The Rise of the Union Navy and Its Fall from Memory

Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was unprepared for any kind of sustained conflict. Despite inadequate technology, naval authorities were resistant to change, and the naval fleet was small and aging. There were approximately fifteen hundred Union naval officers on duty, and many of them were many years in grade because of insufficient retirement procedures. What’s more, an outdated structure of officer grades existed that hindered strong leadership. However, by the end of the Civil War, the Union Navy developed an entirely new infrastructure, added hundreds of boats to its fleet, and recruited enough officers to execute a blockade covering 3600 miles and cut the Confederacy in half by taking control of the Mississippi River, all while helping the Union win the Civil War. In other words, the navy immobilized quickly and effectively enough to alter the course of history. Still, the accomplishments and contributions of the Union Navy are rarely studied and largely forgotten in Civil War memory. This paper will explore the contributions of the Union Navy and the importance of these contributions toward a Union victory. Furthermore, this paper will discuss how the Union Navy is remembered, and why it has largely forgotten.

For decades before the Civil War, the United States was aware that the Navy lagged behind and would be ill prepared against a more modern navy. After recognizing the need for better-trained officers, Fort Severn in Annapolis, Maryland was chosen as the location for instruction, and the U.S. Naval Academy was established in 1850. New training methods were developed and in the eleven years leading up to the Civil War, a new generation of naval leadership passed through the Naval Academy. Furthermore, the growing desire for advancement in international affairs following the War of 1812 led to increased momentum in naval affairs in carrying out expeditions around the globe. And as the demand for steam power replaced sail power, the Navy went to work building new steamers. Most notably, Lieutenant John Adolphus Dahlgren, who later became a rear admiral during the war, led the design and construction of the new steamers from 1845 until the war out of Washington Naval Yard.

Thus, heading into the Civil War, the Union Navy was carrying some momentum, but for the most part, the Union Navy remained inadequate for the task at hand. The Naval Registrar of 1861 shows that there were only 90 ships in total, and “21 were unfit to go to sea at all, 27 were laid up in various navy yards in need of more of less extensive repairs or were on stocks not yet ready to be launched, and 28 were on foreign stations” (Nash, 15). This left only 14 vessels to cover 3600 miles of coastline, 200 bays, inlets, or river mouths, and 10 ports. Furthermore, after 370 naval officers resigned to support the confederacy, the Union navy began the war with only about 1500 naval officers, and these officers lacked an organized system of leadership and an organized retirement procedure.

This was the situation that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox, and General-and-Chief Winfield Scott were presented with. Before the war started, Lincoln called for 18,000 to serve in the Navy for enlistments of one to three years, but as the war progressed, the supply of sailors failed to meet demand, and the navy was forced into aggressive recruiting techniques and even accepted newly arrived immigrants. Over the next two years, Welles and Fox went about restructuring the navy as they instituted a retirement system and a new structure in officer grades and salaries. And of course, the Navy Department went about purchasing and building new vessels, and by the end of the war, had purchased over 500 steamers and sailing craft.

While this infrastructure was being put in place, President Lincoln was deciding his course of action, and a week after the outbreak of war, Lincoln called for a blockade of the Confederacy as suggested in General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”. The south was heavily reliant on Europe and western states for food and materials, so Scott proposed a plan that called for a blockade encircling the Confederacy along the coastline and a fleet of gunboats that would patrol the Mississippi River. This plan was intended to cut off the Confederacy from outside resources and to split the Confederacy in two by controlling the Mississippi River, which would eventually force the Confederacy to surrender because they ran out of food and supplies. This plan was not well received by the public because it was expected to take too much time and aggressive Northerners demanded “On to Richmond”, but as the Civil War played out, the “Anaconda Plan” was in fact the Union’s naval strategy.

The blockade went into effect immediately, but as expected, it was initially highly ineffective. As the war progressed, however, the blockade became highly effective as organization improved and the number of blockade ships increased. To manage this extensive blockade, the Union Navy was split into two Blockading Squadrons. The Atlantic Blockading Squadron was broken into the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which patrolled Virginia and North Carolina, and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which patrolled from South Carolina to Florida. Similarly, the second squadron, The Gulf Blockading Squadron was split into the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, which patrolled the Gulf side of Florida, and the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, which patrolled from Pensacola to Rio Grande. A few months later, a third squadron, the Mississippi River Flotilla, was added and was responsible for the upper Mississippi River.

