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The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine

The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine
The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley

A rare diary illustrated with previously unpublished period drawings that records some of the most important naval campaigns of the Civil War.

Series: Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage Endowment, Number Ten

February 2006
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223 pages | 7 x 10 | 126 b&w illus. |

On September 28, 1863, the Galveston Tri-Weekly News caught its readers' attention with an item headlined "A Yankee Note-Book." It was the first installment of a diary confiscated from U.S. Marine Henry O. Gusley, who had been captured at the Battle of Sabine Pass. Gusley's diary proved so popular with readers that they clamored for more, causing the newspaper to run each excerpt twice until the whole diary was published. For many in Gusley's Confederate readership, his diary provided a rare glimpse into the opinions and feelings of an ordinary Yankee—an enemy whom, they quickly discovered, it would be easy to regard as a friend.

This book contains the complete text of Henry Gusley's Civil War diary, expertly annotated and introduced by Edward Cotham. One of the few journals that have survived from U.S. Marines who served along the Gulf Coast, it records some of the most important naval campaigns of the Civil War, including the spectacular Union success at New Orleans and the embarrassing defeats at Galveston and Sabine Pass. It also offers an unmatched portrait of daily life aboard ship. Accompanying the diary entries are previously unpublished drawings by Daniel Nestell, a doctor who served in the same flotilla and eventually on the same ship as Gusley, which depict many of the locales and events that Gusley describes.

Together, Gusley's diary and Nestell's drawings are like picture postcards from the Civil War—vivid, literary, often moving dispatches from one of "Uncle Sam's nephews in the Gulf."


Founders Award, runner-up
Society of Civil War Historians

Award for Most Significant Scholarly Book – Finalist
Texas Institute of Letters

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Galveston Tri-Weekly News Introduction to the Note-Book
  • Chapter 1. The Battle Below New Orleans
  • Chapter 2. Ship Island, the Pearl River, and Lake Pontchartrain
  • Chapter 3. Pensacola
  • Chapter 4. New Orleans
  • Chapter 5. The Mississippi River
  • Chapter 6. Baton Rouge, Plaquemine, and Donaldsonville
  • Chapter 7. The Return to Pensacola and Ship Island
  • Chapter 8. The Capture of Galveston
  • Chapter 9. Matagorda Bay
  • Chapter 10. The Battle of Galveston
  • Chapter 11. The Capture of U.S.S. Hatteras
  • Chapter 12. A New Commander
  • Chapter 13. Mississippi Sound
  • Chapter 14. The Swamps of Louisiana
  • Chapter 15. Butte a la Rose
  • Chapter 16. Mobile Bay
  • Chapter 17. The Return to the Teche Country
  • Chapter 18. The Battle of Sabine Pass
  • Chapter 19. Letters from Prison
  • Notes
  • Index

Edward T. Cotham, Jr., is an independent scholar based in Houston, Texas. He is a member and past president of the Houston Civil War Roundtable, and also leads tours of Civil War battlegrounds in Texas and lectures to historical and civic groups.


On September 28, 1863, an unusual item made its first appearance in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News. By this time, midway through the Civil War, the Galveston newspaper was actually being published in Houston, where most of its regular readers had fled from the coast to escape the threat of Union blockade and bombardment. These transplanted readers opened their papers to see featured on page 1 the beginning installment of what was referred to in a large headline as "A Yankee Note-Book." This "Note-Book," covering more than 150 pages and eighteen months of time, was in reality a journal that had been seized by Confederate authorities from a U.S. Marine captured on September 8, 1863, after the Battle of Sabine Pass.


Over the course of almost two months, the readers of the News, then one of the most influential newspapers in the South, were treated to the full contents of Henry O. Gusley's remarkable narrative. This diary, or "Note-Book" as Gusley described it in the published version, recorded the private thoughts and experiences of one very articulate and witty Marine. Never intended for general publication, Gusley's journal was originally created only as a convenient way for the Pennsylvania Marine to record his wartime experiences for the future amusement of his friends and family. He had no idea that his writings would eventually be front-page material in an enemy newspaper. The Note-Book covered an eventful period in its author's life. During the period chronicled in his Note-Book, Gusley took part in a series of military operations up and down the Mississippi River and all along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. These battles included large engagements at New Orleans and Vicksburg, as well as smaller conflicts in the coastal waters of Louisiana and Texas.


The Yankee Note-Book quickly became one of the most popular sections in the Galveston newspaper. To promote this unexpectedly popular feature, the News chose to publish Gusley's Note-Book in serial fashion, tantalizing its readers with excerpts that usually covered no more than one to two months at a time. It quickly became the talk of the town. After the first installment, eager readers demanded that the Note-Book's contents be published at least twice on succeeding days so that they would not miss a word of Gusley's experiences. Thus, for example, the young Marine's journal for the period May 4-5, 1862, was published in the Tri-Weekly News both on September 29, 1863, and again the following day.


To his enthusiastic Texas readers in 1863, Gusley's narrative was something of a revelation. Here, for all to read in the newspaper, were nothing less than the candid observations of an enemy. But reading these private reflections was more than an exercise of voyeurism. Contrary to the initial expectations of his Texas readers, the Note-Book's author did not sound much like an enemy. In fact, the private views Gusley expressed in his journal on subjects ranging all the way from slavery to the Lincoln Administration were not much different from those of his new Confederate audience. On many occasions the Note-Book read more like a simple travelogue or a study of poetry and literature. It was certainly nothing like the inflammatory rhetoric that was a common feature in most Northern speeches inserted in Southern newspapers to stoke the fires of secession. The Note-Book also failed to meet some readers' preconceptions inasmuch as it was not the ravings of a fanatical abolitionist, as many Texans would have expected. Instead, what gradually emerged in the pages of the "Yankee Note-Book" was a literate, candid, and often humorous examination of the war as seen through the eyes of one very small cog in the immense Union war machine.


At first, the identity of the Note-Book's author was kept a mystery from its readers, ostensibly because the News feared that publication of its writer's name might "operate prejudicially to the author." It was not clear whether this prejudice was feared to come from Southerners, Northerners, or literary critics. But in any event, the anonymous status of the Note-Book's author soon changed when Gusley wrote a letter to the newspaper from his place of confinement at Camp Groce near Hempstead, enclosing five dollars and asking for copies of all of the issues in which his narrative was printed. The Galveston newspaper complied with this remarkable subscription request and an unusual public and published correspondence then followed between the prisoner-turned-celebrity and Willard Richardson, the editor of the newspaper.


As preserved so fortunately in the pages of Richardson's newspaper, Gusley's Note-Book contains many wonderful and historically valuable descriptions of important military events. Perhaps even more significant, however, are the Note-Book's vivid descriptions of ordinary daily life on board two active Union warships. For these reasons, the preservation of Gusley's journal in the pages of a Texas newspaper was indeed a remarkable stroke of luck for modern historians. But in an even more remarkable coincidence, in addition to Gusley's narrative, a number of remarkably detailed sketches have been independently preserved that provide a visual representation of many of the same places and events that Gusley visited and witnessed. These sketches have survived because yet another Union participant in a nearby ship (a ship to which Gusley himself was eventually transferred) felt the same compulsion that Gusley did to record his wartime experiences and environment in a tangible form.


Dr. Daniel D. T. Nestell, who served as Acting Assistant Surgeon on board the steamer Clifton, was (like Gusley) a keen observer of life aboard ship in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. What Gusley preserved in words, Dr. Nestell preserved in his drawings. As the reader will soon recognize in these pages, Nestell was quite talented as a sketch artist. We are indeed fortunate that more than eighty of his sketches are today preserved in the Special Collections of the Nimitz Library of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Combined here for the first time, Gusley's words published in a Texas newspaper and Nestell's pictures preserved at the Naval Academy together provide an unequaled glimpse into the U.S. Navy's campaigns along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast.


