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
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!


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

 p79  Chapter V

Graduation from Annapolis

A First Classman — Improvement in Athletics — Cleveland's Election Celebrated — Drills and Practice in Gunnery — Graduation — To Pacific Station — Trip Across Continent — Mare Island — Yellow Fever on Isthmus — The Mohican — Heat Stroke at Acapulco — Home to Recuperate.

Now came the time for September leave of the first and third classes of the practice ships.

Remembering the manner in which I had been treated by a certain railroad agent in 1882 I determined to even up the score. Enlisting the support of my classmate, Russell, of the Constellation, we organized parties to travel on a rival road. We sent for the agent, John O'Laughlin, and arranged for sleeping cars from Annapolis to Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis — something hitherto unknown. The other road attempted in vain to move us from our stand. I refused and we left Annapolis on the special cars late in the afternoon of the day we arrived at the Academy from the cruise, which was the end of August. Only the few who lived in other parts of the country traveled on other roads. It was a wonderful trip and was made more pleasurable by the fact that the transportation company furnished us with fresh watermelons, candy and other delicacies en route, as far as St. Louis. The Kansans, Texans, Arkansans, Iowans and others who lived farther west went on from St. Louis to their respective homes.

First class leave was most enjoyable. I visited relatives in all parts of northeast Missouri, as I thought it would be many years before I could get home again. Whenever I was home my mother would bring in the daughter of some friend, with whom she wished me to  p80 fall in love, but without the desired effect. I have always considered that I was lucky in not having a sweetheart at the Academy, as my mind was not diverted from my studies by young ladies.

When we returned to Annapolis, as first classmen, the Superintendent was exceedingly lenient regarding leave and liberty; in fact, too much so for our own good. First classmen, first grade, were allowed to go to Washington and Baltimore every Saturday and return to the Academy Sunday night. On one of these occasions when I went to Washington with a crowd of boys I stayed at the Ebbitt House with McGuinness. We always made headquarters there as the rate was only two‑fifty a day for the navy. That included three meals and tea, and midshipmen never missed one of these opportunities to eat.

I left the crowd about eleven o'clock one night after the theater and retired. About four in the morning McGuinness came in. He was very nervous and restless in bed throughout the remainder of the night, but did not confide in me the reason for his uneasiness. We returned to Annapolis the next afternoon, and on the following Saturday I was surprised to learn that I was the only midshipman who wished to go to Washington. The Commandant sent for me and showed me a headline in the Baltimore Sun telling of the shooting of a midshipman in Washington on the previous Saturday. It appeared that the boy had been wounded in the elbow, and the Commandant asked me to roll up my sleeves and show him my arms. I did so and told him I knew nothing of the affair, which was the absolute truth.

When I reached the Ebbitt House that afternoon, a boy who had been a member of the class ahead of me but who had resigned, came in and told me that not only had he been shot through the hand by one of my classmates, but that the bullet was still in his wrist. I could see it just beneath the surface of the skin. I offered my help in paying for the services of a doctor, and we had the lead  p81 extracted. By the time I returned to the Academy an investigation was in progress. It developed that on the night of our previous visit to Washington, a cadet evidently not accustomed to liquor, had imbibed too freely and suddenly went wild. Whipping out a revolver he declared that he had to kill somebody before daylight. Two of his classmates attempted to seize him, and in doing so the pistol was discharged, the bullet hitting the ex‑cadet in his lower arm. In the end after the investigation we lost a classmate. McGuinness' nervousness was due to the fact that he was present when the incident happened.

About this time sports were placed on a higher plane and athletics had an upward spurt. The Academy teams were not permitted to leave the grounds, so the other teams had to come to Annapolis. One baseball nine that came to play with us was called the "Beer Boys," from the fact that all of them worked in the same brewery. Once, after a game, one of our English professors visited the tug on which they came down from Baltimore, and went to sleep for "beery" good reasons, and was carried to Baltimore. His family caused a search to be made for him and was very much worried until a telegram was received from Baltimore telling of his predicament.