The Atlantic Squadron saw action first with the Hatteras Inlet campaign, which also represented the first join-action campaign of the war. General Butler of the army and Flag Officer Stringham of the Atlantic Blockade Squadron combined forces to capture Hatteras Inlet, which ended up being the first Union naval victory of the war and the first significant triumph of any kind for the North, giving a needed boast of morale for people at home. With Hatteras Inlet secured, the Union military turned its attention toward another joint mission at Roanoke Island. The capture of Roanoke would eliminate the waters of North Carolina of its Confederate presence entirely. The Union Navy was instrumental in transporting troops and coordinating the advance of General Burnside’s troops, and soon enough, the Union flag flew over Roanoke Island. Port Royal marked yet another conquest by the U.S. Navy which garnered the Union Navy new respect from many Northerners. Even Robert E. Lee noted the strength of the Union Navy and its superiority over the Confederate Navy as he stated “there are so many points to attack, and so little means to meet them on water, that there is but little rest” (Calore, 109). This remark came after the Union Navy had completed the remarkable achievement of closing and occupying every port on the Atlantic coast with the exception of Wilmington and Charleston by April 1862.

While the Atlantic Blockade Squadron was garnering victories in the East, the Mississippi Flotilla was asserting its presence in the West. The goal of the flotilla was to gain control of the Mississippi River and to sever the ties between the Confederate states in the west and the Confederate states in the east. Captain Andrew Foote was given command of the Mississippi Flotilla to lead this mission. After the flotilla was fully equipped, the first goal was to join forces with General Grant to attach Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Although the Union gunboats suffered some serious damage, the Union Navy successfully captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson over course of two weeks by effectively softening up the Confederate forces before General Grant launched his infantry assaults. With the additional capture of Island No. 10, the Union Navy had asserted its control over the Upper Mississippi River by April 1862 under Foote’s command, and Memphis soon followed suit as the Union military captured Memphis. This southward momentum was soon halted when the Union offensive on Vicksburg was scaled back, and the Mississippi Flotilla was used primarily as an escort to Union vessels in a period of low activity before the joint expedition on Vicksburg.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Blockading Squadron and Captain David Farragut were in charge of the capture of New Orleans, which served as the primary center for Confederate activities in the Gulf. The Gulf Blockading Squadron met resistance at Fort Jackson, and after days of fighting, the Union military forcibly took control of Fort Jackson, because of their unwillingness to surrender, before moving onto New Orleans without resistance as New Orleans was in a state of complete chaos. With the additional surrender of Baton Rouge, the Gulf Squadron had placed the lower Mississippi under Union control. Furthermore, the “army’s success in the western theater owed a great deal to the victories and support of the U.S. Navy” and the “Union forces almost certainly would have had to wage a longer fighter” (Calore, 165) without the support of the Union Navy.

The greatest challenge, however, faced the Mississippi Flotilla and General Ulysses S. Grant as preparations were made for the capture of Vicksburg. Rear Admiral David Porter was chosen to assume command of the newly named Mississippi Squadron, and his presence was felt immediately as he made additions to the fleet, including tinclads. According to Porter’s Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, Porter “sent a messenger to General Grant informing him that [he] had taken command of the naval forces, and should be happy to cooperate with him in any enterprise he might think proper to undertake” (Thompson, 123). In other words, Rear Admiral Porter was especially cooperative and willing to assist the army to the best of his capabilities, and this aid would prove indispensible at Vicksburg. This is especially evident in the case of General Butler who’s “lack of cooperation with the navy not only doomed the Vicksburg expedition but also forced a reconsideration of all future efforts in the lower river valley” (Joiner, 89). In juxtaposing this with the cooperative efforts of Porter and Grant, it is clear that the success of the army at Vicksburg hinged upon cooperation with the Union Navy.

Unfortunately, river conditions postponed an attack on Vicksburg, and the inability of Grant’s troops to mobilize led to the failure of another attack on Vicksburg, but as the Union military regained strength, the Mississippi Squadron maintained continuous shelling of Vicksburg while Grants troops moved from Jackson to Vicksburg, and Grant placed siege on the city of Vicksburg in late May 1863. The inhabitants of Vicksburg were desperate by July and surrendered the city on July 4th. This was a very significant victory in the West for as Porter remarks, “I realized my proudest hopes in beholding the great Father of Waters opened to the sea” (Thompson, 192). The Mississippi River was now under complete command of the Union, and the Union military had worked in perfect harmony to command such a momentous victory that is still considered one of the most important victories of the Civil War.

