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review 2017-07-21 10:42
An excellent naval history of the Civil War
War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 - James M. McPherson

A few years ago I decided I wanted to read a naval history of the Civil War. To my surprise, I learned that, for all that has been written about the conflict, there are relatively few books about its naval aspects and the ones I found proved disappointing. Had I waited a little longer I would have discovered that this book was a perfect fit for my needs, as James McPherson brings his expertise as the nation's foremost Civil War historian to the study of its naval aspects. Drawing upon both primary sources and secondary studies he surveys the various components of the naval war, from the Union blockade that was a critical dimension of the conflict to the revolutionary development of steam-powered ironclads, all of which he describes in his clear and assured prose. If there is a complaint to be made about this book it is that the apparent parameters of the Littlefield series for which he wrote it limited the amount of depth in which he can explore his subject, yet within its confines he has provided the best single-volume history of the Civil War at sea there is or is likely to be for some time to come.

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review 2017-07-20 22:43
Podcast #59 is up!
The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece - Jennifer T. Roberts

My fifty-ninth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jennifer Roberts about her new history of the Peloponnesian War (which I just reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2017-07-20 18:16
Setting the war in its context
The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece - Jennifer T. Roberts

The Peloponnesian War is one of those subjects which, whenever a new book is published about it, begs the question, "do we really need another book on it?" This is understandable considering that 1) having been written about for nearly 2,500 years it has been one of the most worked-over events in human history, 2) the first of these books, Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks as one of the foundational texts of Western historiography and in many respects will never be bettered, and 3) recently (i.e. within the past half-century) Donald Kagan wrote both a four-volume history of the war AND a single-volume condensed version which are difficult to top as a modern account for the conflict. With all of these books, is there space for another?

 

The answer, as Jennifer Roberts proves, is a clear yes. She demonstrates this by fitting the conflict within the context of Greek city-state relations in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. By widening her focus, she shows the war not as the culmination of inter-city-state rivalry as it has sometimes been presented, but as one of a series of conflicts which neither began nor ended with the war itself. This is not a novel revelation (anybody who has more than a passing familiarity with Hellenic Greek history understands this), but by adopting this approach Roberts makes several more obscure points clearer, foremost among them being that Sparta was not so much the ultimate victor as merely temporarily ascendant among the city-states, with their defeat of Athens setting the stage for their own downfall a generation later.

Roberts's approach offers one of the best assessments of the impact of the war upon ancient Greece. While lacking the immediacy of the ancient sources or the thoroughness of Kagan, she draws upon both sources as well as others to provide a clear-eyed understanding of its true significance. It makes for an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand a conflict which became one of the great referential points of Western history, because while it may have been only one of many wars the Greeks fought with each other, it has endured in the popular imagination in ways which make it relevant even today.

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review 2017-07-11 00:18
Podcast #57 is up!
Lincoln's Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War - Robert M. Browning Jr.

My fifty-seventh podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Robert M. Browning, Jr. about his history of the operations of the U.S. Navy's West Gulf Blockade Squadron during the Civil War (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2017-07-03 17:10
An invaluable study of a neglected aspect of the war
Lincoln's Trident: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron during the Civil War - Robert M. Browning Jr.

Though there is no shortage of military histories of the Civil War, the vast majority of them focus primarily or exclusively on the campaigns on the land. This has the effect of unjustly minimizing the naval side of the war, which was decisive to its outcome. Faced with the North's industrial predominance the South hoped to offset it by importing goods from the factories of Britain and France, which made the naval blockade of the Confederacy an essential part of the Union's strategy. In this book, Robert Browning provides an operational history of the Union Navy's blockade of the Gulf Coast region. It's the concluding volume of a trilogy that originated with his doctoral dissertation over two decades ago, and in many respects he saved the best for last.

 

Blockading the Gulf Coast posed a number of challenges for the Navy, foremost among them being the disproportionate ratio between the vast amount of coastline and the limited number of ships available. Complicating matters even further was the location of Mexico to the south, the commerce of which could not easily be interdicted without creating diplomatic problems. To this was added the logistical difficulties of maintaining vessels on station far from sources of repair and replenishment, as the Southern states occupied or destroyed nearly all of the U.S. Navy's yards in the region at the start of the conflict.

 

In the face of these difficulties, the Union Navy rose to the occasion. Browning recounts the various efforts the navy took over the course of the conflict to maintain and support their efforts, from regular supply runs to recapturing and rebuilding lost bases. While their efforts to interdict blockade runners were often frustrated by the superior speed and higher draft of the rebel vessels, over time the efforts of the various squadrons began to tell. Aiding their effort was the gradual isolation and capture of the major Confederate ports in the region, starting with New Orleans in 1862 and culminating with the conquest of Mobile at the end of the war. These did not stop completely the efforts of the blockade runners, but they helped minimize the ability of the Confederacy to draw upon outside resources in their increasingly desperate cause.

 

To describe these efforts, Browning spent years reviewing the various records and accounts of the blockading squadrons, as well as the more fragmentary collections of the Southern forces. From them he has assembled a long overdue study of this often neglected aspect of the war, one that is even more valuable for his account of the squadron's operations on the lower Mississippi River. Though his prose would have benefited form a little polishing, this book combines with its companion volumes to provide a history of the Union blockade which will be the standard by which all future books on the subject will be judged. No student of the Civil War seeking a balanced understanding of the conflict can afford to bypass these important works.

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