In many ways, the written and pictorial descriptions that Gusley and Nestell produced serve the same function as if they had jointly written a series of picture postcards home from the war they experienced. Together, they document some spectacular Union successes (like the capture of New Orleans) as well as some of the most embarrassing incidents (like the Confederate victories at Galveston and Sabine Pass) in the U.S. Navy's long history. They also provide some fascinating and unique glimpses into everyday life in the naval forces operating along the Gulf Coast ("Uncle Sam's nephews in the Gulf" as Gusley affectionately referred to them).


Gusley's words and Nestell's drawings serve to provide a valuable record of the conflict that so divided and yet in a strange way served to unite the states that today comprise America. That may ultimately be the most important value that publication of Gusley's diary served. The Texans who read the pages of the young Marine's diary in the newspaper during the fall of 1863 must have been struck with the same impression that we have reading it today. Gusley comes across as a person to whom almost anyone could relate, a man whom it would be easy to call a friend. Changing enemies into friends would, of course, not be an overnight transformation. But reading Gusley's narrative perhaps may have begun the transition process through which his Texas readers would eventually come to regard former enemies like Henry Gusley as fellow countrymen.


About Henry O. Gusley


Henry O. Gusley was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on November 26, 1837. His father, Jacob Gusley, was one of the hardest-working bricklayers in the city. In fact, on the occasion of Jacob's death in 1880 at the age of 69, the Lancaster newspaper reported that the elder Gusley had "built or assisted in building more of the principal buildings in this city . . . than any other bricklayer in the city." Henry Gusley, however, chose not to follow in his father's construction-oriented footsteps. Perhaps it was the influence of his mother, Elizabeth, but Henry at an early age developed what must have been an unquenchable thirst for poetry, literature, and philosophy. An incredibly well-read young man (as evidenced by the numerous and lengthy literary references and quotations in his Note-Book), Henry eventually decided to turn his passion for the written word into a career. He became a printer, a profession that evidently encouraged its practitioners to become creative, witty, and articulate. Another Pennsylvania printer, Benjamin Franklin, set the standard by which Pennsylvanians like Gusley measured themselves.


Gusley would practice the printing profession in Lancaster only for a few years until the Civil War intervened. When the war broke out, Gusley determined to fight for the Union. At the age of twenty-four, he went to Philadelphia and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps for a term of four years. His service began officially with his enlistment on October 11, 1861. Although no photograph of Gusley has yet come to light, the enlistment records reflect that the new Marine was five feet and seven inches in height and had hazel eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion.


After a brief period of training at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, New York, Gusley was ordered to join the Marine detachment on U.S.S. Westfield. He and his ship left New York on February 22, 1862, after being assigned to service in the Gulf of Mexico. Westfield would find its first service in connection with the steamer division of the Mortar Flotilla then being assembled for operations at the mouth of the Mississippi River.


Because of storms and a series of resulting mechanical problems, Gusley did not actually arrive at the entrance to the Mississippi until almost a month after his departure from New York. He then began a period of almost two years of active service in Commodore (later Admiral) David Glasgow Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron. During this eventful period, Gusley would find himself transferred unexpectedly from U.S.S. Westfield to another steamer, U.S.S. Clifton, after Westfield's destruction in action. Gusley's ships were engaged in a series of battles and skirmishes up and down the Mississippi River. They also played an important role supporting the U.S. Army in the Teche campaigns in Louisiana.


Gusley's ships participated as well in blockading operations stretching from Matagorda Bay in Texas all along the Gulf Coast to Pensacola, Florida. As part of these blockading duties, Gusley and his shipmates were involved in battles at Galveston, Port Lavaca, and Sabine Pass. At the conclusion of the Battle of Sabine Pass, one of the most remarkable Confederate victories of the war, Gusley was captured. He was thereafter held as a prisoner of war at Camp Groce (near Hempstead, Texas) and elsewhere in Texas and Louisiana.


Although Gusley's Note-Book records his service in five states, its descriptions of the war in Texas are particularly valuable since they vividly point out the divisions that existed among that state's citizens regarding the war. The Note-Book records, in Gusley's inimitable style, that at Matagorda the inhabitants "refused to sell a morsel of anything to a Union man." At Galveston, however, the Unionist townspeople greeted the Federal fleet with such a warm reception that Gusley declared that "a more respectable and well behaved set [of people] we have never seen." Even when he was captured, Gusley insisted that he found his Texas captors to be "a polite and generous people."


Perhaps the most interesting features in Gusley's Note-Book are the incredible powers of study and description that he brings to even the most routine events aboard ship. Recording a typical Sunday at sea, for example, Gusley admits to having a "sublime feeling," noting that the presence of water all around him induced a "deeper feeling of the beauty and solemnity of the day." At times, Gusley's Note-Book almost lapses into poetry. Thus, on one sunny day, Gusley observes that "with a clear bright sky above you and the gently swelling waters of the Gulf beneath . . . one cannot help feeling happy, even though he be on an errand of rude war." This is in sharp contrast to his description of a dismal, wet day. On such a day, Gusley observes, "everybody is too wet to talk in a good humor, and so they growl; everything is too damp to admit of a snooze, and that causes everyone to grumble; and so the hours drag along, each seeming in itself a watch, and the day itself seems like an age."


Gusley's nineteen-month period of confinement must indeed have seemed like an "age." The young Marine was not released from captivity until April 1865, when he was paroled. This lengthy period of confinement had been hard on Gusley. He developed a serious stomach disorder, diagnosed later as everything from cancer to chronic peritonitis. This condition afflicted him for the remainder of his life. Causing him incredible pain that literally doubled him over from time to time, this stomach problem frequently prevented him from eating regular meals and kept him from engaging in full-time work after the war. It eventually was the cause of his death in Rochester, New York, on December 19, 1884, at the age of forty-seven.


The original of Gusley's Note-Book does not appear to have survived. We are indeed fortunate, therefore, to have the version that was transcribed so faithfully in the Galveston newspaper. It must be recognized, however, that the editor who rendered Gusley's handwritten Note-Book into newspaper print in 1863 was not as familiar as we are today with the names of Union ships and personnel. In addition, Gusley used a style of punctuation and printer's abbreviations that were apparently difficult to read and reproduce. To minimize these difficulties, in editing Gusley's Note-Book for publication in this book, official records and other sources have been used to revise and occasionally correct the text published in the Galveston newspaper in order to more closely approximate Gusley's meaning and intent. Where it appears that the original text of Gusley's Note-Book (as opposed to the version transcribed in the newspaper) was incomplete or erroneous, and not a mere transcription error, the error is preserved herein. All other changes or corrections have been identified in brackets or otherwise noted.


About Dr. Daniel D. T. Nestell


The artist behind most of the sketches in this book, Dr. Daniel D. T. Nestell (Figure 1), was born in New York in 1819, making him eighteen years older than Henry Gusley. Nestell attended the City University of New York, where he graduated with a medical degree in 1843. Following graduation, Nestell toured internationally with one of his medical school professors. During this period he developed an expertise in dispensing medicines as well as becoming a specialist in diagnosing pulmonary ailments.


When the Civil War broke out, Nestell tendered his services as a physician. He was appointed Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Navy, on January 25, 1862. Nestell was first assigned to duty on U.S.S. Clifton, on which he served until its capture at the Battle of Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863.


After his capture at Sabine Pass, Dr. Nestell was at first confined with Henry Gusley and the other prisoners from that battle at Camp Groce, near Hempstead, Texas. Eventually most of the officers were moved to Camp Ford, near Tyler, Texas. Dr. Nestell applied for release on the ground that as a physician he was entitled under the accepted rules of war to free passage through the enemy's lines. This request was granted and he was released in the spring of 1864. During his captivity, Dr. Nestell contracted scurvy and lost many of his teeth. After he was released, Nestell was then assigned to serve on board the side-wheel steamer U.S.S. Alabama, which had been recommissioned in May 1864. He served as Alabama's physician for the remainder of the war.


