Warship Under Sail – Interview with Lorraine McConaghy

Some of you may know local historian, Lorraine McConaghy, through MOHAI’s Nearby History workshops. A member of the Pacific Northwest Historian Guild, McConaghy has been writing, talking and teaching  the history of Seattle and its environs for years. With her new book, Warship Under Sail, McConaghy delves into the history of the United States Navy by exploring the the USS Decatur warship which played a decisive role in the Battle of Seattle.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask her questions about the process of writing “Warship”.  Here’s our email interview:

What gave you the idea to write about the USS Decatur?

 In the 1990s – as soon as I first saw them – I became fascinated with the two drawings of Seattle made by U.S. Navy officer Thomas Stowell Phelps during the 1855-6 Treaty War, and published with his memoirs.  The drawings are labeled, and I began the work by just learning what was represented by the “North Blockhouse” or “Yesler’s Mill.”  I didn’t understand why the USS Decatur was here, where it has come from, who had summoned it – nothing.  So it was a very organic process where asking a question led to an answer, and that answer itself encouraged more questions.  In the end, I wrote about the whole commission of the warship in the Pacific Squadron, 1855-1859.

When you were writing, did you have a particular audience?

 As a museum public historian, I knew that I wasn’t writing for a strictly academic audience – I always wanted everyone to enjoy the book.  I tried to avoid jargon in the book, whether scholarly jargon or sailing jargon.  There’s not a lot of post-modernist analysis and not a lot of jibbing and mainsail hauling.  This is the story of a floating community, of men under orders, experiencing the Pacific Ocean and waterborne initiatives of manifest destiny.

Was it difficult to edit the book into a length  acceptable to your publisher?

 My publisher, University of Washington Press, was very patient with me.  I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable with the editing that proved to be necessary – I knew it was a bit absurd to write 300 pages about five years.  But there was so much wonderful stuff in the Old Navy records!  Punishment records, medical journals, logbooks, correspondence, verbatim court martial testimony, repair records as well as newspaper and magazine articles about the sailing navy. 

How would you describe the book?

Warship Under Sail” is a fully researched study of a very under-studied area:  the U.S. Navy in the 1850s.  The Old Navy of sailing warships, grog and flogging, epidemic desertion, untreatable syphilis, aggressive expansionism in the Pacific – all that passed away, hidden from our view by the great storm of the Civil War.  This book uses biography and community study to follow an American man-of-war in the ports of the Pacific, seeing the U.S. West from the beach and the deck.

So,  what’s on your night table to read?

 I’m working on a new book now about the Civil War in Washington Territory, so I have a stack of books about antebellum politics in California, the Black community of Victoria, and the Civil War in general.  I’m not much of a reader of novels, I’m afraid.

Finally, what question do you wish someone would ask you about this project?

Why did you decide to follow the ship and its men after the end of the Squadron commission? Why do you end the book during the Civil War? 

I wish someone would ask this question so I would be forced to figure out the answer.  Having gotten to know them during the antebellum period, I wanted to know about their Civil War decisions – it was just a burning curiosity to learn who stayed loyal and who went south.  But it’s more than that – it has something to do with wanting to get to know them better, as people.

Lorraine recently came to the Central Library to discuss “Warship Under Sail” ; you can listen to the podcast . Thank you, Lorraine, for the interview and for all your contributions to Seattle history. The City knows itself much better due to your efforts. 

                                           ~ Carol, Central


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