In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy Memorial invited some of the nation’s preeminent Civil War historians, authors and lecturers to share their thoughts, opinions, artifact collections and research during “Civil War at Sea,” a day-long multi-media symposium.
The Gallery Deck was filled with exhibits and exhibitors, such as the Civil War Roundtable, the Lincoln Archives Digital Project, volunteers from the USS Constellation in period uniforms and a number of authors and researchers. The President’s Room hosted two captivating displays of Civil War artifacts and relics – the collections of John Stacey and Earl Sheck.
“I’ve been collecting for almost 45 years,” said Stacey. “My dad was a Marine, as was I, and I have been fascinated with military history since a young age. I started collecting everything, but soon realized that I had to focus on one particular thing, and the Civil War was it.”
The Sherman family of Bowie, Maryland, “lucked into” the event, passing by the Navy Memorial on their way to another destination, but they were thrilled with the detour. “I like this – we were in Gettysburg recently, and seeing the exhibits there and ones like we are seeing here really brings history to life,” said Darren, a recalled reservist on active duty. His 10-year-old son Justin was fascinated by the USS Constellation exhibit. “It’s cool. I like how they did hand-to-hand combat with swords and the Civil War uniforms are pretty cool, too!”
In addition to the exhibits, the eight-hour event featured a dozen speakers, highlighted by keynote speaker Craig Symonds, retired professor and chairman of the history department at the United States Naval Academy. Symonds and others covered topics ranging from blockades, Union Naval officers and British Naval power, to President Lincoln, confederate submarines and the role of African Americans in the Civil War.
The Navy Log Blog had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Craig Symonds to help place the Civil War in the illustrious history of the American Navy.
Navy Blog Log: Tell us about the importance of the Civil War in overall naval history.
Craig Symonds: First of all, it’s important in terms of technology. The Civil War took place at a time that technology was already changing. That’s not to say that the Civil War didn’t necessarily cause the change, but it surely accelerated it: steam turbines, the screw propeller (the screw propeller was first used in 1843 on the USS Princeton, but its use became more prevalent during the Civil War), exploding ordnance and metallurgy improvements -- which made the Navy faster and more lethal. Secondarily, the sheer size of the Navy grew dramatically. Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was never bigger than 100 ships, with only 43 in service. Around the time of the war, it grew to 671 registered war ships, a huge expansion that forced the creation of infrastructure and maintenance for the larger force. The third point of importance was the initiation of what we call “joint operations” today. It was extremely difficult for the Army and Navy prior to the Civil War, since they were distinct and seldom cooperated. In the Civil War, though, combined operations were necessary.
N.L.B.: Who were some of the most important figures in the Civil War navies?
C.S: Well, that starts with Farragut - the first American to be named an Admiral in 1862, and likely best known by most people for the phrase “Damn the Torpedoes” in August of 1864. Farragut is, in my opinion, the leading naval personality and hero, and deserves all the accolades he’s gotten throughout time. He never grandstanded, just kept his mouth shut. Also, I would say Samuel Francis DuPont. DuPont entered the war with the thought that he’d be the big hero – the one that Farragut ended up to be. I’d say his concern over his reputation did him in – he failed to capture Charleston in 1863, and ended up complaining about how he was portrayed in newspapers! DuPont could have been a great Civil War hero, but he was done in by too strong of a sense of honor. Finally, Naval secretary Gideon Welles. He often gets criticized by historians, portrayed as sort of an outsized personality and volatile. Much of the credit for enlarging the Navy is given to his assistant Gustavus Gosses Fox. I believe Welles has been overlooked by history- he was a loyal cabinet member to President Lincoln and should be given more credit.
N.L.B.: What lessons for today’s military can be learned/utilized from the Civil War?
C.S: There are many important lessons that you can take from the Civil War. In general, there is a certain advantage to being required to ramp up quickly for a crisis and not get stuck with outdated technology. In World War I, the British and Germans spent enormous amounts of money on battleship fleets for a confrontation that would never happen - the U-boat was the dominating equipment at that time. If we had built up warships leading up to battle with Japan, we would have been in trouble. Taking that into today’s world, it is important for us to be prepared for war in peace time, but not over-prepared with new technology, so you can still adapt when new tech emerges.
Up until the Civil War, in confrontation with overseas foes, the U.S. had generally been the weaker naval power, versus Britain in the Revolutionary War for example. Our strategy was to avoid enemy ships, and prey on commerce. In the Civil War, the North was the dominant naval power, so now we were establishing rather than avoiding blockades – it completely changed our notion of ways to use sea power.
But most importantly, the Civil War took place at a pivotal point in history, when old-fashioned war, swords, etc. gave way to total war, like the trenches and massive casualties we would ultimately see in WW I and WW II. At the time, we thought in terms of the old-fashioned warfare, but we were actually fighting a larger war of mass destruction – against infrastructure and technology. No one knew what their roles were – there was still room for personal heroism, but it was a massive war between societies. I think this is some of what we are seeing again today.
The Civil War at Sea Symposium is one of many events hosted by the U.S Navy Memorial each year. We invite you to view the full calendar of events, which includes concerts, book signings, lectures, reunions, exhibits and much more.