This would not turn out to be a quiet period of reflection. Alabama was one of the ships assigned to participate in two massive bombardments of Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast. Nestell, of course, was no stranger to such bombardments, having been present on Clifton during many similar attacks beginning with the almost weeklong assault on the forts below New Orleans in the spring of 1862. By the end of the war, Dr. Nestell had endured almost four years on board ships that were active participants in heavy bombardments lasting many days at a time. It is not surprising that this type of service eventually caused Nestell to lose much of his hearing, a condition that continued to worsen after the war.


The end of the war brought personal conflict for Dr. Nestell when he was formally accused by his former commanding officer (Lieutenant Frederick Crocker, U.S.N.) of acting negligently during the Battle of Sabine Pass. This allegation, which did not surface until almost two years after the battle, was delayed because Crocker (unlike Dr. Nestell) was not released from Southern prisons until 1865. When he was eventually confronted with his commander's accusations, Nestell admitted one charge—that he had hidden on his ship's rudder during part of the battle—but denied the more serious allegation that he had failed to care for the wounded to the best of his ability. As it did with many such controversies at the end of the war, the Navy decided simply to sweep these allegations under the rug, and Dr. Nestell's appointment as Acting Assistant Surgeon was simply revoked without comment on June 6, 1865.


After the war ended, Nestell attempted to resume his medical practice, but his growing deafness made it difficult for him to attract and retain private patients. In 1869 Nestell became an Acting Assistant Surgeon with the U.S. Army in Portland, Oregon. Until his retirement in 1874, he continued to serve as an Army physician at various camps and forts in California, Oregon, and Arizona. Nestell died at the age of eighty-one in Oakland, California, on October 24, 1900. His cause of death was officially listed as "senility." He was buried in Mountain View Cemetery.


About the United States Marine Corps in the Civil War


Today, the United States Marine Corps is a legendary fighting force with proud traditions, an established identity, and a well-defined mission. That was not the case at the time of the Civil War. Although the Marine Corps had been in existence since 1775, when it was created by the Continental Congress, and had seen action on shore in battles ranging from the Mexican War ("the halls of Montezuma") to actions against the Barbary pirates ("the shores of Tripoli"), those actions were only a distant memory for the relatively small number of men who comprised the Marine Corps when the Civil War erupted in 1861.


Before the war was even in progress, the Corps lost a small number of enlisted men and fully one-third of its officers to the ranks of the Confederacy, leaving a depleted service unequipped and unprepared to meet the growing needs of the expanding Union naval forces. To meet these needs, Congress authorized the expansion of the Marine Corps to more than three thousand enlisted men. Henry Gusley was part of this wartime increase in the ranks of the Marines. Although the Marines now had the few good men for whom they were suddenly looking (Figure 2), there was still substantial confusion and uncertainty about the specific role that these new Marines would be expected to play in the rapidly escalating conflict. During the first few months of the war, the Marines served effectively in a number of important actions on land, taking an active role in the fighting at Bull Run and Hatteras Inlet. But as the war progressed, Marines were assigned less and less of a role on shore, leading to some ambiguity about their function in the Union military machine.


Michael S. Davis accurately summarizes the problem as one of scope:


The American Civil War demonstrated that Marines had no consistent role in battle. Many fought aboard ships as gun crews and as sharpshooters. Only in a few isolated instances did the Marines fight on land, and then only in small numbers. . . . The Marine Corps' position was that its purpose remained what it had always been: to furnish ship's guards for naval vessels, to enforce shipboard discipline, operate the guns, and join landing parties for very limited operations ashore. . . . Thus, the Marine Corps failed to find a wartime function for itself, a failure that threatened its very existence.


Calling this period the "Doldrums of the Marine Corps," historian Allan R. Millett noted that "The Marine Corps began the Civil War on the defensive both tactically and institutionally, and it never recovered." Marines like Henry Gusley were detached ashore only on limited occasions and usually with very limited objectives. The military planners in Washington had not yet realized the critical importance of having a specially trained force dedicated to making amphibious assaults on enemy positions.


As Gusley's experience points out, life on a naval warship (even a relatively active ship) was seldom glamorous, particularly during the seemingly endless months of routine blockade duty. Like their counterparts on land, Marines frequently complained about boredom and the monotony of their rations. George Riddell, who (like Gusley) was a Marine from Pennsylvania, wrote home to his family to describe the daily menu on board Clifton:


  • Monday—Pork & Beans
  • Tuesday—Salt Horse [salted beef] & Duff [flour pudding]
  • Wednesday—Pork & Beans & Pickles
  • Thursday—Preserved Roast Beef, Desiccated Potatoes, Butter
  • Friday—Pork & Beans & Pickles
  • Saturday—Salt Horse & Duff
  • Sunday—Preserved Meat, Rice, Mixed Vegetables, Butter


When they were not actively engaged in combat operations, special guard duty, or sentry duty, the routine work of a Marine on board one of the steamers in the Mortar Flotilla was not terribly exciting or difficult. As Private Riddell described the Marine's daily duty schedule on board Clifton, it typically meant standing guard for two hours, then having six hours off, followed by a shift of two hours on and eight hours off. Clifton's Marine Guard consisted of twelve privates, two corporals, and one sergeant. This made for crowded and uncomfortable conditions below deck in the small space assigned to house the Marines. Riddell complained to his mother that "our birth deck is only 2 feet 6 inches high and we are bent [over] all the time when we are below [deck]."


Gusley candidly admits that the life of a marine was frequently "monotonous," noting that on many occasions "events of any note are of so rare occurrence that it is almost useless to waste paper on a Note-Book to record them." Nevertheless, even during these periods of inactivity, Gusley's Note-Book offers a unique glimpse into the daily routine on board a Navy warship. Noting that "the life of a marine is a diversification of numerous tedious, useful, and even scientific occupations," he records in the Note-Book activities ranging from coal-heaving to picket duty.


One thing that strikes many readers of Gusley's Note-Book is how frequently and abruptly his ships change position. Gusley literally does not know when he lies down to sleep where the next day will find him. On one occasion in the summer of 1862, he laments that "transitory, indeed, is our present life," observing that "each succeeding twenty-four hours finds us at a different place." Gusley's journeys take him from New York to New Orleans and from Florida to Texas, with long voyages up the Mississippi River and through the swamps of Louisiana in between. In recording his impressions of these widely scattered places, Gusley's Note-Book offers valuable descriptions of many ports and towns throughout the South.


About the Mortar Flotilla


When the Civil War erupted, Union military planners lost no time in spreading out their maps of the Confederacy to devise a strategy for capturing and holding the rebellion's most important places. A single city—New Orleans—emerged at the top of nearly every strategist's list of targets and objectives. The South's largest city and busiest port, New Orleans was located a little more than one hundred miles above the mouth of the Mississippi River, thus controlling passage on America's greatest artery of commerce. Until New Orleans was safely in Union hands, it was clear that Northern trade was in jeopardy and the rebellious South could never be truly deemed to have been subdued.


Although it was evident to officials planning the Union war effort that New Orleans needed to be occupied as soon as possible, such a conquest did not at first seem easily achievable. Forts Jackson and St. Philip, a pair of massive brick fortifications joined by a chain flanked the Mississippi River below that city. Designed before the war to be among America's most powerful fortifications, these forts appeared to be so strong to military planners on both sides of the conflict that it had become almost an article of faith that they could not be overcome by naval forces moving up the river. Instead, military strategists on both sides assumed, it would be necessary for the Union Navy to move south along the entire course of the Mississippi, capturing New Orleans only at the end of a prolonged campaign that would involve occupying and capturing every important Confederate city (including the citadel at Vicksburg) upriver from New Orleans.


How did it come to pass that New Orleans eventually became one of the first (instead of the last) large cities in the South to be captured by the Union? The answer revolves around a duel between "ship and shore" that would play its way out throughout the duration of the Civil War. It was a duel that Nestell and Gusley would witness firsthand.


