Research Tips from Richard: Ship Ahoy, Mate! Confessions of a Marine/Maritime/Naval Historian

Why would someone become a marine/maritime/naval historian?

In my case, the choice of my career has seemed, in retrospect, almost preordained. My father was a career Naval Officer. I have also lived in seacoast New Hampshire for most of my life, nearby to the Port of Portsmouth, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Thus, the local research opportunities are readily available – sources such as newspapers, books, photographs, and interviews, coupled with an excellent local publisher, the Portsmouth Marine Society Press.

Many people believe that historians live as a hermits, a recluse at a desk. This viewpoint is far from the truth. While much of my time is, indeed, centered at my writing desk, I do venture into the outside world with frequent contacts with librarians, archivists, photographers, copy editors, indexers, other historians and scholars, and ultimately reviewers. As a team, we all strive to produce the best possible product.

Writing history is more than remaining at home. After exhausting the local collections, the historian then heads out with his briefcase to pursue new sources.

For my field, the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC, is the key destination for its unsurpassed collection of pertinent materials. This facility is located within the confines of the

Naval History & Heritage Command

Washington Navy Yard, and subject to strict and necessary military security. On one trip there, I stepped off a bus directly in front of one of the gates, heading out in a cold pouring rain. I had in hand all the advance clearance paperwork for admission to the Yard. The guard on duty told me that he was not authorized to let me onto the base. Following his instructions, I walked for about twenty minutes to the main gate. Though chilled and soaked to the skin, I was granted admission, with the surrender of my State of New Hampshire driver’s license.

With its magnificent setting overlooking Narragansett Bay, another important destination for naval historians is the Naval War College Library in Newport, RI. I knew the archivist there from earlier visits and was returning to research a new book. First, I telephoned. Then, well in advance, submitted my request in writing for the privilege to visit this library. My archivist friend assured me that all the arrangements were in place.

U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI
U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI

I arrived at the sentry box one late morning. A Navy Shore Patrol guard, and a civilian policeman, both fully armed with revolvers, greeted me. “My name is Richard Winslow,” I said. They consulted their check list, gave me a funny look, and said in effect, “We have never heard of you.” For moment I believed that I might be denied entrance to the base, and would be compelled to return home, empty-handed. The guards finally sent me to the pass office. I explained my situation. “We had an electrical storm here last night,” the pass office clerk said, “and all the data and names on the computer were erased, wiped clean.” The clerk telephoned the archivist who verified my purpose and status. At last I proceeded through the main gate, and then arrived at a second checkpoint sentry box, again with armed personnel.  I continued to the Naval War College itself, was issued a pass there, and finally a fourth pass to enter the library. I wore these ID badges the entire time I was there, and surrendered them at the main gate when I departed. Once I was fully processed, the Navy treated me like a king, and allowed me to take my lunch at the Officers Club.

Peabody Essex Museum Phillips Library
Peabody Essex Museum Phillips Library

There are three top libraries for civilian merchant marine vessels, ferries, and yachts:

The Peabody Essex Museum, and its Phillips Library, Salem, MA – The Phillips Library, Salem, is currently undergoing renovations, with the collections temporarily housed at an another building.

Mystic Seaport Museum Collections Research Center
Mystic Seaport Museum Collections Research Center

The Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT – At Mystic, I was fumbling in my wallet for the $15 visitor’s admission fee. The ticket clerk notice that I was carrying a briefcase. “You must be a researcher and headed for the Blunt Library,” the attendant said, “so you can come in free of charge.” I readily accepted this kindness.

The Mariners’ Museum Library at Christopher Newport

Mariner’s Museum and Park, Newport News, VA. — Of interest, the Mariner’s Museum complex is located on a back channel bay leading out to the James River. One can rent a boat at the museum dock and head out for rowing and fishing.


6Other important research institutions include:

New Bedford Whaling MuseumMaine Maritime Museum, Bath, ME

New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library, New Bedford, MA


Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY. The latter is an unexpected treasure. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a superb yachtsman and canoeist, as well as the President of the United States, was an avid and dedicated collector of US Naval and marine art. His superb collection is housed at the Library. I have used some of these original paintings and drawings as illustrations in my books.

In what is always the most satisfying aspect of one’s research, the historian goes beyond the piles of papers to seek out interviews with living participants who were involved in historic events. Were I not an historian, I probably would have never met or interviewed such fascinating people as David “Bud” MacIntosh, the legendary gundalow builder; Gerald McLees, a survivor of the 1939 USS Squalus submarine sinking and rescue; Chuck Hermaneau, a sailor aboard the USS Dolphin, who witnessed the 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing attack; and Joseph Enright, the skipper of the sub USS Archerfish, which sank the giant Japanese warship Shinano in 1944. I was thrilled to hear these people’s stories.

7We maritime/marine/naval historians, though small in number, are a close-knit and friendly group.   We participate in meetings, conferences, and dinners. We all look out for one another with every personal and professional courtesy.  I am proud of my profession.

Editor’s note: Most recently, Richard’s extensive research led to the publishing of A Race of Shipbuilders : The Hanscoms of Eliot, Maine, published by the Portsmouth Marine Society, [2013]

RichardBlogResearch Tips is written by Richard E. Winslow III, Local Historian Emeritus,  who has worked in Special Collections at the Portsmouth Public Library for 30 years. He is a local historian and author on topics such as the Naval Shipyard, the Gundalow, submarines, shipbuilding, privateers, Frank Jones, and more.

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