Monday, May 20, 2024

Author Q&A: Charles McLandress on "Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor"

The CWBA author interview feature returns with a new Q&A session, this time with Charles W. McLandress, editor of Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor. Civil War naval historians consider the Keeler correspondence among the top rank of firsthand accounts of the conflict afloat, and this is the first publication to reproduce those letters in full.

CWBA: Thank you for joining us, Charles. Your author bio reveals that you are the great-great-grandson of Paymaster Keeler. In your experience up to now, was his Civil War service still a topic of discussion in family circles?

CM: Thank you, Drew, for inviting me to do this interview. Unfortunately, no one in my immediate family is particularly interested in the American Civil War. Our dinner table conversations tend to revolve around what the kids learned at school and why the Maple Leafs never make it beyond the first round of the playoffs.

CWBA: Where do Keeler’s letters reside today? Does the family still possess any of his original writings or wartime mementos?

CM: A decade after the end of the Civil War Keeler bound his letters in a book that he entitled My Naval Experience. That “letter book” now resides at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, MD. How the book got there is itself an interesting story: Following the death of Keeler’s wife Anna in 1901, the book passed to their only surviving child Elizabeth who in 1926 sold it to Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector of rare books and manuscripts. The book remained in Rosenbach’s possession for nearly two decades, during which time he offered it for sale to soon-to-be-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and listed it in his 1938 sales catalogue for a whopping $24,000 (roughly $500,000 today!). Rosenbach sold the letter book to the Naval Academy in 1943, along with other naval material, for an undisclosed amount of money. My family has none of Keeler’s original writings. My grandmother attributes that state of affairs to a fire that destroyed her mother’s house in Berkeley, CA in 1923 along with all of the family records stored therein.

Only a handful of Keeler’s mementos have survived; none of them are from the Civil War. All that is in my possession is a silver fork inscribed with “Paymaster” on the front and “United States Steamer Monitor” on the back and several of his business cards. A distant cousin of mine has photos of Keeler and his wife.

CWBA: Civil War naval historians often cast a jealous eye toward their army counterparts when it comes to the number and richness of available firsthand accounts. Aside from Keeler’s letters, how many Monitor crew correspondence collections, journals, and memoirs exist?

CM: As far as I know the only other collection of letters from someone who served on the Monitor are those of 1st Class Fireman George S. Geer, which are a far cry from Keeler’s vivid letters. There are a number of accounts of the battle with the CSS Virginia and the sinking of the Monitor written by several of the officers and crew of the Monitor. However, since those accounts were written long after the war, they lack the immediacy and vividness of Keeler’s contemporaneous letters.

CWBA: The significance of the Keeler letters to scholars is unquestioned. What service-related topics did he write about that are, in your view, most uniquely valuable? How would you describe his writing style?

CM: Since, as paymaster, Keeler had neither an active role in the operation or management of the vessels on which he served nor a station in battle, he was ideally suited to observe and record events. With a keen eye for detail and an agile pen he was the perfect chronicler. His vivid description of the epic naval battle between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads, VA on March 9, 1862 is in my opinion his most uniquely valuable contribution to naval history. Since he was the person who transmitted the verbal messages between the pilot house where the captain was stationed and the turret where the two guns were located, he was uniquely placed to accurately describe the battle, which he did in vivid detail. The fact that the Monitor’s captain John Worden, who was injured during the battle, did not write an official report about the battle, makes Keeler’s account even more valuable. In addition, Keeler’s detailed descriptions of other engagements, such as the failed ironclad attack on Fort Darling on the James River near Richmond on May 15, 1862 are also important. With an eye for detail Keeler also described in detail his responsibilities as a Civil War naval paymaster. Those descriptions are more numerous in his letters from the USS Florida.

In describing Keeler’s writing style the words that come to mind are wonderfully vivid, descriptive, colorful, graphic, forceful, insightful, thoughtful, and at times humorous.

CWBA: What are some of your favorite episodes/anecdotes from the Keeler letters?

CM: Keeler’s accounts of their nearly disastrous trip to Hampton Roads and the ensuing battle with the CSS Virginia and the sinking of the USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras, NC on December 31, 1862 are of course at the top of my list. His descriptions of the naval blockade of the Confederate port city of Wilmington while he was serving on the USS Florida, in particular the excitement of chasing blockade runners, also make for great reading. Surprisingly, what impressed me the most were his vivid descriptions of people he encountered during the war.