Not long after the beginning of the war, the United States Navy experienced some remarkable success along the Atlantic coast in overcoming Confederate forts. This early success (soon reinforced by the capture of some key forts on western rivers) led to an important change of strategy. The Navy's successes in capturing Confederate forts encouraged Union war department officials to begin asking themselves a question that had formerly been viewed as almost unthinkable: Could the same naval power that had produced victories over Confederate forts on the east coast and western rivers now be used to directly challenge and overcome the powerful forts flanking the Mississippi River below New Orleans? For such a scheme to have any chance of success, two big problems would have to be solved. First, the swampy conditions prevailing below New Orleans made it virtually impossible to capture the forts using armies and conventional land siege tactics. Surveys confirmed that the dismal, wet terrain made it physically impractical to move heavy artillery pieces into positions from which a force of infantry and artillery could effectively attack the Confederate forts. If the forts were to be attacked, that attack would have to come almost exclusively from the water.


The necessity of a naval attack compounded the second problem that the Union military faced on the lower Mississippi: any naval force powerful enough to face and overcome the pounding it was bound to suffer from the Confederate guns known to be mounted in the forts below New Orleans would, of necessity, include a large number of big warships; such vessels, however, were by nature heavy and deep in draft and would encounter great difficulty passing over the sandbars deposited outside the fanlike entrances to the Mississippi River. Each of these problems (launching an artillery attack from the river and getting the large warships involved in that attack into the river) would have to be overcome if an attack on New Orleans up the Mississippi River was going to be seriously considered.


After giving the matter some careful thought, Commander David Dixon Porter came up with a proposed solution for the problem of how to launch a bombardment from the river. His plan for capturing these forts, based on his experience blockading the mouth of the Mississippi River, involved conducting a lengthy and continuous bombardment using a large number of heavy mortars. To move these heavy mortars into firing distance of the Confederate forts despite the swampy terrain, Porter proposed the creation of a "Mortar Flotilla" that would consist of a fleet of specially designed schooners equipped with immense mortars mounted securely on their reinforced decks. These "bombers," or "mortar boats," as they were also called, were intended to serve collectively as a floating battery. The Confederates would later derisively refer to these mortar vessels as "spit boxes," but to Union war planners they seemed to be the key to unlocking the gates to the Mississippi River. Realizing the critical importance of seizing New Orleans at an early date, as well as the absence of any good alternatives, the U.S. Navy finally adopted Porter's plan. On February 10, 1862, the Mortar Flotilla (initially called the "Bomb Flotilla") was formally created to serve under Commander Porter's orders.


The motto of the Mortar Flotilla might well have been "Have mortar—will travel." Twenty schooners that had originally been purchased for use as light cruisers were quickly fitted out with one thirteen-inch mortar each (Figure 3). They also carried from two to four other guns along their sides. The "chowderheads," as the large mortars were affectionately referred to by the men hastily assembled to operate them, were about four feet wide at the muzzle and five feet in length. Each mortar weighed about 18,000 pounds and was mounted on an iron carriage (Figure 4) that weighed about 10,000 pounds. Placed on a revolving table or bed (Figure 5), the whole mortar assembly weighed between 16 and 17 tons. When completed, the mortar schooners varied in size between 160 to 200 tons and carried a crew of about forty men each.


Operating as a coordinated squadron, these mortar vessels were capable of delivering a massive quantity of shell and shot raining down on any target that might be designated. Commander Porter's plan required that these vessels be designed to withstand the punishment resulting from delivering heavy bombardments continuously for a period that might extend day and night for weeks. The specially reinforced mortars were cast in Pittsburgh and transported to New York and Philadelphia along with 30,000 bombshells. The mortar carriages were made in New York.


To withstand the massive stress that such a bombardment would necessarily inflict on the vessels that delivered it, the mortar schooners were filled in almost solidly beneath their decks with a complex web of timber supports (Figure 6). These supports were intended to function basically as shock absorbers when the mortar was fired. The shells to be fired from the mortars each weighed 216 pounds, contained 11 pounds of powder, and when fired with the usual 20-pound service charge of powder had an expected range of 4,200 yards.


The men assigned to the Mortar Flotilla were for the most part not experienced naval personnel. Like Henry Gusley and Dr. Nestell, they were ordinary men who had volunteered to serve in their country's naval forces. Some of the crewmen had served in the merchant marine. But many of the men, particularly those assigned to actually service the mortars, had no experience with the sea whatsoever. For example, an Irishman named Pat joined Porter's mortar expedition after serving three months in the Army. Pat had been convinced by his friends that service in the Navy simply had to be better than the harsh military life he was experiencing with the U.S. Army on land. Based on this reasoning, he volunteered for the Navy as soon as his three-month Army enlistment expired. Because he had no nautical experience of any kind, however, Pat was immediately assigned the worst duties on the ship, which included the miserable job of serving as lookout during bad weather. One night during a particularly violent storm the men below deck could hear Pat at his post on deck cursing and swearing in a loud voice: "O holy Moses! The divil take me fri'nds sure! Ah! me fri'nds advised me to go to sea in the navy, and not go in the army ag'in, for a sailor, says they, always has a house over his head; but the very divil was in them when they gave me that advice sure!"


Going to sea was not the only bad advice that men like Pat received. As it turned out, they received inadequate and occasionally erroneous instruction in how to safely operate the guns on their vessels. Firing a four-ton mortar was a complicated and frequently dangerous procedure, as Theodore R. Davis, special artist for Harper's Weekly, explained:


The mortar, by means of a mathematical instrument, is pointed at the exact elevation of 45 degrees. A wooden bar, or sight, with a spirit-level attached, is then firmly screwed to the trunnion, and the exact position of the mortar at its elevation of 45 degrees is marked upon it. With the distance to be fired varies the charge of powder, each charge being carefully weighed and placed in the mortar loose, instead of in cartridge. When the distance fired is very great, and the charge of powder in consequence large, the men—to avoid the effect of the heavy concussion—stand on tip-toe and with mouths open. The open mouth allows the sound to reach the inside of the ear-drum, reduces the effect of the concussion, and renders the shock much less severe.


The advice given to mortar crews to open their mouths and stand on tiptoes was good as far as it went, but, in truth, a flotilla of mortar vessels did not fit the usual navy procedures very well, and there was little experience to guide the men who were expected to actually operate the huge guns on these vessels. Most of the mortar crews arrived in the Gulf of Mexico without having fired the mortars on their ships even a single time. As one naval officer described the situation, when the mortar crews finally got the opportunity to test their principal weapons (Figure 7), there were some real surprises:


We went through all the preparations for action; loaded the mortar with a full-service charge of twenty pounds of powder, cut a fuse for four thousand yards, and, after several changes of sighting from one side and then the other, I gave the order to fire. The crew, according to the manual, had been taught to "stand in the rear of the piece on tip-toe, with mouth and ears open;" but, as this was real, and I did not know just what the thing would do, I ordered them farther away, while I, with my officers, noted the time of flight of the shell, and the time of sound from the explosion of the shell; after which I took a survey of the deck. The mortar had recoiled off the turntable back against the side, driving the rear of the carriage into the water-ways, and listing the vessel about ten degrees. The concussion had taken nearly every door off the hinges, the arms-chest and round-houses collapsed, and other slight damage. [The previously mentioned Irish crewman] Pat was the first to call attention. He stood fixed with his hands upon his hips, looking at the mortar-carriage stuck in the water-way. "O howly Jasus, and wouldant I have been in the hell of a fix, if I had stayed where they tould me? Sure me legs would have been gone entirely!" Such really would have been the case. For my discovery I was rewarded with a "day off" and breechings were ordered to be fitted on the mortars of all the vessels.


