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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

by
Admiral Robert E. Coontz


published by
Dorrance & Company
Philadelphia
1930

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p63  Chapter IV

My First Cruise

Sailing aboard Constellation — First Time in New York — My Statement to Members of Congress — Second Year at Academy — A Fight — Home on a Visit — Voyage on the Dale — Meeting Secretary Chandler.

When I reported aboard the Constellation, I found Lieutenant Sperry acting as Executive Officer. I was apprehensive throughout the entire voyage, but he never noticed me. We beat our way slowly down the Chesapeake, and on June 30th stood out to sea. At that time I did not know the sensation of seasickness. Captain Henry B. Robeson was in command, and he belonged to a race of officers, now practically extinct. He was a "sundowner" — that is, one who works his men from 4:30 until sundown. I was assigned to duty on the flying jib and the foreyard, and my locker was in the bow of the ship. The Constellation was a sailing vessel and carried her water in big iron tanks. It was called Juniper water because it came from a swamp of that name in southeastern Virginia. We were allotted a pint each morning. Each cadet would use a wet towel to wash his face, a few drops to brush his teeth and then he poured the rest on top of his head. After that he had a salt water bath. A guard was placed at the scuttle butt when fresh water was issued. We were poorly fed, and it seems to me that we had hard tack and prunes for each meal.

Soon after sailing outside the Capes we encountered a gale of wind, and I distinctly recall that the weather was rough on July 4th. Burnstine, my classmate, of Michigan, was at my table and he became very seasick. In fact, so much so that from our first port he was allowed to go home to recuperate. The eggs were none too good and  p64 the odor from the galley which permeated the ship added to Burnstine's nausea.

The Captain ordered us to wear our dress uniforms on July 4th. We had plum duff for midday dinner, and as four out of six cadets at my table were ill, the rest of us had a real feast on the pastry. That afternoon many a sick youngster could be seen sprawled out on deck around the boom boats.

The Constellation sailed up and down the Atlantic until July 17th, and we learned a great deal of real seamanship. The cadets were not required to wash down the decks, but we did about everything else. The ship finally anchored off Navesink Highlands, and then sailed on to Tompkinsville, Staten Island.

Our first leave was in New York City; we had four hours. Russell, Tarbox, Slocum and I went to the celebrated Martinelli Restaurant, where one could get dinner with wine for one dollar and a quarter. As two of us did not drink intoxicants, the other two had double rations of wine, but we all returned to the ship on time. A few days later we went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There the announcement was made that we would be given three days leave and three dollars. Fortunately, my father had sent me ten dollars.

To get to the big city from the navy yard in those days it was necessary to take a Sands Street car to Fulton Street and cross the bay on a ferry. Brooklyn Bridge had not then been completed. I went ashore with Russell, and upon reaching New York, we took a horse car up‑town to the Continental Hotel at Broadway and 29th Street, where I engaged a room for a dollar a day. There I found a note from my cousin who was freight agent for the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad, inviting me to his home in Jersey City. I departed for there at once, but did not give up my room. The next day he took me up the Hudson on the Mary Powell which was a very famous river boat at that time, and we spent the day at West Point.

 p65  The morning our leave was up I returned to the Continental Hotel to get my baggage. I asked for my room key and was informed that my midshipmen friends had it. In Jersey City I had been given a three-pound box of caramels which I was carrying. When I entered my room, I found to my surprise three midshipmen asleep on the bed, and three others on the floor. They seized my candy and soon devoured it. They had spent all of their money and had borrowed my room and had had nothing to eat since the day before.

Two members of the class, Midshipmen K. and F., both of whom are now prosperous citizens of the State of New York, living on the Hudson River, took their leave together. They concluded to spend it in Brooklyn, and after looking about established themselves at the Porkanbean Hotel on Myrtle Avenue. On the third morning they decided to leave the hotel early, but were horrified to find that their combined resources aggregated only twenty-five cents. Their leave expired at eight o'clock that evening.

They had no breakfast and were wending their way down to the Sands Street bridge on foot feeling rather disconsolate. It was considered bad form for a third classman to return to the ship ahead of time. As they passed the Brooklyn Bridge Hotel, a sign over a saloon arrested their attention. It read, "Free lunch all day." After a moment's consultation they boldly entered the place and approached the bar.