Here are three nice examples of the latter:

Keeler’s description of President Lincoln’s visit to the Monitor on May 7, 1862 is particularly moving:
“Mr. Lincoln had a sad, care worn & anxious look in strong contrast with the gay cortege by which he was surrounded. As the boat which brought the party came along side every eye sought the Monitor but his own. He stood with his face averted as if to hide some disagreeable sight. When he turned to us I could see his lip quiver & his frame tremble with strong emotion & imagined that the terrible drama in these waters of the ninth [eighth] & tenth [ninth] of March was passing in review before him. As the officers were introduced I was presented as being from his own state. He was very happy he said to find one from Illinois on board the Monitor. He examined everything about the vessel with care, manifesting great interest. His remarks evidently shewing that he had carefully studied what he thought to be our weak points & that he was well acquainted with all the mechanical details of our construction. Most of our visitors come on board filled with enthusiasm & patriotism, ready, like a bottle of soda water, to effervesce the instant the cork is withdrawn. But with Mr. Lincoln it was different. His few remarks as he accompanied us around the vessel were sound, simple & practical. The points of admiration & exclamation he left to his suite. Before he left he had the crew mustered on the Spar deck & passed slowly before them hat in hand. It gives me pleasure to say, & I record it to his credit, that he declined the invitation to whiskey but took a glass of ice water.”

While the USS Florida was at Beaufort, NC taking on coal and supplies, Keeler and several fellow officers went to one of the nearby sandy islands for a clam bake. There on January 28, 1864 they encountered a poor white named “Aunt Peggy” about whom Keeler had the following to say:
“The only peculiarity about our visit on this occasion was a call on “Aunt Peggy” & I wish you could have been a witness to it. The house was made of rough board from the common yellow pine of the country, with cracks on all sides through which the chickens could almost run—one room which answered for kitchen, chamber & parlour for the family which I should have said were some of the “poor white trash” of the country & consisted as far as I could see of “Aunt Peggy” & two daughters, one of whom was married & her husband & three children went to make up the occupants of the single room. Two rough bedsteads, three chairs & a rough pine table comprised the furniture. Upon showing ourselves at the door, Aunt Peggy invited us to “walk in gentleman” & take some chairs. As I found that five of us couldn’t comfortably be seated in three chairs I was upon the point [of] seating myself upon one of the beds when Aunt Peggy rushed up with “Oh don’t set on the baby,” to which very reasonable request I of course assented & turning down a corner of the quilt brought to light a very pretty plump blue eyed baby . . . The two beds, which looked as if they had been “slept in forever & never made up,” occupied one end of the room. Opposite was the rude fire place, the hearth strewn with a motley collection of pine chips, dead embers, live coals & oyster shells, flanked by an old iron teakettle & a lazy dog. An application to “Aunt Peggy” for some water brought forth a reply something after this fashion—“Reckon there ain’t any. Dis yere tide’s so low it’s all gin out, but I kin give yer some right smart yaupon [tea].” . . . My curiosity to taste the beverage was conquered by conscientious scruples against consuming more than “my peck of dirt.” Some of the others who were not detered by trifles declared it tasted like a mingling of sage, catnip & boneset, flavored with quinine. I suppose they were fair specimens of the poor whites of the south. They declared themselves good Union folks, & I think truly so.”

