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The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy

     James W. and Patricia R. McPherson, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, 234 pages.

Lamson of the Gettysburg is a quick and easy read in an area of Civil War history that is all too often ignored.  Compared to the land war, naval engagements were intermittent and very small in scale, although naval blockade was essential to the outcome of the War Between the States.

     Lamson was Lieutenant Roswell Hawks Lamson, U.S.N., and a former Oregon farm boy.  Until his voluminous and detailed correspondence was resurrected by the McPhersons, he was largely ignored by historians.

     The Gettysburg was the U.S.S. Gettysburg.  It was built in Scotland to serve as a blockade-runner for the Confederacy until captured by the Union Navy and converted into a blockader in 1863.

     Lieutenant Lamson was chosen over several older and higher ranked officers as the Gettysburg’s captain.  Their mission was to choke off supply lines and discourage would be allies from joining the Confederacy.

     The Gettysburg was well equipped for her mission.  She was the fastest ship in the Navy.  Lt. Lamson was an experienced combat officer and the crew were volunteers handpicked by him.

In addition to his naval skills, Roswell Lamson was an interesting and engaging correspondent.  He wrote frequent long letters home to his fiancée Kate, her sister Flora and his father William, an Oregon farmer.  Most of his letters were saved and have become a close-up first person account of the Atlantic coast blockade.

     His career was ‘‘story book’’ in that he was usually where the action was in the naval war:

·     Captain of the big guns of U.S.S. Wabash attacking the forts at Hatteras; (He was still a Midshipman.)

·     Commanded the captured Confederate ship Planter when a crew of slaves ran her past the forts in Charleston harbor to join the Union fleet;

·     Commanded the gunboat fleet on the Nansemond River that helped stop James Longstreet’s advance on Norfolk in 1863;

·     Commanded a ship with 200 tons of gunpowder in a highly dangerous but largely unsuccessful effort to breach Fort Fisher in North Carolina;

·     From the Gettysburg he led the ground force that attacked Fort Fisher from the sea.  He was wounded here ending his combat career.

     Kate (Catherine) Buckingham was quite interesting in her own right.  They met when she was 15 and he was on his way to Annapolis.  At the time he was more interested in her sister Flora.  During his 1862 Christmas furlough, his affections switched sisters and he became engaged to Kate.  They were married after the war in 1867.

     They had much in common insofar as the war was concerned, they were deeply dedicated to the Union cause.  Lamson had a broad knowledge of military strategy and was most capable aboard ship as well as in command of amphibious operations.

     Kate shared his interest from her Ohio home.  She also had an active interest in home front politics.  They were both open and candid with their comments on the War, its generals and politicians.  Theirs was an interesting romance considering he seldom had shore leave and even then they could not usually be together.  They were not together more than five times in their five-year engagement.

     Although Lt. Lamson has been forgotten or ignored by historians, he was remembered by the Navy down through World War II.  Three combat ships were named after him.  The first U.S.S. Lamson was a World War I “torpedo boat destroyer.”  She was followed peacetime destroyer in commission from 1920 to 1930.  The third U.S.S. Lamson was commissioned in 1936, fought through the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to victory only to be intentionally sunk in the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests in 1946.

The McPhersons have done their customarily capable job of editing, contexting and blending these letters.  The flow is paced well and we are given an interesting, informative picture of life on both the war and home fronts.  We are indebted to the McPhersons for a fascinating look at this facet of the Civil War.

Review by Carl Greenawald 



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