Because the mortar schooners carried a wide variety and sizes of powder charges and ammunition in addition to their heavy mortars, these vessels necessarily tended to be heavy ships. A steam engine would have made such a ship even heavier, making it difficult for the mortar vessel to enter the Mississippi River and reach its station within firing range of the Confederate forts. In addition, the presence of so much powder and ammunition on the schooners made it dangerous to have on board the type of flame that would have been associated with the typical steam engines of the day. This meant that the mortar schooners would have to be powered by sail, to the extent that they had any power of independent movement at all. As a practical matter, it became obvious that in most cases the mortar schooners would actually need to be towed into position by steamers equipped for that purpose. This brought up and in fact compounded the second problem that needed to be solved in Commander Porter's plan to capture New Orleans: getting big ships over the sandbars at the entrance to the Mississippi River. As the mortar schooners neared completion, Porter could clearly see that he needed steamers not only to get the large gunboats into the river but also to tow his own flotilla of mortars up the river and into position to support the attack on the Confederate forts.


Porter satisfied his need for steamers by creating a "steamer division" in his flotilla. To head this division, two large ferryboats were acquired and converted into gunboats. It was on these two steamers that Henry Gusley and Dr. Daniel Nestell would eventually serve. The first ship acquired for the steamer division, the steamer on which Gusley left New York for the South, was U.S.S. Westfield (Figure 8), which was a side-wheel steamer of 822 tons that had been purchased from Cornelius Vanderbilt for $90,000 in November 1861. Prior to its purchase, Westfield had been in use as a Staten Island ferryboat. Equipped as a gunboat, Westfield mounted six guns, the largest of which was a 100-pounder Parrott rifle.


The other steamer—another converted ferryboat—was U.S.S. Clifton (named for Clifton, New Jersey). Purchased by the U.S. Navy, likewise for $90,000, in December 1861 from the New York Union Ferry Company, Clifton (Figure 9) was a side-wheel steamer of 892 tons. At 210 feet long it was 5 feet shorter than Westfield, but at 40 feet its beam was 5 feet wider. Clifton usually mounted eight guns, including a 30-pounder Parrott rifle.


Ferryboats (Figure 10) like Clifton and Westfield had never been intended by their builders to travel vast distances on the open ocean, and there were substantial doubts in the Navy that they would even be able to reach their stations far to the south in the Gulf of Mexico. Those fears seemed well founded when the ferryboats were battered by substantial Atlantic storms and suffered significant damage almost as soon as they left New York waters. One pessimistic Marine on board Clifton wrote home to his family as they made the long journey south to Key West that "all hands expect to go to the bottom." Eventually, the Mortar Flotilla reached the Gulf of Mexico, where the fighting ferryboats would prove their critics wrong. As one naval writer has characterized this movement, "Off they gamely waddled. Like the bee, which is held aerodynamically incapable of flight yet flies anyhow, the ferryboats did not understand that they could not go into the open ocean, and they steamed obliviously forth."


When the Mortar Flotilla finally joined the Union armada at the mouth of the Mississippi, Commodore David Glasgow Farragut was not exactly delighted to see it. Farragut's orders provided that "when these formidable mortars arrive, and you are completely ready, you will collect such vessels as can be spared from the blockade, and proceed up the Mississippi River, and reduce the defenses which guard the approaches to New Orleans." But Farragut had never been very comfortable with this part of the plan. In fact, when the Mortar Flotilla's part in the plan of attack had first been revealed to him in Washington, Farragut politely but dismissively commented that "he placed little reliance on mortars, and that they would not have been part of his plan and advisement, but that he would take the mortar-fleet with him, as it had been adopted as part of the equipment of the fleet and might prove of more advantage than he anticipated."


Although Farragut still retained doubts about the utility of the mortar schooners, the steamer division of the flotilla, particularly Westfield and Clifton, proved immediately valuable. Within eight hours of their arrival at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the steamers had towed into the river all twenty-one mortar vessels of the Mortar Flotilla and were ready to lend assistance to the rest of the Navy's expedition (Figure 11). This was hard work. The Mississippi at this position contained one sandbar after another, and to compound the problem, the bottoms of the winding channels were littered with sunken vessels, chains, and machinery. While pulling Pensacola and Mississippi over the bar, both of which had displacement weights of 3,000 tons or more, Clifton broke all three of its hawsers (heavy ropes used in towing). One of these breakages caused a fragment of the hawser to whip back, killing one crewman on Pensacola and breaking the legs of two others. Despite these setbacks, the ferryboats continued their critical and difficult work. Westfield and Clifton, in particular, were put to good use hauling some of the largest gunboats ever to enter the Mississippi River over the bar and into the river. Commander Porter reported proudly to Washington that these two steamers quickly proved themselves to be "the two most effective vessels in these waters."


Beginning on the morning of April 18, 1862, the mortar schooners were towed up the Mississippi River (usually in groups of four at a time) and anchored at positions that had been carefully mapped out by representatives of the Coast Survey. At great personal risk to themselves and their survey steamer (Sachem), the Coast Survey officers surveyed the precise firing positions of the mortar schooners to determine as closely as possible the perfect places from which to bombard the Confederate forts below New Orleans.


The first day's bombardment saw the firing of almost 1,100 shells from the mortar schooners, many of which appeared to burst within the walls of the forts. As it turned out, this first day of the bombardment was by far the most effective of any day in the siege that followed. Colonel Edward Higgins, the Confederate commander whose headquarters was within Fort Jackson, said that dawn on the second day brought a "terrible scene of destruction" within the fort. Although the fort's guns themselves were not badly injured, at the end of the bombardment nearly five days later, Higgins admitted "everything else in and around the fort was destroyed."


There was considerable controversy, even during the war, as to how effective Porter's mortar bombardment had actually been. As Colonel Higgins admitted, to the Confederates inside the forts the bombardment had seemed an awesome thing, causing substantial damage to the walls of the forts and the structures within them. Assistant Surveyor Joseph Harris of the U.S. Coast Survey, who conducted a survey of Fort Jackson after it eventually surrendered, observed that "the ramparts of the fort proper were severely damaged on every side, but particularly on the two northern ones" (Figure 12). Noting that every building in the fort had been destroyed either by fire or bombshell and that the walls, casemates, and bastions were so cracked that he could see daylight through some of them, Harris concluded that "the impression left on my mind is of a place far gone on the road to ruin, which will stand but little more before it will come down about its defenders' ears."


Other naval officers, particularly those close to Flag Officer Farragut, took a different view of the effectiveness of the mortar bombardment. Conceding that considerable damage had been done to the buildings within the forts and that the walls had indeed been cracked in some places, Porter's critics observed that the main strategic targets of this bombardment—the guns facing the river—had suffered relatively little damage during the bombardment. Instead, the critics pointed out, every time the Union fleet approached the forts, even after ninety-six hours of supposedly heavy bombardment, the defensive fire from the forts seemed as vigorous as ever. As a consequence of this failure to damage the key element of the enemy's war-making power (his guns), Farragut apparently lost the little faith he had ever had in mortars and determined to adopt a risky strategy of running by the forts at night.


There remains considerable debate even today about the true contribution of Porter's mortar bombardment to the almost miraculous success of Farragut's passage of the forts below New Orleans. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the sustained bombardment by Porter's Mortar Flotilla clearly served to wear down the enemy's resistance within the forts to the point that when Farragut's fleet steamed by early on the morning of April 24, 1862, the Confederate forts were unable to concentrate their fire in such a fashion that it would do substantial damage to the Union fleet as it passed. Instead, Farragut's ships steamed past largely unhindered, suffering relatively few casualties and leaving his vessels in such excellent shape that they were able to fight their way through the Confederate fleet (where they suffered the loss of U.S.S. Varuna to Confederate rams) and then steam rapidly up to the city of New Orleans the next day and force its surrender. It was a conquest that would send shockwaves throughout the Confederacy.


After assisting Farragut to pass the forts below New Orleans and capture that city, the Mortar Flotilla was next employed in operations against the Confederate citadel at Vicksburg. This operation proved unsuccessful when the Army was unable to move troops into position to successfully support the naval attack and assault Vicksburg. Therefore, with no immediate project in sight, the Mortar Flotilla was withdrawn to the relative safety of Ship Island off the Mississippi coast.


