Heavily decorated historian to address Heritage Center’s virtual Civil War Symposium

Craig Symonds is professor of Maritime History at the U.S. naval War College. CONTRIBUTED
Craig Symonds is professor of Maritime History at the U.S. naval War College. CONTRIBUTED

Awards to military historians aren’t like the ones given in the U.S. Navy and other branches of the military.

That’s a good thing for Craig Symonds -- and everyone else will be part of this year’s virtual Clark County Historical Society Civil War Symposium.

Because otherwise, the professor of Maritime History at the U.S. Naval War College would have to wedge some of the 29 books he’s written and the stack of plaques he’s received under his chin to keep a chest full of metal from slamming his face into whatever desk he will be seated at.

With chin up on March 6, the heavily decorated historian will explore the leadership styles of Civil War Admiral David Farragut and World War II Admiral Chester Nimitz in their different eras and settings.

Three Symposium veterans will join Symonds on a day devoted wartime leadership: Frank Williams comparing Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill; John F. Marszalek considering the working relationship of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman; and Peter Mansoor presenting a more general view of generals.

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Symonds’ career has about it something of the spirit of Farragut, the man famous for his command to “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

After establishing an impeccable reputation as Civil War scholar, Symonds surprised many by wandering out of his sea lane to write accounts of the battles of Midway and D-Day, then a book surveying of all the naval forces of World War II. (His biography of Nimitz the due out next year.)

“It was terrifying to make the jump” from one era to another Symonds said, but proved just exciting “because so much is new.”

To avoid stealing the thunder from his symposium talk, Symonds agreed for this story to discuss something from his first career: the pivotal role Union naval forces played in the Civil War.

“For all the fame of the big battles in Virginia, the war strategically was won and lost in the Western Theater,” he said.

That’s largely due to Union dominance not of the high seas, but the shallow rivers, all connected to the Ohio.

While the smaller rivers in the East were “essentially defensive barriers” for military strategists, “whoever controlled the (Western) rivers controlled movement in the Western theater.”

The waterways were the major transportation routes not only for troops, but supplies that were the life blood of the war effort.

(It’s no accident that a retired general, Dwight Eisenhower, built the U.S. Interstate Highway System in the name of national defense.)

Although the Mississippi River flowed south to the gulf and the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers north into the Ohio, taken together, they were like “three tines of a fork jabbing into the heart of the Confederacy,” Symonds said.

Because of its industrial strength, “the Union could build specially designed ships the Confederacy could not compete with” to exploit this geographical quirk.

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A Union navy that had 42 ships at war’s start had 671 at war’s end – many of them wooden steamers that had been converted to military use by add thick slabs of wood (wood-clad) or sheets of metal (iron-clad) to the hulls.

It was the kind of expansion the United States would repeat in World War II in “flying past the British” to build the largest Navy on the planet, Symonds said.

The true ironclads were the greatest innovation in a war that also established “screw propellers were the way to go” in naval power. That ran counter to what to the naked eye saw as the advantage of paddle wheelers.

Short on naval power, “the Confederates responded (to the Union building campaign) by building forts along the edge of the river to pour heavier advanced fire of the time in dueling with ships,” Symonds said.

“It was generally believed that forts had the advantage over ships,” he explained. The thinking was that newly developed rifled cannons in the forts would be as great an advance in artillery as rifles with Minie balls, which proved so deadly in infantry battles.

The Southern river strategy turned out to be the weaker of the two at Vicksburg, Forts Henry and Donaldson and also at the battles of Mobile Bay, Ala., and New Orleans.

But it was far from a foregone conclusion.

For one, the Union command structure as deeply flawed.

“The DOD (Department of Defense) didn’t exist during the Civil War, Symonds said.

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As a result, the departments of the Army and Navy were “completely separate,” couldn’t give one another orders and were often “rivals more than they were partners,” he said.

Joint operations “depended entirely on whether the individuals in command were willing to cooperate.”

Fortunately for the Union, Generals Grant and Sherman and Admiral David Dixon Porter “all got together at Vicksburg to make things work.”

In his quest to blockade the ports at New Orleans and Mobile Bay, Farragut (who had been raised by Porter) confronted stone fortifications the Army Corps of Engineers had built to defend the country’s strategic waterways from possible attack by the powerful British Navy.

“In each case, what he did was run his ships past the forts and essentially cut them off,” Symonds explained. “Once they were cut off, they were like rotten fruit falling from a tree.”

But while the cannons were roaring, the Union ships seemed, at times, like a line of slow-moving if not sitting ducks.

At New Orleans the challenge was steaming upstream and against a current and a tide. At Mobile Bay, Farragut not only had to pass under powerful enemy guns but “navigate through a mine field.”

Mines were called torpedoes at the time, explaining Farragut’s choice of words.

The Union naval victories were part of what newspapers called the Anaconda plan – the name for Union’s strategy of strangling Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s supply lines to the west and south while Ulysses Grant, who had been called east by Lincoln, “has got Lee in a chokehold in Virginia.”

As long as it took for the body of the snake to reach Lee, it did lead to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

What: Springfield Civil War Symposium

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 6

How: Webinar

Cost: $10 for adults, free to historical society members and students

Reservations: Go to Heritage.Center by March 1 and click on or Springfield Civil War Symposium-Virtual Webinar.

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