Union Marine Diary Offers Unique Look at Civil War Edward Cotham, editor of The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine, talks about the book. It's the diary of a Union navyman who was captured by Confederate soldiers. The diary captivated readers when a Texas newspaper published it in serial form.
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Union Marine Diary Offers Unique Look at Civil War

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Union Marine Diary Offers Unique Look at Civil War

Union Marine Diary Offers Unique Look at Civil War

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Then the Union marine was captured along with his diary. In 1863, that diary was published in installments in a newspaper in Texas. Eager Confederate readers consumed his vivid description of what it was like to stand on a warship as it bombarded them.

EDWARD T: (Reading) A bombardment is a terrible scene, but at the same time, one not all together devoid of grandeur and sublimity. After the first few shots, the screaming of the huge shell and the whistling in the shot lose their terrific sounds, and a complete callousness to all danger appears to take possession of all. One becomes used to the blinding flash of the powder and the sulphurous smell at first so stifling, appears to impart to the atmosphere, an invigorating tendency.

INSKEEP: That's a passage from the diary of Henry O. Gusley as read by Edward T. Cotham, Jr. who has published a book reprinting that diary. And Mr. Cotham, welcome to the program.

COTHAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Can you explain a little more about who this man was? Just listening to his words, clearly a literate and thoughtful person.

COTHAM: He was. He was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1837, so at the time of most of the events we're talking about, he's about 25-years-old. His father was a bricklayer, but apparently his mother was a very literate individual. And he became, at an early age, just consumed with classic literature--Shakespeare, the Bible--and evidently, it had caused him to go into a literary career, and he became a printer. And that was what he was doing when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

INSKEEP: How did he end up on the deck of a Union warship?

COTHAM: Well, he joined the United States Marines, which is a little hard to understand for a boy from Pennsylvania, but eventually, he became part of the Union fleet that would eventually capture New Orleans.

INSKEEP: Now, you discovered this diary while doing some research about something else. What was it that kept you reading this thing?

COTHAM: This diary is completely different. This is a very small cog, as I call him, in the Union war machine, and he doesn't try to stretch that. He just tries to emphasize, on a daily basis, the sorts of things that one does and one experiences on a Union warship that is literally all along the Gulf Coast, and up and down the Mississippi River.

INSKEEP: What did this Union Marine think about the cause for which he was fighting?

COTHAM: Well, he was obviously conflicted about the cause, as were many of the soldiers and sailors on both sides during the conflict. That probably is most clearly spelled out when Gusley hears that Lincoln has ordered emancipation, he writes very angrily that he had thought when he joined the military that the war was about preserving the Union, and now it seemed to be for an entirely different cause, the emancipation of slaves, and he had very conflicted feelings on that.

INSKEEP: How did he get captured?

COTHAM: Well, he was on the U.S.S. Clifton, and that ship was the lead ship in the Union attack at the entrance to Sabine Pass, and the Confederates, under a young Irish bartender named Richard William Dowling, managed to disable his ship, and Gusley and all of his crewmen that survived ended up being captured.

INSKEEP: And when they surrender, I have this image of a man looking among his belongings on the ship, and deciding the thing that he has to take is gonna be this diary.

COTHAM: That's correct. But it's taken from him in prison, and it somehow, we're not exactly sure, ends up in the hands of a newspaper editor in Galveston. And so, in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News, starting in September of 1863, they start running this diary in a series of installments on page one, and you can imagine the effect this must have had in a place like Houston and Galveston. Most of the things they had seen about northern opinion were that there were just fanatical abolitionists, and this far-extreme position as they saw it. Now, this diary was really quite a surprise.

INSKEEP: Did people in Texas end up liking this man, this U.S. Marine Gusley, who had been sent down to, well, kill some of them?

COTHAM: The editor writes back and says no, you can have it for free. We appreciate it, and they initiate a very unusual correspondence back and forth, and it's quite apparent they grow to like one another.

INSKEEP: What was the communication between him and the editor?

COTHAM: The editor wants him to say more about slavery, because it's quite apparent from the diary that Gusley has a different view of slavery than the abolitionists that are normally reported on from the North, and Gusley said at one point, "believe me then, that the great mass of the people of the north do not uphold the administration on the principle of abolishing slavery, but that the restoration of the Union is the great incentive, would to heaven that the blood already spilled was a sufficient sacrifice for this great result."

INSKEEP: And it's striking to think about that passage that you read at the beginning, the passage about how you get used to the tremendous noise and din of a bombardment, because that must have been the experience of an entire country at that time, of becoming accustomed to a state of war and a state of constant death. I'm just wondering if there's some reflection of that in the diary, or if there's some reflection of that in the reaction of that that survived.

COTHAM: I think when the war started, the people down in Galveston and Houston, just like in the rest of the South, thought it would be a relatively brief affair, and they really never thought about the sacrifice and the shock of getting a cable that people were not ever coming back, and so by the end of the war, in the South, you have a lot of dissension, you have a lot of questioning, just like you do in Gusley's diary in the North. And the reality of a four or five year war was not something anybody was expecting when they went into this thing.

INSKEEP: Mr. Cotham, thanks very much for being with us.

COTHAM: I appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Edward T. Cotham is the editor of "The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley."


INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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