Old Sam and Murray Morgan

This is one of those happy instances of the law of unintended writing consequences.

On page 271 of Though Not Dead, Old Sam tells Pappardelle, “I served in the Aleutians during the war. There wasn’t a lot to do, so every now and then to keep the enlisted out of trouble the brass would get the big idea to have educational talks by anyone they could sucker out of the ranks…One night this Signal Corps guy from Tacoma — what was his name? Morgan, that was it. Anyway, Morgan was some kind of writer or professor or something in real life and he gave us a talk about how the last shot fired in the American Civil War was fired in the Aleutians.

Murray Morgan was a real person, and lo and behold, I log on to my website one morning to find this message from Murray Morgan’s daughter, Lane:

A friend just told me that my dad, Murray Morgan, is a minor character (or a referenced person) person in Though Not Dead. Very cool. He was indeed in the ASC in the Aleutians at the same time as Dashiell Hammett. I look forward to reading the book and wish Murray were still around to see the reference.

It turns out Morgan wrote long letters home from the Aleutians and Lane has been posting them on line here.

This guy just lived and breathed good writing. I met him through his book, Confederate Raider in the North Pacific, which tells the story of the last shot fired in the Civil War, fired, yes, by Confederate Navy Captain James Waddell who was disrupting the enemy’s economy by sinking Yankee whaling ships in the North Pacific. It is full of delightful prose and terrific little word pictures of the characters involved. One example from page 14:

Richard Wright was not the type of man usually involved in conspiracy. A Liverpool merchant, prosperous and proud of his family, he had a burgher’s respect for safety and six per cent.

Another from page 26:

Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister to Great Britain, was more a precision instrument than a human being. A brilliant, polished New Englander, the son and grandson of presidents, compressed to the hardness of a diamond by the accumulated weight of family tradition, he served as the cutting edge of American diplomacy.

And this about Captain Waddell from page 38:

Waddell was startled by the dissension. A romantic, a believer in the glory of war, he could not understand men who were untempted by adventure.

There are many more similarly wonderful prose portraits, especially of Waddell and his crew, who are parfit, gentil knyghts without sacrificing any attention to their mission, which they fulfill to admiration while murdering no man nor outraging any woman. One of my favorite stories is the whaler which is under the command of the captain’s wife, the captain having died on the voyage. She has preserved his body in a barrel of whiskey so she can take him home and bury him in the family plot. Waddell sinks her ship, but he sees the lady and her pickled husband both landed safely on shore afterward. Marvelous stuff.

Due to what I’m beginning to believe is the almost suicidal shortsightedness of American publishing, Morgan’s book is no longer in print, but fear not because there are used copies galore available on Bookfinder.com. This is the best book written on this subject, and it is well worth the extra effort to acquire. Accept no substitute.


Great Reads in Alaska History

[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2/1/2010]

Today some recommendations for great reads in Alaska history–

raiderDid you know the last shot fired in the Civil War was fired in the Aleutians? You would if you’d read Confederate Raider by Murray Morgan, a book about the Confederate raiding ship Shenandoah, built and commissioned to disrupt if not destroy the Union’s whaling industry in the North Pacific. Built in England, armed in the Madeira Islands, the Shenandoah travels around the Cape of Good Hope and starts sinking Yankee whaling ships from the south Atlantic on. But unbeknownst to them, the war ended in the middle of their search and destroy cruise. When they discover this they are afraid to surrender to a Union ship for fear they will be sunk out of hand, so succesful has been their mission, so in an extraordinary feat of seamanship they sail south, dodging irritated Union vessels all the way, round Cape Horn and surrender to the British back in the UK, without suffering a scratch. One of the great sea stories.

girlsIf you’re interested in the Gold Rush there is no better book on the topic than Pierre Berton’s The Klondike Fever, but I also love Good-time Girls by Lael Morgan. This history of the women who came north with the stampeders to mine the minors in saloons, dancehalls and hookshops from Dawson to Nome to Cordova is filled with anecdotes of those days when an attractive woman was literally worth her weight in gold. French Marie, the Oregon Mare, Black Mary, Klondike Kate and more, Lael’s affection and respect for these women, whom she regards as pioneers, rises up from every page of this book. And wait till you find out who the Sterling Highway was named for.

warThe Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield is a page-turner set in the Aleutians during World War II. Six months after Pearl Harbor the Japanese took the islands of Attu and Kiska, catching the United States by surprise for the second time in six months and putting Alaska and the west coast seriously at risk from invasion. America scrambled to respond, and for fifteen months the two nations slugged it out in ice and snow and fog. In the end, the Aleutian Campaign tied up a sixth of the Imperial Japanese Air Force and 41,000 ground troops, forces which McArthur and Halsey did not have to fight further south. Complete with maps, illustrations and notes.

grueningMany Battles by Ernest Gruening is a personal narrative written by one of Alaska’s territorial governors and later a US Senator, one of two to vote against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. A practicing politician, Gruening still has less of a personal ax to grind than most, and he’s a good writer. His eyewitness account of Elizabeth Peratrovich’s speech before the territorial legislature in 1948 on the subject of Native suffrage will give you goose bumps.