Furthermore, this allowed the Union Navy to focus its attention on the three remaining Confederate ports, Mobile Bay in the Gulf, and Charleston and Wilmington in the Atlantic. In Mobile Bay, the Gulf Squadron skillfully took down Confederate opponents at sea, and a joint expedition captured Fort Morgan in 1864 and the city of Mobile by 1865. According to Porter, this meant, “the days of blockade-runners are over” (Calore, 193). The city of Charleston, the “cradle of the rebellion”, was also abandoned in February 1865 after the Atlantic Squadron had shut down the port as Sherman’s March to the Sea approached Charleston and severed communications with the rest of the Confederacy.

Thus, the only port remaining in the Confederacy was Wilmington, North Carolina, which was strategically protected by the most formidable fort in the Confederacy, Fort Fisher. Wilmington served as the last lifeline for food and ammunition for the Confederacy, and it was of utmost importance that Fort Fisher protected the port. According to Farragut, the closing of Wilmington, which was the last port open to blockade-runners, would effectively “be like severing the jugular vein in the human system” (Nash, 259). After months of trying warfare, Fort Fisher was eventually overcome as the Union Navy surrounded it at sea and the Union army attacked on land, and Wilmington was occupied on April 22nd, 1865. Thus, the “Anaconda Plan” had been carried out completely, and not surprisingly, the Civil War ended three months later.

So far this paper has gone to great lengths to recount the achievements of the Union Navy during the Civil War, but these incredible accomplishments have been largely forgotten. In the preface of Gary D. Joiner’s work, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy, Joiner mentions that the “Mississippi Squadron is one of the least studied aspects of the Civil War” but that “without it, however, the war in the West may not have been won.” Although this particular statement speaks only of the Mississippi Squadron, it is demonstrative of the sentiments toward the Union Navy as a whole. Their achievements were great, yet their recognition is small. The remainder of the paper will discuss the significance of their achievements and reasons why their story is not remembered.

The effectiveness of the Union Blockade as part of the Anaconda Plan is often debated. The Confederacy relied almost entirely on blockade running for necessities like arms, ammunition, and medicine, and at first blockade running was very easy. As this paper has explored, the Union Navy was weak at the onset of the Civil War. However, as the blockade improved, blockade running became more difficult and more lucrative. According to Howard Nash, Jr.’s A Naval History of the Civil War, “the most important use the Union made of its overwhelming Naval superiority, and one to which historians have paid too little attention, was the establishment and maintenance of the blockade of the Confederate States” (Nash, 300). Nash asserts that the blockade captured 1149 blockade runners, and burned, sank or drove ashore another 335, in addition to the trade that was discouraged as a result of the blockade, which “to a country as dependant on the outside world for as many things as the Confederacy was these were fatal blows” (Nash, 300). According to Nash, some writers have suggested that the blockade had no effect on the outcome of the war, but this is nonsense considering the fact that the blockade cut of a people from necessary supplies that they were not able to produce themselves. Furthermore, the Confederacy would not have dedicated such efforts to blockade running and to the establishment of impressive forts like Fort Fisher to protect blockade-runners in a time of such limited finances if the blockade did not have an effect on the outcome of the war.

The Navy was also especially important for its joint efforts with the Union army. The Union Navy only won three singlehanded, but their impact on the army was undeniable. For example, General Butler was unable to capture Vicksburg without naval assistance, but General Grant was able to capture Vicksburg with the help of Rear Admiral Porter. Similarly, the Union lost or reached at stalemate for most of the battles fought where the services could not cooperate like at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, or Antietam. However, at battles where the two forces did cooperate, the Union military was more successful than not as is evident everywhere in the west. The ability of the two services to cooperate was invaluable, and the Union Navy’s ability to transport troops and offer assistance in versatile ways has gone unnoticed but was significant and altered the course history nonetheless.

Lastly, the nature of the war required a strong navy, and the Union Navy occupied this role. In seceding from the United States, the Confederacy had a different outlook on the war than did the Union. In other words, victory meant different things for each side. For the Union to win, the southern states had to return back to the Union, whereas the Confederacy was able to wage a defensive war where victory meant that they outlasted the Union. Thus, the only way that the Union could win was by offensive submission or by forcing the Confederate states to need the Union to survive. Since the army was not strong enough to force the Confederacy into submission, the Union Navy was needed to cut the Confederacy off from supplies until they could not survive without the Union. The Union Navy, by executing the “Anaconda Plan,” could do this in ways that the army could not, and for this reason, the Union Navy was vital to the Union Victory in the Civil War.

