Thursday, February 6, 2020

Recent Reads: Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Davis, and Their Respective Navies

A Comparative Review of

Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy by Dennis J. Ringle, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998. 


Life in Jefferson Davis’ Navy by Barbara Brooks Tomblin, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2019.

Published over two decades apart, Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy and Life in Jefferson Davis' Navy compliment one another yet take differing approaches towards their contemporaneous subjects. (Courtesy of the Naval Institute Press)
By Matthew Headrick
HRNM Educator

Dennis J. Ringle, author of Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy and Barbara Brooks Tomblin, author of Life in Jefferson Davis’ Navy, have produced two very important studies on one of the most transitional periods in naval history: the Civil War. Taking a micro perspective approach to their research, both authors succeed in reconstructing the daily life of the common Sailor who served under either United States President Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Through persuasive writing and thorough research, Ringle and Brooks show that during the transition from wood to iron, along with the progression of steam engineering, it was the Sailors serving onboard these vessels who deserve recognition for advancements in the era of pre-dreadnought ships. These are two wonderfully written social histories.

Not only do the authors view their work as simply adding to our understanding, but it is also quite evident Life in Jefferson Davis’ Navy was inspired by Ringle’s book. In the introduction, Ringle wrote, "since this book deals only with the Union enlisted sailor, future naval studies could expand to include the life of the Confederate sailor."1 Tomblin makes mention of Ringle's book as describing "the lives of Union navy sailors," and that her own work focuses on "their daily lives and the challenges of wartime service onboard ships, serving in gun batteries ashore, or surviving imprisonment or hospitalization."2 One of the more notable contrasts between the two works is the treatment of primary sources and how they are applied in the writing. Yet, despite their differences in style, Ringle and Tomblin both advance our knowledge and make substantial contributions to the study of American naval history without criticizing their respective fields’ historiography.

U.S. Navy Sailors photographed during the Civil War. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While Tomblin is more interested in simply telling the Confederate States Navy's story, Ringle’s sources allow him the mobility to develop what some might argue a multi-layered thesis. First, he argues that the Sailors themselves were the ones who built a navy capable of putting Lincoln’s Anaconda Plan into action. From their hard work and dedication emerged the world’s greatest navy. Secondly, he adds that it was the engineering division that was most valuable to Lincoln’s navy, proving “critical to the success of the wartime ironclad monitors and the development of the powerful pre-dreadnought ships two decades later,”3 Maintaining “a blockade of 185 harbors and approximately 3,500 miles of southern coastline” meant recruiting only engineers of the highest skill level to produce steam-powered warships capable of getting the job done.4 Lastly and most important, Ringle answers why the US Navy possessed so many advantages over the CS Navy.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and President Lincoln understood how enforcing institutional changes aimed at bettering the lives of Sailors would enhance fighting effectiveness and propel their respective navies into the modern era. Ringle praises Welles for quickly addressing manpower shortages by employing African Americans and Northern Europeans. Even though the author does not shy away from pointing to examples of discrimination on the basis of color, this integration of the races is revealing of a very diverse navy. He also points out how veteran petty officers were empowered by their commanders, allowing them to guide new Sailors through their transition from a civilian to a Sailor.

Ringle also highlights some of the major contrasts between the Army and the Navy. Much attention is given to diet and medical practices. He writes that, unlike the Army, the Navy was able to provide "a steady diet of fresh meat and vegetables."5 He goes on to say that food helped break "the monotony of blockade duty and contributed to the morale of the crew."6 On the medical side, the author points out that the US Army lost one out of twelve Soldiers to disease and that the Navy lost one out of 50. The Army did not pursue the medical research that Ringle says did in fact exist. The Navy did. Again, all of which shows their "commitment to improving the quality of life for its sailors,” this being the main message Ringle is successful in getting across to his readers.7

(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Life in Jefferson Davis' Navy explores many of the same themes as Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy, but the tone is very different, perhaps darker. Readers will be convinced that the Confederate States Navy’s story was one of survival and hardship. Building off the idea that the CS Navy was a work in progress during the war, Tomblin looks at topics such as recruiting, liberty, medical care, the handling of prisoners, the challenges faced by naval officers, and, of course, one chapter dedicated to commerce raiders. One could describe Tomblin's book as an assortment of topically arranged short stories based on journals, letters, diaries and military/medical reports (official and unofficial).