There was much political excitement during the Cleveland-Blaine Presidential campaign of 1884. We took a straw ballot, without the knowledge of the authorities, and Cleveland received three more votes than Blaine. On the night of the election Russell and I bribed the red‑headed Chief Master at Arms to come to our rooms at midnight and tell us how the election had gone. We could hear the yelling and shouting in town and wondered what it meant and what had happened. At twelve o'clock the old fellow quietly entered our rooms and said he had bad news for us.

"Out with it," we demanded.

"Well, it looks like Cleveland is elected."

We gave such a yell that he precipitately retreated. He  p82 had not suspected that we were both Cleveland men. When the result was assured the cadets who were democrats decided to celebrate the victory — the first we had ever known. We assembled at the Maryland Hotel where we had ordered a big feast for fifty cents apiece. Stanworth, of my class, presided, and Russell made an eloquent, triumphant speech. I recall a very tenseº speech by a second classman, Caldwell, of Tennessee: "Gentlemen, Tennessee gave a majority of 12,000 for Cleveland and Hendricks. Thank God, I am a Tennessean!"

This speech brought down the house. Everything appeared to have gone off all right, but the next morning the commandant of midshipmen, Farquhar, sent for me. He showed me a copy of the Baltimore Sun which gave an account of the banquet. It concluded with the statement that "toasts were drunk, and a hilarious time had generally."

"Now, Mr. Coontz," he said, you may answer, or not, as you please, but I ask you the question whether or not toasts were drunk?"

"Yes, sir," I replied, "toasts were drunk."

"Well," he continued, "I shall have to take some serious steps in this matter."

"But, Mr. Commandant," I protested, "I shall have to add to my statement that toasts were drunk in fresh water."

There the matter ended. I had three demerits that year, and these were given me for purchasing the Baltimore Sun out of hours.

Ordinarily the first class year is a comparatively easy one for the midshipman, especially the latter part of the year when he is getting the highlights on ordinance, seaman­ship, navigation and steam. Every Saturday we went out on Chesapeake Bay in sailing ships, or in vessels like the old Wyoming, and had various seaman­ship drills and exercises. The sailing vessels were always late in returning to port, and in consequence we missed part of our  p83 Saturday liberty. These cruises were discontinued in mid‑winter when we drilled indoors at the Academy.

The new rifled guns began to come into use while I was at the Academy, and first classmen had to work out all sorts of problems regarding trajectories. It was most interesting. I was fortunate in reciting chiefly to Lieutenant (now Admiral) Ingersoll. On one of the final target practices my nine-inch smooth bore gun hit the target at 900 yards. We had drilled with those guns for four years. I started out as a first side tackleman, second rifle­man and wreck clearer, and outside of changing stations a few times was held to that job. Gunnery at that time was still undeveloped and close range was necessary for anything decisive. We still carried the boarding pikes, and did so for many years thereafter.

Upon my return from first class leave I became ill from eating grapes and was threatened with appendicitis, so that I had to be carried from my room to the Naval Hospital. I lost the first week and became unsatisfactory in the subjects of least squares and strength of materials. On account of my previous record, however, the Superintendent would not reduce me from the first conduct class. I caught up during the second month, and after that things went smoothly.

As we neared the end of the last year of our course we began to decide which stations we would seek. The European station, of course, was the favored one, and hard to get. In need of the mileage money, Russell and I agreed that we would apply for the Mohican, on the Pacific station, as it was bound for the South Seas, New Zealand and Australia. Kittrell resigned and went home to Mississippi; later he entered Lehigh University. Pitner did the same and returned to Trundle's Cross Roads, Sevier County, Tennessee. He afterwards became a lumber merchant. As a plebe, Pitner was hazed by upper classmen who would come to his door and call, "Trundle's Cross Roads." Each time Pitner would have  p84 to grab his tin slop jar, put on his cap, and yell, "Let me out!"