Thus, it is clear that the Union Navy was essential for the success of the Union in the Civil War, but it still uncertain why the successes of the Union Navy are not remembered. For one, I believe that the Union Navy is not well remembered because its job was not a glamorous one. According to Paul Calore’s Naval Campaign’s of the Civil War, “combat action was not as frequent as it was in the army, nor as severe” (Calore, 48). This is obvious when you compare figures like the estimated 380,000 soldiers that died in the army compared to the naval combat losses of 2,110. Even to the sailors themselves, life was dull and monotonous on the vessels. Furthermore, the ships of the Mississippi Squadron were looked upon as “ungainly monsters…’stinkpots’ and ‘turtles’” (Joiner, 29). In other words, the perception of the Navy was unglamorous, and the achievements of the Navy were probably underemphasized from the very beginning of Civil War memories.

The barely existent nature of the memory of the Union Navy can also probably be contributed to the nature of the work that the Union Navy did. Much of the time, the navy spearheaded what could be considered to be behind the scenes work. The transportation of soldiers is important, but not usually memorable. Furthermore, the nature of naval warfare unfortunately inhibited the capacity of the Union Navy to win battles. In other words, the Union Navy could not win the Civil War by itself, but the Union Army could not have won the war with the Union Navy. On a number of occasions, gunboats would shell a fort for days and army would attack from behind or while the enemy was tired, as was the case at Fort Fisher. This grueling and often unseen work probably contributes to the lack of Civil War memories about the naval accomplishments.

Similarly, the humility exemplified the leadership in the Union Navy probably contributes to these forgotten memories. The Secretary of the Navy Welles “shunned the limelight” (Joiner, 6) and made effort to keep information from leaking out, as he did not particularly like the press. Welles’ secretive nature probably prevented the spread of information about the accomplishments of his Navy. Likewise, Rear Admiral Porter writes how he “always deferred to [Grant’s] wishes in all matters, and went so far as to give orders to those under my command that they should obey the orders of Generals Grant and Sherman the same as if they came from myself” (Porter, 139). Lastly, Winfield Scott who was responsible for the creation of the “Anaconda Plan” was highly controversial in his time and his plan was not well received, even though it ended up winning the war for the Union. These leaders who played a significant role in the success of the Union Navy were either extremely humble or not well liked, and as a result, Civil War memory has pushed them to the side to make way for more ‘interesting’ figures like Ulysses S. Grant, George McClellan, or Robert E. Lee.

Lastly, I believe that the Union Navy is largely forgotten because of what happened to the U.S. Navy following the conclusion of the Civil War. Although a new infrastructure was put in place and the naval technology had advanced in leaps and bounds, the demand for naval growth following the war was non-existent and the government was unable to pay shipbuilders, which meant that those who had built ironclads during the war were not paid in full and ended up leaving the industry. Unfortunately, according to William H. Robert’s Civil War Ironclads, “by the time the ‘New Navy’ of the 1880’s began to appear, however, few traces remained of the massive industrial mobilization of the war years, and the lessons of the war had been largely forgotten” (Roberts, 171).

Calore, Paul. Campaigns of the Civil War. 2002

Joiner, Gary D. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy. 2007.

Nash Jr., Howard P. A Naval History of the Civil War. 1972.

Roberts, William H. Civil War Ironclads. 2002.

Thompson, Brian M. Blue & Grey at Sea. 2003.

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As I’ve read through McPherson’s “Battle Cry for Freedom” and as we have discussed Civil War topics in class, I have found my interests to be scattered. My Digital Commonplace Book would demonstrate that I have been interested in historical figures leading up to the Civil War, the Confederate Constitution, the Battle of Memphis, and the USS Kearsarge vs. the USS Alabama. At first glance, it is difficult to find the glue that holds these interests together. But as I wrote in my first entry, I have developed an interest in the way that historical memory is constructed. Why do certain events garner such historical importance? And why are other historical actions forgotten? My study of the Civil War has been centered on these questions, and as I began to focus my interests, I looked into the ways in which the Naval history of the Civil War is constructed. Big battles in the east such as Gettysburg and Antietam seem to shape modern memory, but many of the battles that held strategic significance took place in the West and at sea with the help of the rapidly evolving naval warfare. In my Digital Commonplace Book, I would like to show that there is much more behind the Civil War than modern memory would suggest, and in particular, I would like to argue that the growth of the Union and Confederate Navies were significant and should be incorporated into the popular memory of the Civil War.

