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The historiography of the American Civil War's naval component has undergone a complete transformation since the early 1990s, with dramatic changes driven by important reinterpretations of traditional topics and the opening up of entirely new areas of inquiry. The time is ripe for synthesis, leading to three significant surveys in recent years: Spencer Tucker's Blue & Gray Navies [2006], Craig Symonds's The Civil War at Sea [2012], and now James M. McPherson's War on the Waters [2012].

McPherson needs no introduction as a Civil War historian, but he is most closely associated with the terrestrial rather than the naval war. However, the very nature of the naval war lends itself to McPherson's considerable talents. The navy fulfilled its traditional roles with the blockade and pursuit of Confederate raiders, but its intimate involvement in riverine warfare, attacks on shore fortifications, and essential cooperation in combined operations played an important part in the ultimate success of Union armies. In fact, McPherson argues, “the war could not have been won without the contributions of the navy” (226).

The Confederate navy is present throughout the book, but McPherson has chosen to focus on the Union navy because of its size, its pervasive presence, and its impact on the war. War on the Waters is an unabashed operational history that focuses on the navy's major battles and campaigns as well as the blockade and blue-water operations. McPherson's real gifts are his ability to bring coherence and order to a story that so often seems disconnected and his talent for linking his encyclopedic knowledge of the rest of the war to the naval experience. The latter is particularly impressive in his discussions of combined operations, and the resulting narrative is among the best this reviewer has read in explaining the successes and failures of joint army-navy campaigns in all of the war's theaters.

The author's operational focus leads to some unfortunate omissions. The Union's ability to mobilize and deploy its industrial resources played an important role in the war's outcome, especially as the navy developed armored warships, but that story is lost in the operational shuffle. The most famous case of industrial mobilization gone awry, the Casco class monitors, is tacked on at the end of a chapter, but it will be difficult for an uninformed reader to grasp its true significance. Likewise, the social history of the navy's jack tars receives short shrift. McPherson ably discusses the experience of African American sailors, but the relatively recent literature on sailors in general has not been fully utilized. Finally, more could have been done with naval administration and leadership. Gideon Welles and Gustavus Vasa Fox receive ample coverage, but more discussion of the interplay between President Abraham Lincoln, the Navy Department, and the navy's squadron commanders might have enriched the larger operational story.

War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the literature. Those new to this aspect of the Civil War will benefit from McPherson's masterful synthesis, while specialists will find his insights equally intriguing.