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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Thence Round Cape Horn

by
Robert Erwin Johnson


published by
United States Naval Institute
Annapolis, Maryland
1963

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p93  7. The Gold Mania

The acquisition of California and the concurrent settlement of the Oregon controversy afforded an extensive Pacific coastline for the United States. American claims to a vague region centered around the Columbia River mouth had given way to definite possession of the Pacific coast between the parallels of 49° and 33° North latitude. The entire area was very sparsely populated — there was not a single settlement worthy of the name of city — and of this small population, by no means a majority was American by origin. Manufacturing facilities did not exist, and the true natural wealth of the region was unknown. Nor was the addition of this vast territory to the United States accompanied by any facilitation of communications. To the extent that its activities were extended to the northward by the acquisition of California and the Oregon Territory, the Pacific Squadron was more remote from the Navy Department in Washington than it had been before the Mexican War.

The extension of American sovereignty to the west coast made it possible for the warships of the Pacific Squadron to be based in seaports of their own country. But only provisions could be supplied the vessels, and even these were not always available in sufficient quantity to satisfy the needs of the squadron. Thus, immediate benefits from the success of American arms and diplomacy were few for the United States Navy.

On the other hand, the Pacific Squadron now had a grave responsibility in addition to its usual tasks. The whole burden of the defense of the newly acquired territory rested on the few American warships present. The small standing army would be unable to send more than several garrisons, and these could not be reinforced quickly until the projected transcontinental railroad became a reality. In addition, no stable civil government yet existed, and the handful  p94 of men in authority possessed no adequate means to enforce their enactments.

These facts did not escape the notice of the government at Washington. Navy Secretary Mason made an argument for an additional naval force, but much of its value was lost by his statement that the force would be needed only in the event of war. He made no mention of the time which would be required for the additional ships to reach the Pacific Station.

To one man, however, the need was plain, and he did not hesitate to bring it to official attention. Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones had no doubt of the value of California, and he concentrated his ships in that area to the exclusion of the affairs of the southern waters of his station. Meanwhile, his reports to the Navy Department were full of ideas for the protection of California and requests for more ships.

Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, Jones employed his vessels to ferry soldiers from Mexico and Lower California to American territory. He offered passage to any of the Mexican families who might fear reprisal for the assistance and friendship they had afforded the occupation forces; some three hundred and fifty Mexicans accepted and were settled in California. There was some delay about returning the customhouses in the occupied towns to the Mexican government, as Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Burton refused to surrender those held by his men until ordered to do so by proper authority. Commodore Jones was powerless by reason of Polk's order referring to Army jurisdiction over military forces. Not until 31 August 1848 did the Mexican government regain control of La Paz, the last post evacuated by the Americans.

Commodore Shubrick sailed for the east coast of the United States by way of the Hawaiian Islands in August. The islanders had reason to remember this visit by the Independence. A large portion of the razee's company had suffered from a mild form of measles, and a much more virulent type quickly became epidemic among the susceptible Kanakas soon after the arrival of Shubrick's flagship. It has been estimated that approximately a tenth of the population of the islands died from this disease before the epidemic spent its force. Few warships can have wrought more havoc in wartime than did the Independence during this friendly visit.

 p95  Commodore Jones and the remaining vessels of the Pacific Squadron went on to San Francisco Bay, already recognized as the natural center of the Pacific coast of the United States. Here the doughty commodore encountered another problem, more ominous than any faced thus far, and one upon which he himself was to wreck his naval career. While the warships were yet involved in the Mexican War, gold had been discovered at Sutter's Fort, and the news spread rapidly. Soon anyone who could find any means at all to get to the gold fields was on his way, and San Francisco became a thriving settlement almost overnight. Merchant vessels entered the harbor with eager passengers, but these had to be swift indeed to win the mad race for gold over the ship's crew. The need for strong government was now more apparent than ever, but it could be met only by a few hastily elected or appointed officials who had little real authority. Under these circumstances, the presence of Jones's warships was of great value. The commodore directed that his officers and men were to give every assistance to the civil authorities, but ensured that naval personnel would not arbitrarily usurp civil powers. It is impossible to evaluate the exact importance of this naval assistance in a territory where American authority was new, but it was unquestionably beneficial.

