Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral Franklin Buchanan

Charles Lee Lewis

published by
The Norman, Remington Company

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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.


Chapter V

Sing Johnny off to China

When Buchanan returned from his second Mediterranean cruise, he was ordered to duty, June 9, 1820, to the Philadelphia Station. James Monroe was then President, and the "Era of Good Feeling" was the current phrase of the day. It was a time of peace and prosperity. Though it had been found necessary two years previous to send General Andrew Jackson down to the swamps of Florida to conquer the Seminoles, that business had been promptly dispatched and the year following Florida had been purchased from Spain for $5,000,000. Neither foreign war nor domestic disturbance then seemed threatening, though the question of the extension of slavery, the raising of which Jefferson said terrified him "like a fire bell in the night", had just stepped upon the political stage for the first time and demanded to be heard. Henry Clay of Kentucky proved himself equal to the demands of the occasion, and the passage of the Great Missouri Compromise settled, in the opinion of many people, the question of slavery "forever". In this regime of peace and good feeling, Buchanan saw no opportunity for self-advancement at the Naval Station in Philadelphia, and he decided to attempt to share a little in the growing prosperity of the country by entering the merchant marine and making  p39 a voyage to the Far East. This was often done by officers in the navy in those days in peace time when good berths on men-of‑war were few.

Buchanan therefore, wrote to Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson, on February 18, 1821, as follows: "Since the arrival of the Franklin, 74 in April last month I have been attached to the Philadelphia station where there is little or no experience to be gained in my profession; as it's my wish to continue at sea, you will oblige me by granting me a furlough for twelve months to make a voyage to the East Indies. I have consulted Commodore Murray on the subject; he approves of my plan and desires me to make use of his name in my application to you." This letter shows the young midshipman to have been eagerly desirous of leading an active life, and of gaining at sea all the experience possible in his chosen profession, and is certainly to Buchanan's credit. He, thus early stamped as a man of action, could not bear the thought of rusting in disuse.

This furlough was granted by the Secretary of the Navy four days after the request was made, and about two weeks later Buchanan found himself Second Officer of the ship Dorothea bound for China, on a voyage which, though he did not realize it then, was to furnish him both knowledge and experience of great assistance afterwards to him in his professional career. The Dorothea was a small merchant vessel with a crew of only twenty-seven men and boys. Jacob Harman was the captain, and of the two other officers in addition to Buchanan, David Conyngham was First Officer and Thomas W. Horsey was Third Officer. Conyngham was a midshipman of Buchanan's age and, also, from Pennsylvania.

A long voyage was before the ship, and she accordingly  p40 carried ample provisions, — 4905 gallons of water, 50 barrels of beef, 25 barrels of pork, 19 hogsheads and 31 barrels of ship bread, and 2 hogsheads and 18 barrels of pilot bread. No reference in Buchanan's journal of the voyage was made as to the nature of her cargo; but from a contemporary source one may get a fairly good idea as to what they carried. After a long discussion of the demand in China for American furs and ginseng, the Analectic Magazine1 for November, 1819, adds: "A great part of the East India trade, in which such large capitals are now employed, by the merchants of the United States, is also calculated chiefly with a view to China. The Americans have found means to obtain in the East Indies a considerable sale for many of the productions of their country; and for these they take in turn East India goods, which they dispose of to advantage in the Chinese markets, and, at the same time, gain the freight. Besides their own produce and manufactures, they carry also manufactured goods which they have purchased in Europe, directly from the ports of the United States to Canton. Articles particularly in request there are opium, Indian birds' nests, benjamin,º scarlet berries, gum lac, Russia leather, cordovan, coloured linen, white, black, and spotted lamb skins, writing paper, razors, grind-stones, carpets, penknives, coarse cloth, buttons, axes, scythes, locks, watches, and numerous other articles which the Chinese have hitherto received almost exclusively by the ships of the English East India Company." This was several years before the great shipping era of the Clippers, the first of which, the Ann McKim, was not built in Baltimore until 1832. Still the United States had already built up an extensive  p41 trade with the Far East, for in the year 1821 from Salem alone there sailed 126 ships to Canton.

The Dorothea sailed from Philadelphia on Sunday, April 8, 1821, and when well down the Delaware Bay discharged the pilot and stood out to sea on the long voyage. It was indeed a long and lonely one, for in the vast waste of waters which they traversed to the Cape of Good Hope, which was rounded on June 25 when seventy‑two days out, they spoke only two vessels; namely, the British storeship Dromedary, New South Wales to London, on May 15, and the British brig Two Sisters, London to Rio Janeiroº five days later. Only once did they see land, — the lonely island of Tristan da Cunha,​a on June 15. The weather, even, was monotonously good, as only one entry of bad weather on the first leg of the voyage occurs in the ship's journal, and that was for April 19, as follows: "During the night strong gales, violent squalls attended with rain, heavy sea on, ship laboring much and taking in a great quantity of water."

