About Billy Whyte

Hello my name is William Whyte. I live in Nazareth, Pennsylvania with my wife, Susan, and my two children, Kylie and William. I am currently enrolled at East Stroudsburg University and scheduled to graduate with a Masters of Arts degree in History in the fall of 2008. I count the American Civil War, nineteenth century America, and World War II among my specific areas of historical interest. I hope to pursue a doctorate degree in history upon successful completion of a Masters Degree. I am currently employed with a major bank in the financial district of downtown New York and as an Adjunct Professor at a local community college. I’m a member of the OAH, AHA, and the Society for Civil War Historians. I love spending time with my family and traveling to Civil War battlefields, as well as other historical sites. I also enjoy fishing, hunting, reading, film, and New York Giants football. I hope to one day be a professor of history at a university or small college and to publish historical works.

The Naval Civil War Encyclopedia


Military History Series


March 17, 2009


Dear Colleague:


Once more, we are at the beginning stage of a new military history project, The Naval Civil War Encyclopedia.  Attached is an entry list of topics for which we seek authors.  Our goal is to assign these subjects out and have them written and submitted as soon as possible. 


These essays will be used in a variety of products beyond the printed book, including interactive web sites, workbooks, chronologies, handbooks, etc.  They are designed to appeal to a broad audience, including academics, students, and general readers alike. 


ABC-CLIO has more than 50 years of experience in historical reference publishing, and has won many awards for its books and publications.  It has also recently acquired Greenwood Press and Praeger Publishing and now controls over 18,000 titles.  Our Military History Series has earned the Editor’s Choice Award from Booklist for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 and the Distinguished Achievement Award for 2006 (United States at War database), among many others. 


I hope you will consider taking on as many topics as you can.  The due dates are flexible, but I prefer to have essays completed within 60 days of their assignment.  ALL must be submitted by no later than July 15, 2009.


If you are able to contribute, please send me an e-mail at wwhyte@rcn.com with a list of the entries you would be willing to write along with any specific time constraints you might have in completing them.  I will get back to you ASAP to make formal assignments.


If you have any ideas for entries you believe are important to this project (such as individual ships) please suggest them. Thank you.


Best wishes,


Billy Whyte

Assistant Editor


Civil War Naval Encyclopedia


ABC-CLIO publishers have initiated a project for a Civil War Naval Encyclopedia.  Spencer Tucker is the lead editor on the project.  Paul Pierpaoli and myself are assistant editors.

We should have the final headword list completed this week.  If you know of any scholars or graduate students interested in working on this project please contact me for details.

Federal Baked Ovens – Life on Union Gunboats

Here is a brief excerpt on some research I have been doing on the Union river sailors and they’re experiences aboard the gunboat fleet.

Tight quarters surrounded by iron plating, boilers with an insatiable appetite for coal, poor ventilation, little wind and a lot of sun earned the river ironclads the handle of “federal baked ovens.”[1] Life in the river navy was fundamentally different from life aboard men-of-war performing blockade duty. Sailors, also referred to as bluejackets or jacks, of the regular navy enjoyed fresh air above deck and little danger; although monotonous and uneventful, save the occasional chase of smugglers, the deep water sailor enjoyed a much higher standard of living than his cousin in the brown water navy. The river sailors cruised close to land and became choice targets of confederate guerillas. The southern climate bred mosquitoes and disease, and particularly irksome to river jacks was the fact that blockaders were entitled to prize money from captured vessels while they were not. Naval officers frowned upon river service; even  Flag Officer Foote confided to his wife that he would rather be commanding in the Atlantic.[2] River navigation created another distinction between the two naval sectors.

The rivers of the Mississippi Valley were circuitous, shallow, narrow and constantly changing due to weather and floods. The weight of the gunboats caused them to frequently run aground; the constant scraping along the river’s bottom weakened the boats’ hulls causing leaks. Trees damaged the tall smokestacks or obstructed navigation. While the blockade sailor learned how to mend sails or navigate by the stars, the river tar became adept at: repairing boilers and smoke stacks, fixing leaks, and freeing their vessels from river bottoms.[3] The narrowness of the rivers also meant that crews spent most of their time within site of land.