It might have been much more beneficial but for the fact that the ships' companies of the Pacific Squadron were only human. Their lust for gold was just as avid as that of their civilian brethren, and they did not hesitate to depart the naval service in favor of the gold fields. Desertion had always been a problem on Pacific Station, especially because it was virtually impossible to find replacements anywhere west of Cape Horn. However, nothing had been seen to compare with the exodus of enlisted men, and some warrant officers, from the warships at anchor in San Francisco Bay. An unwatched boat was certain to be stolen, and little trust could be placed in anyone but an officer — on some occasions the boats were stolen by the very men ordered to prevent such an occurrence. The officer sent ashore in charge of a boat could confidently expect to lose at least a part of his men, for not even the threat of the pistols habitually carried by all officers on leaving the ship could discourage the gold-crazed seamen. Jones offered a reward of $200 for every deserter returned to the squadron, but not a single man was regained.

 p96  In desperation, the commodore ordered that all line officers remain on board their ships at all times. This order caused much dissatisfaction among the gentlemen thus restrained, and was of doubtful value, since boats continued to ply between ship and shore, frequently losing a few men. Finally the desertion rate decreased, and Jones ascribed this to his exertions, but had to admit that lack of activity in the gold fields during winter months was one of the major factors.

Yet another danger showed itself during the summer of 1849. Many of the enlisted men had not been ashore for over a year, and began to show the effects of their confinement. All foodstuffs were in short supply in the San Francisco region so the warships were unable to procure enough fresh provisions. Even as late as 1849, seamen could get scurvy, and the dreaded disease made its appearance in the flagship Ohio. Prompt medical attention and renewed efforts to obtain fresh vegetables prevented fatalities, but when the Ohio was relieved by the Savannah frigate in September, Commander Stribling was ordered to give his men a run ashore at Valparaiso and to steer for any port where fresh food might be obtained if scurvy broke out again.

The food problem was intensified in still another manner. Normally, the supplies for the squadron were stored ashore at selected ports; in 1849, these were Valparaiso, Callao, Panama, Mazatlán, Monterey, San Francisco, and Honolulu. But in the two California ports it was nearly impossible to protect the stores. Everything had to be imported, for almost every able man had departed for the gold fields, and any stores not closely guarded were soon stolen. Jones did not dare to station armed guards around his storehouses because they would be too likely to desert. So he asked that the next storeship be sent to the Hawaiian Islands; he would send his men-o'‑war in turn to Honolulu to replenish their stores.

Obviously, the solution to Commodore Jones's difficulties was to order the ships of the Pacific Squadron to weigh anchor, make sail, and stand out through the Golden Gate. Desertion would be a comparatively minor problem elsewhere on the station, and he bore the responsibility of protecting American interests elsewhere in the eastern Pacific. Nor could officers and men remain proficient in their duties if their ships continued to swing idly at anchor in San Francisco  p97 Bay. So thought the Navy Department; Secretary William B. Preston sent orders for the Pacific Squadron to get under way, and Commodore Jones was instructed to cruise actively in his flagship.

These orders, however, came from a man far distant from the scene. Jones felt himself able to decide in what manner the interests of the United States could be served best, and had already justified his continued presence at San Francisco:

Nothing, Sir, can exceed the deplorable state of things in all of Upper California at this time, growing out of the madning [sic] effects of the Gold mania. . . . To withdraw the Squadron from this coast altogether in the present state of affairs, would be to abandon the inhabitants and commerce of the coast to their fate, and remove the only real impediment to rapine, murder, and piracy, for which there is the strongest temptation in the large quantity of uncoined gold now finding its way to the seaboard for exportation.1

This was followed by a statement of the commodore's intention to stay at San Francisco and to employ the other ships of the squadron between that port, the Gulf of California, and the Hawaiian Islands.

Truly the situation seemed to require Jones's presence at San Francisco, but it is not unlikely that he was motivated, at least in part, by the fact that he was involved in land speculation in the Benicia area, and was turning a tidy profit in the purchase of gold dust on his own account. The dangers of such practices should have been apparent to an officer of Jones's experience, but he was not wealthy and so seized the opportunity to enrich himself. However deplorable his motives, the fact remains that Commodore Jones's course in staying at San Francisco was the correct one.

Slowly the desertion rate declined, aided by the commodore's policy of discharging time-expired men on the Pacific coast. This course was not approved by the Navy Department, but the commander in chief was allowed to grant discharges at San Francisco to men whose service had been of an honorable character. He used this discretionary power to release a large number of men, and the sailors were much more content to serve out their enlistments as long as there was some ground for hope that they would not be returned to the Atlantic coast for discharge. Jones also filled the complements of the smaller vessels from the crew of the flagship. This allowed more of the ships to be employed on protracted cruises, and also meant  p98 that the Savannah was forced to remain in San Francisco Bay because she did not have enough men to take her to sea.

It must not be assumed that desertion ceased to be a problem in the Pacific Squadron, however. San Francisco remained the worst port in this respect, but other harbors on the station were better only by comparison. For nearly a decade after 1850, all ships' boats plying to the shore carried armed officers, and no officer got much rest while his ship was at anchor, for there was never any lack of men willing to chance the marksmanship of the watch officer in a break for freedom.

