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Book Review, NRJ 65.1

February 19, 2020 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Confederate Ironclads at War

R. Thomas Campbell

The name R. Thomas Campbell is well-known to anyone who has studied the history of the Confederate Navy over the past two decades. Campbell has published no fewer than twenty books in the last quarter century, either as author or editor, all on a variety of Confederate naval topics. In this reviewer’s opinion, his best work was Storm Over Carolina, published in 2005. Campbell’s work has also been published in numerous periodicals. His latest release, Confederate Ironclads at War, is a useful volume for anyone interested in the Confederate Navy. Through the histories of individual ships, Campbell tells the story of the Confederates’ quest to procure and produce ironclads throughout the war. He argues that although the Confederate Navy exhibited “unsurpassed resourcefulness, courage, and ingenuity,” in the end it was “too little too late.”

The Introduction nicely summarizes the challenges faced by the Confederate Navy and the logic behind its ironclad construction program. This is followed by fourteen chapters on individual ironclads and an appendix listing the officers and crew members for six of those ships. A glance at the chapter notes and bibliography reveals a vast array of both primary and secondary sources. Campbell tends to include large block quotes from primary sources in the narrative, though not as frequently as in his earlier works. Otherwise, his writing is very clear, concise, and engaging in most instances, and the book is well-illustrated throughout, though a few images appear more than once. Aside from a few typos, the book is well-edited and handsomely produced. Unfortunately, as with all this publisher’s books, the price is somewhat steep, in this reviewer’s opinion.

Campbell selected the best-known of the Confederate ironclads for inclusion in this work, but not all receive equal treatment. Chapters on CSS Virginia, CSS Albemarle, and CSS Arkansas are the longest in the book, likely because they possess the most compelling stories. Curiously, CSS Jackson receives a scant four pages, three of which are images, and the single page of text is reprinted by permission from another source and author. This leads one to wonder if this ship was included only because its remains are now housed at the National Civil War Naval Museum. The remaining ten chapters are all roughly equal in length.

Having produced so much material on the Confederate Navy throughout his career, one must question whether Campbell has anything new to say about the subject and, unfortunately, the answer appears to be “no.” He admits in the introduction that two complete chapters, “The Blockade is Broken” and “The Last Ironclad, the CSS Stonewall” are reprinted from his 1997 book Southern Fire: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy. In addition, much of the information found in the remaining chapters is almost certainly reworked from previous books and articles as well. However, this does not necessarily detract from the value of this book. Many of Campbell’s older works are out of print and the publishers of those books no longer exist. Therefore, Confederate Ironclads at War will appeal to a new generation of readers with an interest in the Confederate Navy.

  • Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2019
  • 7” x 10”, softcover, vii + 268 pages
  • Illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
  • ISBN: 9781476676401
Reviewed by Andrew Duppstadt, North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites
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