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  • Steam Coffin: Captain Moses Rogers and the Steamship Savannah Break the Barrier
  • Joshua M. Smith
Steam Coffin: Captain Moses Rogers and the Steamship Savannah Break the Barrier. By John Laurence Busch (New Canaan, Conn., Hodos Historia, 2010) 736 pp. $35.00

Following in the wake of Frank Braynard, S. S. Savannah, the Elegant Steam Ship (Athens, 1963), and other works, Busch has crafted an exhaustive study of the Savannah—the first steam vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean—that places it within the context of not only American but also European history. Steam Coffin is a substantial work, a popular history with a scholarly tone. Its simple yet elegant maps and its black and white illustrations are extremely useful. Busch penetratingly consulted both primary and secondary sources in what was clearly a labor of love, providing a full range of helpful end notes and an extensive bibliography.

Busch takes the time to develop his story fully, starting with the early steamboats that plied the rivers and coasts of America. He also fleshes out the life of Captain Moses Rogers, the most prominent mariner involved in steam navigation. Rogers involved himself in steam navigation from the early days of Robert Fulton's efforts on the Hudson and the spread of steam navigation to other urban centers such as Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. In tracking Rogers' career, Busch places his life in context with political, social, and economic developments. He carefully traces the construction of the first steam vessel intended to cross an ocean, and the extent of the interest in it, both among [End Page 310] Americans and Europeans, such as Axel Leonhard Klinkowström, a Swedish baron and naval officer.

Nor are the investors who funded the project or the artisans who actually built it ignored. Busch deftly considers complex engineering and navigation details in an accessible manner. In tracking the Savannah's important Atlantic crossing, he also considers topics as varied as American presidential politics, the U.S. Navy's response to steam engines, Napoleon's exile on St. Helena, the Peterloo Massacre, and Swedish and Russian court politics. As the subtitle of the book hints, Savannah and steam navigation in general broke an important barrier in bringing transportation to a new level of speed and reliability, one of the first steps in the transportation revolution that transformed American society.

Academicians might have some concerns about this work. Its publisher, Hodos Historia, has produced exactly one book, and it does not solicit manuscripts. In other words, Steam Coffin was self-published, and thus not independently vetted. In this instance, apart from a few stylistic infelicities (like the lack of an introduction and the tendency to place nautical terms in italics and explain them ad nauseum), the book does not seem to have suffered too much. The research is thorough, the writing clean, and the production values high. Bibliophiles will want a copy of Steam Coffin on their shelves simply because of its beauty. Academic historians will probably be less interested simply because the tone of this book is more celebratory than analytical, but maritime buffs will find it an engaging read.

Joshua M. Smith
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy


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pp. 310-311
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