“To cheapen the lives of any group of men, cheapens the lives of all men, even our own. This is a law of human psychology, or human nature. And it will not be repealed by our wishes, nor will it be merciful to our blindness.”
A lot has been on my mind over the last three days. The hate on display in Charlottesville is the antithesis of the America I was raised to believe in, and it sickens me. In the aftermath of an event like this, a lackluster response those from those in power can resonate. It doesn’t take a decent person three days to solidify their opinion on racism, bigotry, and hate.
It can be disheartening to see failures in leadership, and that can bring about cycles of depression and despair. If you find yourself in those places, I would encourage you to stay strong. Do not lose hope. Get active. Be a help to the helpless, be a voice for the voiceless, and defend the defenseless. As I said in November last year: despair isn’t how you defeat evil. Action is.
I’ve been running a little alternative reality game of sorts. It all started with this post from October 2016, and since then I’ve shared more clues, both here and on Instagram and in other undiscovered corners. I’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If you’re a fan of my Bell Forging Cycle and you’ve been wanting more, I’d say it’s worth your time. It’ll lead you to some unusual places. If you’re looking for answers, this post won’t have them. But, I did want to share a few tips:
Get others involved, ARGs are meant to be group activities. Often, solutions don’t come to one particular person. When you have more people involved, you can talk through a problem and discover patterns.
Details matter, and you’ll eventually benefit from searching Google. Especially after initial have been discovered. Likewise, pay attention to things beyond imagery and coded ciphers. You’ll never know what you’ll find.
Along with Google, don’t forget that this blog has a search bar.
In the end, ARG organization is up to the players. I’ll continue to provide the content, but you’ll need to keep track of it. Consider engaging with each other in the comment section, launch a subreddit or wiki, or even consider email threads.
Going forward, I don’t intend to address the game openly. The thrill of the reveal is too easy to dampen and I want those taking the time to play to have fun. Good luck, roaders! I can feel that you’re on the verge of discovery. Pathways will open, trails shall be revealed, and dark corners will illuminate.
Like everything, this begins with a story. Recently, I started reading Patrick O’Brian’sMaster and Commander, and I’m enjoying it so far. He begins the book with an author’s note explaining how he bends history to serve his narrative. In this introduction, he states that while the book is thoroughly researched, he takes creative liberties in regard to historical figures and battles. (Though I usually find such forewords unnecessary in historical fiction, I appreciated O’Brian’s care, and I know some Royal Navy enthusiasts probably did as well.)
“My point is that the admirable men of those times, the Cochranes, Byrons, Falconers, Seymours, Boscawens and the many less famous sailors from whom I have in some degree compounded my characters, are best celebrated in their own splendid actions rather than in imaginary contests; that authenticity is a jewel; and that the echo of their words has an abiding value.”
—Patrick O’Brian, Author’s Note, Master and Commander
Whenever I start a new book, especially one as lauded as Master and Commander, I do a quick Google search about it. I’m not sure why I do this. Sometimes, it’s to find ephemera I might otherwise miss. Sometimes, it reveals little details not mentioned in the prose. Sometimes, I want to check out maps or illustrations that are not in my copy of the book. Over the course of the search, I stumbled across another book claiming to be the real story of the real master and commander. I have forgotten the title, and, to be honest, it’s not relevant. However, I found it amusing. Here was a book written and published decades years after O’Brian’s novel that pretended to be a response to it. Its author ignored O’Brian’s foreword completely and was like, “NO! You need to tell the REAL history of the Royal Navy’s heroes!”
Which now leads to Twitter. While at a BBQ, I was explaining to a friend how I found this amusing. His comment (I’m paraphrasing): “Funny, that’s like Twitter but before Twitter, and the guy actually took years to write a response.”
I found that comment funny and poignant. Over the last few days, I’ve been dwelling on his statement. It’s resonated with me. In a way, it is like Twitter, but as my friend observed it’s also very different. You see, Twitter removes that time in between. It gives us an instant connection for good or ill. Twitter lets us respond so quickly—we often don’t realize how our comment will make others feel. We don’t take the time to write a well-honed response, we just react. We laude. We celebrate. We resist. We obey. We re-tweet. We sub-tweet. We call out. We insult. We cast aspersion. We make accusations based on 140 characters and a profile picture. Twitter has ceased being a conversation and has become the mass reacting to one another. We’re no longer listening, which means we’re no longer responding.
