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Three Lives of the Tall Ship William Badger

William_BadgerSEACOAST BOOKS

Peter Kurtz begins Bluejackets in the Blubber Room by exploring early American shipbuilding and shipbuilders in the Piscataqua region of Maine and New Hampshire. SeacaostNH.com asked Peter (who lives in Cincinnati) to tell us why his first book, nine years in the making, focuses on a Portsmouth-built ship named the William Badger. Locals know Badger’s Island as the gateway to Maine and a great place to get pizza. But what was it like in the Age of Sail and where did our tall ships go? (Continued below)

 

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Bluejackers_in_the_Blubber_RoomBluejackets in the Blubber Room explores key events in US maritime history from the 1820s to the end of the Civil War through the biography of the sailing ship William Badger. Taking a biographical approach to his subject, Peter Kurtz describes three phases of the life of the William Badger, a sailing ship with a long and exemplary life on the sea: first as a merchant ship carrying raw materials and goods between New England, the US South, and Europe; second as a whaling ship; and finally as a supply ship providing coal and stores for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in Beaufort, North Carolina, during the Civil War. Using ship logs, sailors’ accounts, and other primary sources, Kurtz delves into the triple history of this little known vessel.

 

NINE YEARS WRITING MY FIRST HISTORY BOOK
By Peter Kurtz

I blame my daughter Holly. She was in junior high school and one night had an assignment to visit one of those ancestry Web sites. In the course of helping her, I became obsessed with finding out about my ancestors. Several years later I discovered my great-great-grandfather had served on a Union supply vessel, the William Badger.

I’d always enjoyed reading about ships and the sea as well as learning about the American Civil War. So I became fascinated with this seemingly obscure ship.  And as a technical writer and amateur genealogist, research came natural to me.  So it was a perfect storm.

One of my earliest discoveries was that the ship was named after early 19-century shipwright William Badger for whom an island in New England was also named. I dug out several atlases in an attempt to locate this island. But it was so small that most maps didn’t even show it. Eventually I did pinpoint its location near the mouth of the Piscataqua River. I said to myself, “One of these days I have to visit that place.”  Fortunately – or unfortunately – I was going through a midlife crisis and really wanted to get out of the Midwest.  As a substitute for actually traveling to Portsmouth-Kittery, though, I scavenged for details about this square-rigger that was built on the island. When I eventually discovered the vessel was a whaler and a first mate’s whaling journal existed, I said, “There may be a book here.”

I found it interesting that a wooden sailing ship from so long ago could keep reinventing itself -- from New England merchantman, to whaler, to Civil War coal hulk. But the ship’s biography is actually secondary to the bigger picture of maritime 19th century. There’s only so much one can uncover about an old ship. So I tried to use the Badger as a springboard to explore things that hadn’t previously received much attention (to me, at least) and studied up on Piscataqua shipbuilding, the so-called “cotton triangle,” the role of the whaling agent, the use of supply vessels during the Civil War, African Americans in the navy, etc. The tricky part was focusing on these areas without straying too far from the Badger. I had to continually climb back aboard ship, so to speak.

Peter_KurtzBetween conception and publication, “Bluejackets in the Blubber Room” took about nine years. Not all of that was research and writing. For several years - due to raising kids, working my regular job, buying and selling houses – I didn’t do anything on the book. I estimate that the research and writing took about four years, with another two years slogging through the publication process.

I made four field trips total, spaced out over a number of years. I visited Mystic Seaport Museum, CT and New Bedford, MA in 2004 for whaling research.  In 2008 I visited North Carolina for information on the ship’s Civil War service in Beaufort, NC. The following year it was to Washington DC for more archival Civil War research.

Ironically, I didn’t visit Portsmouth-Kittery until I was almost done with the book. I was so looking forward to making that trip. I treated it like a reward for all the hard work I’d done.  When I got to William Badger’s tomb, it felt like he was an old friend.

Although the publication process took longer than I ever imagined, I was actually pretty lucky finding a publisher. Having written and sold (and not sold) magazine articles. I knew all about the dreaded rejection letters. But my premise was unusual enough that editors were curious. Of the seven query letters I sent out, four got positive response: two smaller trade publishers and two university presses (my alma mater rejected me – I need to talk to them).  My wife helped a little. She has a co-worker who’s from the South, and when she heard that part of my book dealt with the Civil War, she said “Oh, tell him to sell it down here. They love anything to do with that war!”

(c) 2012 Peter Kurtz on SeacoastNH.com

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