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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 11

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

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & 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!


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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p170  Chapter XII

Assignment to the Michigan

To the Michigan at Erie, Pennsylvania — Survey Work on Lake Erie — We Save Three Lives and I Ruin a New Blouse — Flying — To Washington and Work on Naval Register — Walker and Ramsay — Line Agitation — To the Philadelphia, Flagship of the Pacific.

We had expected to go the World's Fair which was then being held in Chicago, but the day before we were to start my wife's mother died, and we gave up the trip. I had the regulation two months' leave of absence, which we spent in Missouri, and were able to celebrate Christmas at the home of my mother. My classmate, Russell, who was in the Bureau of Navigation, arranged for my assignment to the Michigan, then stationed on the Great Lakes, with headquarters at Erie, Pennsylvania.

The Michigan was fifty years old, having been built on the Lakes in 1844. She was still a staunch vessel, however, and lasted many years longer. She was of light draft, a sidewheeler, and her top speed was about eight knots. At one time she was said to have had as many as twenty-three officers, but when I served on her there were only eight. Her guns were thirty‑two pounders. Her crew, being well satisfied, changed but little. The statement was made that when a man appeared on board ready to enlist he was asked, "Do you play any musical instrument?" Probably this was not actually true, but at any rate the ship had a good band, which was unusual for so small a vessel.

I had previously served with her commanding officer, R. M. Berry. Her executive was Corwin O. Rees, a veteran of the Civil War before he entered the Naval Academy. Her senior watch officer was James M. Helm,  p171 who had had manifold duties in the naval service. She carried the usual three staff officers, a surgeon, a paymaster and a doctor.

The Michigan was really an Erie institution. At one naval wedding I recall there was a lighted star over the altar with the figures "55" in the center, signifying that the fifty-fifth naval officer had married an Erie girl.

My wife and I reached Erie toward the end of December and stayed at the old Reed House until we could find a suitable place of residence. I was on duty every day until spring, alternating with Helm. We met many of the pleasant and cultured people of the city. Erie was slowly becoming a manufacturing center and was supplied with natural gas, piped in from the Pennsylvania fields. The winter weather is cold and there is usually a heavy fall of snow. Throughout the season the old Michigan was frozen at her dock, and the ward room was the starting point for our skating parties.

Ice boating was popular in Erie, and notwithstanding my service in Alaska, I had seen none of this famous sport. It is certainly a thrilling pastime. The ship owned an ice boat which cost six hundred dollars and Helm was our pilot. He left us in May, however, to join the newly built Columbia.

Early in the spring the Michigan was ordered to make a survey of the mouth of the Detroit River. There is always a dispute as to whether the Army, the Navy, or the Coast Guard shall make surveys, but in this instance there was no doubt about our authority to do the work. We had two good steam launches. The Department assigned three more watch officers and sent out a representative from the Hydrographic Office — Roberts, by name. The ice cleared early in May, and the old ship steamed across the lake to the Detroit River where, by permission, she docked at Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada. This ancient place was made famous in the War of 1812, and by the time the Michigan Central Railroad was built through it had become a prosperous city.​a

 p172  We soon became acquainted with the people, most of whom were of French extraction, although some were British. Storms were not infrequent at that season of the year, and one Sunday afternoon while I was asleep in my bunk a sudden squall came up, and I was awakened by the cry "Man overboard!" I quickly arose, put on a blouse and reached the deck just in time to jump in and take charge of a life boat which had been launched. Reed, the coxswain, was a very live wire. In the middle of the river a sail boat had turned over and was about to sink. There had been three men clinging to the craft, and two of them had lost their hold just as we came up. The rescue was not difficult. I grasped one man while a member of my crew got another and the third man looked out for himself. We hoisted them into the life boat, and having done so, the man whom I had hauled in, began attempting to kiss my feet. When I looked at him I saw he was a negro.

In my haste when leaving the ship I had grabbed and put on the new blouse which I had purchased only a few days before. In those days an ensign's blouse cost twenty-five dollars, and my pay was only a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month. I became temporarily a hero, but my blouse was ruined and I had to buy another.

I had conceived the idea that it was possible for a man to fly like a bird or a chicken by attaching light wings to his arms. Bois Blanc Island was directly opposite Amherstburg, and I had an opportunity to test my theory there. Going to an elevation of ten or twelve feet I would jump off and flop my wings. If it were windy I would glide five feet five, ten, or even so far as twelve feet, but I could not sustain myself in the air for any appreciable length of time. An officer who is still living insisted at that time that I was crazy. Subsequently, however, aviation developed, and while I was chief of naval operations, and before the bureau of aeronautics was established, I was, for a time, in charge of naval aviation.

