Friday, October 28, 2016

Author Q&A: Ron Coddington's Faces of the Civil War Navies

Newly published, Faces of the Civil War Navies is available on and elsewhere.
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It didn't take long for me to identify a favorite story in Ron Coddington's excellent new book, Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors. 

On April 4, 1865, Acting Lieutenant Amos P. Foster commanded the Commodore Perry as the steamer quickly headed up the James River to Richmond, recently abandoned by the Rebel army and navy. "The good old boat began to move up the river over waters that no Union vessel had touched since the war began," a Union signalmen noted.

Ron Coddington, editor and publisher
of Military Images magazine, is author
of four books on the Civil War.
Foster's route to the Rebel capital was treacherous, Coddington writes. The Confederates had littered the river with mines, and an underwater obstruction near the city temporarily blocked the Commodore Perry's progress. Soon, another vessel, the Malvern, arrived on the scene with two very important passengers: Admiral David Dixon Porter and President Lincoln himself. Like Foster, the VIPs were eager to get to Richmond ASAP, but their trip too was stalled. So the admiral and the president took seats in a barge that had been lowered into the water and re-started their journey, followed by a boat filled with Marine bodyguards.

As the barge slowly made its way through the James River, it came perilously close to the massive turning side-wheel paddle of the Commodore Perry, whose engineer had no idea the president and his party were nearby.  Foster rushed to the engine room and prevented a potential disaster a half turn before the wheel of the Commodore Perry would have smashed into the VIP barge.

The admiral was incensed, but Porter's life and the life of the president thankfully were spared.

In the 401-page book (Johns Hopkins University Press), Foster's biography is one of 77 profiles of sailors, most of which may have been lost in the shadows of history were it not for Coddington. A fine researcher, he scoured old newspapers, pension records and other resources -- many of them online -- for the micro-history, the fourth of his series profiling Civil War military personnel. Faces of the Civil War Navies follows the format of Coddington's three other books. Each short sailor bio -- none is longer than six pages -- comes with a wartime image of its subject, some from the author's own photography collection. (Coddington bought some of the images on eBay soon after he began research for the book.) I especially like that Coddington follows each sailor's story to the end of his life. If you're like me, you'll skip around from profile to profile and not feel guilty.

In his day job, Coddington is an editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education. An avid and longtime collector of Civil War images, especially cartes-de-visites, he's also editor and publisher of the outstanding Military Images magazine, which he took over in August 2013.

Coddington recently took time out to answer my questions about why he wrote the book, how he collected images for it and more:

Previously published books by Ron Coddington.
Why did you write a book about Civil War naval personnel?

Coddington: The book has its origins in the spring of 2013. This time was a period of reflection on my then recently released third book, African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. Learning about these men of color fundamentally altered my views of the war. I had glimpsed the Civil War through a different lens and came away with fresh perspectives -- and a strong desire to investigate another larger narrative.

My thoughts turned to the naval war. This was uncharted territory for me and fertile ground to explore. My preliminary research revealed compelling images and powerful stories that inspired me to push forward.

Each story in your book has an image. Given the relative scarcity of photographs of naval personnel from the Civil War, how hard was it to track down images?

Coddington: Sailor portraits are relatively scarce compared to army images mainly due to the disparity in numbers. In the North, for example, for every 25 men who served in the army, only one served in the navy. Data for the Southern side are less reliable, but they indicate that the ratio was even less. So the pool of surviving images is smaller. Factor in my criteria -- original, identified, wartime cartes de visite, ambrotypes and tintypes -- and the pool shrinks to a puddle.

I first turned to my network of collectors to find out who was focused on the navy. I eventually discovered a passionate group who collected these wonderful portraits: Ron Field, Jerry Roxbury, Lynda Setty and Earl Sheck. About half of the 77 portraits in the book come from these four individuals. Many of the remaining images came from other collectors who have navy images in their collections but are not specifically focused on this branch of the military: Orton Begner, Dan Binder, Rick Brown, Greg French, Steve Karnes, Tom Liljenquist, Mike McAfee, Ronn Palm, Marty Schoenfeld and David Vaughan.

All of these collectors have played and continue to play a critical role in preserving these unique images. In my view, these portraits are an important part of our country’s visual record, on par with Mathew Brady’s battlefield photos. The study of Civil War portraits, by the way, is a relatively new field that dates to about 1970, the time when these photos became collectible following the centennial commemorations less than a decade earlier.

When I started the book, my own collection included only a few navy photos and none of them were identified. As my awareness grew, I began to find sailor photos for auction on eBay and for sale by dealers. I purchased as many as my budget would allow!

