Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy / Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy / Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy


Kingseed, Cole C., Naval War College Review


Ringle, Dennis J. Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998. 202pp. $32.95

McPherson, James M., and Patricia R_ McPherson, eds. Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997.240pp.$25

Following the Union victory at Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea," referring to the Mississippi River, now entirely under Union control. Yet in acknowledging the Union armies' victories in the West as well as the East, he added, "Nor must Uncle Sam's Web feet be forgotten. They have been present, not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks." Lincoln's "Web feet" of course were the vessels and seamen of the United States Navy, which had contributed mightily to the Union effort.

Of the plethora of books and manuscripts on the American Civil War, surprisingly few address that contribution. Two recent studies help rectify this imbalance. Dennis J. Ringle's Life in Mr. Lincon's Navy is the first study covering all aspects of the common sailor's life in the Union navy, including recruiting, clothing, training, daily shipboard routine, diet, wages, health, and combat experience. This thoroughly documented text provides more than a glimpse of nautical life in the fledgling world of steam engineering. It also offers a fresh look at the social history of the mid-nineteenth century.

Using ships' logs, published and unpublished letters, and diaries, Ringle examines the service lives of enlisted men assigned to naval vessels on the high seas and internal waterways. Contrasting the Union navy of 1865 to that of the antebellum period, he sees far more than a transition from a coastal force to a six-hundred-ship fleet manned by 51,500 sailors. Over the course of the war, the Navy successfully applied new technologies of steam and iron and altered naval warfare forever. In the process of contributing to the North's ultimate victory, it also participated in joint operations that forwarded the war effort, and it established and maintained a blockade that eventually strangled the South.

War, however, is also a fertile field for social experiment, and Lincoln's navy was hardly an exception. The need for increased manpower led to important changes in the fleet. Pay was increased, flogging abolished, and uniforms improved. Most significantly, the Union "tar" demonstrated that large-scale racial integration was not only feasible but practical. Due to the active recruitment of former slaves and freed blacks, by 1865 fully 20 percent of the navy's enlisted force was African American. Regrettably, postwar decades witnessed the loss of racial equality; the black enlisted component decreased to only 9.5 percent by the Spanish-American War. In the final analysis, however, the common sailor in Lincoln's navy could take solace in knowing that he helped save the Union and that he laid the social foundation for a future US. Navy second to none.

The officer corps also experienced a transformation during the Civil War. A representative officer was Roswell Hawks Lamson (U.S. Naval Academy, 1862), whose class was commissioned a year early when the Civil War began. Over the next four years, Lamson commanded more ships and flotillas than any other officer of his age or rank, culminating in his command in 1864 of the navy's fastest ship, the USS Gettysburg. Lamson also pioneered techniques in the dangerous new naval mission of minesweeping, as commander of the Torpedo and Picket Division on the James River in May-June 1864, with the principal duty of clearing the river of Confederate mines. …

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