Bertolette and I placed all of the signals up and down the  p173 river for many miles, and I learned the rudiments of survey work. He had been in the coast survey. I wish that every officer of the navy could have coast survey experience. Bertolette would run one set of cross lines, and I another, and the captain decided that when there was more than a foot of difference the work must be done over again to determine which one of us was at fault. We had some amusing experiences running in shore lines and building the signals.

We met many of the good people on Gross Isle, then a favorite summer resort for wealthy residents of Detroit, some of whom had army and navy connections. They wanted to entertain us, but we soon found that we could not stand the pace. If we went to parties every night it was impossible to get up at five o'clock in the morning to start on our day's work. I will qualify that statement. Casey Morgan did go to the parties and did stand the pace!

While at work we had to wear high rubber boots, as this part of Michigan is infested with snakes. In my log I find recorded, "Killed fourteen snakes in one day." We finished the survey in October.

There were only two or three digressions. One was a Sunday trip to Put‑in‑Bay, near Cleveland, and the other was when we took the American Naval Reserve out for drill and target practice. I recall having the deck on the Michigan in Lake St. Clair, with a quartermaster whose name I did not know at that time. A yacht steamed by and an attractive woman began waving her handkerchief at us as she passed. I remarked to the quartermaster that it was a fine looking yacht and a fine looking woman. To my surprise he told me that the yacht was his and that the woman was his wife! The man was Truman H. Newberry, later assistant secretary of the navy, and also a United States senator from Michigan.

At one of the target practices there were several young ladies on board, and one of them obtained the captain's permission to touch off the lanyard when one of the thirty‑two  p174 pounders was fired. The Detroit newspapers published the story with the "scare" headline, "Miss Mary Brady Fires the Gun." The captain was worried for a time, but we assured him that Washington rarely learned of such happenings and might never know of it. His fears were relieved, and a little later he married Miss Mary Brady!

Shortly before the end of the season I received a letter from Admiral Ramsay asking me to come to Washington, as he had some important work for me to do. Russell had recommended me. I had an attractive home in Erie, and having settled for the winter, I was guarded in my reply. By return mail, however, he wrote me that I must come as he had watched my career and believed that I was suited to the undertaking for which he wanted me. I made a hurried visit to Missouri to adjust some financial matters, returning to Erie for my family, and reported to the Department at the end of November.

When I reported to Admiral Ramsay he told me that the records of the officers of the navy were not in good shape and needed to be straightened out. He wished the data in the naval registers to be corrected and brought up to date, and some personnel changes made in his own and other bureaus. He requested me to make recommendations stipulating, however, that the junior officers, so detailed, should be competent as he wanted "no dudes."

Bertolette, who had been with me on the Michigan and at the Academy, wanted Washington service, and Admiral Ramsay was glad to have him relieve George W. Logan, whose term on shore had expired.

I engaged quarters for my wife, my son, our Russian nurse and myself in 23rd street, near Washington Circle, for seventy dollars a month. I was again on pay of one hundred dollars a month, but still had remaining some of the money that I had when I was married, and somehow we managed to pay our bills.

At the boarding house I saw an example of how some people sometimes "get even." One of the guests was a  p175 young lady from the South who was especially severe on one of the small colored waitresses. She constantly nagged her, and the poor servant could only bide her time. One night Daisy was going to a party and came down to dinner conscious that she was looking very attractive in her new white frock. She took her place at the table and told the maid that she was in a hurry. Louise went into the kitchen and returned with a large bowl of thick pea soup. Just as she reached Daisy's chair she appeared to stumble and the pea soup was spilled over the unsuspecting Daisy! The young lady did not go to the party until late, and I observed that she was not wearing the new white dress!

My office in the Bureau of Navigation was on the second floor of the Navy Building, and directly opposite the White House grounds. At that time the chief of the bureau was practically the boss of the navy. It was my good fortune to serve under both Walker and Ramsay in the Bureau of Navigation. Their combined service in that capacity was sixteen years — 1881 to 1897. They were next to each other on the list, but quite unlike. Walker was bold, bluff and forceful; Ramsay was quiet and suave, but none the less forceful. Of the two men I liked Ramsay a shade better than I did Walker.

When I was ordered to the Bureau of Navigation I was informed by many persons that only a Catholic could remain in that bureau. That was not true. A man's religious faith was never a qualification or a disqualification. They were assigned to duty there regardless of their religious convictions. One day the President decided upon the appointment of two chaplains, one a Methodist and the other a Catholic. When I took the names in to Admiral Ramsay and asked him which should be listed first in sending them to the senate for confirmation he replied promptly, "Put the Methodist first."

