is widely acknowledged by scholars from today that slavery was the overwhelming cause of the war, the events surrounding the war and its commemoration are upon us once again. We are all truly at a unique crossroads in American history in 2011. It is not only a time to commemorate, but to also reflect on our country's most trying time.

Looking Beyond "Overlooked"
Most scholars of the Civil War navies will comment on its "overlooked" nature. Indeed, several CWN 150 posts are dedicated to this idea of public memory and its dis-attachment to the navies. Let us then focus on what is known from questions often asked by readers and students of Civil War history.

Where did the United States Navy stand in the antebellum period? What would the United States Navy after the war? One historian referred to the Navy as a "drowsy, moth-eaten organization." In many cases, they are right. Yet like a moth-eaten garment, the Navy needed to replace itself when the drums of war roared from Charleston Harbor.

Gone were the realities of a 'unified' brotherhood of sailors. In a war based on disunion, approximately 1/5 of the U.S. Navy's officer corps went South. Gone were the realities of an unfair, seniority based system of rank. Authors like Craig Symonds and Stephen Taaffe both write about the merit-based system put into place during the war.

What lasted from the war most of all was a momentum of change unparalleled by contemporary standards. Far beyond military drill and overland tactics, the navies of Blue and Gray revolutionized, mechanized, and revitalized a fledgling military branch into the most powerful maritime force in the entire world in 1865. To the credit of both Union and Confederacy, the war at sea and on rivers touched the lives of countless sailors and civilians alike. The navies did not necessarily make the conflict a world war. Rather, they created a war that took the world by storm.

For the Union fleet alone, however, the "moth-eaten" organization grew to nearly 700 ships by wars end, making it the largest buildup in U.S. history until the Second World War. Lincoln's "webbed feet" did much to turn the tide by April 1865, despite their spirited and battle-tested southern counterparts.

First and Lasts
It was a time of historic firsts and lasts. The first iron-clad ships (CSS Virginia and USS Monitor) and their subsequent historic battle ending the era of sailing vessels, the appointment of the first Admiral (David G. Farragut), and the last time anyone viewed naval warfare the same way. Many junior and mid rank officers turned out to become some of the Navy's most celebrated heroes such as William Cushing, David Dixon Porter, William Goldsborough, and Richard W. Meade.

Future Spanish American War Admirals George Dewey, Winfield Scott Schley (pictured left), and William T. Sampson all cut their teeth during the war. Even the infamous "prophet" of the Navy, Alfred Thayer Mahan, served the Union Navy on several ships as a young Lieutenant.

Due and Proper
And what of the evidence of the ships, men, and organizations surrounding our sesquicentennial anniversary? They are more apparent and abundant than one may think. The public eye is always visible. Go to Dupont Circle or nearby Farragut Square in NW Washington, D.C. and see people gathering around areas built in commemoration of two naval titans.

Farragut Statue, New York City
Feel like taking in a Knicks game in New York City? Stop by Madison Square's Farragut statue near 5th Avenue and read the inscription detailing his "daring and sagacious" actions at Mobile Bay. Take the Metro from Penn Station down to Battery Park and see the statue of acclaimed Monitor inventor John Ericsson.

Or perhaps Virginia is your most convenient destination. After all, the majority of battles occurred in the seat of the Confederacy. You could pick your child up from Matthew F. Maury High School in Norfolk as you travel along the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel on your way north to Dahlgren, VA, named after the naval officer and inventor of the famous cannon.

The CWN 150 is YOU
The Civil War was a time of momentous loss and miraculous triumph. The men involved possessed an unquenchable spirit that has remained these one hundred and fifty years. The truth is, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is about you, the individual, who chooses to participate and stay active. There will be countless lectures, living history days, presentations, and programs around the country highlighting the war on land and at sea. We will certainly be at the front lines for the latter. It is important to know what you would like for us to put on this blog or coordinate around the country. Your input is crucial to the success of this commemoration.

It has been well over a year since the first post of the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial. Sixteen months and over a hundred posts later, we are still going strong. For those that have remained loyal in checking in, we thank you with sincere and open hearts. In the meantime, keep a weathered eye on the horizon for much more in the future.

Full Speed Ahead,

Matthew T. Eng
CWN 150 Coordinator

"Not too long the brave shall wait:
On their own heads be their fate,
Who against the hallowed State
Dare begin;
Flag defied and compact riven!
In the record of high Heaven
How shall Southern men be shriven
For the sin!"
- Excerpt from Sumter, by Edmund Clarence Stedman

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