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USS Alabama vs. USS Kearsarge (1864)

The USS Alabama was a screw sloop-of-war built for the Confederate Navy in 1862. Led by her captain, Raphael Semmes, the Alabama served as a commerce raider and she “roamed the seas and destroyed or captured sixty-four American merchant ships” (McPherson, 547). This made the USS Alabama the most successful rebel ships. Interestingly enough, however, the USS Alabama never anchored in a southern port for the duration of her two-year career.

The USS Kearsarge was built in 1861, but she was commissioned in February of 1862 to hunt for Confederate raiders. Under Captain Charles W. Pickering, the USS Kearsarge prepared to fight the USS Alabama, and she searched for the raider along the coast of Northern Europe. Under her new captain, John Winslow, the Kearsarge found the Alabama at Cherbourg, France on June 14, 1864, and she patrolled the harbor’s entrance as she waited for the Alabama. Winslow moved toward the Alabama and the Alabama opened fire and the Kearsarge retaliated. After an hour, the CSS Alabama began to sink and Captain Semmes surrendered.

"The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama" by Edouard Manet

I find the Battle of Cherbourg to be particularly interesting because it demonstrates the far-reaching effects of the Civil War. The Alabama was one of the most successful rebel raiders and she never anchored at a Southern port, which demonstrates the global nature of the Civil War. Furthermore, the Alabama was built in England and was repaired in France, which demonstrates the prevalence of foreign aid. The Civil War is often remembered because it pitted American families against each other, but foreign involvement in the US Civil War is often forgotten.

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Battle of Memphis

In reading through James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”, I have become aware of the growth of the Navy and the significance of Naval warfare during the Civil War. I find this particularly interesting because the Civil War allowed for this rapid growth. For example, the Union only had 42 ships in commission at the start of the war, and by the end of the war, the Union Navy had 671 ships.

Keeping in line with my interest in the way the Civil War is remembered, I was particularly interested in the Battle of Memphis. I, for one, had never heard of the Battle of Memphis despite the fact that it was a lopsided victory for the Union and held strategic significance for the remainder of the Civil War. According to McPherson, “Union forces conquered 50,000 square miles of territory, gained control of 1,000 miles of navigable rivers, captured two state capitals and the South’s largest city, and put 30,000 enemy soldiers out of action” (McPherson, 422). The Ellet Rams led by Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr. and Union gunboats were able to dismantle the rebel fleet stationed outside Memphis, and after a couple of hours, “the rebel fleet existed no more” (418). The Union then occupied Memphis and used it as a base for the future. Thus, the Union Navy asserted its control over the Mississippi River and ultimately led to a decline in the southern morale. Nonetheless, the Battle of Memphis is almost forgotten from modern memory of the Civil War, why?

Battle of the Rams

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The Confederate Constitution

In the first century of its existence, the United States of America was already suffering an identity crisis. In a country that prided itself upon its ability to compromise, compromise had failed and southerners felt that their way of life was called into question in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Interestingly enough, proponents of both the northern and southern ways of life turned to the ideas of the founding fathers in order to defend their beliefs.

Lincoln is remembered for his relentless desire to defend the Union and the Constitution of the United States of America. According to Lincoln, secession was not an option and that by the powers vested in the constitution, he had the right to do everything in his power to protect the Union. Southern states, however, believed that they had the power to nullify anything that the Federal Government did within their state because just as they signed the constitution to join the Union, they could secede. Thus, Southern States believed that the ability to secede was not excluded by the Constitution.

The Confederate Constitution, however, contains language that seems to acknowledge weaknesses in the Southern belief that secession is permissible by the Constitution. For example, “each State acting in its sovereign and independent character” is added in the preamble of the Confederate Constitution. Furthermore, “the Confederate version called a slave a slave” (McPherson, 258). By making these changes to the Constitution in the Confederate Constitution, I believe that the southerners are acknowledging that state sovereignty and slavery are not permitted by the original Constitution. I think this is a good example of the Confederacy re-writing history and our memory of the Civil War.

Confederate Constitution:

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Commonplace Book: Week 1

Beginning with our discussion of memory in Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover and Roberts and Olson’s A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, I have been interested in the way that our memory of history is constructed. Furthermore, I find it particularly interesting to notice who is remembered in history, and this is significant in our memory of the Civil War. Furthermore, I am interested in who is not remembered. For example, John Brown, who was radical and largely unsuccessful, is considered an important historical figure, while President James K. Polk, who acquired more land than any other President in US history, is not well remembered. In this blog post, I will focus my attention on a number of players in James McPherson’s work on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.

