top of page

About Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke

William F. Keeler’s letters from the USS Monitor and USS Florida are essential classics for Civil War scholars and amateurs alike. His letters from the Monitor provide the most complete picture of life on board a Civil War ironclad. His riveting accounts of the famed battle with the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862, naval expeditions up the James River during the Peninsula Campaign, and the sinking of the Monitor on New Year's Eve 1862 in a violent gale off Cape Hatteras bring an immediacy to events that makes 21st century readers feel part of the action. His equally colorful letters from the Florida provide one of the most compelling pictures of life on board a vessel on the Union blockade, a hugely important, but largely over-looked, chapter of the Civil War.

Up to now readers have relied upon Robert W. Daly’s edited two volumes of Keeler’s letters published more than half a century ago. However, due to space constraints a substantial amount (roughly 40%) of the letters was omitted. Not only does this render the letters disjointed and difficult to read, it also leaves readers with an incomplete picture of Paymaster Keeler – husband, father and friend. With his focus on naval aspects, Daly also paid little attention to people mentioned in the letters. These include not only Keeler’s family and friends, but also navy and army officers he encountered along the way, many of whom were unsung heroes of the Civil War.

All of this is remedied in Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke, which is a complete and unabridged version of Keeler’s letters from the Monitor and the Florida. The absence of deleted passages makes for smooth reading, enhancing the beauty of Keeler’s writing, as well as connecting him more closely to his family back home. This new edition contains a more detailed account of Keeler’s fascinating and eclectic life (dry goods merchant, Forty-Niner, watch maker, iron founder, orange grower, newspaper correspondent and more) and includes short biographical notes on many of the people Keeler encountered.

The book also includes the previously unpublished correspondence between Keeler and a Connecticut collector named Frank H. Pierce who was gathering information about the Monitor in the 1880s. These letters give us Keeler’s final thoughts on the Monitor and her officers and crew. They also provide a fitting end to Keeler’s life story, for he wrote them while he was dying of heart disease. Bedridden and unable to speak or write at one point, his wife Anna had to continue the correspondence. In her last letter she mentions that the packing of a box of artifacts for Pierce was the last work Keeler did and that a day or two before he died she read him Pierce’s letter announcing the box’s safe arrival. The indelible mark that the Monitor had left on William Keeler was with him right up to the end.

The fact that Charles W. McLandress, the editor of Ink, Dirt and Powder Smoke, is a direct descendant of William Keeler adds a unique personal dimension to the book.

bottom of page