"What will you have, K?" asked Midshipman F.

"Oh, give me a soda water," replied his comrade.

"Give me the same," rejoined F.

Ten cents paid for the soda, and on soup, crackers, cheese and ham, the youngsters had a hearty breakfast. Refreshed and encouraged, all thought of returning to the ship ahead of time was abandoned. They walked out to Prospect Park and at noon returned to the same saloon, bought two more sodas and had another free lunch. They now had five cents remaining, but the resources of a midshipman  p66 are not to be regarded lightly. Six o'clock found them again at the bar.

"What will you have, K?" F asked again.

"I don't care for anything," replied K.

"Well, give me a soda," said F.

He drank it with gusto, threw down his last five cents, and both midshipmen once more tackled the free lunch, after which they reported aboard ship on time.

Our bluejackets were practically all foreigners. When they returned to the ship after forty-eight hours of leave, nearly all of them were stupefied with drink and dropped on the deck, where they slept for two days. Conditions have changed since that time.

A few days after our leave expired, we got under way again and left New York. We rolled around in the Atlantic drilling under sail for a couple of weeks, and then returned to Annapolis.

Soon after we had anchored, we learned that by the act of Congress, of August 5, 1882, the Navy had been dealt a staggering blow. The number of officers and men was to be reduced, and many of the ships were to be sold or placed out of commission. At the Academy, all classes of cadet midshipmen and cadet engineers were to be combined, and the title of cadet midshipman changed to naval cadet. Only ten of the graduates were guaranteed commissions at the end of six years. Despite all protests the law remained and there was to be only one promotion for each two vacancies.

This law hit the cadet midshipmen very hard. As a rule the cadet engineers were older than we were, and had got much farther along in their studies, especially in mathematics and drawing, so that the possibility of getting a commission looked hopeless for many of us. We were up against star men like Taylor, Tawresey, McKay, Diffenbach, Fenton, Chase and others. At Christmas time I went before some of the members of the naval committee of the House to tell our story. I was the guest of Senator Francis M. Cockrell, of Missouri, and  p67 of our Congressman, Colonel Hatch, who lived at the Willard Hotel, in Washington. Among those whom I met were Representative Hernando de Soto Money, of Mississippi, and Representative James W. Wadsworth, of New York, the father of former Senator Wadsworth, and a fine man. Notwithstanding the rules, they took me upon the floor of the House and gathered a group of members about me to hear my description of conditions. Later, when I became Chief of Naval Operations, I had the privilege of the floor of the Senate, but never took advantage of it except at inauguration.

When my leave began the latter part of August, following the cruise, my mother and younger sister were visiting in Jefferson County, West Virginia. It was arranged that I should go there and accompany them to our home in Missouri. Although I was extremely careful to tell the railroad agent how I wished my ticket to read he sold me one via Chicago, instead of St. Louis. I discovered the error at the station, went back and compelled him to change it so that the ticket read, "via Parkersburg and Cincinnati." For the first time I saw the Shenandoah Valley, and visited my Virginia relatives.

When we returned to the Academy at the end of September, we were a very gloomy lot of midshipmen. Under the law mentioned it appeared that only ten of us would be able to get into the service after completing our courses, and that had a bad effect upon our morale. It seemed like a violation of contract, and an ex post facto law, for upon entering we had signed up for eight years of service. The change in the system of monthly and semi-annual examinations was resented, because it made the course much harder. Instead of permitting all who were qualified to remain and graduate, it had the appearance of deliberately attempting to force some of us out ahead of time. We now know that the best sea‑going officers are not always the class stars.

We started the second year with sixty-five cadets, and  p68 the next year the number was reduced to forty-five, and finally only thirty‑six of the original membership of seventy-five were graduated and sent on the two years' cruise. I realize now what an injustice the whole thing was. Many fine young men were thus thrown out on the world with the stinging sense of having been wronged. The law was never repealed. For years, Senator Reagan, of Texas, attempted to have the retired list abolished.