Not only did gunboat crews come into contact with confederate guerillas but their closeness to land brought them in direct contact with southern civilians and slaves. As the war progressed and the boats descended further south, southern plantations were freed of their cotton as well as their slaves. Many of the contraband, the union term given to former slaves, would serve aboard gunboats. Castoffs from blockade duty, transfers from the army, contraband and even some confederate prisoners-of-war would man the boats in this new navy.[4] Although still short of manpower, enough crews existed to support the federal army advance into confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s precarious defensive line in early 1862.

[1] Michael J. Bennett, Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 78. Dennis J. Ringle. Life in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 47. River ironclads consumed 2000 pounds of coal per hour when cruising at 6 knots.

[2] James M. Merrill, “Cairo, Illinois: Strategic Civil War Port,” Journal of Illinois State History 76 (winter 1983): 251-52; Bennett, Union Jacks, 94-95. Gunboat crews became adept at stealing cotton throughout the war. Cotton became prize money for the river sailors.

[3] Bennett, Union Jacks, 83-85. A gunboat sailor described the Cumberland River as, “so crooked that sometimes a steamer a half mile ahead of us would be apparently coming directly in the opposite direction and suddenly turn around a bend and lo’ she proves to be going up the river.”

[4] Bennett, Union Jacks, 80. Merrill, “Cairo, Illinois,” 251;255.

Get published for the New Year

Authors are needed for a  new encyclopedia on military history and propaganda.  The work will cover U.S. military history from colonial times to the present.  There are Civil War entries still available.

The encyclopedia is being published by ABC-Clio, a very prestigious academic publisher.  Here is the announcement on Hnet.


Lincoln and His Admirals

Civil War literature is copious.  This is both a blessing and a curse for civil war buffs and scholars.  One facet of civil war historiography that is attracting more attention is naval operations.  This is a subject I am very much interested in; my master’s thesis focuses on the river ironclads of the west.


Craig L. Symonds’, Lincoln and His Admirals, is an excellent new book on the Union naval campaigns throughout the war.  As the title implies, Symonds focuses on Lincoln’s relationships with the U.S. naval high command and how they affected the outcome of naval policy and maneuvers.  It is a political history as well demonstrating, as so many Lincoln scholars have argued before, that Lincoln became such a strong commander-in-chief through trial and error during our nation’s greatest crisis.


One of Lincoln’s first dilemmas upon taking office was how to handle the Fort Sumter situation.  Secretary of State Seward argued to have Fort Sumter surrendered to South Carolina, hoping rather naively, that there was still time for reconciliation.  Lincoln, through the urging of soon-to-be Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Vasa Fox, opted to re-supply Fort Sumter with a naval expedition.  Meanwhile, in a series of peculiar actions on the part of Seward, Lincoln allowed his Secretary of State and two junior officers, Captain Meigs of the army and Lieutenant Porter of the navy, to undermine the Sumter expedition.  Seward had the U.S.S. Powhatan diverted from the Sumter operation and sent to Pensacola, Florida to secure Fort Pickens.  All of this was done without Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welle’s knowledge. Ultimately, the relief expedition was too late since Lincoln had warned South Carolina of the supply mission and the Confederacy began bombing the fort on 12-April-1861.  Lincoln, as he so often did throughout his presidency, learned from this episode and took full responsibility.


Lincoln’s trust in both Secretary of the Navy Welles and his assistant Gustavus V. Fox proved invaluable.  The Welles-Fox adept administration of naval affairs throughout the war allowed Lincoln to focus on other matters, mainly the army and its long list of incompetent political officers.  Lincoln and His Admirals is a welcome addition to Civil War navy historiography.


Some other Civil War naval books on my shelf waiting to be read are:


Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography – Ari Hoogenboom


The Timberclads in the Civil War – Myron J.Smith Jr.


Blue and Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat – Spencer C. Tucker


Island No.10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley – Larry J. Daniel


Happy New Year to everyone and I concur with Dan lets resolve to do more research and writing on the Civil War!




I am currently reading an excellent account of the Red River Campaign titled, Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaign, 1863 -1864.  The book, part of the Voices of the Civil War Series, is edited by Gary D. Joiner.  I will be writing a review of it for The Southern Historian next month.  Joiner gives a perspective of the campaign from a very personal level using both civilian and military sources.  I’ll have more on the book once I’m finished.