When the orders came, Russell and I had our desires gratified, but most of the class thought we had not asked for much in the way of a station.

My mother, my sister and a cousin came from Missouri to Annapolis to attend the graduation exercises. I had expected to have a high standing on the final examination in seaman­ship, figuring that I must have made about a 3.6. When the marks were posted, however, I had only a 2.58, and in connection with a comparatively low mark in ordnance, the last month, this reduced my class standing by three numbers. I was in the same section with McGuinness. We thought we were nearly perfect that month in ordnance, but we were marked down to very near the bottom, and both felt that we had been wronged. When we were ready to leave Annapolis Russell and I were fortunate enough to have passes to San Francisco, and an order making our excess baggage free, west of Council Bluffs, Iowa. This was important as excess baggage was required to pay fifteen cents a pound. The officer who had marked McGuinness and me so low, heard of our baggage pass and asked me what day I would be in Omaha, stating that he would like to get his baggage through free, also. I did not tell him any definite date, and when he named one, Russell and I saw to it that we would miss him by one day. May the good Lord forgive us for our vindictiveness!

Our division, the Fourth, won the flag June 1st. This flag was given to the most efficient and best drilled company. President Chester A. Arthur attended the drill and presented the flag to us through Miss Poe. Gilmer was better at drilling us than he was at making acceptance speeches.

We were graduated June 5, 1885, received our long awaited diplomas and were ordered to sea without delay. At that time cadets went on probation for two years before receiving commissions which depended upon the  p85 number of vacancies. Nine of us were ordered to the Pacific station, of whom five went to the Mohican, and four to the Hartford. We agreed to meet in St. Louis on a certain day, and to go west together.

At this time it took seven days to cross the continent — four and a half days from Omaha to San Francisco. At Annapolis Junction I parted from my mother and sister who were going to visit on the eastern shore of Maryland, and Russell and I went on to my home in Hannibal. We remained there twenty-four hours and then returned to St. Louis where we met the other cadets at the Southern Hotel, and then took a night train on the Wabash Railroad for Omaha to which city my father accompanied us. We had breakfast at Chillicothe, Missouri, and the table was laden with a great variety of good food — steak, ham, eggs, hot biscuits, corn bread, sorghum molasses, honey, and so forth. The charge was only twenty-five cents and we ate our fill. In the center of the table was a bottle which looked as if it might have contained whiskey. On inquiry the landlord told Stanworth that it also went with the twenty-five cent meal. We'll never see those days again!

The train stopped a half hour at Marysville, Missouri, and we occupied the time playing ball. There were nine of us and a gentleman asked my father where the team was bound. When told we were en route for Omaha he asked to sign us up for a game with the Marysville team on our return trip. We had five hours to wait in Omaha and saw the city which, of course, was not as large as it is now. My father left us there. After arranging our baggage in Council Bluffs we departed that night for San Francisco. We had upper and lower berths in one end of the car. None of us had ever crossed the continent before, and we were eager to see everything and to learn all that we could. Indians were permitted to ride only on the car platforms, but were carried free.

The conductor went all the way through to the coast, and we soon made his acquaintance. The next day, riding  p86 along the Platte River, he told us Indian stories and was particularly vivid in his description of conditions at Laramie and Cheyenne. We reached the former town in the early evening. Tarbox and two or three others had been told of the sights in one of the saloons there, and accompanied by the conductor the midshipmen set out to see the place. Soon after they entered a rough looking crowd came in, drew their revolvers and demanded free drinks. The bartender refused them and reached for his pistol. They fired several shots at him and he dropped behind the bar. Our boys beat a hasty retreat to the train and did not leave it again while we remained at Laramie. Of course, the whole affair was framed by the Pullman conductor for the benefit of the cadets, and only blank cartridges were fired. We learned that the bartender laughed so long that they had to drag him from behind the bar and make him set up the drinks for the crowd.

On the fifth day out from Omaha we reached San Francisco and registered at the Occidental Hotel where rooms for the Navy were one dollar a day, and with board two dollars and a half. Many times thereafter I stayed at the old Occidental, and when it was destroyed at the time of the earthquake and fire, in 1906, there was genuine sorrow throughout the Navy.

It was Sunday the day we arrived in San Francisco, and that afternoon we rode out to Golden Gate Park, heard a band concert and saw the animals and flowers. That night we went to the Grand Theater said to have been the largest one in the United States at that time. The admission was fifty cents.

Early on the following morning we started for Mare Island. We crossed the bay by ferry to Oakland and took a railroad train to Vallejo Junction, and then a steamer to Vallejo itself where we ferried across to the island on which the navy yard is situated. We shifted to uniforms in the engineer's quarters on the ferry, and upon arrival at the yard reported to the Commandant, and then aboard  p87 our respective ships, the Hartford and the Mohican. The Hartford of Civil War fame​a was the flagship of the Pacific, and carried the flag of Rear Admiral Edward McCauley. The Mohican was the vessel on which Passed Assistant Surgeon H. W. Whitaker made his famous photograph "Iron Men and Wooden Ships" in 1886.​b

Within an hour after our arrival on board the Mohican we were placed on duty, and had only two opportunities to get down to San Francisco again before we sailed for the South Seas. Our class slept in hammocks or on transoms. As there were no warrant officers on board, McDonald and Starr who were members of the class ahead of us had staterooms with bunks and bureaus.

The Commander at Mare Island was Rear Admiral John H. Russell. He had three beautiful red‑headed daughters and a young lady guest who also had red hair. They arranged to give a tea, and all of the cadets who were not on duty at the time were expected to attend. Aside from Eberle we were all extremely bashful, and on the appointed day Eberle was the one who was on duty. Inquiry developed the fact that not a midshipman intended to go to the tea. Something had to be done and we threw dice to determine who should attend the tea. We stuck Stanworth who at that time was an avowed woman hater. He had to go. The Commandant should have punished each one of us for neglect of social duties. Doubtless, however, he remembered when he was a midshipman. I am still ashamed of our conduct.

The Mohican was commanded by Commander Benjamin F. Day, and Lieutenant James H. Dayton was Executive Officer — both of them living, forty-four years later. Her Watch Officers were Stone, Bull, Cresap and Nicholson. Captain Day had entered the navy in 1858. My first duty was aide to the executive and midshipman of the quarterdeck. The ship was taking on stores, and I recall one instance which illustrates how immature midshipmen were.

I was at the Mare Island wharf with a steam launch  p88 and a sailing launch in tow loading stores when a sprightly looking gentleman came to me and asked if the captain were aboard ship and if I would give him passage. I invited him to get into the sailing launch with me, and when we neared the ship we drew alongside the port gangway. As we went aboard the captain came forward and greeted him. I learned then for the first time that my passenger was Commander Royal B. Bradford. The captain upbraided me later for bringing him in a sailing launch to the port side. The officer, not having told me who he was, was at fault.

Commander Bradford was a great whist player, and when aboard ship had a game each night with the chief engineer, the paymaster and the senior surgeon. In those days officers seemed to get old at fifty, and it was difficult to get one off the ship after dark. One night the surgeon was absent and the captain sent down to the steerage for a junior officer to come up to his cabin and play whist. It was some time before the young officer appeared, flushed and embarrassed. Commander Bradford asked him the reason.

"Well, Captain," he replied, "we threw dice in the steerage to see who would come up and take part in your game."

"And you won, of course," interjected the captain, smiling.

"No, sir," rejoined the midshipman feebly, "I lost and had to come."