Reports of imminent Indian outbreaks in the Oregon region led the Navy Department to order dispatch of a warship and some Marines to the Pacific Northwest soon after the end of the Mexican War, but the orders received by Commodore Jones made it clear that the Navy did not intend to assume lasting responsibility for the safety of that area from Indian attacks. Upon the arrival of a military force from the east, the vessel was withdrawn, and while an occasional cruise in northern waters was made by units of the Pacific Squadron, the United States Navy did not take an active part in the development of the future states of Oregon and Washington. One of the main reasons for the Navy's reluctance to cruise in that region was the lack of adequate harbors. The Columbia River mouth had already claimed two warships, and Puget Sound, for all its seeming advantages, was not devoid of hazards for sailing vessels. Its mountainous shores tended to rob the ships of the wind they required, its currents were strong and little known, and the depth of its waters made it impractical for the ships to seek safety by anchoring.2

Commodore Jones finally had the satisfaction of seeing naval steamers in the Pacific Ocean before he was relieved of his command. In August 1849, the Army transports Edith and Massachusetts, both requisitioned merchant vessels, were transferred to the Navy. The latter was detailed to transport a joint board of Army and Navy officers which was making surveys for future military posts along the northwest coast, and this ship was not considered part of the Pacific Squadron. The smaller Edith, however, was placed under Jones's orders.

The Pacific Squadron did not have its steamer long. She was sent to southern California to give passage to that region's delegates to  p99 the constitutional convention held at Monterey. During the run to the southward, continued overcast weather and fog forced her commanding officer to rely on dead reckoning, and this was seriously in error. On the night of 24 August 1849, the Edith's lookouts reported breakers close aboard, and soon afterward the ship grounded on Point Conception (or more likely, on Point Argüello a few miles to the northward). All hands reached the shore safely, and much material was salvaged on the following day, but the steamer was a wreck. This was hardly an auspicious beginning for steam in the Pacific Squadron.

One more unusual event occurred during Commodore Jones's last cruise. On the night of 13 September 1849, a small boat from the Coast Survey schooner Ewing (officered and manned by naval personnel, but operating under the direction of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey) ferried some visitors from the vessel to the shore. The boat crew mutinied on the return passage, threw Passed Midshipman William Gibson over the side, and deserted in the boat. Civilians ashore heard Gibson's cries barely in time to rescue him.

Upon hearing of the mutiny, Lieutenant William P. McArthur, commanding the Ewing, offered a reward of $500 for the return of each of the mutineers; all were delivered to the schooner in Suisun Bay three days later. McArthur turned them over to Commodore Jones, senior naval officer present, and they were confined in the flagship Savannah to await trial.

A general court-martial was convened on board the guardship Warren, and after ten days of deliberation, it sentenced all five of the seamen to death. Later evidence made it seem that John and Peter Black alone were responsible for the attempt on Gibson's life, and they were hanged, the first on board the Ewing and the other from the Savannah's yardarm. Jones commuted the sentences of Jonathan Biddy, William Hall, and Henry Commesford to 100 lashes and ordered that they serve out their enlistments at hard labor or in solitary confinement without pay.

Commodore Jones's command of the Pacific Squadron came to an abrupt end on 1 July 1850. Ten days earlier, Commodore Charles S. McCauley had arrived to relieve him, and Jones was ordered to return to the Atlantic coast. His hot temper flared at this peremptory relief, but he submitted with such grace as he could muster and sailed for Panama in the USS Falmouth the day after he was relieved.

 p100  Soon after he arrived in Washington, Jones was informed that serious charges had been brought against him, and a general court-martial was convened in the capital on 16 December 1850. Commodore Charles Stewart, the only other commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron to defend his conduct of affairs on that station before a general court-martial, was named as presiding officer. (The court included the following officers: Commodores Charles Stewart, Lewis Warrington, John Downes, Henry E. Ballard, W. Branford Shubrick, Lawrence Kearny, John D. Sloat, and M. Calbraith Perry, with Mr. J. M. Carlisle serving as judge advocate.)

The charges against Jones were five in number: fraud against the United States, attempting a fraud against the United States, scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals, neglect of duty, and oppression. These referred to his activities in purchasing gold dust with government funds, engaging in land speculation, dubious accounting of government monies placed in his care, his long period of inactivity at San Francisco despite orders to the contrary, and his treatment of junior officers who had protested against some of the measures taken to curb desertion.

The court found Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones guilty of the third, fourth, and fifth charges, and sentenced him "to be suspended for five years, and that his pay and emoluments be suspended for the first two years and six months of the said time of his suspension." Further:

The Court thinks it proper to remark that it has been induced to add to the suspension of the accused, the suspension of his pay and emoluments for a portion of the time, from a consideration of the facts proven before it touching the profits made by him from the improper and unauthorized use of the public money.3

In vain, Jones sought to have the findings reversed on the grounds that the court included personal enemies, that he had not been given sufficient time to muster his witnesses, and that the Department did not understand conditions in California. Secretary of the Navy William A. Graham ordered that the sentence be carried out.