The longest daily run was made after rounding the Cape on July 5; this was 233 knots;​b1 ordinarily the ship made hardly more than 150 to 200 knots​b2 a day. Without unusual incident the ship sailed across the Indian Ocean; but on July 28 there were these two significant entries in the journal: "At 4 went to quarters, exercised the great guns and small arms — loaded the guns. . . . At 6 A.M., N. W. for Java Head. At 7 saw the Head bearing N. W. ¼ N." Java Head was that welcome landmark which gave notice that the long tiresome ocean voyage was at an end and that the Straits of Sunda, the gateway to the China Sea, was at hand. It also gave warning that there were other dangers than stormy waves in those waters, for in those days Malay  p42 pirates constituted a real "yellow peril"; hence the warlike preparations on the Dorothea.

But the vessel sailed on unharmed into the China Sea. On August 12, Buchanan set down in his journal: "At midnight squally appearance and sharp lightning — every appearance of a typhoon." This, however, proved only a threat, and the little merchant ship came to anchor, without the loss of a single member of her crew, in Macao Roads, off Canton, on August 17, after a voyage of 125 days.

The next four months and a half were spent in discharging the cargo, refitting the ship, and taking on cargo. This time was prolonged by the following incident which Buchanan's journal records: "The American trade with China stopped owing to the death of a Chinese woman said to be caused by a jar being thrown by a sailor of the American ship Emily of Baltimore, Captain Caupland. The trade resumed after the execution of the man."​c "The English trade likewise stopped", Buchanan adds, "owing to an affray between some sailors of His British Majesty's Frigate Topaz and some Chinese in which some of the latter were killed". Finally, all the cargo was taken on board. What this consisted of Buchanan again leaves us to imagine; but in the Analectic Magazine we have a list of articles from which to select. "The American merchants", it states,​2 "bring back from the Chinese seas, partly for home consumption, partly for the supply of Europe, immense quantities of tea of the most various kinds, porcelaine, Indian ink, lackered articles, coral, paints, half silk stuffs, fans, cowries, various kinds of silk, pictures and drawings in India ink, etc."

 p43  On February 7, the Dorothea set sail for home on the return voyage, which was nearly twenty days shorter than the outward passage but equally monotonous as far as unusual incidents were concerned. The day after the pilot was dismissed, Buchanan records this peculiar happening: "At 10 P.M. the sea suddenly became very white, having much the appearance of shoal water; took in all steering sails and braced by the wind on the larboard tack, sounded with 100 fathoms of line, no bottom". When the ship arrived in the vicinity of the Straits, the crew "loaded the great guns" as before; but nothing interfered with the homeward bound vessel, and on April 19, 1822, she again doubled the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Atlantic. Only three ships were sighted until the American coast was approached. On June 9, the ship took on a pilot in the Delaware Bay and the second day thereafter she "came to off the city" of Philadelphia.

This was Buchanan's last service on a merchant vessel, as the merchant marine did not have sufficient attractions to draw him away from the naval profession. There is a peculiar evidence of the strong hold which the Navy then held over him, in the notations which he often made at the bottom of the pages in his journal of the voyage of the Dorothea. They are made on the anniversaries of noteworthy events in American naval history; and it is probable that, on the voyage, he was reading books on naval biography and history as the entries were not of a nature such that they could have been set down from memory of the various dates. One of these footnotes is of particular interest, in view of what Fate had in store for Buchanan, to happen some forty years later. It was this short phrase: "April 15, 1813,  p44 Mobile taken by General Wilkinson". Was the lad's singling out of this rather insignificant event in the War of 1812​d merely a coincidence or a premonition?

Though his shipmate Conyngham did leave the Navy, Buchanan manifested no desire to do so, and on June 7 following his arrival home from China, he wrote requesting to be returned to the Philadelphia Station. This was then under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge, and accordingly Buchanan was to have the privilege of serving under another hero of the War of 1812. His chief reason, however, for desiring orders there was that he wished to get himself in readiness for the examinations which were to be held the following October.

The first examinations held in the United States Navy were those given to midshipmen in 1819 in New York by a board of which Commodore William Bainbridge was president. To pass this examination, midshipmen were required to know the way of "rigging and stowing a ship, the management of artillery at sea, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, navigation, and the mode of making astronomical calculations for nautical purposes".​3 This knowledge had to be acquired in the midst of the confusion and multifarious duties on shipboard with a little assistance from the schoolmaster on some ships or from the captain on others. The examination on the abstract scientific subjects was not very rigid, sometimes because the examiners themselves were not very conversant with the higher mathematics; and it was usually sufficient preparation for a candidate, a few weeks before the examination, to borrow a few books on mathematics, and Bowditch's practical work on navigation  p45 and learn by heart the requisite rules and formulae, as a practical knowledge of the latter subject was then regarded as the main thing to be learned. This was probably the kind of preparation that Buchanan expected to make at the Philadelphia Station. The examination in seaman­ship, however, was much more searching; but as far as that was concerned, he undoubtedly was well prepared, after his years of experience in the Mediterranean and his recent long voyage to China.

