For all the attention historians have devoted to Civil War soldiers, they have paid relatively short shrift to the more than 100,000 sailors who fought on ships at sea, on the Mississippi River, or on the innumerable inland waterways that crisscrossed the South’s battlefields.
The war featured no large-scale naval battles between Union and Confederate fleets on the scale of land battles like Shiloh, Antietam or Gettysburg. But the navies, especially the Union navy, nonetheless played a significant role in shaping the war’s outcome and in prefiguring the tactics and technology of future naval combat.
Ronald S. Coddington’s “Faces of the Civil War Navies” uses a stunning collection of cartes de visite and tintype images of Union and Confederate sailors to chronicle their diverse nautical service. An editor at “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” he juxtaposes 77 original photographs, many published for the first time and featuring sharp resolution, with beautifully crafted pen portraits of the lives of representative Yankee and Rebel sailors.
To provide context, detail and meaning to the lives of the men whose images he unearthed, Coddington conducted painstaking research in pension records, manuscripts and newspapers. He profiles each sailor’s origins, how they came to enter the navy, and the circumstances that tested their mettle in the crucible of war and their long-term significance.
Aaron Joseph, for example, was a free black from Boston who worked tanning hides. In October 1861, he enlisted as a landsman in the U.S. Navy to fight for the freedom of his race and to preserve the Union.
Assigned as a wardroom steward on the steam sloop-of-war Mohican, Joseph served in the November 1861 capture of Port Royal, S.C., and the surrounding islands which remained a major base of Union operations until the war’s end. He later was stationed on the Wabash, a steam screw frigate, and participated in the capitulation of Fort Fisher in January 1865. Following the war Joseph worked aboard merchant ships and commanded the segregated New Bedford, Mass., post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization for Union service members.
Lt. William Whittle Jr., a Virginian and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served the Confederate navy aboard several gunboats, as a secret agent in Europe, and as executive officer on the famed Rebel commerce raider Shenandoah that plied on Yankee merchant and whaling ships. It was the only Confederate cruiser to circumnavigate the globe. In August 1865, four months after Appomattox, the Shenandoah fired the war’s last shot when capturing its 38th prize.
Upon learning that the Confederate cause was lost, Whittle recorded in his diary: “We have lost all but our honor & self respect, and I hope our trust in God Almighty.” After the Shenandoah surrendered to British authorities in November (this was the last official lowering of the Confederate flag), Whittle fled to Argentina. He eventually resettled in Norfolk and helped to establish the Bank of Virginia.
Lt. Cmdr. Richard Rush of the federal navy, a Pennsylvanian, entered the naval academy (relocated to Rhode Island during the war) in 1863, and graduated four years later. His most significant service, however, occurred decades later, editing the monumental “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies,” the first volume of which appeared in 1894. According to the New York Herald, this work mattered because it documented the “branch of the service that has never had its full share of credit for its work in the suppression of the rebellion.”
Coddington’s book remedies that longstanding omission, quite literally putting human faces on and interpreting the lives of sailors who fought in America’s great internecine conflict.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. He recently published “Interpreting American History: Reconstruction.”
“Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors”
By Ronald S. Coddington
Johns Hopkins University Press, 401 pages