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William Keeler's Letter Book

A decade after the Civil War, William Keeler bound his letters in a book he entitled My Naval Experience and dedicated it to his second eldest son James Edward Keeler. The letter book remained in Anna Keeler's possession until her death in 1901. At that point it would have passed to James Edward but he had died the previous year, so the letter book passed to their surviving child Elizabeth (Lizzie) Eliot Day. Two months before her death in September 1926, Lizzie sold the book for $2,000 to Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector of manuscripts and rare books.


The letter book remained in Rosenbach's possession for another 17 years, during which time he made several attempts to sell it to wealthy collectors, one of whom was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in March 1932, seven months before he was elected president. The letter book is advertised in Rosenbach’s 1938 sales catalogue, along with a hefty sticker price of $24,000 and the following description:

The Complete log of the Monitor from its launching until its destruction. ... These letters ... consist of about nine hundred pages, including numerous contemporary photographs, documents and souvenirs relating to the events described. This unofficial record is full of the most interesting details of ships, their construction and numerous naval battles, including the famous conflict between the Monitor and the Merrimac, — the only full contemporary account. ... An exceedingly valuable manuscript—no more complete record of the naval sensation of its day can ever be found.” 

In 1943 Rosenbach sold the letter book to the United States Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland, where it has resided ever since. The letters remained untouched for more than a decade before Robert W. Daly, a professor of naval history at the Naval Academy, began editing them. Knowing virtually nothing about Keeler’s life before or after the Civil War, Daly reached out to two of Keeler’s grandchildren, one of whom was my grandmother. The correspondence between Daly and my grandmother continued intermittently from 1962 to 1968 until Daly’s two edited volumes of Keeler’s letters were published.

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