cover image Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy

Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy

Roswell Hawks Lamson. Oxford University Press, USA, $50 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-19-511698-4

The editors of this collection, Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson and his wife Patricia, call Lt. Roswell Lamson's correspondence ""the best Civil War navy letters we have ever read or expect to read,"" adding that ""few sets of letters equal and none surpass those of Lamson for richness of description, scope of coverage, or keenness of perception and analysis."" This is high praise, especially from the man whose study of 25,000 letters of Confederate and Union soldiers helped us to understand For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. There's no denying that Lamson's correspondence provides an exciting history of the east coast encounters resulting from the Union's blockade of Confederate ports. But part of the appeal of letters is the intimate encounter they allow with a stranger, and here, Lamson does not come off well. He was certainly an intelligent, brave man, and a superb leader (he commanded more ships than any other officer in the naval service), but the letters also reveal a man almost entirely lacking in humility. Many of his comments about Navy brass are typical of those of any serviceman, but his remarks about his peers and immediate superiors are self-serving: ""Our Executive officer... is a very pleasant man, but has not energy and force enough to control well so many men."" Discussing the loss of another captain's vessel to a torpedo, Lamson states, ""Had the precautions been taken that I have adopted I am sure she would not have been lost."" Almost all of these letters were addressed to Lamson's fiancee, Kate, and in this he does show real, if occasionally cloying, tenderness (""the wind, the sea and the stars tell me that `Katie loves me'...""). (Oct.)