A few months after this project began, I became editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. This role introduced me to many collectors, including Ron Field and other collectors that I had not met before. My connection to the magazine, which was founded in 1979, has opened many doors into the collecting community. I’m grateful for this.

An engineer, Eugene Brown  was part of a daring Confederate operation in the
 harbor in Portland, Maine.  (Gerald Roxbury collection)
What are your two favorite stories in the book?

Coddington: Tough question to answer! Every personal account contains details that fascinate and inspire me. Each story is a unique entry point into the larger history of the war.

Take the story of Nathan Hopkins, a seaman on the Union frigate Minnesota stationed along Virginia’s James River in 1864. He and two of his comrades asked and were granted permission to leave the vessel and stretch their legs. The trio ran into Confederates, and this is when Hopkins learned his two buddies were bounty jumpers looking to escape. For Hopkins, the episode ended in a trip to Andersonville.

Then there is the story of Eugene Brown. An engineer in the Confederate navy, he was part of the crew of the captured schooner Archer that eased unobserved into the harbor of Portland, Maine, one evening in late June 1863. The next morning, he and his crewmates captured the Caleb Cushing, a state-of-the-art U.S. revenue cutter. But Brown could not operate the newfangled engines and what might have been one of the greatest navy stories of the war ended in capture about 20 miles outside the harbor. This was major news across the country, but was quickly overshadowed by the Battle of Gettysburg.

Union seaman Nathan Hopkins was captured by Confederates and sent to Andersonville,
the notorious POW camp in Georgia.  He survived imprisonment and the war.

 (Lynda Setty, manager of Jerry and Teresa Rinker collection)

How did you go about the research for your book?

Coddington: The vast majority of my research is done online. This is a major change from when I first began back in 2000. So much more information is now available digitally, especially databases. Fold3 and were particularly helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about these resources and others, I strongly recommend “The Photo Sleuth’s Digital Toolkit.” The article appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Military Images. Written by Photo Sleuth columnist Kurt Luther, it is the best single account I’ve seen for those interested in researching Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors.

In the course of your research, what did you learn that surprised you?

Acting Master’s Mate Francis Bartow Beville
of  the CSN, one of 12 Confederates profiled
in Coddington's book.
Coddington: I was surprised by the lack of navy records. In researching my other books, I relied on military service records (MSRs) at the National Archives. These records provide the basic facts of a soldier’s service, and they include monthly muster records and other related papers -- furlough requests, casualty reports and other documents. Sailors do not have an equivalent. Fortunately, most of the men or their widows applied for pensions and so I was able to reconstruct the basic facts of their service from these documents. Hometown newspapers turned out to be a big help, too. They did a great job tracking the comings and goings of their local sons.

Once I dug into their Civil War experiences, I became aware of the close nature of the fighting. Masked Confederate batteries hidden along riverbanks that fired on Union convoys. Blockade duties that involved parties of Union sailors leaving their vessels in small boats to attack bands of Confederates soldiers or to capture grounded privateers. Union expeditionary forces establishing beachheads on enemy soil without the support of ground forces. All of this required more personal combat than I had imagined. I came to understand that the Civil War naval experience was a series of small-scale, running skirmishes rather than major battles. Many ship-to-ship actions were like prize fights. The best known, of course, are the Virginia and the Monitor and the Alabama and the Kearsarge. There were many more, each fascinating in their own ways. There were large-scale operations -- New Orleans, Mobile Bay, Fort Fisher -- and they were big events in the media. But they paled in comparison to the land battles in terms of numbers engaged.

For those who enjoy researching soldiers/sailors, what advice do you have?

Coddington: Read Kurt Luther’s column and get to know the sites he recommends. Have patience, as there are many stones to overturn and you never know what you’ll find beneath them. Also, context is important. Once you’ve ascertained the what, when and where, don’t stop. Try to answer why and how. It is these questions that sometimes help us to best understand the action or inaction of an individual.

Perhaps most importantly, remember that you are dealing with human beings. You want to tell their stories in a balanced way that fairly represents their actions.

Finally, you're researching for another book, this one on Civil War nurses. How is that going?

Coddington: I announced this book project in June and am in the first stage of my research, locating the images. So far, finding them has proven significantly more difficult than sailors or soldiers. Still, it is early in the hunt and I am confident that they are out there. If you have any, I want to hear from you! Here's my e-mail address:

1 comment:

  1. Battle flags south is a good read about the river navies...