The "contentious Commodore," undone as much by the many powerful enemies he had made as by his misconduct, retired to his Virginia home to spend his last years composing irate letters to the Navy Department. He was returned to the active list in 1855, but his  p101 health had so much declined as to preclude any employment before his death in 1858.

Meanwhile, Commodore McCauley was doing his best to comply with Department directives that all vessels of the Pacific Squadron, not excepting the flagship, be employed as active cruisers. Certainly most of the ships logged more nautical miles under sail than they had during Jones's second cruise, but:

Savannah, from the number of discharges made by my predecessor in command and being obliged to furnish, in connection with Falmouth, a crew for Preble, is already crippled and rendered powerless as a ship of war, having barely a sufficient number of men on board to take care of her at anchor, and unless men can be sent to her from home, or they can be procured here, which is not likely from the high wages given out of the port, her efficiency as a cruising ship must be entirely destroyed.4

Secretary Graham seemingly was not satisfied that McCauley would not be seduced by the attractions of California, for he sent orders that the Raritan frigate, coming out from the Atlantic coast, and one or more of the squadron's lighter vessels were to be kept cruising in the southern waters of the station.

This attempt to dictate employment of a large part of the force on Pacific Station from Washington seems to have been very ill‑advised. Even in a day of rapid communications, the senior officer on the scene is often better able to comprehend the needs of each situation than the man thousands of miles away. This was even more true in 1850 when letters still spent weeks or months in transit between the Pacific coast and Washington. Graham would have been wiser to have limited himself to general orders to be carried out by the commander in chief according to the other requirements of his station. If the Secretary felt that McCauley could not be trusted to this extent, he should have sent a more trustworthy officer to assume his command. Fortunately, neither Graham nor his successors habitually followed this policy.

Commodore McCauley was ordered home in 1853, leaving the Pacific Squadron under the command of Captain Bladen Dulany of the St. Lawrence frigate, already in the Pacific. No change in the primary missions assigned to the squadron had occurred since McCauley had advised Commander George A. Magruder of the sloop-of‑war St. Mary's that:

 p102  . . . the objects of our government in keeping a Naval force in these Seas [are] to afford aid and protection to our commerce and to look after the interests of our Citizens generally, where engaged in their lawful pursuits, more especially our whaling interest, which is by far the most extensive and important we have in the Pacific. Another object is increasing the efficiency of our Navy by affording active service to the officers and crews of our vessels.5

Dulany quickly made known his desire that steamers be sent out to join his squadron. He wanted two, and intended to use them for cruising along the full length of the coastlines of North and South America. They would meet at Panama, and each would thus have alternate tours of duty in the North and South Pacific. This would release the sailing vessels for cruising among the islands where they would not be troubled by the calms which occurred frequently just off the coast. Neither the commodore nor the Navy Department seems to have considered the possibility of using steam warships as a reserve to be kept cruising in company with the flagship ready to be dispatched to any point where naval force might be needed. Nor does there appear to have been any thought that the squadron might be concentrated occasionally for such maneuvers and tactical evolutions as those carried out in 1842. The Pacific Squadron continued to be a police force with no apparent pretensions of becoming an efficient naval assemblage.

The terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had not satisfied a number of the more ardent American expansionists. Some of these felt that the United States should have annexed all of Mexico; many of the Southerners who shared this view thought annexation had been prevented by the foes of slavery in order to curb the spread of that institution in areas under the American flag. In addition, there were persistent advocates in favor of wresting Lower California or other remote provinces from Mexico, while others turned their eyes farther south, to the undeveloped and extremely weak states of Central America. Included in all categories were the unprincipled adventurers ready to join any expedition sent out to seize these areas, and the inevitable idealists who looked upon such undertakings almost as semi-divine missions.

Either type of filibuster would be very embarrassing to the government of the United States, whose protection they were sure to invoke  p103 when they got into trouble. Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin therefore warned Dulany in 1854:

It is important that Officers in the Pacific Squadron should be prompt and vigilant in arresting and suppressing all unlawful expeditions as may take place within the jurisdiction of the United States. You will exercise all lawful means of preventing the violation of law and the infraction of Treaty stipulations.6

This was easy enough for Dobbin to order, but difficult indeed for Commodore Dulany to put into effect. There were many ports on his station whence filibusters might sail, and he did not have enough warships to watch all closely even had he concentrated the whole Pacific Squadron for that purpose, and this his orders precluded.