In making up the January Register I found about four hundred and fifty names on the retired list, some of persons  p176 I had helped to bury. I informed Admiral Ramsay that there was really no check on a man when once he retired.

He replied, "Send out a letter to each name on the retired list and say to each man that we wish to keep better trace of his whereabouts, and to please fill in his name and address."

I did so and soon the returns began to come in. I remember one of the first was from Philadelphia. It was nicely made out and signed. At the bottom was this P. S.: "My father died ten years ago, but I thought I had better sign this and send it in. His Son."

Finally there were only eleven on the list whom we could not find. When the paymaster did not know the address of an officer it was his custom to deposit his money in the Treasury, and we found that several accounts had accumulated there. In one instance we wrote to a certain officer, and asked him for information concerning his brother. He promptly replied that he knew nothing about him, never heard from him, and that his father had cut him off in his will. The letter was rather curt, but when we stated that there was the sum of eleven thousand dollars in the Treasury to his brother's credit he nearly "broke a leg" in trying to get to us to find out how he could come into possession of the money.

There was an old retired medical officer in Philadelphia, who replied to our letter by saying he did not think it any of our business what his full name was. His initials, however, were "W. S. W." and when he was aboard ship chasing slavers off the African coast in 1847 his shipmates said that his initials meant "West South West."​b

There were two or three officers approaching one hundred years of age. One of them was old Henry Bruce.

There was no civil retirement list, and no aid given to the aged clerks. There were two such in the Bureau of Navigation who worked under me, William P. Moran and Dr. McNary. They were both characters. Moran entered the naval service on January 1, 1827, and went  p177 to the Brazil Squadron as captain's clerk. After the cruise he returned to Washington and obtained a position in the Bureau of Navigation; he was still there on duty with me in 1894‑96. Most of the orders to officers were written by him in longhand, and they were classics in style of orthography. Married at the age of fifty-three he became the father of thirteen children. He was kept on duty as long as he was able to serve.

Dr. McNary was from Tennessee and a bachelor. He lived at the Ebbitt House. He was short of speech but very kind. He insisted upon keeping his cash and securities in one of my official desks, and one drawer was practically filled with stocks and bonds.

We issued the January, 1895, Register in eighteen days, and the semi-annual Register came out on July 9th, which we thought was somewhat of a record. Chief Clerk William M. Smith, then a young man, helped me with it, and we made friends with the public printer. Smith, still going strong, is with the Bureau of Yards and Docks.

Line agitation for promotion was active at this time. A few days after my arrival in Washington I was made secretary of the line association, and a big row was on. Old timers recall the big hump in the navy caused by the Civil War. The quick promotion of many officers during that period brought many young ones up, and it looked as if advancement for the juniors would never be made. Not more than one‑half of the Civil War men could carry on under the promotions, but these made good officers. The others never did qualify because they had not had the proper experience in the lower grades, or had not taken advantage of their opportunities.

The president of the line association was Rear Admiral Edmund O. Mathews, a reactionary. As a youth he had lived a few miles from my family in Ralls County, Missouri, but later, he made his home in Maryland. He was chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. The fight reached its greatest intensity in 1895, about the time that I was selected as secretary of the association. Something  p178 had to be done. A line meeting was called and some of the younger officers, assisted by some of the old timers, passed a certain resolution. As soon as this action was taken Admiral Mathews resigned as president of the association and started for the door. I jumped up, called on Rear Admiral Royal B. Bradford to preside, demanded an "aye" and "no" vote, declared, "The ayes have it," and placed him in the chair. About twenty of the reactionaries who were present left the hall.

Captain William T. Sampson was made chairman, and with Bradford, Chadwick, Schroder, Wainwright, Moser, Schutze, Knapp, Magruder and Kittelle, we formed a powerful committee. The morning after the big meeting, Rear Admiral Mathews, Commander Eaton and two other rear admirals now living, went to Admiral Ramsay and protested against my serving as secretary of the line association. The admiral had to tell them that it was with his full permission and desire that I was made secretary. W. L. Rodgers and Philip Andrews were powerful helpers, and on March 3, 1899, the fight reached its climax in the passage of the personnel bill. Members of the association contributed a dollar apiece for printing and postage, and we had no trouble at all in raising the necessary funds.

The heat was intense during the summer of 1895, but Georgetown Heights was recommended as a cool spot. Accordingly Lieutenant Peacock, Ensign Bertolette and I rented a house in Q street for the season. Little Louise, who was discharged by the boarding-house keeper after the Daisy incident, came and worked for us. Our next door neighbor was Dr. Walter Reed, of the army, who afterwards became very prominent for his magnificent work in combating yellow fever.

