Sunday, February 7, 2010

Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy by Dennis J. Ringle

Review by Bill Doughty

President Abraham Lincoln barely makes an appearance in Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy. The stars of the book are the average individual Sailors who populate the book.

Sailor stories in letters, diaries and reports are used to show life aboard ironclads and wooden steam ships in the 1800s.

The minimum age for Sailors was 12, in the lowest rating: “Boy.” Photos in the Ringle’s book clearly show young uniformed boys serving.

In 1864, monthly wages started at $10 for Boy; $16 for Ordinary Seaman; $20 for Coal Heaver; $25 for Coxswain, Quartermaster or Gunner’s Mate; and $35 for Yeoman, as examples.

Ringle brings us aboard Civil War ships, where Sailors contended with roaches, rats and lice; fog, flies and mosquitoes; and the danger of fire, floods and sickness, not to mention combat itself.

The Navy issued weapons like battleaxes, pikes and cutlasses to its Sailors. The Ames 1843 pistol was smooth-bore, .54 calibre. Cannons and torpedo mines were among the chief armaments.

Combat on the ironclad warships and man-of-wars is described as hell on earth. A crew member aboard USS Hartford, in action against Confederate forts protecting New Orleans, described the deafening noise:

“The noise and roar at the time was terrible and cannot be described, but to help the imagination there was two hundred guns and mortars of the largest caliber in full blast, double this by the explosion of shells then add to this the hissing and crashing through the air, and shipping, confine this in a half mile square, it may give some idea of the noise and uproar that has taken place.”

The surgeon assigned to the steam frigate USS Cumberland described the terrible close-range battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia:

“The sanded deck is red and slippery with the blood and wounded and the dying; they are dragged amidships. There is no time to take them below. Delirium seizes the crew; they strip to their trousers; tie handkerchiefs around their heads, kick off their shoes; fight and yell like demons; load and fire at will.”

The Navy developed some of the most effective means for dealing with medical challenges, from microbes to trauma injuries, by opening hospitals, training surgeons and starting the first hospital ship, USS Red Rover.

During the Civil War the Navy welcomed Blacks, including escaped slaves, so that by the end of the war African-Americans made up 20 percent of the Navy. (Jim Crow laws and mandated 5 percent caps after the war subsequently rolled back advances in diversity and opportunity.)

Foreign sailors also served during the war. Hispanic-American Adm. David Farragut’s flagship, USS Hartford, was comprised of 35 percent foreign sailors.

Ringle briefly takes us ashore for liberty in Port Royal, off the coast of South Carolina. Port Royal, whose community continues to be a supporter of the U.S. Navy, was one of the best liberty ports during the war.

The author’s account of life in Lincoln’s Navy is comprehensive and fascinating -- exploring what Sailors did on and off duty, how they trained, what they wore, how they slept, what they ate, even how they went to the bathroom.

And what about reading? For those Sailors who could read, Ringle reports:

“Some ships, especially the larger vessels, maintained libraries on board. In 1864, the Navy Department purchased seventy-five Bibles, eighty Webster dictionaries, twenty-five atlases, and twenty copies of George Bancroft’s History of the United States for distribution to the fleet. One warship, USS Dictator, possessed a superb library that contained over two hundred books of various titles.”

Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy is on the list of the Navy’s Professional Reading Program.

The war to preserve the Union was fought with heroism, at great loss. Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy is another opportunity to reflect on the causes of war and how it impacts service members, who sacrifice so much for their country, particularly poignant when considering the War between the States, not-that-many generations ago.

Writer Tom Hicks appearing on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point radio show last week said, “War is not a good thing. War, to me, feels like a psychosis, mass psychosis. It’s a terrible thing.” Hicks is author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005″ and “The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.”

The Navy's Maritime Strategy states, "We believe that preventing wars is as important as winning wars."

Top: Sailors relax aboard USS Monitor; one Sailor leans against the smokestack and reads; Above: a recruiting poster promises a way to avoid the Army, with the promise of prize money.