President James K. Polk “during his one-term administration the country expanded by two-thirds with the annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon Boundary, and the seizure of all Mexican provinces north of 31°” (McPherson, 47). More importantly, the acquisition of this land was significant because it ended up being a battleground for the issue of the expansion of slavery. In the 1850’s, several characters emerge as people who ignited tensions leading toward the Civil War, but James K. Polk is not as widely remembered.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot, on the other hand, is widely remembered for his Wilmot Proviso, which aimed to halt the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired from Mexico. Although this proclamation is not insignificant, David Wilmot was not alone is his position. Furthermore, Wilmot was a largely unsuccessful Congressman as he was forced to withdraw from the Congressional elections of 1850. Nonetheless, the memory of David Wilmot will always be connected to the Civil War despite the fact that he did not serve as a congressman during the Civil War and the decade preceding it.

James B. D. De Bow, an influential writer for the “Commercial Review of the South and West” which was popularly known as “De Bow’s Review,” has faded in history as time has passed. I, for one, had never heard of De Bow, but throughout McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, De Bow provides significant insight and was influential of the contemporary southern economic views.

John W. Geary

Similarly, John W. Geary, who presided as a Governor of “Bleeding Kansas,” is someone I have never heard of even though he was responsible for “suppressing nearly all of the violence” in Kansas in a mere two months (161). Furthermore, according the McPherson, the temporary cessation of violence in Kansas opened the door that “brought some disaffected northern Democrats back into the fold” (161). For such an important figure, I am surprised that I have never heard his name after years of studying American history.

John Brown

This selective memory of the Civil War is only demonstrated further for me when I realize that John Brown is a well-remembered component of Civil War history. From my understanding of Brown, he was extremely radical and probably crazed. What’s more is that Brown did not even succeed in his plot to “invade the South” (204). Brown thought he would attract the support of slaves in order to start an uprising, but time passed and “additional recruits did not arrive” (205). Frederick Douglass is notable for having rejected the plea of Brown to assist in his scheme.

Thus, as I read the early chapters of McPherson’s work, my attention is drawn to the legacy of the Civil War and why particular characters stand out in history while others are forgotten.

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Why does Ishmael Survive?

After a drawn out search for Moby Dick, the actual encounter with Moby Dick ends Melville’s work rather abruptly leaving only one survivor, Ishmael. This peculiar, yet very deliberate, ending begs the question, why does Ishmael survive? It makes sense that the narrator of the story must survive in order to tell his story, but Melville could have written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Thus, Melville chooses to write from the perspective of a first person narrative knowing that the work will culminate with the demise of the crew. In other words, Melville believes that it is important that his story be told from the perspective of a first person narrative. I think that Melville chooses to tell his story from the perspective of Ishmael because a first person narrator gives the story a sense of authenticity. Melville goes to great depths to describe the happenings aboard the Pequod and the different types of whales, which provide authentic insights into the 19th century whaling industry. Ishmael, as opposed to an unnamed omniscient narrator, adds to this authenticity and his survival is necessary to maintain this authentic feel of the whaling industry and the narrative in Melville’s “Moby Dick”.

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Moby Dick Collection Item

In the process of collecting whale oil, the whale’s blubber was melted down and contained in barrels underneath the main deck. What’s interesting about the collection of whale oil was that the oil was processed entirely on the ship, so the whaling ship was sort of a mobile factory. The item that I have chosen to collect is called a skimmer, which was used to sift out the “fritters”, solid pieces of blubber and skin, that remained from the melted blubber, which were then recycled and used as fuel to keep fires burning aboard ship. This skimmer was one of the many tools used aboard whaling ships that came along with the evolution of the whaling industry. Furthermore, this skimmer represents the ways in which whaling ships became mini-factories on extended voyages.

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Natural Law

Jack Devlin

February 23, 2011

Natural Law

Beginning largely with Crevecoeur, the search for the American Identity persisted throughout the 18th and 19th Century. With the American Revolution, the newly named United States of America broke away from an authoritarian government and began work on a Constitution rooted in the radical ideas of freedom and democracy. The constitution and the Bill of Rights were written with the natural rights of every citizen in mind. Thus, it is evident that the concept of natural law is particularly important in understanding what it means to be American. This paper will look at examples of natural law in the works we have read this semester in order to come to a better understanding of what role natural law plays in our American Identity.

