- Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors by Ronald S. Coddington
They were poets, lawyers, bookkeepers, and waiters. They participated in well-known battles and nearly forgotten engagements. They were black and white men who fought for the Union or the Confederacy, and no matter their background, they were all sailors during the American Civil War. Ronald S. Coddington has profiled seventy-seven of them in this well-crafted volume. Part of an ongoing series by Coddington, this book takes its place next to Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories (Baltimore, 2004), Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories (Baltimore, 2008), and African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album (Baltimore, 2012); it also serves as a natural extension of the quarterly publication Military Images, which Coddington edits and publishes. The images in this latest offering were drawn almost exclusively from private collections, including Coddington's own—a decision the author made after abandoning searches at public and private institutions, in part because such repositories tend to collect more historically significant images. Coddington has eschewed the famous in favor of the everyman officer and mariner, and the book is all the better for his decision.
Twelve of the images depict Confederate sailors, and sixty-five are of Union sailors. Sixty-two of the individuals represented were officers, and the remaining fifteen, including the two African American men, were enlisted. Each man's image is accompanied by a written profile that adds color and life to the sometimes stiff and static black-and-white images. When fewer personal details exist, Coddington highlights events that a sailor would have participated in. Humor, honor, disgrace, and pathos exist in somewhat equal portions within the seventy-seven profiles.
Many of these men were born into a world that already knew photography. The preface outlines a brief history of the medium and likens the popularity of the affordable carte de visite to today's social media. "Cardomania" and the exigencies of going off to war inspired thousands of young men to have their images recorded for loved ones at home (p. xxv). The format of the carte de visite also tacitly invited the subject to write his name and rank on the card—an option that ambrotypes and tintypes made difficult. For this reason, Coddington's volume is heavily weighted toward the carte de visite format.
Readers will learn about the decisions that Francis Winslow and John Grimball made in early 1861. Winslow decided to serve in the Union navy despite his wife's family's Confederate ties, and Grimball supported the Confederacy from the beginning to well past the end of the conflict—serving on the cruiser Shenandoah until November 1865. Along the way the reader meets Landsman Aaron Carter Joseph, a free black man from Boston who served on the USS Mohican and the USS Wabash during the war and became a highly active member of the Grand Army of the Republic afterward. Perhaps the most unexpected profile is the last one—that of Lieutenant Commander Richard Rush, who never served during the war but decades later was given the task of [End Page 978] preserving the memory of the naval war by organizing and publishing five volumes of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies.
This is not a book that needs to be read in sequence, though it is arranged chronologically. Readers will delight in opening the book to any page to discover a new face, name, and story that might otherwise have gone untold. Though admittedly not a naval historian, Coddington navigates the topic with ease, using his subjects' own words when possible to create vivid new portraits of life at sea during the American Civil War.