I don’t want to do that. I’ve seen what the toxic nature of reaction-culture can do to communities. I’m not interested in playing those games any longer. This is why I’m going to shift the majority of my thought back to the humble blog. For me, this format forces solicitude and introspection. It makes me slow down, and it tempers. I never published posts the day I write them (even this one)—I let them sit and simmer which in turn discourages knee-jerk reaction. I have drafts of posts I’ll never publish because I wrote them while my ire was up. That’s a good thing. It lets me get those emotions out without dragging someone else down. It’s therapeutic in a way.
The biggest trick of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, is that you need to be on social media to somehow be successful. It’s a lie. Yes, you need a web presence, and you need to be on social media, but you don’t need to let it control you. There’s a big difference in running a business online versus throwing yourself into the volatile social media landscape. Humanity is just now starting to see where the latter leads, and I’m choosing a different path.
TL;DR—So, what does this all mean?
Well, first off, I’m not deleting my Twitter account or anything like that. I still run a business and Twitter is a part of that, and it’s an important part. After all, I gotta keep the lights on and the bills paid.
This blog is my primary platform; it’s where I’ll be doing most of my thinkin’. So while I will be posting more links elsewhere (probably a lot of links.) Most of those links will bring you back to here. Likewise, instead of writing Twitter threads, I’ll be writing posts. Posts are easier to read anyway; Twitter is garbage for long content.
If you’re interested in continuing to follow me here are a few options:
Do nothing and keep following me on Twitter; I’ll continue to post links to news and blog articles there. But my content will primarily live here.
Click the “Follow” button in the footer to follow my blog via e-mail.
In the lower depths, shadows gather. Somewhere in the warren’s twisted alleys, a clock strikes, its chime a number never before heard. Lights flicker briefly casting glows in colors indescribable before returning to their dull yellow hum. Is that chanting?
Pph’nglui mglw’nafh—the King Tide rises. Look west, dear roader.
Those who have spent any time in an American History class is aware of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads. It’s the infamous naval conflict between the Merrimack (captured and renamed the CSS Virginia)and the USS Monitor, two of the world’s first ironclads gunboats, which duked it out to a draw in the waters of Chesapeake Bay.
While these two vessels have become legendary, they weren’t alone; many more gunboats were fighting on the rivers during the American Civil War. Technology had begun to modernize, and the gunboats of the Union Navy and Confederate fleets were no different. The war revealed a point of transition in the evolution of sail to steam as watercraft shifted from the traditional frigate-style sailing vessel towards the warships we see today. Turrets were introduced, armor became commonplace, and propulsion was beginning to change from paddle-wheels to the screws. The era of wooden ships of the line died in 1862 as the ironclads rose to prominence.
My current project, Coal Belly, is a weird west fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble world where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life and used in war. In the book, the empires of Artada, Othwell, and Cyr patrol their territory with a variety of gunboats, and I wanted a spark of authenticity. With that in mind, I felt it necessary for to research the naval fleets of 19th Century, with the Mississippi and its tributaries playing such a vital part in the American Civil War, it was the perfect place to start.
The Union dominated naval warfare from the outset. Where the Confederate forces saw some early advances with the capture of the Merrimack and its retrofitting, it didn’t take long for the Union to catch up and overwhelm the Rebels.Gunboats came in many varieties and could be broken down into four main categories: Rams, Timberclads, Tinclads, and of course the emerging Ironclads. There was a fifth category as well, used primarily by the Confederates, which is commonly called the Cottonclads. Let’s look into each of them.
These were the creation of Colonel Charles Ellet Jr., a Navy man who was convinced that the ancient ram technology could be adapted to modern usage. Under his guidance, he built out the United States Ram Fleet. The rams tended to be sidewheelers and were usually faster than their civilian counterparts, and unlike other navy boats they carried few guns; instead, they used reinforced timber bows to smash into opposing boats.
Only four timberclads were used during the war, the USS Tyler, USS Conestoga, USS Lexington, and the USS Avenger. While these were modeled after standard sidewheel riverboats, these vessel’s crew were protected from small-arms fire by 5-inch thick oaken bulkheads. To me, they’ve always looked like a floating windowless factory.