Liberty to visit the city of Annapolis and leaves of absence for more than a very brief time were almost unknown, even to those who were satisfactory in their studies and their conduct. Conduct, under Captain Ramsay, was divided into four grades. The first conduct grade received the maximum liberty, and the fourth, as little as possible.

The plebes, or fourth classmen, were allowed to draw one dollar a month; third classmen, a dollar and a half; second classmen, two dollars; and first classmen, two dollars and a half. Pay day was known as "monthly dollar day." From the time we entered the Academy five dollars a month of our pay was placed to each man's credit toward payment for graduation uniforms and outfits. Our pay was five hundred dollars a year, and a ration of thirty cents a day. When a man resigned or was dismissed, he usually had enough money to his credit to get him home. There was always interest for a few days in those who resigned or were dismissed, but I often think what a terrible feeling must have come over them when once they were away from their classmates and found themselves out in the cold world.

Studies and discipline were extremely hard during second year, and with the class reduced to forty-five, we were all apprehensive. An unfortunate incident occurred in February. It had been customary, after a cadet petty officer had been "broken," or deprived of his commission for some infraction of rules or regulations, for his classmates to give him a cheer. Samuel D. Greene, four striper, who was ranking cadet officer in the battalion, and  p69 number one man in his class, was up for some misdemeanor and deprived of his cadet rank. Just after the formation, one his classmates stepped forward and proposed the usual three cheers which were heartily given. Captain Robeson, the "sundowner" to whom I have referred, commanded that there be no more cheering. Notwithstanding, some indiscreet midshipman proposed three more cheers, and some of the members of the battalion responded. Captain Robeson denounced this disobedience as mutinous. Officers were summoned and directed to walk down the formation line and ask each cadet if he had cheered. Many of the offenders were sent to the Santee, the prison ship, for the remainder of the year. All privileges were denied them, and many of us did not see the streets of Annapolis again until the following year. Even the usual June ball was forbidden. Midshipmen were "bilged" or dismissed every week, and the spring of '83 was not remembered by us with any pleasure. I participated in the first round of cheering and was given ten or twenty demerits, and restricted until June. Those who were guilty of cheering the second time were confined on the ship for months.

Owing to the shortage of ships and the fact that from time to time each one of us had to know something about engineering, the ex‑midshipmen of my class, now reduced to twenty-five in number, were held at the Academy for the summer months. We were taught everything from blacksmithing to pattern making, as well as the running of engines of steam launches. We lived aboard the Santee, swung in hammocks, and were sailor men generally. The heat was intense, but we had a good swim each day, and could use the cat boats to go to Round Bay, at the head of the Severn River, and out to Bay Ridge.

Because of financial troubles with certain officers of the pay corps, our class sent a committee, of which I was one, to the Superintendent, to ask permission to run our own mess. Much to our surprise, Captain Ramsay assented and appointed our committee to have charge of it. We  p70 prepared a menu for each day for three months in advance. It itemized corn bread and syrup daily, oyster stew twice a week and ice cream three times a week, and watermelons daily in season. Some of our fishermen caught crabs and we had an abundance of them. The plan worked well and we fared nicely on thirty-seven dollars and a half apiece for three months, and learned much that was of practical value. Our credit was good in Annapolis at the ice cream and candy parlors.

Four of us decided to visit the Southern Expedition, in Louisville, Ky., en route home on our September leave. We went by the Pennsylvania Railroad to Cincinnati, and thence to Louisville, arriving there at one o'clock in the morning. We had decided to stay at the Louisville Hotel, but did not know its location. A hackman accosted us and offered to drive us to the hotel for one dollar each. We rode a mile or so before he drew up in front of the hotel. Next morning, upon looking out of my window, I was surprised to see that the station at which we had arrived was just across the street from the hotel.

I remember little of the Expedition, but do recall a fire at the hotel the next night. There was no elevator in the building, and when I was awakened I ran down four flights of stairs in my night shirt, carrying my clothes in my hands.