For a while it appeared that Mobile would be the next military target at which the floating mortars would be pointed. But political and economic considerations dictated that Texas was to be the next point of invasion. The steamer division was detached from most of the remainder of the Mortar Flotilla and was sent to Texas on an expedition (ultimately unsuccessful) to capture and hold the important port city of Galveston. During the battle that led to the Confederate recapture of Galveston, U.S.S. Harriet Lane (Commander Porter's former flagship) was seized by the rebels, and Westfield was destroyed by its Union captain to keep it out of the enemy's hands. It was at this point that Henry Gusley (who was not on Westfield at the time of its destruction) was transferred to serve as part of the Marine Guard on Clifton. For the next nine months, Clifton and the remaining vessels in the steamer division were used in a series of operations along the Gulf Coast. Some of these operations, like the capture of the Confederate fort at Butte a la Rose in Louisiana, were important victories that helped extend Union control of shallow inland rivers. Still other operations involved routine blockading duty in Mississippi Sound and defensive patrols off of Ship Island.


In September 1863, the Army decided to once again attack Texas, this time choosing to begin the invasion at what was supposed to be a lightly guarded point—Sabine Pass. But on September 8, 1863, the Union invasion was turned back at the pass by fewer than fifty Confederates, leading to the capture of Clifton and its crew. This effectively eliminated the steamer division of the Mortar Flotilla as an organized fighting force. Mortars would be used again by the Navy, most notably against large forts on the Atlantic Coast like Fort Fisher. But the Mortar Flotilla that had been sent south with Porter to the Gulf of Mexico had served its purpose, and its remaining elements were divided up and assigned to other duties.


About the Engravings


In addition to the drawings by Dr. Daniel D. T. Nestell, Gusley's Note-Book is illustrated in this book with engravings and etchings from the period during and immediately following the Civil War. Although photography existed at the time of the war, and famous photos by Matthew Brady and other pioneering photographers provide an important record of a relatively small number of the places and events of that war, photographs were not the primary means of capturing and sharing images to a population eager for news about the progress of the war. To begin with, photographic equipment was bulky and cumbersome to transport, making it particularly difficult for photographers to capture images of active operations like naval campaigns. The technology of the time required steady cameras and relatively long exposures, making it almost impossible to record any battles. Weather conditions also made photography difficult and unreliable. Even if it had been possible to capture battle images on film, it was not possible to reproduce such photos commercially in publications like newspapers in which the public could view them in a timely fashion.


To solve the problem of mass distribution of wartime images, periodicals like Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly sent teams, composed of correspondents and talented "special artists" like Winslow Homer, William Waud, and Edwin Forbes, to document battles and military movements throughout the South. Their eyewitness sketches were then shipped north, where they were redrawn on wood and eventually transformed into engravings. Where a photograph existed, the popular publications often raced to scoop their competitors in transforming it into an engraving, which was then quickly and efficiently made the centerpiece of an article that would capture the eye of a prospective reader. In this process, details were frequently omitted or changed in order to make for a more interesting and attractive image. As an example of this transformation, Figure 13 is a side-by-side comparison of a photograph of Commander David Dixon Porter with the engraved version of that same photograph that made its way into the pages of Harper's Weekly in January 1865. Although largely faithful to the original, the engraving substituted a couple of strategically posed officers and some busy crewmen for what would otherwise have been a fuzzy and uninteresting background.


Depicting naval scenes was particularly challenging for Civil War artists. To begin with, it was difficult—and sometimes dangerous—to get the type of commanding view that was required to make an accurate image. This is illustrated in Figure 14, a dramatic representation of artist William Waud sketching an engagement near the mouth of the Mississippi River from the foretop of a warship. Conditions on board a ship during battle, including smoke, deck movement, and noise, made it hard for any artist to work while a fight was in progress. Therefore, Waud (and even nonprofessional artists like Dr. Daniel D. T. Nestell, who made most of the drawings in this book) often merely made rough sketches during the battle showing the positions of the various ships and forts that were engaged. After the battle, they then filled in the details as circumstances permitted. Some of Dr. Nestell's sketches were never completed, containing only a notation in pencil that a particular ship or building was at a specified location in the scene. Where it will aid the reader's understanding of a particular scene, the editor has added caption boxes to some of Dr. Nestell's drawings. These boxes render more legible and sometimes expand on the notes made by the artist when the sketches were originally made.


About African Americans and the Navy


Henry Gusley's Note-Book confirms that he was a man of his time insofar as racial relations were concerned. His Note-Book referred to black people by a variety of racial epithets, most of which the editor has changed (with changes noted) to less offensive terms. There is also little about Gusley's views on the institution of slavery that would differentiate him from the Southerners against whom he fought. Noting that the slaves he saw working on shore in the South seemed to have more time off than the crew on his own ship, Gusley pronounced the "much talked of hardships of the Southern slave" to be a myth. Gusley was not alone in his views on race and slavery. As historian Michael J. Bennett has noted, "based on their letters and diaries, the overwhelming majority of Union sailors harbored every vicious, condescending prejudice ruminating in American society concerning blacks in the mid-nineteenth century."


In addition to doubting the merits of emancipation, Gusley also expressed clear reservations about the institution of slavery as an appropriate precipitating cause of the war. He believed extremist agitators on both sides of the slavery issue shared the blame for causing the war, and he was not convinced that the conflict was really necessary. If slavery was the main issue, he insisted, then there was no justification for the war because, as far as he could see, slavery had "no deteriorating effect upon the country." Since Gusley regretted the role that agitation over slavery had played in precipitating the war, he was surprised (as were many Northern sailors) when President Lincoln made it a central focus of the war with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Disgusted to hear that emancipation had been officially sanctioned, Gusley recorded sarcastically in his Note-Book that when he enlisted he thought that it was for the purpose of preserving the Union. Now, he lamented, it was beginning to look like the real purpose of the war had all along been the abolition of slavery. "Strange," Gusley observed, "how circumstances will alter opinions."


One of the most interesting features in Gusley's Note-Book is the evolution it reflects in its author's perception of emancipation. As Gusley's service extended into the spring of 1863, he continued to have more direct and personal encounters with the emancipated slaves who served on board his ship. The number and tone of the racial epithets in his Note-Book gradually subsided, and Gusley eventually came to favor the Emancipation Proclamation that he had so bitterly opposed when it was issued. Justifying it on the ground that such a policy takes slave labor that would otherwise be useful to the enemy and puts it to use for the Union cause, Gusley insists that "this sounds like abolitionism, but it is not—we call it logic." This "logic," as Gusley terms it, led to an increasing number of black sailors in the U.S. Navy. By some estimates, black men comprised almost 20 percent of the Navy's crews by the end of the war. Gusley's Note-Book is thus a fascinating record of one of the most important developments in the history of America's armed services: the freeing and eventually the training and arming of African Americans.


May 3, 1862


A book without a preface is a mystery until it has been thoroughly read; no accurate supposition can be formed of its contents, or its aim, without a title. This being a self-evident proposition, and the writer of this being seized with the idea of perpetuating the different scenes through which he, in his transitory life, may pass, and at the same time, thinking that, at some future day, it may be a source of much edification to himself or some of his friends, or even a means of useful information as to data—to refer to—has determined to note down each and every event of importance that may happen around him. The same mystery that envelops the founding of the immortal "Pickwick Club," also enshrouds, as regards minutiae, the early career of this writer. We fall upon the renowned members of that club in the midst of one of their momentous meetings; and likewise, at the most momentous period of his life, has this writer imitated the example of the above quoted gentlemen, and opened a Note-Book.


This page, then, dispels all the mystery that we have said exists for want of a preface; and a glance at the ending of the first paragraph at once prevents the forming of any supposition by boldly stating the title [Note-Book].


[Gusley begins his narrative on May 3, five days after the surrender of the forts below New Orleans. In the next entry, dated May 4, however, Gusley goes back in time to catch his readers up on the events leading up to the New Orleans campaign and the successful capture of New Orleans.—Ed.]