The commander in chief ordered Commander Thomas A. Dornin of the Portsmouth to cruise along the California coast to disband such illegal expeditions as might be fitting out, and authorized him to charter a suitable steam merchant vessel to assist in the performance of the assignment. Dornin conferred with several merchants of San Francisco before finally procuring the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's propeller-driven Columbus for $1,500 per diem. The owners agreed to furnish everything necessary for operation of the vessel except coal, and this they sold to the Navy for $35.00 a ton. Dornin sent three officers on board and mounted two 12‑pounder guns in the Columbus. The owners were not enthusiastic about this last development; they did not wish to risk any injury to their ship.

With his chartered steamer towing the Portsmouth when calms or adverse winds baffled the sailing vessel, Dornin succeeded in stopping more than one planned expedition in 1854. But that led by William J. Walker, a filibuster rejoicing in the appellation of "the grey-eyed man of destiny," set forth on its mission to deliver Lower California and Sonora from the rule of Mexico. The plan was too ambitious for the means, and Walker led the bedraggled remnant of his "army" back to the safety of California, there to make new plans for filibustering activity. Several of his sick and wounded men were rescued by the Portsmouth, and Commander Dornin also interceded successfully on behalf of American citizens imprisoned at Mazatlán.

The year 1854 also witnessed the fruition of plans for the establishment of an American naval base on the Pacific coast. For years it had been realized that San Francisco Bay was the logical site for this  p104 base. The Mexican War had hardly ended when Commodore Jones began to recommend that a base be established, and he reiterated the recommendation several times. For obvious reasons, he favored Benicia as its site, but when the gold mania was at its height, even Jones despaired of ever keeping an adequate force of civilian and naval personnel there. Notwithstanding his pessimism, Congress voted funds for a sectional or floating dock and a basin and a marine railway at a selected harbor on the Pacific coast. A contract for construction of the dock was let to eastern builders, and in 1852, Commodore John D. Sloat was appointed to head a board of naval officers to select a site for "a Navy Yard and Depot, including a Naval Hospital and Marine Barracks."7

Commodore Sloat and his companions agreed that Mare Island (Isla de la Yegua) was the most suitable location, and Congress had already appropriated $100,000 for purchase of land. Mare Island was bought for a little less than that sum early in 1853, but difficulties respecting its title kept the transaction in doubt until June 1854. In that year, Commander David G. Farragut was ordered to the Pacific to take command of the Mare Island Navy Yard. Commodore Dulany was ordered to turn the Warren over to the new commandant, and Farragut had the old sloop-of‑war towed to Mare Island to become the first naval establishment at the site.

Development of a barren island into an efficient and well-equipped naval base took time, especially since the funds allotted for the purpose were not overgenerous. However, the floating dock was already there, and ships of the Pacific Squadron soon began to use the facilities of the Mare Island Navy Yard. So too did merchant vessels, for no other docking facility was available on the Pacific coast.8

Another advantage of the new base was that henceforth a senior officer of the United States Navy would be present in the vicinity of San Francisco. This was of some importance, for it freed the commander in chief of the Pacific Station from any necessity to remain in that area. San Francisco might be the most important harbor on the Pacific coast of the United States, but it was undesirably distant from the more remote parts of the Pacific Station. Moreover, most of the mail from the east coast was now passing across Central America. To keep in close contact with the Navy Department and to guarantee the uninterrupted transit of the mails, it was necessary that the  p105 commander in chief spend much of his time in adjacent waters, usually at Panama. This he could do, secure in the knowledge that affairs to the northward would be dealt with by the commandant of the Mare Island Navy Yard. One or more warships were usually present in San Francisco Bay to act as the latter might direct in case of emergency. To be sure, this lent the undesirable aspect of divided command, but only on a few occasions did this cause difficulty, and in any case the post of commander in chief was senior to that of commandant.

The plan for a mail route across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec had given way to the much shorter routes across Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama, and of these the latter was the more important. The United States had agreed to maintain the neutrality of the Panamanian area in return for transit rights by a treaty of 1846 with New Granada, present‑day Colombia. A somewhat suspicious United States Senate failed to advise ratification of the treaty until 1848, but the future importance of the Isthmian route was assured. The American Panama Railroad Company completed a railroad across the Isthmus from Aspinwall (Colón) to Panama in 1855, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company had established a regular service between Panama and San Francisco in 1849, while a year earlier the United States Mail Steamship Company began scheduled sailings between New York and Chagres (in 1855 Aspinwall became the southern terminus). Both lines were subsidized by the United States government.

In the knowledge that Great Britain and France regarded development of American influence in the Isthmian area with misgivings, and that the government of New Granada might not be able effectually to force the Panamanians to respect the treaty stipulations, the commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron was ordered to arrange occasional visits to Panama by his warships, and later a station ship at Panama was placed directly under Department orders. Thus the practice noticed above received official sanction from the Navy Department.

