An Interview with Capital Navy Author John M. Coski
Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron is the first book to examine the importance of Confederate naval operations on the James River, and their significant (and yet largely ignored) impact on the war in Virginia. Author John M. Coski recently discussed his book and the new trade paper edition with Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.
: How did you come to write Capital Navy?
JMC: Capital Navy is the story of the Confederate States Navy in Richmond and on the James River. The project began in 1991 to bring this neglected chapter of local history to the attention of Richmond community leaders.
: That's the way the project began, but it changed after that?
JMC: Most definitely. As Bill Still [author of Iron Afloat and Confederate Shipbuilding] and other historians who read an initial draft of the manuscript pointed out, the story of the Confederate States Navy in Richmond carries a lot of importance for the larger story of the war. It provides a case study of naval operations in a clearly-defined locale and is a microcosm of naval operations throughout the Confederacy. And when you're talking about this war, events in Richmond always carry an importance and an interest beyond local history.
: What kinds of "naval operations" could there have been in Richmond?
JMC: The full range - in fact the fullest range of naval operations concentrated in any Confederate city. Richmond was the administrative headquarters of the entire Confederate navy, home port to the James River Squadron, the home of the Confederate States Naval Academy and a naval hospital. It was a shipbuilding center and the location of what I refer to as the "naval industrial complex" that featured private industries, such as the Tredegar Iron Works, and government-run establishments. There were also military engagements between opposing fleets, between ships and land batteries, and between ships and torpedoes (mines).
: Those aren't the kinds of things most people usually associate with Richmond.
JMC: And that is precisely why Capital Navy is such a good case study of Confederate naval operations throughout the Confederacy. Several of the Confederacy's primary seaports and river ports - Norfolk, Pensacola, New Orleans, and Memphis - fell into enemy hands about a year after the war began. The Confederacy had to move its surviving naval forces on the James, in the North Carolina sounds, and on the Mississippi further inland. The Confederacy's most powerful war vessels were built in some pretty unlikely places: a cornfield on the Roanoke River and mud flats on the Yazoo River. By comparison, the two shipyards on the outskirts of Richmond were well-established and well-equipped facilities.
: Are there any revelations in this book?
JMC: I hope the whole book will be a revelation for most students of the Civil War. Perhaps the biggest surprise will be the incontrovertible evidence that Confederate authorities in Richmond experimented in the James River with a submarine in 1861-1862. I was pleased to see that Italian historian Raimondo Luraghi reached the same conclusion based on the same evidence in his work on the Confederate Navy.
: With all the Civil War books being cranked out, why hasn't there been a book on this subject?
JMC: As you know, several historians have written on aspects of it. Bill Still and J. Thomas Scharf devoted several chapters to it in their works on Confederate naval history. Only recently have students of the war realized the value of zeroing in on smaller areas and themes. Maxine Turner and Robert Elliott have written fascinating studies of the naval war on the Chattahoochee and Roanoke Rivers, respectively. There were more important things going on in Richmond and the James River than there were in other inland naval theaters. And as Capital Navy shows, the documentation is rich.
: Is there any significance to the title? Any irony?
JMC: Yes, it's a play on the navy that defended the capital of the Confederacy, so I suppose there is at least the suggestion of irony there as well. One of the crucial questions in the book is just how good were the ships of the James River Squadron, and how much did they really affect the war in Virginia? Of course it was a major accomplishment for a primarily agricultural nation to build ironclad war vessels from keel up, but was it all that important if the ships weren't very good? Union Admiral David Dixon Porter called the James River Squadron "the most useless force the Confederates had ever put afloat." However, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory claimed that the James River Squadron alone kept the navy out of Richmond. I won't - and don't - prejudice readers by dictating simple answers to this debate, but I try to lay out the evidence readers need to draw their own conclusions.
: Capital Navy was originally published in 1996. How did it fare?
JMC: Very well, both critically and commercially. It sold out two printings, and hard bound copies are available only at a very dear price.
: Does the book still have a place on the Civil War bookshelf nine years later?
JMC: I think so. It certainly has a lot more company on that shelf. A host of new books on subjects that I tackled in Capital Navy - including two books on the Confederate States Naval Academy, three biographies of Lt. Charles W. "Savez" Read, and several on Confederate torpedo warfare - have appeared in the interim. Coincidentally, I'm sure, Capital Navy ushered in a wave of important new books on the Confederate navy. But it remains the definitive work on the Confederate navy in Richmond and on the James River, and has not been joined by other books about individual squadrons.
: Why reprint it now?
JMC: Ted Savas and I have been talking about a paperback edition for years. The impetus for finally doing it was The Museum of the Confederacy's decision to create a full-scale exhibition of its navy collection. A member of the museum's board of trustees underwrote initial reprint costs so that the book could be available during the two-year run of the exhibition.
: I am sure many viewers will enjoy the new exhibit and the chance to revisit Capital Navy.
JMC: Thank you
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