- Ungentle Goodnights: Life in a Home for Elderly and Disabled Naval Sailors and Marines and the Perilous Seafaring Careers that Brought Them There by Christopher McKee
In Ungentle Goodnights, Christopher McKee recounts the history of the United States Naval Asylum from its dedication in 1827 to the end of the Civil War. Located in Philadelphia, the asylum was meant—in the words of an early advocate—to serve as a “comfortable harbor” for elderly and disabled sailors and marines (31). Unlike the city’s crowded almshouse, home to many an indigent ex-seaman, the asylum offered its beneficiaries a life of relative comfort: each man enjoyed a private room, three meals a day, and access to medical care. Life at the asylum wasn’t always easy, as McKee illustrates throughout the book. For much of its early history, the institution operated as a “land-based ship-of-war,” complete with a hierarchical command structure and strict regulations governing the men’s behavior (61). Men were expected to dress for meals and were prohibited from using “improper language” on the asylum grounds (69). Nevertheless, unlike other recent scholars of nineteenth-century veteran policy, McKee offers what he freely admits to be a “generally positive view” of the asylum, its staff, and its inhabitants (320).
Divided into fifteen chapters (plus an introduction and an epilogue), Ungentle Goodnights covers all aspects of asylum life. McKee is especially attuned to the asylum’s efforts to curtail one of the most cherished aspects of naval tradition: drinking alcohol. In perhaps the most poignant chapter of the entire book (chapter nine), the author paints a portrait of an institution awash in alcohol abuse. The asylum’s inhabitants, many in their final years of life, drank because they were bored, because they were in pain, and because they had always done so. All the asylum’s administrators could do, the author tells us, was manage the problem as best they could (162). The topic of alcohol abuse pervades the book, and McKee exudes great empathy when explaining liquor’s hold on the asylum’s inhabitants. Indeed, the author displays a special talent for fleshing out men’s biographies—warts and all—from the driest of archival sources.
Yet McKee’s meticulous attention to the lives of individuals comes at a price. [End Page 119] Several chapters consist of little more than a brief introduction followed by a string of biographical sketches. The author makes only glancing reference to the growing historiography on disabled veterans in American society, and several of the book’s chapters are curiously short on footnotes. While Ungentle Goodnights is clearly the product of years of scrupulous research, readers unwilling to pick their way through the nineteen-page bibliography will struggle to fact-check a number of McKee’s claims. In short, those hoping for an institutional history marinated in the latest scholarship will likely be disappointed.
Ultimately, some books are best judged according to their authors’ ambitions—and this is one of them. In the final sentence, McKee declares, “My hope is that Ungentle Goodnights will introduce these men who served their country long and well to those who—now and in the future—explore with keen interest the story of the nineteenth-century United States Navy” (284). From that perspective, McKee’s book is a resounding success.