We left Mare Island on June 28th, and I learned a lesson that day. We had two lady passengers for San Francisco, although it was against the regulations. About half way down San Pablo Bay the Mohican broke down and a fog came up. At two o'clock in the morning the two ladies were put ashore in a small boat near Pinole, and had to make their way to San Francisco as best they could. The Mohican was patched up and we got her back to Mare Island where they continued working on her throughout the night.

 p89  We put to sea again the next day. The captain said there was a distinct advantage in leaving before June 30th, as he would not be obliged to make his official reports for some time which was true.

Eberle and I being junior officers were placed in the engine room. The day we sailed both the chief engineer and the assistant engineer went on the sick list, leaving only the regular, an officer named Creighton, on duty. Eberle had the first watch out through the Golden Gate and I had the middle watch. Those who remember San Francisco Bay know that it is sometimes choppy. About three o'clock in the morning, worried with having a watch at sea in the engine room at my age (I was just twenty‑one years old that month), I felt that I was acquiring a new and strange disease before sundown. I had never been seasick in the Atlantic, but when I came off watch at four o'clock I soon realized from certain indications that I was now seasick at last.

The engine broke down again that morning and the captain placed the old ship under full sail for Panama. The Mohican had been rebuilding at Mare Island since 1871, fourteen years before. There were those who said that the money appropriated for her repairs had been spent in building quarters at Mare Island and in other ways. I remember our slow progress, although we carried all sails including stu'nsails. For days we could see the mountains around Monterey and to the southward. The wind was light and the northwest current was strong, but in some manner we got down as far as Cape San Lucas by July 12th. After repairing the engines we headed for La Paz, the capital of southern California. For years and until recently we had a coaling station at that point. One night we anchored in a small bay, and the next morning I went ashore in a boat with Franklin J. Moses, a marine officer. Some of the boys decided to swim from a boat. They had no sooner got into the water than sharks appeared, and it was with difficulty  p90 that we hauled them to safety. The sharks followed us all the way to the ship.

In the days when the law permitted gold, silver and jewels to be transported on board men-of‑war for safe keeping, and all hands were given a share of the transportation money, La Paz, the port through which the silver mine money passed, was a favorite spot.

Our coaling station, Pichilinque, lay seven miles from La Paz. Our captain did not believe in shore leave, and so, after the first time, we had to hire our own boats. As this was my first foreign port I greatly enjoyed the experience. Our consul there, Mr. Viosco, had several daughters and nieces who entertained us nicely. The few coal lighters we had there were in bad shape. Our men used to load them at the station, and they were towed to the ship by a launch in command of one of my classmates. On the way out to the ship one barge sank, but by cutting the towing hawser just in time the launch was saved. Fenton, my classmate, was in charge, and when he came aboard the captain sent for him and asked what had happened. Fenton made his report and when he had finished the captain said, "Mr. Fenton I do not accept your report. Six tons of coal at twenty dollars a ton is one hundred and twenty dollars. Go to the paymaster and tell him to charge the six tons to your account." Of course, the paymaster did not do so, but Fenton was worried until the next pay day.

Our pay at that time was ninety dollars a month. We left Pichilinque and began to steam. The temperature in the fire room was one hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit, and in the engine room only a little lower. The result was that I had a stroke of heat prostration before we reached Acapulco. What I remember best was Chief Engineer Elijah Laws spilling a whole bottle of bay rum on my head in his kindly desire to help me.

In the days when Spain was in the pride of her power and earth owner­ship, Acapulco was a famous and prosperous town. From Vera Cruz, mail, passengers and  p91 stores were brought across Mexico and shipped on Spanish galleons to Guam and the Philippines. These vessels, eastward bound, would carry gold and other products back to Spain via Acapulco.