In the following June I had an unfortunate fight. En route east from the September leave with a young man named Shipley, from Springfield, Missouri, we met a professor on the train who told us he was the father-in‑law of Commander Sigsbee, later the Captain of the ill‑fated Maine. We narrated the incident to a cadet named Ferriss who, in turn, repeated it to Captain Sigsbee's daughter. She insisted that the old professor was not on the train at the time. Ferriss, who was in love with the girl, came down to the ship one day and told me that the old man's granddaughter had denied the story, and that either I or the man who claimed to be the professor, was  p71 a liar. In Missouri, at that time, calling a man a liar was a summons to mortal combat, and through my friend Russell, I sent Ferriss a challenge to fight a duel. Being the challenged party, I thought, of course, that he would choose pistols, but Russell returned and announced the Ferriss' second, our classmate, Burnstine, had decided on plain fists. Ferriss weighed one hundred and eighty-five pounds and I, one hundred and thirty, but there was nothing to do except to meet his conditions. On June 22nd we met and fought seven rounds on the government farm, near the old war hospital. I went the entire seven rounds, but naturally, I was terribly punished, because of his great advantage in weight. Both of my eyes were horribly blackened and he struck me a blow high on my chest that must have injured a bone, for I did not recover from it for several years. Applying beefsteak was the remedy for blackened eyes, and as this was not done quickly I presented a sorry spectacle. At the inspection next Sunday morning Captain Charles M. Thomas asked me if I had got my black eyes on board ship. I told him I had not.

"In the Academy grounds?"

"No, sir."

"In the city of Annapolis?" he persisted.

"No, sir."

He cogitated for a while, passed on and never reported me.

A distant relative, who was the wife of one of the Academy officers, had sent me a written invitation to dinner on the following Sunday. She had come from Salisbury, Maryland, and I had dined at her home once before, the only time I was ever in the house of an officer or instructor while I was at the Naval Academy. I was obliged to send her a note stating that, owing to an affair of honor, I was not presentable and could not accept her invitation. Her husband came to see me, and after looking me over, he agreed.

I did not forgive Ferriss, who had punished me so, for twenty-seven years. He bilged shortly after the fight,  p72 and being by birth a hard hater, I never expected to be friends with him again, but at the class reunion in 1910, I yielded. I was early taught the doctrine in Missouri, "Feed on milk or feed on hay, every dog shall have his day; and when mine comes, enemy, look out."

I was in bad condition to go home on leave in September, and when I arrived there my parents began treating me for anaemia. The event of that leave was a great picnic, near Center, Ralls County. All of my relatives living within a radius of twenty miles, attended to see their midshipman kinsman. The next day my father took me to the remains of the old town of Cincinnati, on Salt River, where, as a boy, he had been a clerk and served as postmaster under appointment of James Buchanan, President of the United States. With its rich bottom lands, its old Indian relics, and particularly the rocks painted by the red men, Salt River has always had a wonderful charm for me.

On the way home from Cincinnati, my father turned suddenly to me and said, "My son, tell me, what is the matter with you, and what is it all about?" I told him of my affair and he said I had acted the right way in the matter. He was a man of few words, but of strong feelings.

The second class year I lived at what was known as the "old quarters." There were sixteen of us in the building, and besides my roommate, Kittrell, there were on our floor, Tawresey, Strauss, Long and Wiley whose names are now well known in history. Some of them became four-starred admirals. That year Wiley had a terrible fight with a boy named Craig, from Illinois. I met Craig forty years later in Los Angeles. He had become a federal judge at Galesburg, Ill., and attained prominence.

A fine class of one hundred and twenty-nine members entered in 1883. I was closely associated with many of them for years.

An incident that illustrates the alertness of midshipmen  p73 happened that year. One young man who bilged out later had taken a quart of whiskey to his room. An unscheduled inspection by the officer of the day, Eugene Heald, who was dubbed "Jimmy" by the midshipmen, revealed the bottle. He took it to his office several buildings distant. Passing the office a few minutes later, the offender's roommate saw the bottle sitting on Heald's desk. Shortly afterwards, the fire alarm sounded, and the officer of the day rushed out, only to find that it was a false alarm. When he returned to the office, however, the bottle of whiskey had mysteriously disappeared. The original culprit denied taking it, which was true. His roommate had appropriated it and, of course, it was not found again.