However, Panama did not monopolize the attention of the Pacific Squadron. Its vessels continued to range as far afield as ever. Fears that the whaling fleet might suffer heavy losses from the hostility of the Samoans and the Fiji Islanders, whose ports provided replenishment  p106 for whalers in southern waters, kept some of the sloops actively cruising in their vicinity. Many merchant vessels were loading from the rich guano deposits of Peru's Chincha Islands, and the presence of a warship was necessary to maintain order among the unruly merchant seamen, as well as to make sure that American interests did not suffer unduly from the whims of the Peruvian government. The demand for guano forced the Navy Department to send orders that warship in the Pacific Ocean should be alert to discover new deposits on lesser known islands, and both Dulany and Commodore William Mervine, who relieved him in 1855, sent ships out for this purpose, but without success.

The great advantage of steamships over sailing vessels was dramatically shown when the sloop-of‑war Decatur and the steamer Massachusetts were sent out to join the Pacific Squadron. After leaving Rio de Janeiro, the Massachusetts was dismasted in a storm and had to return for repairs, while the Decatur kept on for the Strait of Magellan. After refitting for a month, the steamer stood to the southward once more and found her sailing consort still trying to beat through the strait against adverse winds. The Massachusetts passed a hawser to the Decatur, and the two fought onward, forced to anchor by violent squalls and detained by the parting of hawsers. Commodore Dulany was beginning to worry about their failure to arrive when the Massachusetts anchored at Valparaiso on 18 January 1855, more than six months out of Norfolk. The Decatur had spent eighty-three days passing through the Strait of Magellan and would certainly have been much longer but for the assistance of the steamer.

Other arrivals on the Pacific Station in 1855 were the sloop Vincennes, the steamer John Hancock, and the schooner Fenimore Cooper. These vessels belonged to the United States Surveying Expedition to the North Pacific Ocean which had departed from Hampton Roads under the command of Cadwallader Ringgold in 1853. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ships separated and surveyed their way through islands of the western Pacific toward a rendezvous at Hong Kong. There they refitted, and ill health forced Commander Ringgold to relinquish his command. Lieutenant John Rodgers directed the survey of Japanese waters, where the brig Porpoise was lost with all hands, probably in a typhoon. Rodgers continued the survey work in the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, and the  p107 three vessels arrived at San Francisco with the funds allotted for their work exhausted.

The veteran explorer Vincennes was ordered back to the Atlantic coast, thus completing her fourth voyage of circumnavigation, and the two other ships were laid up at Mare Island. Three years later, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, the expedition's astronomer, was sent out to continue the North Pacific survey in the Fenimore Cooper. While so engaged, the schooner was wrecked in Japanese waters, Brooke and all of his men escaping.

The feared Indian outbreak in the Pacific Northwest occurred in 1855, and military commanders joined territorial legislatures in asking that warships be dispatched to quell the uprising. Before Commodore Mervine could reply to these requests, Captain Farragut ordered the Coast Survey steamer Active and the John Hancock, left over from the Ringgold-Rodgers North Pacific expedition, to join the sloop-of‑war Decatur in northern waters. The Active sailed in accordance with her orders, but the Hancock's boilers required extensive repairs, and before these could be effected, Secretary Dobbin ordered that the steamer be detained because no naval officer of suitable rank was available to command her. Meanwhile, Mervine would have sent the Vincennes to Puget Sound, but the sloop's pending departure for the Atlantic coast forced him to send the Massachusetts northward in her place.

In spite of this apparent confusion, the Pacific Squadron did help to pacify the Indians. Their attack on Seattle disintegrated under the fire of the Decatur's 32‑pounders, to which the Indians could make no effective reply, and the whole situation was cleared up soon afterward. Complaints that the sloop's Commander Guert Gansevoort refused to co‑operate properly with military forces caused Commodore Mervine to withdraw the Decatur, but the steamers Massachusetts and Active remained in Puget Sound to guard against further Indian trouble.

Hardly had the Navy's role in pacification of the Oregon and Washington Territories terminated when another disturbance flared up. In 1856, the activities of the Vigilance Committee in the San Francisco region threatened to destroy the civil government. After some vacillation, the governor asked the area's commanding general to intervene, but that officera did not wish to become involved. Captain  p108 Farragut was approached and refused on the ground that this was not a federal matter. However, another naval officer had different ideas. Commander Edward B. Boutwell took his sloop John Adams from Mare Island to San Francisco, anchored just off the city, and obtained the release of certain prisoners under the threat of his guns. Boutwell seems to have been quite ready to open fire, but was dissuaded by Farragut. The sloop-of‑war remained at her anchorage and probably had a calming effect on the situation.