The momentous period alluded to is five days after the surrender of Forts Jackson and St. Philip,2 placed by geographers, as well as by human hands, on a large bend of the Mississippi River, about thirty miles from the mouth of said river and eighty-five from New Orleans. The bombardment was a terrible one, commencing early on Good Friday morning and continuing, day and night, until early on the following Thursday morning, when one division of our fleet was pushed above the forts, after a terrific battle of nearly an hour (Figure 15). The fight, in reality, was commenced on the previous Sunday, our vessel, the Westfield, having on that day gone up and engaged two of the rebel steamers, and in conjunction with the Harriet Lane (Figure 16), firing at and receiving a brisk return from the forts; and the forts did not surrender until the Monday after the main battle.


May 4, 1862


We belayed our writing yesterday, for the very good reason that it was our turn for two hours' "sentry-go" on the hurricane; and having various other little duties to attend to, after performing that arduous but highly necessary task, we were unable to again add a few more words under the date of the first page. In order to keep up a true record of events according to our first intention, and to carry out the thread of our narrative prior to the date of our conceiving the idea of keeping a Note-Book, we find it necessary to adopt the rule carried out in the manly game of ten-pins when the play becomes a tie, and play it "old and new." We had intended to state (and will do so now) that we were on that date in receipt of a letter from our brother, dated Fort Hyman, Kentucky, March 27th, 1862, which we hastened to answer. In it he stated that his regiment (52nd Indiana) has borne a conspicuous part in the taking of Fort Donelson, and that he was slightly wounded in that engagement. We will also note that on the 1st inst. we received a letter from home, the first since leaving Washington, and which we also answered promptly. Also that we were lying at Pilot Town while writing, and that the said town was situated on the Mississippi River, just below the head of the South-West Pass of that river, and was of no particular note, except being the home of the numerous pilots who are necessary to navigators of the mouths of the "Father of Waters." Before the bombardment of the forts, it was the rendezvous of the war vessels, composing the two fleets, engaged in that undertaking; and even yet it presents quite the appearance of a large seaport town. Today, notwithstanding its being noted in the calendar as Sunday, we are engaged, about ten miles above the said town, in endeavoring to drag a schooner (Figure 17), belonging to the fleet, out of a deep and swift sluice into which she drifted during the past week. It has every appearance of proving a long job; but short or long, it is a very disagreeable one, for the surrounding shores are all swamp, and the mosquitoes and sand-flies torment us half to death.12 People who have never been in this vicinity have no true idea of mosquitoes. A few small ones may be occasionally met with North, but here you can scarcely breathe for them and the other noiseless little insect [sand-flies] before mentioned. It is quite amusing to watch the different persons scattered around the decks, first striking themselves on one spot and then on another, and scratching here and there with a vigor that would make one suppose they all needed a good overhauling with soap and water, did we not know the cause. Here you see one scratching the back of his ear, in strict imitation of an author chasing up some brilliant idea; there another rubbing his hands, for all the world like a Methodist parson at his devotions; and there another striking wildly at some unseen object like one demented. And, besides this, we have the assurance that they are not near so numerous now as they will be a month hence, and also that it is highly probable that we will remain here until that period. How the people along this shore manage to live for them I cannot imagine; but they do not appear to be afraid of them. One of our Yankee soldiers, in strolling by one of the houses on the shore (Figure 18) the other evening, where an old man was sitting smoking his pipe and killing the insects by the hundreds as they lit upon him, remarked by way of starting a conversation with him: "Mosquitoes are pretty troublesome 'round here." "Yaas, said the Southerner, "but they're nothin' to what they used to was," at the same time brushing away like fury. "Do tell!" exclaimed the astonished Yankee, "darned if I kin see room for many more," at the same time knocking a huge one (fully as large as a piece of chalk) with such force as to capsize the old man's pipe. "Yaas, I'll stick to it, stranger, but when I come to think uv it, they're summit bigger nor they war."


[At this point, Gusley takes a respite from recording current events and narrates his adventures from February 22, 1862, when he left New York, through his arrival in the Gulf of Mexico and the capture of New Orleans.—Ed.]


But we must again go back to the Westfield, which we had left just as she had started from Staten Island. We had a pleasant evening passing down the Narrows, and when we entered upon the broad Atlantic, so calm was it that saving the long, even rolling of our vessel, we scarcely knew, until the morning dawned and showed us nothing but a waste of waters, that we had left the quiet bay (Figure 19).


It was a beautiful Sabbath, our first day at sea. Our swift vessel had, during the last twelve hours, taken us a considerable distance from the extremely cold port in which we lay, and the genial warmth of a Southern sun was already realized by us. We had on a former occasion taken a short trip upon the Atlantic, and the strange rolling of the sea, even when the air is calm, was not novel to us, nor did it cause that strange feeling, known as seasickness, which is experienced by almost every person on first entering the ocean. The day, as I have said, was a beautiful one. The waters were unruffled and rolled in gentle swells, giving our vessel a uniform, rocking motion, as she was propelled swiftly onward. The air was calm and serene, and the sun shone with a comfortable degree of warmth upon us. Sunday, at all times, has a peculiar charm about it. The rich and the poor alike hail it as a day of rest. The devout find time to attend their churches, and join with each other in the worship of their God. The lover of nature, and the poor who are imprisoned in the work-shop all the week, can on this day go forth from the crowded city and breathe the pure air of heaven; they can see and feel the goodness of their Maker in the budding tree, the springing grass, or the beautiful flowers, and feel thankful for the benefits of such a day, and be contented and happy. But at sea, with nothing but a waste of waters around us, speckled here and there, perhaps, with a sail, with all unnecessary work belayed, with the awnings spread, and the crew all dressed tidily in clean clothes, one has a deeper feeling of the beauty and solemnity of the day. Even a soldier is not exempt from this feeling, and the writer experienced the same sublime feeling beneath his uniform on this day as he always did when clothed in the garb of a citizen.


The sun went down in the same serenity with which it had risen, but when the moon arose a slight breeze sprung up, which freshened throughout the night, and the next morning found us off the capes of the Virginia Coast, with a stiff gale blowing. Towards night the gale greatly increased, and with such fury did the wind toss the waves that, fearful of being wrecked upon the shore, we stood farther out to sea. The storm (Figure 20) raged with fearful violence during the whole night, and with such force was our vessel pitched about that it was impossible to stand erect, or walk upon the decks; and the sea washed over us to such an extent that the hatches were battened down, leaving us no place to sleep, even if we had the desire to do so.


As the morning dawned, however, the storm abated, and daylight found us over a hundred miles from land, and none of the vessels which started with us in sight. We stood in for the shore, hoping to fall in with our consorts, but not finding them, we stood on our Southerly course, and on Wednesday, the 26th of February, we were off Cape Hatteras, N.C. (Figure 21). In doubling this point of land we experienced a much more terrible storm than the previous one, and we all thought that we should never see the morning's sun.


Some of our planks were torn off by the force of the waves, and about midnight it was discovered that the vessel was making water rapidly. We, however, manned the pumps, and at daylight found ourselves still afloat and the pumps rapidly gaining on the water. That evening we made Port Royal, S.C., where we remained until the 8th of March for repairs and coal. Port Royal is quite a beautiful little town, and has a very large and commodious harbor. Some time before this it had been captured by the U.S. troops, and was then a place of rendezvous for part of the blockading squadron. An immense navy was riding at anchor in the harbor, and the beach (Figure 22) was lined with the tents of the soldiery. (We wrote a letter home from here on the 1st of March.)


On the 8th, we again put to sea, and on the 10th we arrived at Key West, Florida, having exceedingly fine weather during the trip. Key West is a fine little island at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. There is a smart little town (Figure 23) with a fine, deep harbor on the island and a large fort and barracks belonging to the United States. The fort is called Fort Taylor (Figure 24) and is one of the largest belonging to the Government. It mounts over 200 guns. Spring was reigning here in all its beauty, and oranges and bananas freshly plucked from the trees were quite a luxury to us, who, little more than a fortnight before were among ice and snow. We were here rejoined by one of our consorts, the Clifton, and the squadron which we were to join having gone to Ship Island, we, on the 13th, weighed anchor and followed them. On the 15th we made Apalachicola, where we remained until the 17th, when we proceeded to the mouth of the Mississippi river, reaching Passe a l'Outre (Figure 25) the next day, and were engaged at this point for the following two weeks in towing the sailing vessels of the fleet over the bar and tugging off those of the larger vessels (Figure 26) which had run aground.


