Book Reviews

Commanding Lincoln’s Navy (Book Review)

Some of the sweetest words in the English language are indeed ‘Gin and Tonic’ or ‘Old Fashioned’ however, ‘Naval blockade’ is just simply delicious. Spin a yarn or tale that has naval blockades and I am in. Make an excellent board game with naval blockades, like the most excellent Shores of Tripoli, and it is ordered and played. The big naval battles are cool and one cannot underscore their importance in naval history or naval warfare but naval blockades and their implications are fascinating to me.   

Knowing how much I love a good blockade story and coupled with my lack of more detailed Civil War naval history, I decided to dig into the excellent Commanding Lincoln’s Navy by Stephen R. Taaffe. I fortuitously had just finished it when I found out another Taaffe book is on the way called Commanding the Pacific, Marine Corps Generals in World War II, which I will be promptly snapping up as well.

It is clear from Taaffe’s well researched and detailed accounts that the US Navy had the upper hand when it came to the dueling Civil War navies however the act of blockading the Confederate coastline was a daunting challenge. In order to squeeze the Confederacy into submission as well as deny the rebels the ability to replenish and resupply the CSA Army, the US Navy was tasked with blockading 3,550 miles of coast and over 189 harbors and inlets. The key became to isolate key geographic ports like Charleston, Wilmington, and Mobile whilst also siphoning off theaters like the Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico and SE seaboard. To do this, Squadrons were set up in each theater and this is where the bulk of the book spends its time; with the Admirals and Commodores leading those squadrons.

Many of these men knew nothing but the sea having become midshipmen in the 1810’s and 1820’s of the 19th century. Their education was ships and the oceans. But one of the best explanations on the US Naval blockade strategy, noted for its incredible insight by Taaffe, comes from Theodorus Bailey who participated in the Battle of New Orleans and led the East Gulf Squadron as well. His observation pretty much summed up the task at hand for the US Navy and for me, anyway, became the lynchpin of the book.
“The outward pressure of our Navy, in barring the enemy’s ports, crippling their power, and exhausting the resources of the States in rebellion; in depriving them of a market for their peculiar productions, and of the facilities for importing many vital requisites for the use of their Army and peoples, is slowly, surely, and unostentatiously reducing the rebellion to such straits as must result in their unconditional surrender.” (pg. 176)   

Taaffe dives into the personal letters of these men illuminating their thinking and many times revealing their characters as well. He also pulls in official reports to the Navy Department as well as writings of Gideon Wells, the Navy Secretary at the time. Famous names like David Farragut, David Porter, Andrew Foote are shown in heroic light for their deeds but also shown objectively in their failures. Squadron commanders who accomplished little are disposed of by Welles and Taaffe is able to give us the behind the scene’s on the why when it comes to dismissal. For the victories, again Taaffe does a great job of giving us the how’s and why’s of the Admirals in action. 

While the bulk of stories concerns the blockade as well as personal ambition’s (looking at you Frank Du Pont) and personal slander and smearing of compatriots (looking at you David Porter) from these commanders the book also does a tremendous job recounting the famous battles at New Orleans, Vicksburg, the Mississippi theater in general, Charleston, Wilmington and Mobile. These victories highlight the commanders that were aggressive and made conscious decision’s to bring the fight to the Confederacy. Between the blockades and these battles the US Navy’s victory over the Confederate navy was assured.    

Taaffe’s ability to weave in and out of these stories while personalizing the men that carried out Lincoln’s and Welles strategy makes this book a compelling read. I for one cannot wait to dig into Commanding the Pacific out this fall.      

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Book Reviews

The Captain Who Burned His Ships

I think it is pretty obvious that we love stories of scuttled ships, fleets and squadrons. It’s niche (if you know, you know) for sure but the stories are incredible and many times heartbreaking. More often than not these stories include ships with deep backgrounds and histories of their own, complete with chapters on crews and battles and locales. These stories enrich the field of naval history and personalize what can be, if one chooses, a history of logs and numbers. We choose to see the depth and the emotion in these scuttled vessels.

Which brings us to Commandant Thomas Tingey, USN. 

In the excellent, The Captain Who Burned His Ships, Gordon S. Brown paints a picture of a man who gave his life to his family, his country and to his navy. In a world where the names of John Rodgers, Stephen Decatur, Oliver Hazard Perry and John Paul Jones were on the lips of every American, Thomas Tingey’s name was on the lips of everyone associated with the Navy during his command of the Washington Navy Yard from 1800 to his death in 1829. 

This book is an invaluable addition to any naval library for one very simple reason. Tingey’s life, as  laid out here in full detail, is a reminder that military history is full of individuals who day in and day out supported the mission and made it possible for early operational success. He quite literally built the Navy Yard from nothing, grew an important economy impact zone in the new nation’s capital, became an integral part of the fabric of society in DC, set the tone for supporting the entire American fleet and defended the Yard from direct enemy invasion. 

It is this last part where Tingey is probably most famous. To prevent the British from acquiring supplies for a prolonged expedition into the Chesapeake area and capital, he burned the Navy Yard with its ammunition, food stuffs, whiskey (what a bummer!) housings, supplies and ships. He also burned the frigate Columbia and the hulls of the frigates New York, Boston and General Greene. However, his legacy is so much more and Thomas Tingey will forever, for me at least, be remembered as a gentle giant. Tough when it came to provisions for his yard but also a man on the committee for dance and leisure events in DC society. A man who hobnobbed with Presidents, Secretaries and Captains and also a father who established some of the early families in this new country (including several flag officers!). Thomas Tingey was part of the backbone of the early Navy and thus part of the backbone of the history of the United States.

Buy The Captain Who Burned His Ships here: