High Seas Confederate: The Life and Times of John Newland Maffitt
Royce Shingleton. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. 160 pp. Ind. Illus. $27.95 ($26.55).
Reviewed by Ivan Musicant
Having recently sketched the eventful Civil War career of Confederate naval officer John Newland Maffitt, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of this volume that promised to bridge a yawning biographical gap in American naval scholarship. There have been other books, good ones, concerning Maffitt, but they primarily examine his considerable exploits in command of the raider CSS Florida. Unfortunately, we must wait longer for the gap to be spanned, for Professor Shingleton’s book does not do the job.
For an author whose previous work on the naval dimension of the Civil War was the well-crafted John Taylor Wood: Sea Ghost of the Confederacy (University of Georgia Press, 1979), Professor Shingleton evinces an uncomfortable lack of focus regarding the United States and Confederate States navies, the matrix encompassing and molding his subject. It is as though Maffitt existed apart from these institutions—that his personal and professional lives were conducted in a vacuum. Almost nothing is written of the antebellum U.S. Navy, which experienced technological advance and professional stagnation in equal portion—and in which Maffitt served for more than a quarter-century. Furthermore, his contemporaries—some of whom are significant figures—rarely merit more than a quick mention. Names on a page, done and gone.
An early indication of this lapse occurs when Maffitt, in 1838, reported as a passed midshipmen to the sloop USS Vandalia, a ship commanded by Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish flag officer in the U.S. Navy and a marvelously colorful character of the old service. The author provides no comment whatever by Maffitt regarding duty under Levy, nor does he deign to recognize Levy in the text. We are left to discover this famous officer’s existence in the endnotes—and then nothing beyond his name is provided.
There is some interesting material regarding Maffitt’s 16 years of duty with the U.S. Coast Survey, a little-known sea service responsible for charting U.S. waters and the ancestor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the antebellum Navy, the few officer billets were high prizes eagerly sought, and many an able man languished on the beach “awaiting orders.” Thus, Maffitt was extremely lucky to have Coast Survey duty when colleagues of equal merit desperately sought employment or left the Navy. However, the author informs us neither of this fact nor why and how Maffitt received this assignment.
Professor Shingleton also stubbornly refuses to form any conclusions about his subject—quite extraordinary for any biographer. Instead, he relies on summations from previous works, usually Frank Lawrence Owsley, Jr.’s The CSS Florida (University of Alabama Press, 1965) and Edward Boykin’s Sea Devil of the Confederacy (Funk & Wagnalls, 1959). All too often, the author merely chronicles events and refuses to face many issues squarely. For example, Maffitt’s marital problems— grist for any biography—are not mentioned in the narrative, but hidden away, as if in shame, in the endnotes.
Another gap in the narrative concerns the unsuccessful attempt by the Navy’s short-lived Retirement Board to put Maffitt out to pasture in 1855. Given the sinister-sounding title, the “Board of Fifteen” by its many detractors, it was a reformist innovation designed to cull the old, tired, and incompetent from the officer corps. It was the brainchild of Senator Stephen Mallory, chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee at the time and the future Confederate Secretary of the Navy. Why Maffitt, after an apparently flawless career of 23 years, was chosen to bear the stigma of forced retirement, Professor Shingleton neither says nor surmises. Nor does he mention—until an offhanded afterthought at the book’s end—that the enmity of Maffitt toward Mallory during the Civil War was rooted in Maffitt’s treatment by the board.
Maffitt’s resignation from the U.S. Navy in the spring of 1861 deserves far more elaboration than provided. From the stand point of history, it is the defining moment of his life: to decide whether to remain true to the country and service—as did other southern officers, like David Glasgow Farragut, Percival Drayton, and Foxhall Parker—or to commit what many considered to be treason and “go South.” But rather than enlightening the reader to Maffitt’s political philosophy in the narrative, the author again employs endnotes to provide Maffitt’s justification for Southern secession and his own resignation—i.e., “It is absurd to claim that the people of the U[nited] S[tates] in the aggregate—as one nation—ordained and established the Constitution.”
Of Maffitt’s early Confederate service, we learn nothing of his relationship with or opinion of Robert E. Lee, whom he served as naval aide. His tenure as captain of a blockade runner on the Nassau-Wilmington passage is glossed over; the author, as ever, referring the readers to ever more marginal sources for their edification.
It was as commander of the raider Florida that John Newland Maffitt rose to historical significance; therefore, that is where any biography of the man should be expected to shine as brightly as newly polished ship’s brass. But again, to gather any information beyond that provided in the narrative—be it about Maffitt’s seagoing routine or the ethnic composition of the Florida’s crew—the reader must venture repeatedly into the dense thicket of endnotes. Despite these copious notes, however, the author inaccurately describes the Florida as schooner-rigged (it was bark-rigged).
Professor Shingleton also carries forth the common error that the Florida, her crew wracked with yellow fever, ran the Federal blockade of Mobile, Alabama, completely unarmed. The Florida certainly lacked the sights, rammers, and elevating quoins for her broadside guns, but Maffitt notes in his journal that this “misfortune was . . . slightly relieved by the completeness of our pivot guns.” Those guns were two 7-inch Blakeley rifles—a not inconsiderable battery. Whether Maffitt could have mustered adequate gun crews is another matter, of course.
All in all, this book does not live up to the purpose stated in its title. Maffitt’s life is treated as a simple chronology and his character is presented in one dimension; therefore, we never get to understand the man. As for Maffitt’s times, he lived during one of most interesting and dramatic eras in the history of the Navy and the nation, but this is not woven into the narrative. The author’s reliance on endnotes— 43 pages of them—to provide detail and background material is burdensome, and the notes often are more overblown than informative. For example, three full bibliographic citations—nine lines of type—are used to justify the sentence: “On 25 February 1832, President Andrew Jackson appointed the precocious thirteen-year-old as acting midshipman in the navy.” There are several sentences with multiple footnotes, and at least three times the author cites a nonexistent “Series 1, Volume 28” of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.
At best, High Seas Confederate provides a rough outline of the life of its subject. The full story of John Newland Maffitt, man, gentleman, and officer of two navies—and his times—remains untold.
The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich
N. A. M. Rodger. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. 425 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. $30.00 ($27.00).
Reviewed by Nathan Miller
One of the major reasons for success of the American War of Independence was the failure of the Royal Navy to strangle the rebellion of what one of King George Ill’s ministers called the “American peasants” early on. As a result, what had begun as a fracas between Great Britain and its colonies developed into a global struggle in which France, Spain, and Holland were ranged against it. It was a war that the British could not win.
John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich, was First Lord of the Admiralty during this period and—along with Lord George Germain, who was responsible for the conduct of the land war in North America—he is saddled with much of the blame for the loss of the colonies. Probably no British political figure of the 18th century has had a worse press among historians.
Sandwich usually is portrayed as a corrupt and inefficient administrator, a dissolute rake, and a tireless gambler. After all, goes the conventional wisdom, he kept his mistress, by whom he had several illegitimate children, at the Admiralty, and is supposed to have invented the snack that made his name famous so he could spend more time at the gaming tables.
Several generations of historians have depicted Sandwich as “a man entirely without nautical experience and far too much engrossed by his pleasures to concern himself with the disagreeable details of administration.” To make him even more unattractive to liberal historians, Sandwich was loyal to the King and equally determined to crush the American rebellion.
But as N. A. M. Rodger—whose The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Naval Institute Press, 1986) is the standard work on the social history of the Royal Navy in the age of fighting sail—makes it clear in this masterly and highly entertaining biography, Sandwich was a much more interesting and complex figure than usually presented.
Writing against the rich background of the panoply of 18th century life and politics, Dr. Rodger points out that not only was Sandwich an experienced naval administrator—he had served as First Lord of the Admiralty before, from 1747 to 1751—but he was one of the popularizers of cricket, an experienced diplomat, an adventurous world traveler, and a champion of the then-unpopular oratorios of George Frederic Handel.
Dr. Rodger also notes that, by the standards of the day, Sandwich was not a heavy gambler. Thus, while he may have indeed invented the sandwich, the author suggests he may have done so not to provide sustenance while gambling but to keep himself going at his desk as he worked into the night over his official files and papers.
Dr. Rodger quickly disposes of the legend that Sandwich’s regime at the Admiralty was a carnival of corruption and mismanagement. In fact, in 1749, during his first tour as civilian head of the Royal Navy, he instituted a system for inspection of the dockyards and other naval establishments to examine their condition and state of readiness. To us, this may seem obvious, but in the 18th century it was considered a radical step.
Other highlights of Sandwich’s last administration—when he was supposedly losing the American Revolution—were the coppering of the bottoms of the ships, which increased their speed and efficiency by preventing the accumulation of marine growth, and the introduction in 1779 of the carronade, a short-barreled, heavy-hitting gun that was ideal for smashing the sides of ships. Sandwich also dispatched Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages of discovery to the Pacific. In gratitude to his patron, Captain Cook gave the name Sandwich Islands to the Hawaiian group.
If any single person was responsible for the loss of the colonies, it was not Sandwich, argues Rodger, but Lord North, the prime minister. In the first two years of the war, when the revolt in America might well have been stamped out if enough force had been applied, the ministry regarded it as a comparatively minor affair. France, smarting from its defeat in the Seven Years War and thirsting for revenge, was viewed as the most dangerous enemy.
But the war was prolonged, owing to failures of British policy and command. After the Americans won the decisive battle of Saratoga in 1777, the French and Spaniards entered the struggle on the side of the Americans and the Royal Navy was too weak to deal with their combined fleets. Despite Sandwich’s efforts over the years to persuade North to make the Navy ready in case of such an event, the prime minister insisted on cutting naval expenditures. After all, low taxes and balanced budgets meant stable ministries.
Lord North ignored the fact that ships in reserve had deteriorated, the dockyards were undermanned, and there was a shortage of crews for the warships that were ready for sea. As a result of these sins of commission and omission, the Royal Navy was battered in the English Channel and, momentarily, lost control of the sea off the North American coast. Yorktown and the breakup of the first British Empire followed.
It is often said that we don’t learn from history, but as contemporary American policymakers take the scalpel to the nation’s defense, they might well profit from the British example in the last quarter of the 18th century.
Ironclad of the Roanoke: Gilbert Elliott’s Albemarle
Robert G. Elliott. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing Company, 1994. 372 pp. Append. Bib. Ulus. Maps. Notes. Photos. $29.95 ($28.45).
Reviewed by Captain William T. Alexander II, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
In the September-October 1994 issue of Naval History, the distinguished historian Shelby Foote agreed that naval matters had received short shrift in the chronicles of the Civil War. He opined that historians and writers should pay more attention to this aspect of the conflict. Now, as if on cue, comes Robert T. Elliott’s superbly documented work about one of the Confederacy’s most formidable ironclads and the resourceful young man who built her.
To break the crushing Union blockade of Southern ports, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory planned a fleet of 52 ironclads that would sweep the wooden ships of the U.S. Navy from the approaches to the Confederacy’s harbors. Ironclad of the Roanoke recounts one example of Secretary Mallory’s bold—but ultimately fruitless—strategy at work. Of the planned 52 ships of the Confederate armored fleet, 30 were laid down and never completed. Of the 22 ships that were completed and launched, 17 were scuttled to prevent their capture, and four were captured by Union forces.
However, the Albemarle remains one of the few bright spots in the frustrating history of the Confederate Navy and a book-length telling of her story has been needed for a long time. Her construction— performed in a hurriedly built shipyard on the banks of North Carolina’s Roanoke River—was a feat in itself. With a builder of less determination than Gilbert Elliott, the Albemarle probably would not have been finished. Nevertheless, she was well- built by Mr. Elliott and well-fought by her first commander, James W. Cooke. The Albemarle significantly assisted the Confederate recapture of Plymouth, North Carolina, and, although heavily outnumbered, she was able to drive back the Union ships that blocked the western limits of Albemarle Sound. Overnight, the Albemarle became the bane of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
The author devoted five years to researching the history of his ancestral relative, Gilbert Elliott, as well as all aspects of the construction and the heroic, albeit brief, active service of the Albemarle. In doing so, he tapped vast private collections of personal papers and other primary source documents located in libraries, archives, and museums.
At times, however, it seems that the author is trying to give his readers a drink from a fire hose. For example, he devotes almost four pages of text to defining the terminology used in ship construction. Most readers probably do not want to know all that much about “rabbets,” “futtocks,” and “garboard strakes.” An illustration of a ship’s hull with these and other components clearly labelled would have been more useful. In a few places, the narrative becomes choppy when the author inserts a biographical paragraph or three about newly introduced players. These introductions could have been more smoothly integrated into the story. This problem, however, is more than offset by the well-placed quotations from the diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmonston, who resided in a plantation near the shipyard. Her sharp- eyed and often critical observations of events add a refreshing perspective to the narrative—and make her an equal to South Carolina’s Mary Chestnut.
Gilbert Elliott was an 18-year-old law clerk in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, when he convinced the Confederate Navy that he was a competent ship constructor who could deliver well-made ships in a timely fashion. Perhaps the navy was impressed that Elliott came from a long line of shipwrights and that he had practical experience building ships—albeit small coastal traders. By the end of 1861, the Confederate Navy had contracted for Elliott to build a number of gunboats.
After a brief stint in the 17th North Carolina Volunteers in 1862, Elliott was given a two-year furlough and returned home to supervise construction of an ironclad. Some of the problems that faced Elliott during the construction of the Albemarle were: a lack of experienced shipyard workers, chronic shortages of material (especially iron), the constant risk that the shipyard would be captured by the enemy, unreliable transportation, an inept local naval commander, and the need to build a shipyard from scratch. In spite of his relative youth—or maybe because of it—Gilbert Elliott overcame these and other obstacles with aplomb and earned the respect of the Albemarle’s captain and the appreciation of Secretary Mallory.
The book graphically depicts the Albemarle’s baptism of fire on 19 April 1864. That evening, she attacked Union ships at Plymouth, North Carolina, rammed and sank the USS Southfield, and damaged the USS Miami. On 5 May 1864, the Albemarle went up against seven U.S. Navy gunboats in Albemarle Sound. Although rammed by one ship and, at one point, surrounded by three furiously firing ships, the ironclad severely damaged the USS Sassacus and steamed off under her own power—albeit with her boilers fired by bacon, ham, and lard. Commander Francis A. Roe, the captain of the crippled Sassacus, wrote after the action:
I am forced to think that [the] Albemarle is more formidable than the Merrimack [sic] or Atlanta, for our solid 100-pounder rifle shot flew into splinters upon her iron plates.
Such a menace to the Union Navy had to be eliminated—and by means other than open battle. The task fell to Lieutenant William B. Cushing, U.S. Navy. Robert Elliott accurately describes Lieutenant Cushing’s renowned foray against the Albemarle in the wee hours of 28 October 1864. The intrepid Lieutenant Cushing equipped a small steam launch with a spar torpedo and hand-picked a crew from many volunteers. Covered by both darkness and rain, he took the launch up the Roanoke River to Plymouth, approached the ironclad under a withering fire, cleared the protective log boom around her, and detonated the torpedo under her hull. The Albemarle quickly sank.
As well researched as this book is, two areas cry for further development. The first relates to the Albemarle’s propulsion plant, which was reasonably effective. This was not the case with most Confederate ironclads—including the Virginia. Why was the Albemarle different?
The second area is the manning of the ship. The author states that the local army commander provided 20 soldiers, but Appendices II and III imply that there were many more crewmen. Where did they come from and how were they trained? The Albemarle got under way for the first time on 17 April 1864 and went into action two days later. How in the world did the crew become that proficient in so short a time?
Robert G. Elliott has filled a big void in Civil War naval history with this book. I am hopeful that Ironclad of the Roanoke will stimulate more good quality research and writing that will please students of the Civil War—including Shelby Foote.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Pusan Perimeter, Korea, 1950: An Annotated Bibliography
Paul M. Edwards (Ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993. 160 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. $55.00 ($52.25).
Books, documents, surveys, articles, monographs, and official and unofficial reports covering the early days of the Korean War from June to September 1950 are here gathered, organized, and annotated. Also included are a chronology of events, a brief history of the period, a discussion of archival sources, useful appendices, and indices by author, subject, and periodical.
The Dutch Navy of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Jaap R. Bruijn. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. 270 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Tables. $34.95 ($33.20).
Before Britannia ruled the waves. Dutch sea dogs were masters of the European seas. Bruijin describes the rise and fall of the Dutch Navy over two centuries, linking it to the corresponding ascendancy and decline of the Dutch Republic. Besides attending to the operations and the battles, this history encompasses the administrative, logistical, and social components of Dutch sea power and sheds new light on an aspect of Western maritime heritage that is frequently overlooked.
The U-Boat War in the Caribbean
Gaylord T. M. Kelshall. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994. 540 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $32.95 ($26.36).
Despite the overall peripheral nature of the Caribbean theater in World War II, the U-boat war was no less ferocious here than on the North Atlantic. In fact, by the end of 1942, 36% of all worldwide shipping losses were occurred there. Based on extensive documentary research and interviews with surviving U-boat captains, this book details the operations of the German submarines and their adversaries. Also examined are the effect of radio intelligence, the evolving antisubmarine capabilities of the Allied navies, and the often- strained relations between the United States and its Caribbean neighbors and between the U.S. and Royal Navies.
The Royal Navy: An Illustrated Social History, 1870-1982
Capt. John Wells, RN (Ret.). Dover, NH: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994. 316 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $40.00 ($36.00).
Behavior in battle, discipline, food and drink, recruitment, training, discipline, pay, and clothing of the Royal Navy are all depicted in words and pictures in this detailed record. The period covered encompasses a great many changes and important historical events. The picturesque mid-Victorian Navy, the revolutionary changes instigated by Admiral Sir John Fisher, the World Wars, and the “last gasp of empire” in the Falklands Conflict all serve as backdrops for this examination of the social aspects of life in the Royal Navy.
Whaling Will Never Do for Me: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century
Briton Cooper Busch. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994. 277 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Tables. $29.00 ($27.55).
Focusing more upon the social aspects of life on board whaling vessels than upon the commercial or operational sides of the venture, Busch details the compact but complex world of whalemen at sea. Crime and punishment, labor protests, mutiny, racial strife, and the role of women on board these ships are among the aspects of whaling life covered in this book. Melville is confirmed, clarified, and enhanced by this study.