Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography
By Ari Hoogenboom
(May 2009 Civil War News)
Illustrated, maps, notes, index, 387 pages, 2008. The John Hopkins University Press, 2715 North Charles St., Baltimore, MD, 21218, $45 plus shipping.
Gustavus Vasa Fox was the indispensable man in the Union’s Department of the Navy. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy throughout the Civil War (the post was created especially for him), he served as the de facto Chief of Naval Operations (a post not created for another 40 years), planning campaigns, instituting procedures to design, build or purchase ships, assigning officers and handling congressional affairs.
Fox’s energy, experience and skill at all these tasks played an important part in the Union Navy’s successful blockade and campaigns that led to the Confederacy’s defeat.
Gus Fox joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in January 1838 and left as a lieutenant in 1856, going on to successfully manage a cotton mill in his native Massachusetts. As a naval officer he served in the Mediterranean, on the anti-slave patrol off Africa, in China and the Far East, in the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and off Mexico during the Mexican War.
After that war he took advantage of the Navy’s liberal leave policy allowing officers to captain civilian mail steamers in order to give them experience in sail and steam vessels. He made a fortuitous marriage into the Blair family (his wife was the main reason he left the sea), a political dynasty of the mid-19th century that also helped him in his naval and civilian pursuits.
By all accounts Fox was a more than competent person and a good companion. He was smart, an able administrator, interested in the world around him (on his overseas tours aboard ship he was always collecting interesting minerals, seashells, flora and fauna), and a noted storyteller.
One thing that comes out in the volume is how close he was to President Abraham Lincoln, as stated by the author: “During the Civil War Lincoln often sent for Fox. He called on him not only for information on naval matters but for companionship.”
Interestingly Fox was present at the Gettysburg Address and was the only person from Washington to accompany Lincoln on one of president’s visits during the siege of Petersburg. There is another story about Lincoln bringing a rifle by Fox’s house and asking him to go target shooting with him.
The majority of the book is taken up with the Civil War with only short chapters on Fox’s pre- and postwar careers. The Civil War chapters are generally chronological but are keyed to specific subjects. The attempt to relieve Charleston is well covered, Fox having attempted to set up a relief expedition and arriving off Fort Sumter shortly before the surrender.
The vessel he was on took Maj. Robert Anderson and the surrendered garrison north. This would lead to major attempts by the Navy to take Charleston. In retrospect, they were seen by many future historians as a waste of resources.
Once Charleston was neutralized as a trading port by the blockade why bother? However, to understand the fascination with the fall of Charleston during the Civil War, one has to realize that contemporaries saw it as the cradle of secession and the city that started the war, and for that reason it had to fall.
From captaining mail steamers, Fox understood the new technology of steam and the requirement for steamers to maintain the blockade. He was an early supporter of ironclads and was involved in setting their technical specifications for armor as well as the ordnance to be mounted on them.
He understood logistics well before that term was coined, requiring the Navy to mount expeditions to establish forward support bases (such as at Port Royal) and to establish vessels that were essentially floating machine shops — what we would now call tenders — to support the fleet’s steam machinery in the forward area.
Surprisingly Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography is apparently the first full-length biography of this key player in the Union victory and early developer of the steam navy. It is a well-written, well-researched and interesting biography and sets a high standard for any future biographies of Fox.
This book will be of interest to Civil War naval history buffs and for those readers who want to find out more of the inner workings of Washington during the Civil War. It is very highly recommended.
Joseph A. Derie
Joseph A. Derie is a VMI graduate and a long time Civil War buff and military book reviewer. A retired Coast Guard officer and licensed officer of the Merchant Marine, he is a Certified Marine Investigator and marine surveyor.