On to another matter that vexes me, this is my second semester teaching history at two local community colleges.  This past summer I taught a Civil War and Reconstruction class; currently, I am teaching two America since Reconstruction classes.  This past Wednesday, 17 September 2008, I asked a class of twenty-five students if they could tell me what took place on this day – even offering not to give a quiz if one person could respond.  Not one student could answer the Battle of Antietam or America’s bloodiest day.  A couple of weeks ago a student commented that she never knew Lincoln was assassinated.  Now I understand that history is not for everyone, especially in community colleges where most students take history as a mandatory elective rather than an interest in the subject.  However, this lack of basic American history knowledge must stem from the grammar/high school level. Are high school students still required take American history?  Are students just being pushed through?

Coincidentally, this week I was lecturing on J.P. Morgan and the rift between capitalists and the labor force that formed in the late nineteenth century.  I was able to tie this in with the current crisis on Wall Street.  I could not think of a better example as to how history is so relevant to today’s world.  History needs to become a more integral part of our education system perhaps that is an issue the current presidential candidates should be debating.

Blue Star Service Flag

Like Dan, I am currently writing some encyclopedia entries for Dr. William Pencak. I just finished one on the Blue Star Mothers of America. For those of you who do not know, the tradition of hanging a blue star service flag in the window was started during World War I by a Captain Robert L. Queissner. Captain Queissner wanted to honor his two sons serving on the front lines in Europe. The blue, symbolizing hope and pride, turned to gold, manifesting sacrifice, when news arrived of a servicemen’s death. In February 1942, The Blue Star Mothers of America was formed amidst the fervor of World War II. They served, and continue to serve today, as a veterans support organization.

I was wondering if their were any similar traditions during the Civil War? I know their was the custom of keeping a lantern or candle lit in a window just in case a soldier returned home. I also know that many women served in hospitals and various support roles during the war. Were there any mother associations formed? or was there any public symbols indicating a loved one’s sacrifice?

Echoes from the Society for Civil War Historians Conference – Part I

Unfortunately, due to work and other commitments, I was only able to attend one day of the Society of Civil War Historians conference. However, I did witness two interesting panels and sat in on the highlight of the meeting which discussed the state of Civil War military history.

The first panel titled “Beleaguered Cincinnatus: Problems of Mobilization and Demobilization in the Civil War Era” offered three very unique situations of soldiers dealing with their specific circumstances during and after the war. Timothy Orr of Penn State University opened up with the interesting saga of the Pennsylvania Reserve Division, titled “We are no grumblers.” The division was manning forts in the relative safety of the north when they were called to participate in Grant’s overland campaign. Suffering many casualties, the real controversy began when the division’s enlistment was up and the federal government would not allow them to leave. Eventually, the Pennsylvania governor interceded through Lincoln to have the division discharged.

James Broomall from the University of Florida followed Tim’s spirited presentation with “I can’t see what will become of us.” His essay took a confederate slant. Many of the soldiers did not know how to deal with their defeat and returned home, unlike their yankee counterparts, to a government and economy in shambles. James focused on two specific counties in which the returning veterans had to become the civil authorities. In order to help restore order, these veterans mobilized their own police force.

Andrew Slapp of East Tennessee University slipped into the discussion with “A more common war: African American soldiers and the garrisoning of Memphis.” Andrew’s thoroughly researched paper, complete with meticulous statistics, focused on a black regiment stationed at Memphis, Tennessee. The regiment had an extremely high desertion rate as compared to other black union regiments. Andrew argued that this was because of an African American community that sprung up around these soldiers. Andrew also stated that he was looking into the soldiers’ involvement, if any, of the Memphis riots.

Paul A. Cimbala of Fordham University, author of The Freedmen’s Bureau and the reconstruction of Georgia, 1865 – 1870, favorably summed up the three panelist’s presentations.

Next week, I will have more on the discussion of Texas in the Civil War, and I will sum up with Gary Gallagher’s excellent roundtable discussion on the state of Civil War military history.


I just returned from my annual trip to Gettysburg battlefield this past weekend, usually an exciting and enjoyable trip. This trip had the added allure of viewing the new visitor’s center for the first time. Upon entering the parking lot to the new center, I felt as though I was entering an amusement park. There was a line of cars searching for spots in the vast new parking area. The visitor’s center reminded me of a mall, complete with a bookstore and movie theatre. The bookstore resembled a Barnes and Noble except the prices of books were much more inflated. The line to the ticket counter and theatre was roped off as if one were waiting for a rollercoaster ride. The price of admission to the twenty-two minute film was eight dollars – approximately the same price of admission to a two-hour blockbuster. The only thing missing was a Starbucks.