Through superb storytelling, Tomblin proves to readers why this research is so important to our understanding of the social and cultural history of that time period. The author shows less interest in constructing a thesis-based narrative than Ringle. Instead, Tomblin exhausts all available resources to get the CS Navy's story out, and like Ringle, the Sailors who served ashore and aboard ships in all theaters take center stage. She does not address any specific historian’s interpretation, nor does Tomblin make a broad statement about Confederate States Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory's or Jefferson Davis’ footprint on naval strategy and technical advancement. What we learn is how and why Jefferson Davis' Navy, while successful in many areas, fell short in propelling the south to victory. The answer lies within the internal structure of this institution with no fault assigned to the Sailors themselves. The minimal amount of primary sources leaves little to go on, but somehow the author has made it work. The focus is on personal experiences.

Almost every chapter sheds light on the continuous problem of personnel and supply shortages that the Confederates faced throughout the war. They were forced to recruit from foreign ports for skilled personnel. The southern government was faced with the arduous task of filling jobs for noncommissioned officers and below with certain skillsets, as well as officers who “resigned their commissions in the U.S. Navy.”8 Discipline was also an issue. The author especially calls attention to the CSS Shenandoah and CSS Arkansas for alcohol smuggling and drunken behavior. Desertion was continuous, especially in the final year of fighting. In the winter of 1865, the James River Squadron was hit hard by desertion. According to accounts, which the author so elegantly plugs in, many officers deserted only to turn around and join the Union Navy. Many prisoners of war did the same; pledging allegiance to the Union, resulting in being put into volunteer regiments. As the war got closer to the end, getting supplies got harder. As a result, morale plummeted.

Where Tomblin's research shines the most is when she discusses the South’s medical capabilities. The word used to describe how the Confederate States Navy handled the problem of not having “a system of military hospitals or an organization to safeguard its military and naval personnel” is “improvise.”9 So, the Office of Medicine and Surgery, or OMS, was created. Their job was to establish hospitals, maintain supplies and medicine, and provide physicians where needed. By 1864, the OMS consisted of 753 commissioned officers and 4,450 men. Even with the OMS, the South’s medical facilities were inferior to those in the North. Sailors along the Mississippi and on the Coastal Waters suffered from scurvy due to a lack of fruits and vegetables. Yellow fever spread throughout because cargo and warships brought it over from the Caribbean and South America. The author goes on to discuss a first-hand account of a major outbreak that occurred on the CSS Florida. Other deadly diseases familiar to the Confederate Sailor included syphilis and gonorrhea, which the CS Navy was not remotely prepared for.

Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s Life in Jefferson Davis’ Navy actually puts Dennis J. Ringle’s Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy into perspective even more. Both books do a fantastic job of explaining the evolutionary process of how these two opposing navies were built by the hands of the men who served in them. Tomblin uses firsthand stories from Confederate Sailors to paint a picture of a very effective fighting force that, even though it did not prevail in the end, still deserves recognition. Ringle provides sufficient evidence to show how steady routine, leadership, integration, and above all, engineering won the day. One could recommend both works to historians and casual readers alike.

1. Dennis J. Ringle, Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy, (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998), xvi.
2. Barbara Brooks Tomblin, Life in Jefferson Davis’ Navy, (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 2.
3. Ringle, Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy, xiii-xiv.
4. Ibid, 9.
5. Ibid, 65.
6. Ibid, 64.
7. Ibid, 108.
8. Tomblin, Life in Jefferson Davis’ Navy, 23.
9. Ibid, 92.

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