Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Purcell, ed.: "THIS JOLLY LITTLE GUNBOAT: The USS Winona On the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River 1861 - 1863"

[This Jolly Little Gunboat: The USS Winona On the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River 1861 - 1863 edited by Patrick L. Purcell (Camp Pope Publishing, 2014) Softcover, map, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. 190 pp. ISBN 978-1-929919-54-3 $13.95]

This Jolly Little Gunboat
Click image for link to publisher
Entering service in December 1861, the Unadilla-class 90-day gunboat USS Winona was immediately sent to the Gulf of Mexico. Joining the West Gulf Blockading Squadron off New Orleans in the early weeks of 1862, the Winona ranged up and down the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Head of Passes (with a brief excursion to Mobile) until August 1863 when the vessel returned north for refitting and redeployment. The Winona spent the rest of the war off the South Carolina coast.

For a long period of time, the authorship of a December 1861 - August 1863 journal written by a Winona sailor was unknown (with several candidates under consideration). None of these satisfied Patrick Purcell. After some persuasive detective work, Purcell came up with an entirely new name (engine room coal heaver Montgomery P. Griffis) and took the next step of shepherding the Griffis material to publication under the title This Jolly Little Gunboat: The USS Winona On the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River 1861 - 1863.

With entries every few days, Griffis's writing constitutes a consistent record of the movements and whereabouts of the Winona during the aforementioned period. Numerous ship-to-shore skirmishes and river encounters are mentioned, with the ship's role during the New Orleans campaign and defense of Fort Butler in Louisiana described in some detail. Pointed commentary about some of the ship's officers is also present.  If one wonders how someone stuck in the bowels of the gunboat could offer such richly detailed observations, the author/editor found clear evidence of postwar revision plus Griffis also mentions that he would sometimes rush up to the main deck to view the action when not urgently needed at his post. The Griffis manuscript is really more of a diary-memoir than a true journal.  Griffis faithfully records every time a coaling occurs, and the tonnage transferred, but only rarely provides insights into his own specific duties and shipboard conditions. Unlike many other Civil War diarists, he rarely if ever complains about anything. If any sailor had a right to grumble, it would have been one stationed in a steamship engine room during scorching Mississippi and Louisiana summers.

Purcell performs the tasks of modern book editor fully and well. His footnotes offer additional information about persons, places, and events from the text and his parallel narrative provides excellent context both for the Winona and associated fleet operations in general. The body of the volume is divided roughly 50/50 between Purcell's writing and the Griffis diary-memoir. The original manuscript included a series of copied poems and songs [a line from one providing the title of the book] and these are collected in an appendix. Another supplement is comprised of a descriptive register of vessels encountered by Winona during its Gulf service.

As Ed Bearss notes in his foreword, journals written by enlisted rank sailors serving on blockade are scarce, making this detailed one all the more valuable. This Jolly Little Gunboat is highly recommended. While perhaps not offering the expected in the way of picturing the day to day shipboard life of the common Civil War sailor (it reads more like an officer's journal), Griffis's manuscript obviously is an essential tool for anyone researching the Winona. It's also a substantial resource for those studying the Union blockade and lower Mississippi River Valley naval operations.

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