While here we learned that the R. B. Forbes had been lost in the storm off [Cape] Hatteras, and the [John P.] Jackson was compelled to put back to Baltimore for repairs.


May 6, 1862


The life of a marine is a diversification of numerous tedious, useful, and even scientific occupations. He is his own washerwoman; he must be an adept with the needle, in order to keep his clothes in a tidy condition; he is a burnisher of fine brass and a polisher of steel diurnally, in order that his accoutrements may pass inspection; one day (or rather one hour) he is a soldier—the next a sailor; and when the ship is going through the process of coaling, he may be found upon the coal whip and be denominated a coal-heaver (Figure 27). When at sea, and when the morning's work is finished up, he finds plenty of leisure to devote to such occupations or pastimes as his inclinations may lead to, and which is spent in many various ways, such as reading, writing diaries (?) or carving useful ornamental articles with his knife—the latter of which may be called the scientific part we have intimated. It is said that from long-continued service in this corps, some of the members of it have become encrusted with a covering like a turtle. It is known, at least to the writer, that we are usually denominated by land soldiers and sailors "shell-backs," and also that we become so addicted to the use of beans, salt pork and salt beef (which latter is metaphorically styled salt horse), that any deviation from that food attempted to be forced upon them would be met with the same threat as the Irishman's when they commenced feeding him with cod-fish. "Pork and beans," said he, "as much as you please; but be jabers if you come with any more of your salt cod I'll lave the house." But to return to our narrative.


After getting all the vessels safely over the bar [at the South West Pass entrance to the Mississippi River], we all proceeded up the river to Pilot Town, (before mentioned,) which was to be the place of rendezvous of the fleets to be engaged in the capture of New Orleans. The following is a list of the vessels composing the fleets: They were commanded by Commodores Farragut and Porter. Frigates—Colorado and Mississippi; Sloops-of-War—Hartford, Brooklyn, Pensacola, Richmond (steamers), Vandalia and Portsmouth (sailers); Gunboats—Harriet Lane, Westfield, Clifton, Oneida, Owasco, Verona [Varuna], Miami, Iroquois, Sciota, Kennebec, Wissahickon, Ithasea [Itasca], Pinola, Cayuga, Wynona [Winona], Sachem, Jackson, and Kinon [Kineo]; and twenty-one [mortar] schooners, each carrying two broadside thirty-twos [32-pounders] and a thirteen-inch mortar—making in all forty-seven vessels, and mounting an average of 440 guns of large caliber.


We were busily engaged until Sunday, the 13th of April, painting our vessels with Mississippi mud—not for the purpose of ornamenting them, but that they might be less conspicuous to the gunners at the [Confederate] forts—and in covering the top masts of the bomb schooners with limbs of trees (Figure 28), in order to make them less liable to be distinguished from the dense wood which lined the river bank near the forts. On this day the Westfield, Harriet Lane, Clifton, and Owasco made a reconnaissance of the forts, and exchanged a few shots with them and with the two rebel steamers—the Westfield being in the advance (Figure 29) and opening the fire. We have since learned that one of our rifle shots sunk one of the rebel steamers. No one was hurt on our side, although the enemy's shot fell in close proximity to us.


On Friday, the 18th, having got the fleet into position, we commenced bombarding (Figure 30) and continued our fire day and night until the following Thursday morning, the 24th, when after a terrific battle of nearly an hour (Figure 31), we succeeded in getting our heavy vessels above the forts, with but comparatively small loss.


A bombardment (Figure 32) is a terrible scene, but at the same time one not altogether devoid of grandeur and sublimity. After the first few shots, the screaming of the huge shell and the whistling of 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 deafening roar of the artillery, and the sulphurous smell at first so stifling appears to impart to the atmosphere an invigorating tendency. The fiery tracks of the bombs at night are traced with feelings of the most intense interest in those who have sent them forth on their mission of death; and as their rushing noise gradually becomes less distinct, and they hang like a bright star for a moment over the fort, and then explode with a deep roar, scattering destruction, perhaps death, within its walls, a shout of triumph is heard from the ships, mingling in strange contrast with the din of the battle. Everything is forgotten, save to destroy, and when at night some continue the strife and others are detailed to bury those who have been killed during the day, they hurry to the beach and place them under the sod with as much dispatch as possible. Graphically, indeed, has the burial of the heroes of Fort Jackson been described in the burial of the hero of Corruna:


We buried them darkly, in dead of night,
The turf with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light,
And our lanterns dimly burning.
Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we breathed but a word of sorrow,
But we steadfastly gazed on the face of the dead,
And bitterly thought on the morrow.
No useless coffins confined their breasts,
Nor in sheets nor in shrouds we bound them.
But they lay like warriors taking their rest
With their martial cloaks around them.


The fleet below the forts (to which the Westfield was attached) kept up their firing until Sunday, the 27th, when a flag of truce was sent to us, asking [for] a cessation of hostilities with a view to surrender (Figure 33)—In the meantime, however, we should state that Gen. [Benjamin] Butler had landed with a large force (Figure 34) in the rear of Fort St. Philip, and thus we had them hemmed in on three sides.


On the following day, Monday, April 28th, the forts surrendered to Commodore Porter (Figure 35), and the marines attached to the Westfield were ordered to land and take possession of Fort Jackson (Figure 36)—Fort St. Philip being occupied by men from the other ships. During this time, the other fleet, under Commodore Farragut, had gone up to New Orleans (Figure 37) and taken possession of that city, the forts being the main impediment to that undertaking. And thus, after a siege of nine days, we gained command of the main Southern city and the lower Mississippi, and were ready to enter into another undertaking of equal magnitude. To give an idea of the vastness of our labor, I will copy an estimate made of the number of shells thrown against the forts, and the weight of the iron composing them.


Shell thrown by mortar fleet, 16,000
Weight of each, 216 lbs . . . 3,456,000 lbs.
Shell & shot from the other vessels . . . 250,000 lbs.
Total weight of iron thrown . . . 3,706,000 lbs.
Or 1,853 tons


On the 29th we proceeded up to New Orleans (Figure 38), Gen. Butler's troops having been placed in possession of the forts. We remained there until May 1st, when we dropped down to Pilot Town, where we lay over night, and then proceeded down to the bar at the mouth of the river. From there we steamed up again on the 4th (as before mentioned under that date,) for the purpose of extricating one of the bomb schooners from a difficulty into which she had fallen. This occupied us the better part of the day, and in the evening we returned to our anchorage. The next morning the entire bomb fleet set sail for Ship Island, Miss., where we arrived the same night, and where we shall remain at least one day to take in coal (Figure 39).


[At this point, Gusley has completed describing the events up to the time of the commencement of his Note-Book. From this point forward, his entries are made on or within a few days following the events described.—Ed.]



“Journals of nineteenth-century U.S. Marines are rare, and Henry Gusley's is a truly outstanding account of the shipboard experiences and observations of an enlisted marine.... Edward Cotham's scholarship in the introduction and in annotating the journal is outstanding, and he has drawn on the appropriate sources. This is one of the best jobs of editing in the field.”
Joseph G. Dawson III, Professor of History, Texas A&M University

“I found Gusley's 'notebook' fascinating, informative, and ultimately moving.... Civil War historians will find the information about the inner workings and day-to-day life aboard U.S. naval vessels patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and the major river systems of the Trans-Mississippi interior highly informative.... This book should also find a popular audience. Bright, literate, constantly upbeat, and good-humored despite the many difficult circumstances he found himself in, Gusley is good company for his readers.”
Patrick Kelly, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas at San Antonio


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