Our next port was Corinto on the Gulf of Tehuantepec, where it is generally hot and breezy, as President Hoover had occasion to learn on his trip to Central and South America immediately after his election. I returned to duty too soon and suffered from another heat prostration. The medical records show that death was imminent, and that it was necessary to resort to artificial respiration. The big respirator in those days was Midshipman (now Rear Admiral) John McDonald. Those who know John's size can realize that he must have been an efficient respirator. My case was desperate this time and when I was seized I barely had time to call Russell before I collapsed. Partly unconscious I nevertheless heard the talk of probable death, and when I revived at five o'clock the next morning the long white passageways of the Mohican made me think I had reached heaven, and an angel in white pajamas (but with a black beard), was fanning me. It was John McDonald.

I had known a little of earthquakes before we reached Nicaragua, but since that visit they have never bothered me. Eberle and the pay clerk, Thompson, spent one night on shore at a hotel. After they had retired they heard peculiar noises, and presently discovered that lizards were crawling up the walls and dropping on their bed from the ceiling. Afraid to jump out on the floor they covered their heads with bed clothing and waited for the dawn. About four in the morning an earthquake made them forget the lizards. They leaped out of bed, dressed hurriedly and ran to the dock to await the coming of the market boat.

While in Corinto I arose one morning and started to don my blouse which had been hanging near an open air port. As I ran my arm down the sleeve my hand touched something alive. I called Eberle and he quickly seized a  p92 hammock stretcher and killed a tarantula. The thing must have been brought on board with the pineapples, bananas and oranges, and had crawled into the inside of my blouse sleeve. I had a narrow escape.

We arrived at Panama late in August, during the rainy season, and the doctors decided that I needed a cooler climate. Panama was then in the throes of the French endeavor to build the canal. Yellow fever and the chagres fever were prevalent. It was said that of every four strangers who entered the Grand Hotel at Panama only three came out alive. Yellow fever took the fourth one.

I was sent over to Aspinwall (Colon), on the east side of the Isthmus, to take a steamer for New York. The town had just burned and conditions were terrible. The revolution under Pedro Prestan had only recently been quelled and Prestan hanged. The method of hanging him was this: a cable was stretched between two telegraph poles across the railroad tracks; the hangman's rope was attached to the center of the cable; Prestan was placed on the roof of a freight car which was hauled under the cable; the loose end of the rope was tied around the man's neck, and the freight car was moved. Vast crowds were allowed to witness the execution, and the effect was that for a time a condition of peace prevailed.

I actually saw women dying of yellow fever in the streets of Colon. It took three hours to cross the Isthmus of Panama by rail and the fare was twenty dollars in gold. A lasting impression was made on my mind by the graves on each side of the road bed — almost one to a railroad tie — and the vast quantities of bananas growing among them.

I sailed for New York on the old Acapulco under Captain Shackford, father of our naval captain, Chauncey Shackford. The steamer was crowded with convalescent patients. The employes of the canal zone were taken to New York for ten dollars. On this trip I heard of an actual case of death from seasickness. A Spanish woman  p93 who boarded the connecting steamer at Acapulco became seasick. She locked herself in her stateroom and seven days later, when the door was broken in, she was found dead from seasickness, fright and starvation.

We passed to the east of Cuba at Cape Maysi and stopped at Cat Island, the only port en route to New York. At Hatteras, where we began to encounter the cool breezes, the yellow fever patients dragged themselves out on deck for a breath of fresh air. We reached New York in September, and I reported to the naval hospital for treatment. I had an attack of chagres fever on the way up, and the doctors ordered six grains of quinine three times a day. I took eighteen grains the first day and nearly went crazy. The second day I reduced the amount to twelve grains, and on the third day to six. After that I threw eighteen grains a day overboard. The food at the hospital was bad, and I bribed the negro attendant to bring me good things from the outside once a day. Instead of the regulation tea and toast I had fruits and milk.

The hospital authorities decided that I needed leave of absence, and I reached home at a fortunate time for, on October 15th, my father had a serious accident, and from having been an invalid I became a nurse.

