Archives For Inland Seas

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.

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Oliver Hazard Perry

CC Image courtesy of Archives de la Ville de Montreal on Flickr

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie fought between American and British forces for control of the Great Lakes region on September 10, 1813. After British forces captured Detroit, MI, American military planners decided to build a small fleet near Presque Isle to wrest back control of Lake Erie and allow the recapture of Detroit. A force of 9 ships were quickly hewn from local forests and Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry sent to take command of the force.

On the morning of September 10, 1813, 6 ships under the command of Royal Navy Commander Robert Heriot Barclay moved to sweep the American force from the lake. While outnumbered 6 to 9, the Royal Navy squadron possessed more cannons (63) than the Americans (54) and the British cannons had a longer range than the Americans which had primarily equipped their ship with close-range carronades.

In a tribute to Captain James Lawrence who had lost his life aboard the USS Chesapeake earlier that year, Perry’s battle flag stated “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” At the outset of the battle, Barclay’s squadron had the advantage over the American vessels as possession of the weather gauge allowed his ships to outmaneuver the Americans and use their longer range fire power to pound the Americans. The British used their advantage to batter Perry’s flagship USS Lawrence into a hulking wreck, but undeterred, Perry transferred his flag from the Lawrence to the USS Niagara where he continued the action. Perry’s fleet had not let the British escape unscathed, though, as Commander Barclay and several of his officers had been wounded, putting command of the ships in the hands of less experienced officers. The British attempted to wear-to in order to bring their opposite broadsides to bear on Perry’s bruised fleet, but miscommunication and poor seamanship caused two of the British vessels to collide. Perry then split the British column, a maneuver even more deadly than “crossing the T,” allowing his ships to pour fire from both broadsides into the British squadron. This effective maneuver by Perry and his squadron devastated the British ships and one by one the squadron surrendered, giving Perry and his squadron the greatest American naval victory of the War of 1812.

Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie opened the door for an American invasion of Canada and the recapture of Detroit. It also was the first time an entire British squadron had surrendered in battle. Oliver Hazard Perry became an overnight American hero and his notification of victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” has been forever written in American naval history. More than half a dozen ships, including a class of modern-day frigates, have been named in his honor and the latest ship to bear his name is currently under construction in Perry’s home state of Rhode Island.

Ci Xi Marble Boat

CC Image courtesy of Kevin Poh on Flickr

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the end of the Boxer Rebellion. Inspired by anti-imperialist sentiment and religious mysticism, the Boxers were a nationalist Chinese group which rose up against Westerners across China in late 1899. Thousands of Chinese Christian converts, Western missionaries and other Western ex-pats were slaughtered in the ensuing violence. The Rebellion culminated in a 55 day siege of the foreign embassies in Peking which was finally lifted when 20,000 troops from Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US fought their way into Peking.

In a strange twist, the Boxer Rebellion owes much to the marble edifice pictured above – the Marble Boat on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Peking. Originally built in 1755, the structure was renovated in 1893 by order of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi with funds intended for modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead of funding the construction of a modern navy that could have kept Western forces at bay and prevented the further divvying up of China between competing Western nations, the Chinese built a ship useful only for delighting courtesans and guests of the Empress.

Aral Sea Ship

CC Image courtesy of farflungistan on Flickr

The 2005 movie Sahara centered around the disappearance of a Confederate ironclad at the end of the Civil War. Matthew McConnaughey’s character, Dirk Pitt, is endlessly jibed for thinking the ship could have ended up in the African desert. Although Dirk is eventually proved correct when the ship is discovered in the desert, he would have faced much less derision had he been looking for a ship in the deserts of Uzbekistan.

The Aral Sea, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once one of the largest lakes in the world. Beginning in 1918, though, Soviet central planners decided that cotton exports from the region were of vital importance and trumped all other considerations. Beginning in the 1930s, numerous irrigation canals were constructed to divert water from the rivers feeding the Aral Sea to cotton fields throughout the region. This decision devastated the ecosystem of the region, though, and the Aral Sea began to shrink in the 1960s as the irrigation canals robbed the Aral Sea of the inflows necessary to maintain its water levels. The sea had declined so much by 1987 that it split into two separate entities – the North Aral Sea located mainly in Kazakhstan and the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The reduction in freshwater inflows spiked the salinity of the sea, devastating the fishing industry. Additionally, the continued receding of water levels left dozens of vessels high and dry in what has now become a desert.

Fortunately for residents of Kazakhstan, Kazakh authorities have worked to refill the North Aral Sea and it is now growing. Uzbekistan, though, has chosen to continue to divert inflows to irrigation which has resulted in further desertification of the area.