Friday, April 26, 2024

Booknotes: Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke

New Arrival:

Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor edited by Charles W. McLandress (Author-Seal River Pub, 2023).

From the description: "William F. Keeler’s superbly vivid letters from the USS Monitor and USS Florida are essential classics for Civil War scholars and amateurs alike. His letters from the Monitor provide the most complete picture of life on board a Civil War ironclad. His riveting accounts of the battle with the CSS Virginia, naval expeditions up the James River, the Peninsula Campaign, and the sinking of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862 bring an immediacy to (those) events..." In addition, "(h)is equally colorful letters from the Florida provide one of the most compelling pictures of life on board a vessel on the Union blockade, a hugely important, but largely overlooked, chapter of the war." Those blockade enforcement duties with the Florida were performed up and the down the Atlantic seaboard as well as in the Gulf of Mexico during the final stages of the war.

The Keeler letters were first published by the U.S. Naval Institute in two volumes that were edited by Robert W. Daly. Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862 - The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy, to His Wife, Anna was released in 1962. That was followed in 1968 by Aboard the USS Florida: 1863-65 - The Letters of Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy, to His Wife, Anna. I don't know about the Monitor volume getting another release between then and now, but according to Google Books the Florida volume was reissued in 1980 by Arno Press, a now defunct outfit that specialized in reprinting rare and out-of-print classics.

Charles McLandress, editor of Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor, notes that the Keeler material contained in the Daly volumes was highly selective in nature. More from the description: "(D)ue to space constraints substantial portions of Keeler's letters were edited out. Not only does this render the letters disjointed and difficult to read, it also leaves the reader with an incomplete picture of William Keeler – husband, father and friend. With his focus on naval aspects, Daly also paid scant attention to many of the people mentioned in the letters. These include not only Keeler’s family and friends, but also navy and army officers he encountered along the way, many of whom were unsung heroes of Civil War."

McLandress's book is a handsome, professional-looking self-published paperback. Most notably, it is the first publication to reproduce the voluminous Keller correspondence in full. Additionally, with Daly's volumes providing "little contextual information about the military situation, making it difficult for all but the expert reader to easily follow the letters," the new edition exhibits plentiful editorial enhancements."With more attention paid to the people mentioned in the letters and a more in-depth account of Keeler's fascinating and eclectic life (dry goods merchant, iron founder, Forty-Niner, orange grower, newspaper correspondent and more) this new edition makes his letters accessible to a new generation of readers."

Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke augments its text with a number of photographs as well as copies of the hand-drawn Keeler maps first published in the Daly volumes. Approaching 700 pages in total, it's a fairly massive volume. The editor surveys Keeler's early life in a brief opening chapter, and he also inserts very extensive bridging narrative throughout the parts covering the Civil War years aboard the Monitor and Florida. That prodigious supplemental background history and editorial text broadly contextualizes the letters from multiple angles. Both letter and editorial materials are footnoted. Postwar Keeler letters extend into the 1880s, and the biographical notes feature in the appendix section will undoubtedly interest many readers.

McLandress has created a nice website for this book and his other publishing interests. In addition to promotion there is extra information provided there. Per an email from the author: the website also "ties Paymaster William Keeler to the other members of his family, in particular his son James Edward, the astronomer, his brother-in-law Melzar Dutton who was killed in the Civil War, and his grandson Henry Keeler who went to China in 1915 and died there at age 25."

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