The Secretary of the Navy did not view these proceedings in a favorable light. Commodore Mervine (or the senior officer present) was instructed:

. . . Before interfering with the domestic troubles in California, you will await the orders of your government. But duties of a somewhat different character may devolve upon you and events may possibly occur requiring your interposition. The laws of the Federal Govt. must be sustained and its property be protected from violence . . . you will . . . have either at Mare Island or San Francisco two or three National vessels, and retain them until the insurrectionary movements at San Francisco shall cease . . . The present object is the protection of public property and the officers of the Federal govt. — nothing more. . . .9

With San Francisco in a state of tranquillity, the attention of the Pacific Squadron was drawn to Panama. The government of New Granada had decided to levy a heavy duty on all goods passing across the Isthmus. Mervine, acting with unwonted determination, replied with a strong note pointing out that this duty was illegal under the treaty, and implying that his warships would use force to support the treaty provisions. Privately, the commodore doubted thats action would receive official approval, but he need not have worried. His apparent readiness to carry out the implied threat caused the Panamanian authorities to think better of the proposed taxation, and the Navy Department gave him unqualified support.

As Commodore Mervine's cruise neared its end, he was forced to consider the fitness of his flagship to make the long passage to the Atlantic coast. The poor work done by the New York Navy Yard in fitting out the old Independence for her Pacific cruise had become apparent long since, and Mervine concluded that the razee was neither able to face Cape Horn seas, nor worth the expense of a major overhaul. Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey concurred, and Mervine  p109 was ordered to turn the Independence over to the commandant at Mare Island for use as a receiving ship. He and his ship's company were transported to Panama, crossed the Isthmus by rail, and returned to the Atlantic coast of the United States from Aspinwall in a naval vessel. Some months earlier, the officers and men of the St. Mary's had returned home in the same manner, after having been relieved by a new crew sent across the Isthmus. However, neither Mervine nor his subordinates had originated this practice, which was to become the usual method of relieving time-expired men of the Pacific Squadron. Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones had advocated it some eight years earlier.

Flag Officer John C. Long — this rank having replaced that of commodore - came out in the new steam frigate Merrimack to assume command on Pacific Station. This famous vessel is not remembered for her service in the Pacific Ocean, and in truth Long's was a comparatively uneventful cruise. The smaller vessels of the squadron made the usual weary round of coastal and island cruises for the most part, while the flag officer spent much of his time in the vicinity of Panama.

One of the warships was kept in Nicaraguan waters for the purpose of offering assistance to the survivors of William Walker's unsuccessful regime in Nicaragua. This filibustering enterprise had endured from 1855 to 1857, and for a time it seemed that Walker, supported by New York shipping men, might be able to establish a permanent government. But the New Yorkers had lent their aid in order to gain the transit rights through Nicaragua which formed an essential link in one of the steamer routes between New York and San Francisco. Through Walker's influence, their rival and former partner, Cornelius Vanderbilt, lost his charter and so was forced to terminate his steamship service by that route. Vanderbilt, however, retaliated by assisting a Costa Rican force which invaded Nicaragua and defeated the filibuster in the spring of 1857. Commander Charles H. Davis of the St. Mary's intervened to stop the fighting. He arranged for the surrender and removal of most of the filibuster force, including its leader. Some of the sick and wounded were left behind, and Long was ordered to succor these if possible. Walker was not yet discouraged, however, and led another expedition against Honduras in 1860. British influence secured his downfall, and this time  p110 there was no American man-o'‑war present to obtain his release. He fell before a firing squad on 12 September 1860.

The continuing importance of Central American waters caused Flag Officer Long to suggest that the Massachusetts, unfit for duty as a cruiser, be stationed at Panama as a storeship. Supplies arriving from the United States could be transferred directly to the vessel, obviating the necessity of maintaining a shore depot there, and she could use her steam power to deliver stores to the sailing vessels cruising off the Central American and Mexican coasts. The Navy Department, however, disapproved this suggestion, and eventually directed that the Warren be fitted as a storeship and moored permanently at Panama. Long's idea seems to have had considerable merit, but the Department felt that the cost of employing a steamer on this duty would be prohibitive.

Long's cruise was cut short by his poor health, and Flag Officer John B. Montgomery was ordered to proceed across the Isthmus to relieve him at Panama. His flagship, the screw-sloop Lancaster, came out around the Horn, and the Merrimack, hampered by the poor condition of her engines, returned to the Atlantic coast.

Montgomery's orders emphasized the necessity that filibustering expeditions be intercepted, but expressed the hope that operations in Central American waters would not cause the rest of the station to be neglected. At the same time, the flag officer was informed that his presence was required in the vicinity of Panama.

