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REVIEW: Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy

The Civil War is justly famous for a number of technological innovations, as a result being sometimes characterized as the first modern war. One aspect in particular, however, was not only innovative but unprecedented, and not seen again (at least in United States history) for a century: Riverine naval warfare, carried on primarily (near exclusively) in the Western river system. This is a tale well-told by veteran Civil War historian Gary D. Joiner in his 2007 publication, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy.

The “brown water” of the title is, of course, the river environment, as opposed to the “blue water” of the ocean-going Navy. Joiner begins with a summary of the significant changes in naval technology over the first half of the 19th Century, primarily the advent of steam propulsion (a game-changer of great magnitude, without which the riverine war would have been impossible) and improvements in naval armament. Continuing to set the scene, he covers the military-political background in the Western Theater at war’s outset, as well as the Anaconda plan (of which river warfare was a critical element). He then introduces the principal movers and shakers behind the creation of the brown water Navy - Captain John Rodgers, designer Samuel Pook, and shipbuilder James B. Eads – as well as the misunderstandings, red tape, and other obstacles to getting underway.

As they came online, the new gunboats began contributing to, and even enabling, land campaigns. Joiner’s coverage of the dry-foot action is just as much as necessary to give the naval campaigns context, without getting in the way otherwise. His accounts of the naval clashes – concentrating on significant actions such as Belmont, Henry/Donelson, Shiloh, Island No. 10, Plum Point, Memphis, and the Vicksburg-and Red River campaigns, as well as the more obscure White River expedition – are straightforward narratives, with some detail but not truly deep in the weeds (or perhaps channels).. And although the theme is the brown water Navy, its blue-water brethren make an appearance as well, when their service overlaps into the river environment (New Orleans, Vicksburg and Port Hudson).The Red River Campaign ends the story, aside from a very brief summary of the patrol districts (and ships posted in each) of 1864-65, and a few minor actions in that time period.

Many of the details will be familiar to those who know the campaigns in question (and in fact the Red River account is partially reprinted from Joiner’s previous books on the subject, as he states up front), but Joiner ties them all together in an efficient 180 pages of prose. He progresses through prominent leaders (Andrew Foote, Charles Davis, David Farragut, and most of all David Dixon Porter), lessons learned, and shifting command responsibilities, the latter complicated by overlapping Navy-Army jurisdictions. Ten maps enhance the text, mostly depicting the general areas of operation, though a couple drill down deeper. Illustrations are plentiful,depicting battles and leaders, but above all photographs of these innovative riverine vessels.

Taken all together, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy is highly recommended, especially for those interested in Civil War naval history, and/or the Western Theater. It is a worthwhile addition to any Civil War library.

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