Just when you might think that everything about the US civil war is now covered in print, here comes a story from the war at sea, from a marine aboard one of the paddlewheelers which blockaded southern ports. Henry Gusley, a young Pennsylvania printer, kept a fairly detailed diary of his service with the US Navy, of what he did and witnessed in 1862 and 1863. The diary ends in September 1863, in the battle of Sabine Pass on the Texas coast, where his ship--the "Clifton"--ran aground. Before it could move again, a cannon shot broke its boiler, forcing it to surrender, and Gusley ended up in prison camp.
Someone, however, found his diary, and it reached the "Galveston Tri-Weekly News" which by then was actually published in Houston, further from the war zone. The editors deemed it a candid and fair account, and published it in installments as "A Yankee Note-Book," without naming its author.
The articles became enormously popular with readers, and in the end also reached Gusley. He then wrote to the newspaper, identifying himself as the author and enclosing five dollars for all the issues in which parts of his journal appeared. The paper willingly sent him those (also returned his payment), and from then on he was given proper credit for the excerpts. It was just as good that the paper published them, because the original diary is lost. Gusley himself was paroled in 1865, but the war had undermined his health and he died at age 47.
Gusley's style reads well, but the book has much more than his bare story. Serving on the same flotilla was a physician, David D.T. Nestell, who left numerous sketches of the same campaign. Here they are reproduced, as are etchings and photographs relevant to the narrative, and these--as well as a generous number of maps-- nicely supplement the story.
There is even more. The editor is Edward T. Cotham, jr., a historian with two books on the same campaign, and his numerous footnotes (27 pages in small print) flesh out the diary through insights and connections. Consider the word "contraband." Today that is property smuggled illegally, but in Gusley's day it also meant property captured by the state during war. Here it has a special twist: as the Union navy attacked Gulf ports of the confederacy, many slaves escaped to seek its protection. Lincoln had not yet issued his emancipation proclamation, so legally they were still property of their owners. However, this being wartime, they could be considered as captured property, i.e. "contraband," and as such could be legally set free. Some "contrabands" served aboard ships, though many of their families ashore lacked proper support.
The main arena of the war was further north, and this was mainly a sideshow, fought by small forces. Yet it prevented export of cotton and import of war goods, and supported the pincer movement to control the Mississippi river, giving these little ships an important role. Among them were schooners carrying enormous mortars, towed by the steamers to where they could bombard forts guarding ports like New Orleans. That port was captured after the mortars had done their job, and so was Galveston, which however was later lost to the Union in a sudden fierce battle, about which Gusley wrote little, probably being too busy to keep notes.
In between were patrols of shallow inlets (where ships ran aground, again and again), mosquitoes, heat, a cannon that exploded, letters from home, numerous small skirmishes and the capture of blockade runners--details in a war that seemed to drag on and on. Gusley wrote little about the ideology behind the fighting--indeed, he seemed more disturbed by the idea of secession than by slavery (though after a while he began to feel for the Blacks, too). That may have been why the Galveston paper felt it appropriate to serialize his journal, and why its readers liked it. You probably will do so, too.
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 22 July 2006