Photo Essay: The Water War

Vastly smaller than the forces that fought the Civil War on land, the Union and Confederate navies have long been overlooked by history, their members’ actions, sacrifices, and the significance of their service generally underappreciated in the years since the guns fell silent. During the war, however, the clashes of the navies captivated the country in much the same way as did the epic battles fought on land. The engravings from the multi-volume work The War With the South, published between 1862 and 1867, help illustrate this dual interest. Below is a sampling of the more dramatic, and detailed, of its depictions of the war on water during the conflict’s early years.

  • The cover of one of The War With the South's volumes depicts Lady Liberty looking on during the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861.

  • The warship USS St. Lawrence sinks the Confederate privateer Petrel in the waters off Charleston, South Carolina, on July 28, 1861. Petrel had been in Confederate service for less than three weeks before its demise; its surviving 36 crewmembers were captured and arrested for piracy.

  • Union warships bombard the Confederate forts protecting the entrance to Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, as vessels of the Union transport fleet remain at a safe distance off shore, in November 1861. Shortly after Fort Walker (right) on Hilton Head Island fell, the Confederates occupying Fort Beauregard (left) on Phillip’s Island withdrew. In the wake of their victory at Port Royal, Union forces occupied Beaufort, from which they would move north to begin their attempt to capture Charleston.

  • CSS Merrimack (left) and USS Monitor (right) battle in the first-ever showdown of ironclad warships in the waters off Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862. The engagement, which ended in a draw, ushered in a new era of naval warfare.

  • Union gunboats and mortar rafts engage Confederate batteries on Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River during the early months of 1862. After a several-week siege, Union forces overwhelmed the Rebel position, which resulted in the opening of a large stretch of the vital Mississippi to the Union navy.

  • Only weeks after the fall of Island No. 10, a Union fleet commanded by Admiral David Farragut fought past forts Jackson (center right) and St. Phillip (left) protecting New Orleans and captured the vital southern city.

  • Union ships—including USS Monitor—in the James River lob shells at Confederate forces as the Army of the Potomac withdraws from the battlefield at Malvern Hill, Virginia, on July 1, 1862.

  • The War With the South not only featured illustrations of the conflict's more prominent naval engagements, but also its more prominent naval commanders. One such individual was Admiral David Farragut (1801–1870), whose victories on the Mississippi River helped split the Confederacy in two.

  • While not a naval officer, Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore earned a reputation as an expert at siege operations. Gillmore is best known for his successful efforts to capture Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, during which he coordinated closely with naval forces.

  • Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter (1813–1891) translated a successful Civil War career—in which he played key roles in the Vicksburg Campaign and the capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina—into postwar success, including elevation to the rank of admiral (making him the second U.S. Navy officer ever to attain the rank) and appointment as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.