The best books on the naval history of the American Civil War

Dwight Sturtevant Hughes Author Of Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862
By Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

Who am I?

I’m a lover of the sea, ships, seamen, and their histories, particularly of navies in the Civil War. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy (1967) with a history major, I served twenty years as a surface warfare officer (ship driver) on most oceans in ships ranging from destroyer to aircraft carrier and with river forces in Vietnam. I earned an M.A. in Political Science and an M.S. in Information Systems Management. Now as a historian, author, and speaker, I’m committed to communicating our naval heritage in an educational and entertaining manner for old hands and new generations. Writing about ships is the next best thing to driving them.


I wrote...

Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862

By Dwight Sturtevant Hughes,

Book cover of Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862

What is my book about?

“Ironclad against ironclad, we maneuvered about the bay here and went at each other with mutual fierceness,” reported a U.S. Navy officer following that momentous engagement. Monitor redefined the relationship between men and machines in war while the Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) imperiled the Union. Metal monstrosities pounded away for hours with little damage to either. Who won is still debated.

From flaming, bloody decks of sinking warships, to the dim confines of the first rotating armored turret and the smoky depths of a Confederate gundeck—with shells screaming, clanging, booming, and splashing all around—to the office of a worried president with his cabinet peering down the Potomac for a Rebel behemoth, the drama unfolds through accounts of those who lived it.

The books I picked & why

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Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States

By Raphael Semmes,

Book cover of Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States

Why this book?

Former Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes, commander of infamous Rebel commerce raiders Sumter and Alabama, presents a picturesque portrait of nineteenth-century war at sea and foreign lands with salty terminology well calibrated for landlubbers. He composes not only as a preeminent seaman, but as an accomplished international lawyer and superb narrator. He also is an unapologetic, unreconstructed Rebel. Semmes interprets his ships and men as personifying the conflict—its causes, progression, and outcome—discoursing over seamanship, meteorology, oceanography, geography, naval technology, strategy, diplomacy, international law, and constitutional theory. I found Memoirs of Service Afloat to be an erudite, compelling portrait of the Confederate mind well worth studying for its own sake as well as a great sea story. It ranks among the best Civil War memoirs.

Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States

By Raphael Semmes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A number of publications have appeared, first and last, concerning the author and his career, as was naturally to have been expected. The Alabama was the first steamship in the history of the world—the defective little Sumterexcepted—that was let loose against the commerce of a great commercial people. The destruction which she caused was enormous. She not only alarmed the enemy, but she alarmed all the other nations of the earth which had commerce afloat, as they could not be sure that a similar scourge, at some future time, might not be let loose against themselves. The Alabama, in consequence,…

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War

By Williamson Murray, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh,

Book cover of A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War

Why this book?

Although the Civil War was principally a land conflict, naval contributions were fundamental, not just peripheral or supporting. This excellent operational and campaign overview examines social, political, and technological revolutions in Western warfare leading to and through the struggle. It deals primarily with terrestrial warfare, but unlike many such works, places waterborne operations in context and gives the navy its due. Steam propulsion and industrial superiority produced massive Union naval power for a strangling blockade, fortress-busting warship squadrons, and an unprecedented riverine fleet. The Confederacy’s coasts and seaports constituted a third major theater while in the west, rivers were avenues of invasion and conquest. Chapter 5 contains a cogent discussion of “The Unfulfilled Promise of Joint [Army-Navy] Operations.” Highly recommended as a well-integrated military-naval history.

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War

By Williamson Murray, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Savage War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How the Civil War changed the face of war

The Civil War represented a momentous change in the character of war. It combined the projection of military might across a continent on a scale never before seen with an unprecedented mass mobilization of peoples. Yet despite the revolutionizing aspects of the Civil War, its leaders faced the same uncertainties and vagaries of chance that have vexed combatants since the days of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. A Savage War sheds critical new light on this defining chapter in military history.

In a masterful narrative that propels readers from the first…


The Civil War at Sea

By Craig L. Symonds,

Book cover of The Civil War at Sea

Why this book?

A lucid overview and fresh perspective will enlighten even a knowledgeable enthusiast of the topic while providing to new readers a solid grounding before engaging in more detailed studies. This short history by a foremost naval historian (170 pages plus ample notes and a bibliographical essay) fulfills both objectives. The chapters are thematic beginning with a review of the technological revolution in ships and guns, and then covering the distinct naval theaters from the encircling blockade, to the unique river war, major coastal campaigns, and worldwide commerce warfare. They contain insightful assessments of principal personalities including the secretaries of the navies and commanders on both sides. The flyleaf correctly describes the book as “an authoritative operational history of Civil War navies that is both readable and concise.”

The Civil War at Sea

By Craig L. Symonds,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Civil War at Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work provides an assessment of the crucial roles played by the Union and Confederate navies in the Civil War.

From Craig Symonds, author of the 2009 Lincoln Prize award-winner Lincoln and His Admirals, comes a fascinating look at the era when American naval power came of age. Thoroughly researched and excitingly written, it brings to light a wealth of new information on a pivotal aspect of the Civil War.

The Civil War at Sea covers navies on both sides of the conflict, examining key issues such as the impact of emergent technologies, the effectiveness of the Union's ambitious strategy…


The USS Carondelet: A Civil War Ironclad on Western Waters

By Myron J. Smith Jr.,

Book cover of The USS Carondelet: A Civil War Ironclad on Western Waters

Why this book?

“The cruise of a ship is a biography,” wrote Raphael Semmes about his ocean-straddling tall ship, CSS Alabama. “The ship becomes a personification. She not only, ‘walks the waters like a thing of life,’ but she speaks in moving accents to those capable of interpreting her.” In this excellent biography of Carondelet’s career, a squat, ugly, ironclad gunboat also becomes a major character along with the men who designed and built the revolutionary vessel, stoked her engines, and fired her big guns. In tactics and technology, riverine warfare was invented from scratch and indispensable to victory. This work (and Smith’s entire series on brown water war vessels) provides fresh and enlightening perspectives on every major battle down the Mississippi from Forts Henry and Donelson through Vicksburg to Red River.

The USS Carondelet: A Civil War Ironclad on Western Waters

By Myron J. Smith Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The USS Carondelet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The USS Carondelet had a revolutionary ship design and was the most active of all the Union's Civil War river ironclads. From Fort Henry through the siege of Vicksburg and from the Red River campaign through the Battle of Nashville, the gunboat was prominent in war legend and literature. This history draws on the letters of Ensign Scott Dyer Jordan and Rear Adm. It falls in the category of Henry Walke's memoirs.

The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina: A Succession of Honorable Victories

By Richard A. Sauers,

Book cover of The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina: A Succession of Honorable Victories

Why this book?

Renowned naval engagements such as New Orleans and Mobile Bay are well covered by campaign studies and general histories but the Burnside Expedition is a neglected and fascinating operation described in this engaging work. With no precedent, procedures, or practice in massive joint operations, the frequently maligned General Ambrose Burnside teamed with Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough—commanding the Atlantic Blockading Squadron—to integrate Burnside’s “coastal division” with naval units and rag-tag merchant vessels into the first dedicated, rapid-deployment, amphibious force. In a series of engagements from February to April 1862 behind the barrier islands and in the sounds of North Carolina, they planned and executed textbook landings without a textbook, capturing the strategically vital region for the Union. With aggressive follow-up, the campaign might have shortened the conflict.

The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina: A Succession of Honorable Victories

By Richard A. Sauers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


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