- 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
Ungentle Goodnights is two books in one beautiful package. It is an institutional history of the United States Naval Asylum/Home. It is also a prosopography of many of the hundreds of U.S. Navy sailors and marines who lived there after long careers of active service. The beautiful hardcover package includes a lavish illustration of the asylum in the endpapers. In its beautiful endpapers, as well as the institutional history part of the book, Ungentle Goodnights evokes histories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The prosopographical parts of the book are a "new military history" look at the lives of ordinary men who served in the U.S. Navy of the early American republic.
McKee uses records from the National Archives and the U.S. Naval Academy's Nimitz library to track down stories of the 541 men, sailors or marines, who entered the U.S. Naval Asylum between 1831 and 1865. Three quarters of these men died at the asylum. After the first four chapters, on which more later, each chapter centers around a theme and tells the story of a handful of the Asylum's "beneficiaries" whose lives relate to that theme. Themes include work at the Asylum, mental illness, alcoholism, discipline, departure from the Asylum, death, et cetera. McKee makes a case that tracing the lives of sailors and marines at the Asylum backwards from their time in the Asylum gives historians a better, more accurate understanding of the lived experiences of sailors and marines. He points out that sailors' autobiographies of the nineteenth century are liable to be either fake or exaggerated, and are in any case exceptional. The lives he focuses on, McKee argues, are more typical.
Readers get a sense of what "Jack Tar's" experience was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Through individual stories, readers learn of a navy force that is surprisingly international, with many sailors born somewhere in northern Europe. McKee also notes a large number of beneficiaries from the Mid-Atlantic states, and a large number who came to the Navy after stints as farmers, tanners, or some other career. McKee returns often to the stereotype of the "drunken sailor," finding that alcoholism was rampant among inmates at the Asylum. At [End Page 575] the same time, McKee finds that sailors and marines at the Asylum were not necessarily impoverished. Many left tidy savings at the ends of their lives. The strength of Ungentle Goodnights is the life stories of sailors and marines, who may have seen combat in the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, or who cruised the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Meticulously tracking down details, comparing them with the yarns spun by the retired sailors, McKee brings to light dozens of naval careers of ordinary seamen.
But how typical are these lives? It must be noted how the beneficiaries are exceptional. They survived Navy service, though sometimes with grievous wounds. They chose to live at the Asylum in lieu of receiving a pension. Does that skew the sample toward the foreign-born, those with less living family, or those from the Mid-Atlantic? Also, the stories that are best documented are the most sensational: Stories of drunken escapades, escapes, or violence loom large in Ungentle Goodnights. Stories of sober, quiet beneficiaries at the Asylum shrink into the shadows in this telling.
There are some missed opportunities in Ungentle Goodnights, particularly in the institutional history parts of the book. The first four chapters, the fifteenth chapter, and the epilogue are more a history of the U.S. Naval Asylum than of the men inside of it. At a number of points, it would make sense to compare the U.S. Naval Asylum and its "beneficiaries" to similar institutions and inmates of...