- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006


Edited and annotated by Edward T. Cotham Jr., University of Texas Press, 223 pages, illus., $24.95

I have read and reported upon five or six Civil War journals and diaries over the past 10 years, and this is by far the best.

The newly released “note-book,” or diary, of Marine Henry O. Gusley is a wonderment for several reasons. First, Gusley proves to be a remarkably colorful, humorous and articulate storyteller and observer of naval operations in the Gulf of Mexico in 1862 and 1863. There are no diaries or memoirs quite as good as this.

Second, the editor of this journal, Edward T. Cotham Jr., combines Gusley’s book with the drawings of another keen observer in the same U.S. Navy Mortar Squadron, Dr. Daniel D.T. Nestell, an acting assistant surgeon in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

To paraphrase the editor, if Gusley supplies the soundtrack and very colorful narration of Navy operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Nestell provides the videotape.

Then there is the wonderful contribution of the editor himself, who gives us a terrific forward and follows up with detailed notes. If most readers are like me, they rarely read the footnotes. This time you will want to read them.

The U.S. Marine Corps is the forgotten service of the Civil War. In fact, many Civil War historians and enthusiasts don’t even know that the Marines served. Gusley fully covers shipboard life; the armaments, capabilities and limitations of his vessels; societal aspects of the war, including emancipation; the duties of a U.S. Marine at sea during the Civil War; and at-sea operations.

Gusley participated in so many sustained shore bombardments of Confederate forts and concentrations that he was losing his hearing at the end of the war. He participated in operations against New Orleans; Vicksburg, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; and Galveston, Texas, among others. His book gives one of the few firsthand Union Navy accounts of the terrible defeat at the hands of the Confederates at Sabine Pass, Texas, on Sept. 8, 1863. Gusley was captured in this engagement.

Just after the Sabine Pass engagement, Gusley wrote: “We have been in several battles since our enlistment, but never have we been in one where we saw displayed so much coolness and calm courage. From the captain to the powder boys, without exception, everyone stood by his quarters until we were compelled to strike our flag.”

On July 5, 1863, just after Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg and Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, while in the Gulf of Mexico and unaware of either outcome, Gusley wrote, “The ‘Glorious Fourth’ passed. … We flew four flags instead of one in honor of the day: we fired a salute of twenty-one guns at noon, and all hands were dressed in white.”

Later that day, Gusley tells us, the squadron got “the latest rebel news that ‘General Lee has taken Pennsylvania!’” Only weeks later did the Union Navy in the Gulf learn of the successes of Union forces in early July 1863.

Among many eyewitness accounts and reflections on his duties, this is included on April 1, 1863: “One of our steamers, the Diana, had been captured by the rebels … with the greater part of her crew killed. … The bodies of her captain and executive officer had been recovered and were to be buried that afternoon. … For the first time in our life we took part in a soldier’s burial. The marines acted as guard of honor. We buried them in a beautiful orange grove, close by the town. ‘May they rest in peace.’”

Gusley also tells us about the steady dwindling of diversions and distractions at sea, including the elimination of the rum ration and running out of tobacco. “We … organized a band of minstrels, and we have nightly serenades and impromptu dances. Such things serve to make things more pleasant,” Gusley wrote on Feb. 26, 1863. “We love music, however rude, and although not much of a dancer we do sometimes ‘shake a leg.’”

“The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine” will enthrall Civil War enthusiasts. Its appeal transcends North, South, Army and Navy.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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