The most common gunboat of the Union Navy’s river fleet were the tinclads. These were usually sternwheelers with metal sheeting tacked to the side to protect the crews. Keep in mind that this thin sheeting wasn’t useful while under fire by heavy artillery. It was chosen to protect against small arms. Where civilian packets tend to feature open decks and promenades, most tinclads have a boxed-in look. Each of these boats was assigned a number which was painted on their pilothouse.
The first iron vessels were designed to be ocean-going and operated mostly along the coast. The French Glorie was the first, but more followed her. On the rivers and during the American Civil War, Ironclads came in many varieties—two were most common. The first was the turreted Monitors named after the famous warship the USS Monitor designed by John Ericsson.
“The sea shall ride over her and she shall live in it like a duck.”
The second type was the casemate-style gunboats with sloping sides, not unlike the USS Merrimack. These were more commonly found on the rivers. At the beginning of the war, the Union converted civilian packets, but later they developed the City-class ironclad; these 13-cannon gunboats ruled the river. After their introduction, they were present at every major conflict along the Mississippi. Interestingly, many of these City-class ironclads were centerwheelers with their paddle wheels located at the aft-end of the center keel and protected by bulkheads and armor plating.
A creation of the Confederate fleets, the cottonclads looked much like their counterpart riverboats. However, as an added form of protection, their hollow bulkheads were filled with packed cotton. Cotton bales were also set up around guns and pilothouses as additional forms of protection.
You could write entire books on gunboat strategy in the American Civil War which isn’t the goal of these posts. However, if you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend starting with Sam Smith’s article, The River War. But for this post, let’s take a gander at some images I’ve gathered as a part of my research over the last few years. These will provide visual examples of the five categories of naval gunboats and give a glimpse of the life of a brown water riverman; check them out below.
Officers of USS Monitor Catskill
USS Essex in berth
Federal transport packet Str. Chickamauga
Either the tinclad USS Fawn (No. 30) or the USS Tensas (No. 39) at a naval station in Mound City, IL
Blacksmiths on the USS Lehigh
The Confederate ram CSS Tennessee outside Mobile, AL
The gunboats USS Baron DeKalb and USS Cincinnati outside Mound City, IL
Damage to the CSS Teaser
The Mississippi River Fleet outside Mound City, IL
The tinclad USS Peosta
Crew of the monitor USS Lehigh
The timberclad USS Lexington/Tyler
The city-class ironclad USS Pittsburgh
The ironclad USS Cairo (pronounced: Kay-row or Care-oh)
Seated officers on the USS Hunchback, a converted side-wheel civilian ferry.
The ironclad monitor USS Monadnock
Butler’s Dredge Boat, Sunk by a Confederate Shell on Thanksgiving Day, 1864 – James River, VA
Officers on the upper deck of a Union monitor gunboat
Confederate Ram Atlanta After Being Captured – James River, VA, 1863
Sailors Relaxing on Deck of USS Monitor – James River, VA, July 1862
The USS Redrover, a Confederate boat captured by the Union and turned into a hospital boat
Loading canon on the USS Hunchback
The tinclad USS Fort Hindman
Fencing on the deck of the USS Hunchback
The cottonclad CSS General Price
Sailors on Deck of U.S.S. Monitor – James River, VA
The monitors USS Chimo and USS Tonawanda [Foreground] and the ex-CSS Stonewall [Background] moored off the Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
Wreck of the USS Indianola
Laundry Day on the USS Baron DeKalb
USS Commodore Perry, a Ferryboat Converted into a Gunboat on the Pamunkey River, VA, 1864
Acting Assistant Paymaster Henry Cushing (in white on right) on board the USS Hunchback
Officers of the USS Monitor
Controlling the Mississippi River and its tributaries was a vital part of the war effort. I can see why so much innovation happened in such a short amount of time. Technology provided an advantage, and in the narrow confines of a river, that advantage is beneficial for a brown water navy. With the tale crossing empires, expect to read about plenty of gunboats within the pages of Coal Belly.
The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. I’m happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general. (Sometimes it gives me a good excuse to research something.) You can send me an email or leave a comment below. I love comments.
This is the latest in my series of posts sharing my findings from my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts in the links below.
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“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”