In July 1865 the USS Florida transported four of the Lincoln assassination conspirators to a prison in the Florida Keys. They were Dr. Samuel Mudd (who set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth when he was on the run), Edmund Spangler (a carpenter and stagehand at Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was shot), Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen (both involved in two failed attempts to kidnap Lincoln). The following excerpt has been combined from two of Keeler’s letters:
“We have on board the President’s murderers (the unhung ones), taking them to the Dry Tortugas where government is to furnish them (except Spangler) with a residence for the rest of their lives. Spangler goes for six years. I only regret that these [men] didn’t go with Mrs. Surratt to keep her company we should have been saved this trip down here. Like most all criminals they all claimed that they had been found guilty upon false evidence. Dr. Mudd had a good deal to say about the trial, pointing out the evidence where it clashed as he thought, giving the character of various witnesses, calling attention to points which he thought had been overlooked or had not received sufficient attention from the court. He had had the evidence in his case, pro & con, published in book form & produced a copy which he commended to our careful perusal. He is about 30 years of age, though he looks much older. He leaves a wife & four children. He is said to be a sharp shrewd man but I saw nothing about him to indicate it. He has a sort of cunning, foxy look, as if possessed of plenty of low cunning & a desire for concealment. The officers in charge of them & who have had a good opportunity of knowing say that “Mrs. Surratt & him furnished the brains for the party” & they think that he should have accompanied her to the gallows, that her fate was just & merited they have no doubt & that she had any claims, as a woman, on executive clemency they deny. Spangler is a coarse, rough, uneducated, unprincipled man. His bull neck, bullet head & brutish features mark a villain, but without sufficient nerve & steadiness to carry out the villainny his heart would prompt. He appears to take his punishment (six years) quite stoically & appears at times quite light hearted. He protests with any amount of profanity his entire innocence of the charge, but admits that he has committed crime enough of other kinds to merit the punishment so that his sentence is not undeserved. The other two [Arnold and O’Laughlen] are young men, quiet & still, saying but little except when spoken to—men of no more than ordinary information & intelligence. With the exception of Dr. Mudd who may have the ability to plan I cannot conceive how the execution of plans of such vast consequences to the rebels could have been entrusted to such kind of persons.”

CWBA: Along the spectrum of editorial approaches, from light to heavy, your work is clearly on the latter end. Can you describe what you were trying to accomplish as editor of the material?

CM: Since historians today are more interested in the personal and social aspects of the Civil War than they were in the past, I placed more emphasis on the people Keeler mentioned in his letters than did Robert Daly (the editor of the two volumes of Keeler’s letters published in the 1960s) who focused almost exclusively on naval and military matters. I did this by adding footnotes in the letters, as well as a biographical notes section at the end of the book. Award-winning Civil War historian William C. Davis, who reviewed an earlier version of the book, commented that “the editing is useful but never intrusive” and that “McLandress has done a skillful job of illuminating the letters with frequent contextual commentaries, and excellent annotation to identify people and places mentioned in the letters.” Since I also wanted to make the book accessible to anyone interested in American history and not just Civil War aficionados, I started each chapter with an introduction which provides the necessary background and contextual information to easily follow the letters.

CWBA: Along those lines (in regard to content and editing), how does your fresh edition compare to Robert Daly’s two volumes published back in the 1960s?

CM: Robert Daly omitted roughly 40% of the content of Keeler’s letters. This, in conjunction with numerous editorial notes inserted in the middle of the letters, breaks up the letters and makes for difficult reading. In Ink, Dirt & Powder Smoke, I included Keeler’s letters in their entirety and placed the editorial notes at the bottoms of the pages. This makes for much smoother reading, thus further enhancing the richness and vitality of his writing. Since a fair chunk of the material deleted by Daly pertains to people and personal matters, the inclusion of the omitted material helps to fill out Keeler’s relationship with his friends and family back home, as well as providing us with vivid descriptions of many of the people he encountered. Some notable omissions by Daly include Keeler’s wonderful half-page description of the African-American Siah Hulett Carter who escaped from Shirley Plantation where he was enslaved and served as a 1st Class Boy on the Monitor and later on the USS Florida where he rose to the rank of Ordinary Seaman. Another is Union general Michael Corcoran’s Irish Brigade at Newport News, VA, which Keeler described as “halt, lame, hump backs, decrepit old men, boys, everything in fact who would a sogering go,” with the remainder being made up of “wild irishmen from the vilest holes of New York City.” The colorful description of Aunt Peggy quoted above was also omitted by Daly. The inclusion of trivial matters such as where to pasture their cow, whether to use corn or oats to feed their hens, the state of their garden, his wish to be back home eating strawberries and cream with Anna, and many more helps to fill out home-life back in La Salle, Illinois.

Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke includes a more in-depth discussion of Keeler’s life before and after the war. His growing up in Brooklyn, his work as a dry goods merchant in Bridgeport, CT, as well as his tragic trip to the California gold fields in 1849 where his two brothers died are discussed in much greater detail. The inclusion of the letters he wrote in the 1880s to a Connecticut collector named Frank H. Pierce who was gathering information about the Monitor (letters that were unavailable to Daly) give us Keeler’s final thoughts on the Monitor. These letters also provide a fitting end to his story since he was dying of heart disease as he wrote them. When he was too ill to write, Anna had to continue the correspondence. In her last letter to Pierce she wrote:
“The packing of the box was the last work Mr. Keeler ever did. The letter announcing its safe arrival reached him a day or two before his death and I told him of its contents. The keys of the safe of the Monitor that he had in his pocket when the vessel went down he left to our son and son in law.”

CWBA: The presentation of your book is very professional looking. Having gone through the entire process of self-publishing, are you satisfied with your decision and with the results? I would imagine that not having to submit to the abridgment compromises that Daly had to endure played a part in your decision-making.

CM: I am very happy with my decision to self-publish Keeler’s letters and very satisfied with the final result. Before going that route, however, I contacted the U.S. Naval Institute Press and several university presses about whether they would be interested in publishing a complete and unabridged version of Keeler’s letters. Given the length of my proposed book and the fact that an abridged version had already been published, they politely declined. Realizing that no publishing house would take on my project, I reached out to a friend of mine who self-publishes his own books. With some words of advice from him, I reformatted my MS word document for publication by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for paperback and by IngramSpark for both paperback and hardcover, and generated cover files for the books. The KDP paperback was published in July 2023 and the IngramSpark hardcover and paperback in September and December 2023, respectively. Since then I have been busy advertising the book, and to that end have built a website and a Facebook page ( to promote it. I have learned that self-publishing a book is the easy part, advertising it is not.

CWBA: Finally, I also found your website ( to be quite engaging. Can you share any plans for the future of Seal River Publishing?

CM: My website is the main vehicle for promoting my book. But it is actually much more than that, for it delves into my American-born mother’s family tree where a number of interesting characters lurk. My mother’s ancestors were from both the North and the South. Roughly three quarters were Southerners, with one third of them coming from a wealthy plantation in Louisiana. The remaining quarter were mainly Connecticut Yankees. The two sides came together when my great grandfather (a Northerner and the astronomer son of Paymaster Keeler) married my great grandmother (a Southerner from Oakley Plantation in Louisiana). In the Civil War, three of my Northern ancestors fought for the Union and six of the Southerners for the Confederacy.

I have two other book projects planned for Seal River Publishing. One is the letters of a great-great uncle of mine named Henry Melzar Dutton, who was a young lawyer in Connecticut when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted in a Connecticut infantry regiment in July 1861 and served in Nathaniel P. Banks’ army in western Maryland until the spring of 1862, in the Shenandoah Valley chasing Stonewall Jackson and finally in northern Virginia where he was killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862. Continuing down Paymaster Keeler’s branch of my mother’s family tree, I also plan a book containing the letters of Keeler’s grandson Henry Bowman Keeler who worked in China for the Standard Oil Company from 1915 until his death there at the age of 25 in 1918. Rich in detail and often very humorous, these letters provide a Westerner’s perspective of life in China during a period of great political upheaval when Western businessmen and missionaries, as well as Chinese river bandits and warlord generals’ armies, populated the landscape. My website has sample letters of Melzar Dutton and Henry Keeler, as well as a brief story of their lives.

Persons interested in learning more can subscribe to my mailing list on the website for updates to the webpage, as well as upcoming books, and follow my Facebook page for interesting posts about those books and the letter writers.

CWBA: Thank you, Charles. Readers, once again the title of Charles's book is Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke: The Civil War Letters of William F. Keeler, Paymaster on the USS Monitor, available in both hardcover and paperback.


  1. Wonderful interview about a very interesting person and important aspect of the War. Book ordered from Amazon. I look forward to digging into the letters.

  2. Thank you, Drew, for your interview series. I always find the interviews informative even when I am not able (due to the size of my reading list) to read the book in question.

    1. Thanks, John. It has been a while since the last one! For whatever reason, reader interest in them (at least as measured through page views) has been below expectations, so I put the Q&A feature on the backburner in recent years. I am happy to hear that you like them.


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