The course at Annapolis was becoming steadily more difficult, and we were losing many good men who later on would have adorned the naval service and who were actually needed, especially in view of the fact that for the past thirty years, it has rarely been possible to fill up the allotted quota of the line of the Navy.

The most coveted position was membership on the hop committee, and the election was a spirited one. On one hand, the crowd whose relatives in Washington brought the young ladies down to the hops desired to control, and on the other hand those of us who did not attend the hops concluded it was time for us to take charge. Russell and Poe were tied in the first election, and on the second ballot Russell won by two votes. Poe challenged its accuracy and Russell called him a liar and hit him a blow that caused Poe to lose a tooth. An hour later Poe sent Russell a challenge. Poe chose Burnstine as his second, while Russell selected Kittrell, as I was still light in weight, and owing to the intensity of the feeling there was danger that the seconds themselves might become involved. The principals and their seconds went to the room of a third classman, removed the furniture, placing it on the front veranda, raised the gas light fixtures, and had one of the fiercest fights in the history of the Naval  p74 Academy. An hour later Russell came into our room covered with blood. "Don't worry," he exclaimed, as he entered, "this is all Poe's blood."

Poe went to the hospital for a week. Again the authorities took no notice of the fight. Perhaps they concluded that Poe, who was the son of Brigadier General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.O. M. Poe, had fallen down stairs on a dark night.

I was also elected a member of the hop committee along with Russell, Eberle, later rear admiral and chief of naval operations, and Howell, now United States senator from Nebraska. I was charged with financing the annual ball which was to be a big event, as we had not been permitted to hold one the previous year owing to the so‑called mutiny. We managed it successfully, although I recall that we paid $500 for the supper and thought we were being swindled. Later, however, with the permission of the Superintendent I was able to declare a cash dividend of three dollars to each of the cadets at a time when money was most needed. I declined re‑election for the next year, and threw my votes to Russell who won.

In June, 1884, we became first classmen and entered upon the last year of our course. As such, we had duty in turn as captain of top, officer of the forecastle and midshipman of the quarter deck. Finally each one had to take the deck under sail. Our commanding officer was Commander Charles D. Sigsbee.

Having had one cruise on the Constellation, it fell to my lot to be assigned to the Dale, a sailing vessel of 400 tons or less. Under sail she beat her way down to lower Chesapeake Bay where an accident to the rudder compelled us to go to the navy yard at Norfolk for repairs. (Forty‑one years later, I was ordered to command the Fifth Naval District, including the navy yard, with headquarters at Norfolk.) Norfolk was not much of a city in those days, as people had not come to appreciate the excellent harbors in Hampton Roads and vicinity, and the trade possibilities. In considering war problems the  p75 Chesapeake Bay region came to be rated as equal to that of the Narragansett Bay area.

The Constellation carrying the rest of the midshipmen also anchored in Hampton Roads. One night a barge loaded with watermelons came down the James River and crashed across her bow. The damage caused her to lie alongside the naval vessel overnight. Scores of melons disappeared that night and the captain collected pay for them from the midshipmen and the crew.

We finally cleared for sea and the Dale beat around the Atlantic, tacking and wearing until we reached Portsmouth, N. H., where we remained for several weeks and were frequently granted liberty.

In Portsmouth the midshipmen were invited to attend a church sociable and some of us accepted not dreaming we would be asked to pay admission or any other fees. I arrived a little late, and my attention was immediately attracted to my classmate Rust who was sitting at a table with a young lady and making frantic signs at me. When I went to him he told me that the good-looking young lady he was with had invited him to have ice cream and cake and that he had accepted not knowing that there would be any charge for it. He was without money and I gave him the two dollars that I had. Word was quickly passed to the others that they were expected to pay for what they ate, whereupon every midshipman made a hurried exit and returned to the ship.

