Davis, Laura June
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Vexed Waters: Naval Guerrillas, Masculinity, and Mayhem along the Lower Mississippi River in the Civil War Era delineates the exploits of pro-Confederate boat burners operating in St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and other river towns. This project recounts how these irregular southern sailors wreaked havoc on northern shipping— at times even disguising themselves as part of the crew so that they could set steamboats ablaze, obstruct riverine navigability, curtail the effectiveness of the Union Navy, and invoke fear in the Northern populace. Vexed Waters contends that the Confederacy’s brown water war did not end with Vicksburg, but simply took on new, less conventional, more aggressive tactics. By focusing on something that the Confederate command itself understood—that the Mississippi River was the critical logistical and military geography of the war—my project brings to light an aspect of the Civil War that historians have largely managed to forget—the rebellion’s violent struggle for control of the Mississippi lasted until the war’s end. At its core, Vexed Waters is a community study, uncovering the boat burning agents and their networks of support; it traces naval guerrillas’ activities from the seedy bars and brothels where they planned the attacks to the steamboats they targeted to the jailhouses that confined them to the court rooms where they faced court martial trials. In doing so, it raise important questions about citizenship and loyalty as most boat burners were Southern sympathizers living in Union occupied territory. By recounting their exploits, I also uncover the identities of these Confederate agents and their varied motivations for employing fire, sabotage, and destruction. The result is a gendered analysis of the boat burners and their unique brand of martial manhood; they embraced explosive action and celebrated secrecy while actively manipulating the tensions, curiosities, and fears inherent to steamboat travel. The rebel incendiaries knew that the unavoidable mixing of society aboard steamboats made the vessels a breeding ground for gamblers, tricksters, con men, runaways, and terrorists; they simply played into these stereotypes, embracing the anonymity of steamboat travel and weaponizing a form of transport that most nineteenth century Americans took for granted.