Buchanan, accordingly, had no difficulty in passing the examination. The only unpleasantness which he experienced was its length, for it began October 1 and kept him waiting in New York for eight weeks, as he was one of the last to be examined. This made it necessary for him to ask an advance of $150 on his salary to defray his expenses. There must have been a great many failures, as only twenty‑two passed in that year, 1822, and it certainly would not have taken so long to examine only twenty‑two midshipmen. In this class of the successful ones were his cousin William W. McKean with whom he had been closely associated since their almost simultaneous entrance into the service, Charles Lowndes who was afterwards to become his brother-in‑law, and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, biographer in later years of John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry. Farragut was one of the forty-four promoted only the previous year.

Midshipmen who passed this examination were entered in the Naval Register as "passed for promotion" and came to be known as Passed Midshipmen, a status which Park Benjamin has referred to as a "sort of purgatory". "He was still a warrant officer", writes  p46 Benjamin,​4 "and therefore not entitled to the consideration and privileges of the bearer of a commission, although he had become qualified for one. His uniform as a midshipman underwent no change, saving the placing of a star within the gold-lace diamond on his collar.​5 He continued to mess in the steerage. He lived in a state of expectancy, waiting for the making of a vacancy of a lieutenant's list which would permit him to don the single epaulette, and as this sometimes took years, he found himself the associate of small boys long after his beard had fully grown and his natural desire to put away childish things had changed into a disgust for his surroundings and the life they entailed."

The passed midshipman did secure an increase of pay from nineteen dollars a month and one ration a day to twenty-five dollars per month with two rations. He also took from the midshipmen all the better positions on the ship; in fact, there were instances were passed midshipmen were used as first lieutenants, as acting surgeons, as pursers, as gunners, as acting captains, as masters, and even as chaplains.

In this "expectant" status of service, Buchanan was ordered on December 20, 1822 for duty in the seems commanded by Commodore David Porter, with whom he was to enter into a strenuous service in the waters of the Caribbean and perfect his naval schooling under this hero of the War of 1812, noted for his independence of character and his fighting spirit.

The Author's Notes:

1 "On the Trade of the U. S. with China," p366.

[decorative delimiter]

2 For November, 1819, p366.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Park Benjamin's The United States Naval Academy, p48.

[decorative delimiter]

4 The United States Naval Academy, p104.

[decorative delimiter]

5 Decided changes were made in the appearance of the uniforms of both midshipmen and passed midshipmen in 1830. Ibid., p113.

Thayer's Notes:

a Of all the places they could have sighted! none could possibly have been more lonely in turn than Tristan da Cunha: 2400 km from the nearest other inhabited land, and itself inhabited . . . by no more than 11 men and a few women and children (British Museum Quarterly, 9:122).

Moreover, the seas around Tristan's loose archipelago are treacherous, and if ever the Dorothea had been dashed against its rocks, there would have been no way to repair or rebuild the ship there nor to secure passage off the island for many months, if not years; as indeed did happen only a month later to the crew of the Blenden Hall, who wound up becoming permanent residents of this out‑of-the‑way place. (As you now suspect, gentle reader, I have two whole books onsite on Tristan da Cunha: they are interesting.)

It's just marginally possible that Dorothea's passage close enough to Tristan da Cunha to catch sight of the island was no accident: it's a tiny dot of land in a vast expanse of ocean, making it odd that Dorothea should just have happened to be in the neighborhood. The island was considered of mild strategic interest, and a small British troop contingent had occupied it in November 1816, some say in connection with Napoleon's internment on St. Helena the year before and with chatter, much of it in the United States, of rescuing him from there. But by late 1821, a few months after the death of Napoleon, the British had left: so although Tristan was inhabited (just barely), if the island had come to American attention, it might have been viewed as up for grabs and thus worth reconnoitring. On balance, though, I think not, given the weak resources of the United States government at the time and the considerably more pressing matters it had to deal with.

[decorative delimiter]

b1 b2 Now we've all been taught that a knot is not a unit of distance, but a unit of speed: one knot is one (nautical) mile per hour. Yet here we have a professor at the Naval Academy calling the distance "knots"; what gives?

Merriam-Webster comes to the rescue with two citations of this very minority usage in the printed works of two other eminently naval men:

. . . the ship went ten knots an hour with a prodigious sea. . . .

Admiral George Anson, Anson's Voyage Round the World, 1748

. . . we were at that time running at the rate of six knots an hour. . . .

Captain James Cook, Voyages, 1790

We needn't look so far, though. Our author has "knots per hour" once again (p213) — quoting Admiral Buchanan himself.

[decorative delimiter]

c Full details of the incident, the two Chinese trials of the American sailor, and an assessment of the principles involved are given by Foster Rhea Dulles, The Old China Trade, pp133‑136.

[decorative delimiter]

d Though it occurred during the War of 1812, the taking of Mobile was not part of that war, rather a separate move against the Spanish as part of American pressure on their province of Florida. Our author is right to call the action insignificant, though. The details are given in James Ripley Jacobs' biography of Wilkinson, Tarnished Warrior, pp280‑282.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 13 Aug 21