James L. Nelson,
The Confederate Navy #1: Glory in the Name
(HarperCollins, 2003)

As heroic figures go, Lt. Samuel Bowater is not the equal of Thomas Marlowe and Isaac Biddlecomb, both of whom are ship's captains in other historic novels by James L. Nelson.

And neither the Cape Fear nor the Yazoo River, both vessels captained by Bowater in this book, inspire the awe evoked by the tall-masted ships featured in those earlier books.

But Bowater's is a different kind of story, and Glory in the Name is a very different kind of book. While Brethren of the Coast and Revolution at Sea focused on the fledgling Age of Sail in the American colonies, Glory in the Name is about the often-overlooked role the Confederate Navy played in the American Civil War.

It is a time of upheaval, not only for the sundered nation but also for the navy men. The graceful, wind-driven wooden ships are passing into history as graceless, coal-burning steam engines come into vogue, and iron -- both as protective plating and deadly underwater rams -- is changing the nature of war.

Bowater is a Southern gentleman who has delayed pledging his loyalty to the Confederacy only because of his oath to the U.S. Navy. But when the Confederates fire on Fort Sumter -- an act captured by chance by Bowater, an amateur artist, on canvas -- he resigns his commission and seeks a position in the new southern fleet.

His first assignment is a simple tug, a sluggish boat that lacks even guns for its first few months of service. But soon enough, Bowater and his crew find themselves involved in the taking of Gosport shipyard at Portsmouth and the defense of Fort Hatteras, among other actions. Later, they join the defense of New Orleans in a newly commissioned ironclad gunboat.

Bowater's growing proficiency as a fighting captain is assisted by the expertise of his engineer, Hieronymous Taylor, himself a man of many parts, as well as several fascinating characters in the crew. Meanwhile, a major subplot revolves around the Paine family, plantation owners that send three eager sons to join the Confederate cause at Manassas -- with tragic consequences. The clan patriarch, Robley Paine Sr., attempts to exorcise his grief by funding a private gunboat to take revenge on the North; his path, as you would expect, will eventually cross Bowater's.

It's a shame that so much attention on the Civil War is paid to the ground war, since this novel of the struggle on the water is the most exciting novel on that period I've read. Nelson has a gift for shipboard life and combat, and I hope he has plenty more stories to tell.

review by
Tom Knapp

4 July 2009

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