In the autumn of 1860, disturbances in Panama caused the landing of British, French, and American naval forces ostensibly to guard their respective consulates. Montgomery was absent to the southward, so Commander William D. Porter of the St. Mary's assumed responsibility for the American action, apparently taken to prevent domination of local authorities by landing parties from foreign warships. The affair proceeded quietly, and the sailors were re‑embarked in accordance with an agreement among the senior naval officers. But the British insisted on leaving sentries at their consulate, and these arrested some American citizens who refused to answer when challenged. Montgomery had returned to Panama by this time, and entered into an acrimonious exchange of letters with Captain Thomas Miller of HMS Clio over this outrage. The contretemps was ended by the Clio's departure, but American officers believed that the Britons  p111 were trying to gain some idea as to American reaction if Great Britain took over Panama. While this seems very unlikely, flag officer Montgomery's firm stand helped to guarantee respect for the rights of American citizens.

During the later days of the Panama incident, the flag officer had another reason for worry. He had been ordered to send one of his ships to the Hawaiian Islands to inquire into excessive expenditures of funds appropriated for the aid and protection of destitute American seamen in that area. The sloop-of‑war Levant was assigned to make the investigation, and departed Panama on 11 May 1860. Her Commander William Hunt instituted a thorough inquiry as directed, and informed Montgomery on 3 September that his business would be concluded soon. He hoped to depart Hilo for Panama within two weeks. But weeks and months passed, and there was no sign of the Levant. The flag officer's reports make tragic reading as hope for the ship dwindled. Montgomery, for whom the Pacific Station had already been the scene of a great personal tragedy in the loss of two sons, refused to despair as long as there was any ground for optimism. Early in January 1861, he sent the steamers Saranac and Wyoming to search for the Levant along the usual routes. They found no trace of the sloop, and the flag officer sadly informed the Navy Department that the Levant must be presumed to have been lost with all hands, but that he still hoped to receive some news of the vessel.

. . . We have intelligence of a violent hurricane in September last in the region of Ocean through which the "Levant" would have had to pass in which an American clipper ship (since arrived at Valparaiso) was dismasted, and H. B. M. Line of Battle Ship "Ganges" had her sails blown from the yards. . . .10

Fifty years later men were still coming up with new theories to account for the Levant's disappearance, but it has never been explained. There was some apprehension lest the ship have been seized by her crew for piratical cruising in the Pacific Ocean. However, Commander Hunt's last letter referred specifically to the admirable discipline and morale of the ship's company, so this possibility was very remote. Some time after the storm reported by Montgomery, a large spar washed ashore near Hilo, and local maritime men identified it as the Levant's foremast. A description was sent to Montgomery, and he had little doubt that such it actually was. In a manner  p112 that will never be known, the USS Levant, together with her officers and men, had met her fate in the broad reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

However, Flag Officer Montgomery already had an intimation of a tragedy that would cause the mysterious disappearance of the little Levant almost to be forgotten. Before the search for the missing ship had begun, the Wyoming's Lieutenant John R. Hamilton, a native of South Carolina, had sent his commission, together with a letter of resignation from the United States Navy, to Flag Officer Montgomery — his resignation was effective 15 December 1860, five days before his state seceded from the Union.


The Author's Notes:

1 Jones to Secretary of the Navy, 25 October 1849, "Pacific Squadron Letters."

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2 For a vivid account of the dangers of Puget Sound, see Comdr. George F. Pearson to McCauley, 18 July 1851, "Pacific Squadron Letters."

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3 This account is based on Trial 1187, "Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, Records of Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry," LX.

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4 McCauley to Secretary of the Navy, 25 August 1850, "Pacific Squadron Letters."

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5 McCauley to Magruder, 7 October 1850, ibid.

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6 Dobbin to Dulany, 3 January 1854, "Confidential Letters Sent, September 1843–December 1879," III, 125.

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7 Graham to Sloat, 27 January 1852, "Letters of Officers, Ships of War," XLVI, 359‑362, and Charles O. Paullin, "Naval Administration, 1842‑1861," U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, XXXIII (1907), 1453.

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8 For the details of Mare Island's development, see Arnold S. Lott, Lt. Cdr., USN, A Long Line of Ships (Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute, 1954).

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9 Dobbin to Mervine or Senior Officer Present, San Francisco, 2 August 1856, "Confidential Letters," III, 382‑384.

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10 Montgomery to Toucey, 13 February 1861, "Area Nine File, 1814‑1910."


Thayer's Note:

a Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Tecumseh Sherman. I suspect the author's reticence in naming the man is that of a Navy man not wishing to appear to be casting invidious aspersions on a prominent Army figure; a similar reticence, even more pronounced, can be observed in naval accounts of World War II in the Philippines.


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