Bertolette had a peculiar accident that summer. He was fond of riding a bicycle. One afternoon while attempting to cross Connecticut Avenue he endeavored to pass between two cars moving in opposite directions. One car cleared and the other stopped. Unfortunately Bertolette's  p179 bicycle hit the rear end of one of the cars, and also a policeman who was standing in the street. Bertolette and the policeman were picked up on the opposite sidewalk, and the bicycle was totally demolished. After Bertolette regained consciousness the policeman released him, but exacted a promise to be more careful in the future. He swore he would never ride a wheel again, but within a month he had forgotten the incident.

In September, 1895, I took the torpedo course at Newport. Magruder and I roomed together and spent our spare time on line work. Later in the year, I was on the trial board of the ram Katahdin.

Social activities in Washington, on an ensign's pay, were not extensive. We belonged to a card club, exchanged calls with our friends, and attended the President's receptions. Going to and from the White House upon such occasions it was customary to hire a cab for the fixed sum of five dollars. On the way home from our first reception we found that we had entered the wrong cab. It had responded when our number was called. I made the driver return us to the White House where we found the right one; otherwise, the next day, I would doubtless have had a large bill from the rightful cabman, as he would have claimed that he had waited for us most of the night. We always thoroughly enjoyed the Cleveland receptions. In one crush my wife's dress was practically torn off her, and she had to withdraw to the green room to make necessary repairs.

Upon completion of the work Admiral Ramsay had assigned to me, it became time for me to go to sea, and I applied for the Pacific station. The admiral decided to send me to the Philadelphia, the flagship of the Pacific. My affection for him was real, and Commander Ackley, who was in the admiral's office when I left him, told me it was the only time he had ever seen Ramsay shed tears.

In January, 1896, we had the misfortune to lose our son. He died suddenly of a spinal trouble. I left Washington for the west, at the end of that month, stopping  p180 in Missouri en route to bury our boy in my plot which overlooks the great Mississippi River.​c

A Pullman conductor with whom I had become acquainted while en route to the west told me this story.

He was going east on his regular run, with a fairly heavy load of passengers, but the Pullman was not quite filled to capacity. At Moosejaw, four gentlemen got aboard and asked for accommodations. Other passengers were boarding the tender too, and he told them to sit in the smoker, and he would see what he could do for them. They were tired from long riding and apparently realized that something had to be done in order to assure themselves of berths. When the porter came in to handle their extensive baggage, one of the gentlemen winked to the others and started the conversation in this wise.

"General, now that we are all here together, what do you consider is the most distinctive feature of our trip?"

"I want time to think about the," replied the General. "What do you think about it, Admiral?"

Well, my opinions have not yet crystallized," said the Admiral, "but to get pointers, what do you think of it, Senator?"

The "senator" proceeded to state that there were two sides to what had happened to them, and that he had not definitely made up his mind what was the most impressive event that had occurred on their trip, so he turned to the last remaining gentleman and inquired:

"What is your opinion, Governor?"

While the "governor" was answering, the porter left the smoking compartment and hurriedly made his way to the conductor.

"Conductor," he said, "there are certainly some high ranking people got on here. A general, an admiral, a senator and a governor. You'd better look out for their sleeping car accommodations first."

The Pullman conductor did and the pseudo "general," "admiral," "senator" and "governor" were wise enough to keep quiet until the end of the journey.

Thayer's Notes:

a Amherstburg is the site of Fort Malden, which was the British naval base on Lake Erie in the War of 1812; in naval history the place is thus famous as the site of the Battle of Lake Erie (A Short History of the United States Navy, pp161‑174). The fort and town subsequently fell into American hands when the British forces, bereft of their naval protection, retired (Francis F. Beirne, The War of 1812, pp214‑216).

For the building of the railroad thru Amherstburg and that town's resulting rivalry with Detroit for a brief period in the 1880's — as well as the name "Michigan Central" applied to the Canada Southern Railway — see Alvin F. Harlow, The Road of the Century, pp235‑241, passim.

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b This seems to be Dr. William Samuel Waithman Ruschenberger (1807‑1895), who in 1847 was surgeon not on the African coast but in the East Indies. He did serve off the African coast in the 1830s: the printed text thus appears to be an error for 1837. After retiring from the Navy, he was president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and is buried in that city.

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c Benton Paul Coontz and his father Admiral Coontz are buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Hannibal, Missouri. Photographs of both graves can be found online: Benton Paul Coontz and Robert Edward Coontz (with an unfortunate spelling mistake on the latter's modern memorial).

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