Maritime Book Reviews

This book review appeared in Vol. 6, No. 1 of the Gulf Coast Historical Reivew - Fall 1990.

Maxine Turner. Navy Gray: A Story of the Confederate Navy on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1988, xv, pp. 256, appendices, index. $24.95. ISBN 0-8173-0316-2

This book offers proof of John Thomas Scharf's thesis that the Confederate Navy Department produced too little too late. Shortages of labor and critical materials and a bureaucracy centered in Richmond, here called "tyrannical," mired construction projects under a flood of paper until Union raiders ravaged them. The vast resources of Columbus, Georgia, the "Last Strong- hold of the Confederacy," included the Confederate Naval Yard and the Columbus Naval Iron Works. Although ably administered by Lieutenant Augustus McLaughlin and Chief Engineer James H. Warner, neither facility achieved full potential. Turner carefully chronicles how an early wooden gunboat, the Chattahoochee "became an example of all the ways Confederate planning failed" (p. 259).

The ship, 130 feet in length and 30 feet in beam, was contracted in October 1861. David S. Johnston, a planter-lawyer without construction experience, undertook to build the vessel in 120 days at a hastily improvised yard at Saffold between Columbus and Apalachicola. Although ninety slaves and numerous Columbus carpenters labored on the project, after a year Johnston lost his contract, and others, for failure to deliver. The Chattahoochee, with a draft too great to pass the bar at Apalachicola, was hauled to Columbus for completion. On her maiden voyage in January 1863, the ship ran aground, smashed the rudder, sprang a leak, and suffered engine failure. Extensive repairs followed. And then "finally, 424 days after the 1861 contract was signed, the gunboat Chattahoochee was underway as an armed, fully fitted-out ship of war" (p. 95). Shortly thereafter, in May 1863, the boilers exploded, killing over a dozen men and sinking the ship. Undaunted, the Confederates raised the Chattahoochee in December 1863, and made extensive repairs, but finally burned the vessel with the approach of General James H. Wilson's troopers in 1865.

The Jackson (Muscogee) suffered an even more humiliating fate. Conceived as a part of Stephen Mallory's master plan for ridding the seas of wooden vessels, the Merrimack class ironclad was designed for six 7-inch rifles and a centered, protected paddle wheel. Work on the vessel, which was over 200 feet long and 50 feet wide, commenced in January 1863. McLaughlin designed the ship and Warner built the power train. Partially plated with railroad iron, the Jackson was near launching in the spring of 1864 when Confederate Naval Constructor John L. Porter of Richmond ordered extensive modifications. Porter lengthened the vessel by twenty-seven feet, shortened the iron shield by fifty-four feet, removed the center wheel, closed the well, placed the engines in the hold, and installed two eight-foot propellers. Finally launched a year later in December 1864, the ship was burned before a gun was fired.

Despite these failures Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley rendered a substantial contribution to the Confederate war effort. After the successful Federal onslaught against Confederate ports in the spring of 1862, considerable naval work was performed at Prattville, Selma, and Columbus. Nelson and Asa Tift established an extensive naval supply facility at Albany. The constricted Confederacy especially relied on the engineering capacity of the Columbus Naval Iron Works. With four hundred white workers and many slaves, this yard "supplied machinery for the Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, the Tennessee II, and the two Bigbee Boats at Oven Bluff, Selma, and Mobile; the Savannah at Savannah; the Columbia at Charleston; the Wilmington at Wilmington; and the Jackson at the Columbus facility" (p. 261).

In a volume replete with such factual details as classified advertisements in newspapers, marriages, births of children, railroad schedules, and hog killings (and an appendix of fifty-seven pages), several larger issues might have been dealt with more completely. Confederate policy did not "shift" in 1862 towards the construction of ironclads (p. 260). Mallory, Forrest, Porter, and Williamson agreed on this approach immediately following the seizure of Gosport in April 1861. Federal blockade policy was likewise well thought out, despite the way it was implemented. With the possible exception of Brownsville, Texas, the Union blockade of the Gulf Coast was anything but "ineffective" (p. 256). The Flying Squadron, the inner and outer blockade vessels, and the ships watching Nassau and other island retreats made Confederate passage hazardous.

Nevertheless, Professor Turner has ably succeeded in writing a popular history based on an extensive use of the Official Records, the personnel files of Record Group 45 in the National Archives, and numerous collections of private correspondence. Her use of terms such as "agribusiness," "x number of nails," "white-water rafting," "specs," "impacted their work," and "would-be deserter" should in no way detract from her otherwise adroit technical English. From the minutia of vouchers and ledgers she has extracted a highly readable narrative. The map is essential and the pictures an embellishment to this fine book on the neglected but important naval history of the Chattahoochee River.

Harold Wilson
Old Dominion University

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