After this initial disappointment, my buddy and I decided the only thing that could cheer us up was a couple of hikes on the battlefield, and we hit upon two excellent ones. An hour hike/lecture around the peach orchard was very insightful; arguing that Sickle’s misplacement of troops threw a wrench into both Lee’s and Meade’s plans. After this, we took a hike with renowned park ranger, Troy Harman, all the way up to the top of Big Round Top. Troy was preparing for an anniversary hike on “What would have happened had Lee listened to Longstreet and went around the right of Big Round Top?”

After these hikes and a general survey of most of the battlefield, we observed an ironic consequence of the building of the new visitor’s center. The battlefield was not as congested as the new plaza. It seems that more people were viewing the exhibits in the center rather then touring the fields. The peach orchard hike had an audience of six people. The Troy Harman tour had much more but this is an exception given his popularity. The old center invited visitors to walk right onto the battlefield or cemetery. The new one offers people the luxury of viewing the virtual battlefield from the convenience of an air-conditioned building.

Call me old-fashioned, but I enjoyed the old visitor’s center much more. It was small, but it was much more authentic and not as commercialized. On the bright side, for battlefield enthusiasts, the new visitor’s center may be a blessing in disguise – more room to explore the actual landscape.

Society of Civil War Historians

The Society of Civil War Historians will hold its first biennial meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from June 15 through June 17, 2008. This will be the first time I am attending a strictly Civil War convention, and it should prove to be a very interesting experience. The conference features a, “who’s who” of Civil War historians with Mark E. Neely Jr. giving the opening night address and Gary Gallagher hosting a roundtable discussion on the state of civil war military history. Presentations range from military to social topics, as well as, political and religious aspects of the war. The line up of panelists presenting in Philadelphia is, perhaps, only rivaled by the Southern Historical Association’s annual meeting.

The mission of the society is to encourage scholarly activity and academic exchange among historians, graduate students, and professionals who interpret history in museums, national parks, archives, and other public facilities. Student membership is only $25.00, which includes a subscription to Civil War History, the preeminent scholarly journal of the war. I haven’t decided which lectures I will be attending yet but will post my impressions when I return.

There is still time to register. Hope to see you there.



On 17 April 1861, in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation calling for private vessels to be issued letters of marque, “under the Seal of the Confederate States of America.”  Like the privateers of the American War for Independence, letters of marque gave private vessels permission to raid and capture enemy shipping with the crew and the government sharing a percentage of the profits.  Lincoln countered with a call for a naval blockade of the Southern ports in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.


Shortly after the naval blockade proclamation, a Union Blockade Board was established at the urging of Professor Alexander Dallas Bache. Bache, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and 1825 Graduate of the United States Military Academy, was superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, a forerunner to the modern National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The United States Coast Survey was the only organization with extensive nautical maps of the United States coastline and its major inland rivers; because of this Bache and his staff were inundated with requests from the Navy Department for these charts.  Bache, afraid that his beloved Coast Survey organization would be disbanded due to the War, engaged his friend, Commander Charles Henry Davis, and suggested a joint military board to discuss coastal operations. He subtlety used the overwhelming requests for charts by the Navy as an excuse to set up a joint commission on naval strategy and ensure that his department was involved. Chief Clerk of the Navy, Gustavus Vasa Fox, who would be appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy on 1 August 1861, and Secretary of the Navy  Gideon Welles embraced this idea.  The board was comprised of four members with: Captain Samuel F. DuPont serving as president, Commander Davis as secretary, representing the Army Engineers was Major John G. Barnard, and Bache was the fourth member. 


Secretary Welles outlined the mission of the Board. He emphasized that an effective blockade must be constructed from the Chesapeake Bay to Key West, Florida and from Key West to southern Texas.  The day of the sail ship was gone and a naval blockade conducted with steam ships would require frequent refueling, consequently, a means to secure two or more ports as fuel and maintenance depots would be imperative.  The Board recommended seizing two Atlantic Coast ports as bases of operations; this would be conducted in cooperation with the Army.  The sinking of old vessels to block access to certain channels and ease the constraints on naval ships was proposed.  They also suggested dividing command of the Atlantic Blockade Squadron into two sections making it more manageable; the same was recommended for the Gulf Blockade Squadron.  Although the Blockade Board did not specify the number of ships and men that would be required, it addressed the fundamental problems of logistics.  The Navy Department adopted the new command structure, and began cooperating with the War Department to plan amphibious operations.  Perhaps the greatest significance of the Union Blockade Board lies in the fact that Secretary Gideon Welles continued to use the committee method to solve problems throughout the War.