To open up this discussion of natural law, I will first turn to none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were American transcendentalists who emphasized the importance of democratic spirituality and the relationship between people and nature. They were both proponents of a new wave of American intellectualism, and their beliefs centered largely on natural law. Emerson’s essay, “Nature”, begins predominantly as a call to arms for American intellectuals to step up as new men as opposed to building “sepulchers of the fathers”. What’s more is that Emerson suggests that new men must only look to nature to find guidance, “the foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face”. In other words, one must look no farther than nature to see what it means to be an American. Emerson establishes that “nature is already describing its own design” and that we must “interrogate that great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us”. Here, Emerson is asserting that nature already dictates how we must act, and all we must do is work in harmony with the laws that nature has dictated and we will excel.

Emerson, however, does concede, “few adults can see nature” and qualifies a lover of nature as one “who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood”.  Thus, Emerson appears to suggest that harmony with nature is difficult or at the very least uncommon to achieve in manhood. Nonetheless, Emerson attests to the power of harmony with nature when he asserts that the powerful feeling or emotion of “thinking justly or doing right…. does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both”. For me, this is where Emerson attests to the existence of natural law. In other words, the feeling of acting justly comes from within man and his ability to harmonize with nature. Hence, natural law, for Emerson, is that which feels just or right when man is in harmony with nature. From here I will discuss this topic of natural law in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Roberts and Olson’s A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, and Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Live of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.

First, I will try to flesh out two allusions to natural law in Thoreau’s Walden. In “Economy”, the first chapter of Walden, the reader should come to understand the phrase that is always attributed to Thoreau, and that is the idea of living simply. According to Thoreau, the only necessities of man are food, clothing, shelter, and fuel, and nature provides all of these things. Thus, Thoreau argues, much like Emerson, that one must look no farther than nature to find a guide for how to live. Moreover, I would like to call attention to two passages in particular in “The Bean-Field” and “Baker Farm” where Thoreau implies that natural law does in fact exist.

In “The Bean-Field”, Thoreau writes about his experience farming beans, but what is interesting is the way in which Thoreau approaches his work. In particular, Thoreau is critical of the farmer who “leads the meanest of lives” (184) and “knows Nature but as a robber” (184).  Here, Thoreau is alluding to a farmer’s frustration when his farm yields a poor harvest.  In response, Thoreau mentions that the “sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction” (184) and that instead of thinking of nature as a thief, we must “receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity” (184). In other words, Thoreau suggests that the farmer should respect nature and be grateful of whatever harvest the land yields, for in this way, we are in harmony with nature. Thoreau is implying here, that he approaches his bean field in this manner, and that as a result, he is truly satisfied with his crop. Natural law is clearly at work in this passage because this mutual respect with nature is an example of Thoreau’s belief that if one operates within natural law and is in harmony with nature, one will be satisfied.

Thoreau’s chapter, “Baker Farm”, offers another strong example of his belief that natural law exists. On a fishing trip, Thoreau is caught in a rainstorm and takes refuge in a hut near Baker Farm where he encounters John Field and his family of poor Irish immigrants. Thoreau and Field engage in conversation, but Thoreau imposes his belief in living simply upon Field, who is not receptive to Thoreau’s advice. The passage, however, that I am most interested in comes at the end of the chapter where Thoreau and Field, “with altered mind” (228), go fishing together. According to Thoreau, Field has a tough time catching any fish whereas Thoreau is “catching a fair string” (228). Furthermore, Field blames luck for his poor yield, but when they “changed seats in the boat luck changed seats too” (228). Thoreau is pretty clear implying that he, who has chosen to live simply, is “catching a fair string” because he is operating harmoniously with natural law, whereas Field struggles because he is stuck in his “boggy ways” (228). Thus, Thoreau, much like Emerson, seems to suggest that natural law exists and that one will be happy, unlike the farmer and John Field, only when he looks to nature as his guide.

Natural law also plays an interesting role in the Cavaliere’s relationship with the volcano in Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. Sontag’s romance is set in Naples which had been added to the Grand Tour, but when “the mountain had shown itself capable of being dangerous again, [visitors] want to have a great terrifying experience” (27). The no longer dormant volcano carries with it a sense of intrigue, and for this reason, Naples is a particularly dynamic metropolis to pick out of the “flea market” (3) of history. For the Cavaliere, however, the volcano was not just a source of intrigue; this is particularly evident in a passage where Sontag juxtaposes the experiences that Sade and the Cavaliere have with the volcano.

