Diary of a Civil War Marine

By John E. Carey

I have read and reported upon five or six Civil War journals and diaries over the course of the last ten years for The Washington Times and this is by far the best.

The newly released “note-book” or diary of Marine Henry O. Gusley (The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley; Edited and Annotated by Edward T. Cotham Jr., Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, March 2006, 223 pp. $24.95. ISBN: 0-292-71283-9) is a wonderment for several reasons. First, Gusley proves a remarkably colorful, humorous and articulate story teller and observer of naval operations in the Gulf of Mexico in 1862-3. There are no diaries or memoirs quite as good as this.
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Second, the editor of this “note-book,” Edward T. Cotham, combines Gusley’s book with the drawings of another keen observer in the same U.S. Navy Mortar Squadron, Dr.Daniel D. T. Nestell, and Acting Assistant Surgeon in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

To paraphrase the editor, if Gusley supplies the sound track and very colorful narration of navy operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Dr. Nestell provides the video tape.

And then there is the wonderful contribution of the editor himself, Edward T. Cotham Jr., who gives us a terrific forward and overview with context, and then follows-up with detailed notes. If most readers are like me, they rarely read the end or footnotes. This time you will want to.

The United States Marine Corps is the forgotten service of the Civil War. More than overlooked, many Civil War historians and enthusiasts don’t even know that the Marines served.

Henry O. Gusley fully covers shipboard life; the armaments, capabilities and limitations of his vessels; the social aspects of the war including emancipation; the duties of a U.S. Marine at sea during the Civil War; and at-sea operations.

Gusley participated in so many sustained shore bombardments of Confederate forts and concentrations that he was already losing his hearing at the end of the war. Although he participated in numerous operations, including against New Orleans, Vicksburg, Mobile, and Galveston; his book gives one of the few Union Navy first-hand accounts of the terrible defeat at the hands of the Confederates at Sabine Pass, Texas, on September 8, 1863. Gusley was captured in this engagement.

Still, Gusley recorded just after the Sabine Pass engagement, “We have been in several battles since our enlistment, but never have we been in one where we saw displayed so much coolness and calm courage. From the captain to the powder boys, without exception, everyone stood by his quarters until we were compelled to strike our flag.

On July 5, 1863, just after Grant’s victory at Vicksburg and Lee’s loss at Gettysburg, while in the Gulf of Mexico and unaware of either outcome, Gusley wrote, “The ‘Glorious Fourth’ passed…We flew four flags instead of one in honor of the day: we fired a salute of twenty-one guns at noon, and all hands were dressed in white….”

After recording the Fourth of July gun salute, Gusley adds, “The rebels…did not, of course.” Later that day Gusly tells us the squadron got “the latest rebel news that ‘General Lee has taken Pennsylvania!’”

Only weeks later did the Union Navy in the gulf learn the true successes of Union forces in early July, 1863.

Among Gusley many eyewitness accounts and reflections on his duties this is included on April 1, 1863: “One of our steamers, the [USS] Diana, had been captured by the rebels….with the greater part of her crew killed….The bodies of her captain and executive officer had been recovered and were to be buried that afternoon. It being a military funeral, the marines and sailors of the [USS] Clifton …for the first time in our life we took part in a soldier’s burial. The marines acted as guard of honor. We buried them in a beautiful orange grove, close by the town. ‘May they rest in peace.’”

Gusley also tells us about the steady dwindling of diversions and distractions at sea, including the elimination of the rum ration and running out of tobacco.

“We…organized a band of minstrels, and that we have nightly serenades and impromptu dances. Such things serve to make things more pleasant,” wrote Gusley on February 26, 1863. “We love music, however rude, and although not much of a dancer we do sometimes ‘shake a leg.’”

“The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley,” Edited and Annotated by Edward T. Cotham Jr., will enthrall most all Civil War enthusiasts. Its appeal transcends regions, North, South, Army and Navy.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page of the Washington Times.

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