Professor Bache’s vision, or perhaps selfish motivation, produced one of the most successful military commissions in United States history and would set the tone for Union naval strategy throughout the Civil War. Indeed, greed is good.


For an excellent account of the naval board see:

Weddle, Kevin J. “The Blockade Board of 1861 and Union Naval Strategy.” Civil War History 48 (2002): 123 – 142.

Weddle notes of the irony, “that the Union Army, with a well developed bureaucracy, a body of strategic writing and theory, and a general-in-chief, was unable to formulate a coherent military strategy until the war was almost three years old.” The Navy created one in a few months.


The Board’s actual reports are located in:

U.S. Navy Department. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War  of the Rebellion. 33 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894. Reprint, Harrisburg: The National Historical Society, 1987.

Series I, Volume 12, 195-206.

Yankee Gunboats Make Their Imprint At Fort Henry

On 28 January 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote proposed to take Fort Henry on the Tennessee River with four newly built ironclads. This proposal was made in a letter to Major General Henry Wager Halleck. In it, Foote explicitly states that it was his idea, and not General Ulysses S. Grant’s, to attack the fort – evidence of the uneasy relationship between Grant and Halleck. Halleck finally relented and ordered Foote to make ready for the assault.

The ironclads Essex, Carondelet, Cincinnati, and Foote’s flagship St. Louis led the assault, with the woodclads Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington in support. The ironclads steamed parallel to one another in order to reduce exposure from the fort’s guns. Foote stressed to his officers the importance of accurate firing. Careless firing wasted ammunition, but more importantly, it boosted the enemy’s morale and would encourage their resolve to fight. Foote appreciated the psychological effect these floating juggernauts would have when their massive firepower rained down accurately on the fort.

The naval attack was supposed to be coordinated with a land attack by General Grant’s army, but they were bogged down on muddy roads. The flotilla opened fire on Fort Henry from 1700 yards on 6 February 1862. One hour and fifteen minutes later, a white flag was raised above the fort. Seven of the eleven guns placed at the fort were disabled; the battle was a complete naval victory.

Upon site of the gunboats, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, commanding the fort, reported, “I had no hope of being able, successfully, to defend the fort against such overwhelming odds, both in point of numbers and in caliber of guns.” He ordered all troops except for the artillery detachment to Fort Donelson and decided on a delaying action.

The Union suffered seventy-three casualties, twenty-nine of which occurred on the gunboat Essex when its boiler was struck. The Confederacy suffered twenty-one casualties and sixty prisoners. The gunboats were, by no means, invincible; the Cincinnati was hit by thirty-one shots, Essex received fifteen shots, St. Louis caught seven and Cairo collected six.

From a tactical point of view, the fort was a poor collection of earthworks that made easy targets for the gunboats. It was also built in a very poor location with part of it underwater; the defenders actually rowed out from the fort to surrender to Flag Officer Foote. From a psychological stand point, the gunboat’s swift conquest of Fort Henry struck fear into the Confederates. Immediately following the capitulation, Foote sent the three woodclads under command of Lieutenant Phelps up the Tennessee River. This expedition steamed into the heart of Dixie – all the way to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In four days, they captured three rebel gunboats and forced the enemy to burn six others. There was no doubt as to which side controlled the rivers.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces in the west, was discouraged by the success of the gunboats. In a letter to Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, he reports that earthworks are no match for the river navy and predicts that Fort Donelson will fall to the gunboats without the assistance of the army. The river fleet will not fare so well at Fort Donelson, but that is for another post. The victory at Fort Henry and the incursion into the deep south via the Tennessee River caused deep apprehension for the Confederate military and forced them to rethink their strategy in the west.

For more on Fort Henry:

U.S. Navy Department. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. 33 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894. Reprint, Harrisburg: The National Historical Society, 1987.

Series I, Volume 22 – contains most of the river operations.

Walke, Henry. “The Gun-Boats at Belmont and Fort Henry.” In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Thomas Yoseloff Inc., 358 –367. New York: The Century War Series, 1956.

Milligan, John D. “From Theory to Application: The Emergence of the American Ironclad War Vessel.” Military Affairs 48 (July 1984): 126 – 132.

—. Gunboats Down the Mississippi. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1965.