Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gaines: "Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks"

[ Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks by W. Craig Gaines (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). Cloth, photos, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. Page total: 242. ISBN: 978-0-8071-3274-6 $35.95 ]

With Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, W. Craig Gaines provides us with the first comprehensive guide to USA/CSA shipping losses during the 1861-1865 period, from inland rivers and lakes to far flung coastlines and oceans. For the purposes of his study, Gaines defines a shipwreck as:
"...a vessel sunk, scuttled, burned, grounded, lost, capsized, missing, blown up, one that collided with another vessel or object and sank, or one that was generally made unusable without salvage and substantial repairs."
Taking this broad definition to heart, the author's research uncovered more than 2,000 wrecks [a near complete compilation, in the author's estimation]. Named and unnamed, all are included here in this wonderful marine reference guide.

Varying in depth depending on available source information, vessel entries provide insight into design specifications and manner lost. In parentheses next to each name are alternate designations (if they exist). Specifications include ship type, tonnage, crew complement, length, beam, depth, armament, and top speed. If known, builder and date of launch are also stated. The bulk of the text is a description of the circumstances under which the vessel was lost. The amount of information conveyed varies greatly between entries [anywhere from a few sentences up to a couple hundred words], and the more studied subjects often include modern salvage experiences.

The usefulness of a reference work is often dependent upon how the information is organized. Here Gaines employs a dual approach. In addition to the traditional index, the shipwreck locations are also categorized in the main text by state, foreign land mass (e.g. China, Brazil, Azores, Bermuda, etc.) or a body of water such as a river, lake, gulf, or ocean. A section comprising shipwrecks of unknown location is also attached. Several maps of areas with particularly dense accumulations of shipping losses (e.g. Virginia and Texas coastlines, Wilmington, Mobile, Charleston, and middle & lower Mississippi River) are provided. These depict selected shipwreck locations in general terms (nothing as specific as GPS coordinates).

Naval historians and researchers, archaeologists, recreational divers, and interested readers of all stripe will find Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks of great value. It should be regarded as an invaluable reference guide for placement in institutional and personal research libraries. Highly recommended.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mr. Gaines is also the author of the well-regarded The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles (LSU Press, 1988).


  1. This sounds like a good reference book, as reference to the background of the Civil War Period.
    Understanding the spirit of the period is much more interesting and important in my opinion than knowing all about every single battle and battle field.... this book seems to provide more information to complete the picture of the period.

  2. Drew,

    Have been meaning to ask whether and how much this encyclopedia covers the collision of the West Point and the Peabody in the Potomac in 1862. It resulted in a substantial loss of life. I've done a bit of reading on it but have yet to find a good modern treatment of what looks to me like a really good story.

    All my Best,

    Jim Schmidt

  3. Jim,
    There's nothing much, just a few lines.

  4. Drew,

    Thanks...that's too bad. That West Point/Peabody wreck is interesting on so many levels. As a human interest story due to some of the heroism displayed and some investigations of shoddy shipbuilding after the accident. I'll be writing about one of the surgeons on board - James M. Newell - who drowned while trying to save lives in a future installment of my medicine column in the Civil War News. Keep up the great work!



When commenting, PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be deleted. Thank you.