One night I reached the dock just after the last boat for Kittery, where the navy yard was located, had pulled out. It was eleven o'clock and I had the middle watch. I saw a fine looking launch alongside and upon inquiring to whom it belonged, was told that it was the official launch of William E. Chandler, Secretary of the Navy. Boldly I approached the secretary who was standing on the dock, introduced myself, told him the situation and asked for passage to Kittery. He said, "Certainly, jump in," and then added, "Mr. Coontz, I want to introduce you to the Honorable Samuel J. Randall."

 p76  Either at that time, or later, Mr. Randall was Speaker of the House of Representatives. I was somewhat embarrassed, but managed to shake hands feebly with the distinguished Congressman. The stern of the launch was crowded, so I went up in the bow. Meeting a lad of about fifteen years of age I casually remarked to him that I had not expected such courtesy from Mr. Chandler. "Why not?" he asked, and I told him that after the returning board case in the Hayes-Tilden election contest, I had a prejudice against him and didn't expect "the old bloke" to be so kind. The boy replied, "That 'old bloke' is my father." There was nothing further for me to say. Some years later the boy, L. H. Chandler, became a rear admiral. I had the opportunity of showing him some courtesy when he arrived at the Naval Academy.

The Greely relief party had just reached Portsmouth and was quartered on the Constitution, and this was the reason why Secretary Chandler was there. Many terrible stories were told of the condition of Greely's rescued men. We were not allowed to go on board to see them, but I met the members of the party on the three relief ships. I especially remember the visits of Lieutenant Uriel Sebree and Lieutenant Wells Field to Lieutenant Albert Ross, our executive. These three officers were so large that all of them could not get into Lieutenant Ross' room at the same time!

We put out to sea again from Portsmouth, and with a favorable breeze reached the Capes in six days. I had chills and fever during a part of the voyage. Food ran low on the cruise, as thirty cents a day did not go far. The ship's steward was a colored man named Carroll, who was still in the service when I later became Commandant of Midshipmen. Only recently he was placed on the retired list by act of Congress. He came to my hammock and asked me what I wanted to eat. His menu consisted of hard tack, prunes and eggs, with canned peaches and cake for desert. It did not sound good to me, as I had never knowingly eaten an egg on board ship.  p77 I chose the peaches and cake and had them served every meal on the way down to the Capes.

Arriving at the Roads I inquired for the old Hygeia Hotel, famed in song and story. It boasted an excellent cuisine, and its mint juleps were said to be very tasty, although that did not interest me. After a week at sea we were ready to eat almost anything. With two classmates I went out to the neighboring town of Hampton where we surfeited ourselves on candy, cider, pie and cake, and suffered for our indulgence.

As I entered the Hygeia and passed by the bar I saw my classmates Russell and Kittrell, of the Constellation, taking a drink of soda. I stopped for a moment to speak with them just as Ensign Fullam went by. I had arranged to dine that night at the hotel with Mr. & Mrs. A. F. Davis, friends of my father. I was seated at the table when my classmate, Cadet Kline, came in with his sword on and quietly told me that I was under arrest and must report on board ship with him immediately. He said he would wait outside. I had to make excuses for leaving the dinner which we had just started. When I got aboard ship I learned that I had been reported for visiting a hotel bar room. It took me a week to straighten out the matter, prove my innocence, and to prove that I had never in my life used intoxicating liquor. I shall never forget my humiliation at the hotel before Mr. & Mrs. Davis. Fullam's report against Russell and Kittrell was quashed by the captain of the Constellation.

At this time ship commanders were making up the roster of the cadet officers for the first class year, and I was not recommended for anything above crew captain. Captain Ramsay was kind enough to make me the last on that list on account of my previous good record. Eberle was made next to the last of the crew captains. At the conclusion of our naval careers we were each in turn made chief of naval operations.

Our ship beat its way up the bay under sail and anchored at the mouth of the Patuxent River. Howell, the  p78 present senator from Nebraska, and I were appointed a committee to ask the paymaster for permission to go ashore and purchase fresh food for the midshipmen. He demurred at first but when we threatened to go higher up and report poor food conditions he assented and gave us fifty dollars to spend. We got a volunteer crew of third classmen, and Mark L. Bristol, now a four-star admiral, was stroke oarsman. Our first purchases at a farm house were a live calf, two barrels of apples and a large quantity of milk. We took the calf on board alive, and fortunately found a butcher among the crew.


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