Tusculum College Librarian Smith Authors Book On Civil War Gunboat Commander Le Roy Fitch


Myron J. Smith, Tusculum College's librarian, is the author of a new book, Le Roy Fitch ­- The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander.

The 421-page book is a detailed account of the encounters Fitch and his sailors had as they convoyed Union troops and supplies, and battled Confederates, mainly along the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

The book should be of interest to Civil War buffs and Tenneseans interested in the region's history.

Remarkably, this is the 76th volume of history or bibliography that Smith has written or compiled.

Young Officer

The youthful Fitch was one of the commanders of the U.S. Navy's improvised gunboat fleet, which was designated as the Western Flotilla.

Control of the major rivers was crucial to both sides during the Civil War.

Smith sets the scene by noting, "During the late spring of 1862, the western Confederacy found that large portions of its territory, including much of Kentucky, Missouri, the Arkansas shoreline along the 'Big Muddy,' and middle and western Tennessee, were in northern hands, some parts more solidly than others.

"The Federal goal of reaching down the Mississippi toward Helena and Vicksburg was pushed from Cairo and St. Louis while, simultaneously, Nashville became the hub of a great Yankee supply chain."

Despite the importance of the battles to control the rivers, Smith notes, the Civil War's gunboat battles in Tennessee and Kentucky have received far less historical attention than have the larger clashes that were occurring between the opposing armies.

Lt. Cmdr. Fitch, 28, a recent U.S. Naval Academy graduate, began his Civil War duty as an independent commander.

Smith writes that Fitch "gained a reputation for his prosecution of counter-insurgency warfare and as an innovator of protective measures for the massive number of contract steamboats which churned the Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers supplying the advancing Union armies."

The author says Fitch's "convoy arrangements were so efficient that boats in his charge were not lost to Confederate attack except when they disobeyed sailing orders.

"It was not unusual for one of his convoys to stretch 30 miles or more and require a week to cover the distance from Smithland, Ky. (head of the Cumberland River) up to Nashville.

"Certain of his convoy techniques were later employed in the Atlantic, in whole or in part, by the U.S. Navy in both World War I and World War II," Smith writes.

General John Hunt Morgan

The movements of a Civil War figure familiar to Greene Countians, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, is a focus of Chapter Eight of the book.

Lt. Cmdr. Fitch's forces were often guarding against General Morgan's cavalry, whose bold raids and surprise invasion across the Ohio River north into Indiana and Ohio became legendary.

Fitch had difficulty tracking Morgan. "I have to get word of him in time to enable me to meet him," Smith quotes Fitch as complaining.

Not Sufficiently Recognized

The author quotes Douglas Byrd, a historian of the Cumberland River, as concluding that Fitch deserved "far greater credit than history has so far accorded for the part he played in the victory of the North. He was the officer who did more than anyone else to keep the Cumberland River open" for supplies to Union forces.

However, Smith writes, "Le Roy Fitch was like a Civil War shooting star. He came on the scene from obscurity, provided great public service to the nation, and then in the decade left to him, faded."

Fitch died in 1875 at only age 40. The cause of his death was unclear.

Smith asked Dr. Thomas F. Beckner, a Greeneville physician, to review Fitch's medical records.

The book quotes Dr. Beckner, "While determining Fitch's exact cause of death is difficult, it can be said that his problems appeared to be primarily gastrointestinal in nature, and were rapidly progressive."

Le Roy Fitch's biography does not offer light or casual reading for one with little interest in the Civil War.

Smith's accounts, many of them coming from U.S. Navy records, are very detailed. Also, the book's type is smaller than many readers probably would like.

Since the 1970s, Smith said in an interview, he had been collecting material on Fitch, who, like himself, was an native of Indiana.

Le Roy Fitch is published by McFarland & Company, Inc., of Jefferson, N.C., and London. The book can be ordered on the Internet through Amazon.com. by then typing the book's title or Smith's name. The book's price is $55.

Smith said his next title will be The Timberclad War, 1861-1865, and "will concern the war-long activities of the three wooden gunboats converted by the Union from Ohio River steamboats in the summer of 1861."

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