For the Cavaliere, he describes the “black stormy clouds and the bright column of fire with flashes of forked lightning” (82) that the volcano produces “as more beautiful than alarming” (82). Sade, on the other hand, “took away from his five-month sojourn in Naples… the fantasies of evil-doing that anything capable of violence inspired in him” (82). In the same vein, Sontag writes that we “project onto the volcano the amount of rage… of anxiety about your ability to feel already in your head” (82). Thus, we have Sontag, who writes that we project our own rage on to the volcano, and Sade, who takes fantasies of evil doing with him after his stay in Naples.  On the other side of the spectrum, the volcano was a “stimulus for contemplation” (82) for the Cavaliere. I would like to attest that this is the concept of natural law at work in Sontag’s romance. The Cavaliere appreciates the beauty of nature that surrounds him and as a result is stimulated to contemplation, much like Emerson and Thoreau. Sade demonstrates what it mans to act against natural law and as a result he is driven to fantasies of evil and violence. In this way, the presence of natural law is clear in Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, and Sontag would agree with the claim that a harmonious relationship with nature is the way to live.

Even in the lawless land of the American west, natural law is present in Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory. The scene in particular that evokes the notion of natural law for me is when Travis addresses his troops before the Battle of the Alamo and draws “a line on the floor with his sword and asked all who were wiling to die for Texas to come over on his side” (155). The presence of natural law at work may not be immediately evident, but I will first flesh out the situation that the American soldiers found themselves in. According to Roberts and Olson, the soldiers had “three options: surrender and face certain execution; make a run for open country and be butchered, or remain and fight” (156) and only by fighting “could they help their families, friends, and country” (156). Dramatic retelling aside, this situation begs the question: what does natural law dictate in this situation?

The soldiers choose to remain and fight, and they spilled their blood in the name of an unfinished American identity. The American Identity was likely as unclear in 1836 as the hybrid identity of Davy Crockett, politician and man of the wild frontier, but they bled and died for this identity. This is where I believe natural law does work in Roberts and Olson’s work. As the American soldiers spilled their blood for their country, the American memory of history dictates that they chose to do what was natural, for even though then lost the Battle of the Alamo, the memory of the Alamo lived on and inspired the eventually defeat of Santa Anna’s forces. In other words, the soldiers did what was natural by giving their lives for their country and their memory has not been forgotten and the American’s eventually prevailed. Furthermore, as I mentioned in my introduction, the concept of natural law has had a profound impact in the creation of the American identity, and I would argue that soldiers at the Alamo have left a mark on our notion of the American identity because they did what was natural.

Lastly, I will look at natural law at work in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass. More specifically, I believe that the passage about Colonel Lloyd’s garden offers a strong insight into the concept of natural law as it pertains to slavery. According to Douglass, Colonel Lloyd “kept a large and finely cultivated garden” (52), which was the “greatest attraction of the place” (52). It was well visited during the summer months by people near and far, and it was also the home to excellent fruit. Douglass writes that the colonel “had to resort to all kinds of stratagems to keep his slaves out of the garden” (52), but that the most successful way of keeping slaves out was by tarring the surrounding fence and if a slave were caught with any trace of tar, “it was deemed sufficient proof that he had either been into the garden, or had tried to get in” (52). The reader should quickly pick up that this story is an allusion to the Garden of Eden, and this has very interesting ramifications for natural law.

I must first preface, however, that this application of natural law is different in that is has been widely rejected in modern history but that it was a pertinent explanation of nature in the 19th century. For one, it is implied that tar equates with sin, and because tar is black, this is a clever way of stating that black means sin. For slaveholders, this comparison would offer a justification for the subjection of blacks to slavery. Slaveholders would see that black is sinful by nature, and it could be argued that natural law dictates that blacks must be enslaved. The “tar” is thus, symbolic of the fall of mankind into original sin. In other words, blacks are sinful because they have been tarred just as humans are sinful because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. As a consequence, Douglass’ allusion is demonstrative of the 19th century understanding that by natural law, blacks are sinful and are, consequently, subjected to slavery.

In conclusion, natural law has shown itself in each of the works we have read this semester as having the capacity to tell us something about how we should behave and how our identity as Americans has been forged as a result.

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Davy Crockett

The image that I have uploaded is of the official souvenir songbook for the Disney song, “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier!” I chose to include this songbook in the museum because it allows us to discuss the way that Davy Crockett is remembered in American history. David Crockett, the politician, is very different from Davy Crockett, the Disney character, and I believe that it is important to include information about these dual identities in a museum about the Alamo because the way Davy Crockett is viewed today is not insignificant.

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