By November I had recovered sufficiently to enable me to pass a life insurance examination, and was ready to report for duty. I made application for the Vandalia bound for the south Pacific. Luckily I missed that assignment, for the Vandalia was lost at Samoa. The Navy Department evidently forgot me for several months, but I was finally ordered to the Juniata at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

One wonders at how cheaply we used to live. In December, 1885, I paid the grocery bill during my father's illness. There were five of us in the family, and the bill was only $33.50. Our meat bill was $7.45 for the entire month. Eggs were ten cents a dozen; chickens dressed were twenty-five cents; milk, twenty-five quarts for a  p94 dollar; and a big turkey was only $1.25! The comb of honey, which I insisted upon having on the table for each meal, was only fifteen cents.​c

Thayer's Notes:

a Admiral Farragut's flagship in the passing of the forts of New Orleans (A Short History of the United States Navy, pp312‑315), at Vicksburg (pp323‑324), Port Hudson (p327); and in the Battle of Mobile Bay (pp334 ff.) famous for "Damn the torpedoes!"

[decorative delimiter]


The famous photograph is usually referred to as "The Old Navy", and was so quickly seen as iconic of the old sailing Navy which would soon be history, that Capt. (later Vice Admiral) Joseph K. Taussig and Capt. (later Rear Admiral) John Russell Blakely researched it, identified the four men, and published a piece on it in United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan. 1921). In that piece, it should be noted that Capt. Taussig corrects the date of the photograph from 1886 — as commonly given, and as in our text — to 1888.

The photo as reproduced here is the most commonly seen version, but in fact it is slightly cropped from what Whitaker took: from that standpoint, a better copy, far less often seen, is also onsite, as reproduced in Hugh Rodman's autobiographical memoir, Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral, facing p92.


By Captain J. K. Taussig, U. S. Navy

The famous picture known as "The Old Navy," reproduced herewith, was taken on board U.S.S. Mohican in 1888. The photographer was Assistant Surgeon H. W. Whitaker, U. S. Navy.

When Captain J. R. Y. Blakely and the writer were on duty in the Bureau of Navigation in 1913, the former had the happy thought that it would be of interest to ascertain the identity of the characters in the picture. Under his initiative, the two of us proceeded to gather what information was to be obtained from the Bureau's records, and from other sources.

A visitor to the Bureau, rear Admiral George C. Reiter, informed us that the picture was taken on board the Mohican, he thought in 1886. This gave a clew for starting the research. On looking up the Navy Register for 1886 it was found that several officers conveniently near to Washington were on board the Mohican at that time. Among these officers are the present Rear Admirals R. F. Nicholson and E. W. Eberle, and Captain R. L. Russell. Captain Blakely sent a copy of the photograph to these three officers, and also to Chief Boatswain's Mate George A. Dueland and Chief Quartermaster Lars P. Jonsson, both retired, who were on the Mohican during this cruise.

 p2  The replies received from these officers and men were not only interesting, but gave sufficient information so that, with a study of the muster rolls and descriptive lists, a positive identification of the four men could be made. There had been no question as to three of them, but there was a difference of opinion in regard to the old white bearded sailor with his hands behind his head. Some thought he was John Ward, armorer; some thought he was old Norman; others said he was "Old Griff." These latter were correct, as he was finally unquestionably identified from the muster rolls and descriptive lists as John T. Griffith, Chief Carpenter's Mate. The reason for the difficulty in the identity of this man was due to the supposition that the picture was taken in 1886, while it turned out that it was actually taken in 1888. Griffith was not transferred to the Mohican until the latter date, and was on board for only a month. Some of the officers who were on board in 1886 when the other three men were also there, were transferred to other vessels before Griffith arrived on the Mohican.

The four men, with a brief transcript of their services, are:

1. Gilbert H. Purdy, who is standing addressing the others. Purdy was born in 1828, and therefore was 60 years old when the picture was taken. He was a physically powerful man and was remarkably well preserved, as is shown by the photograph. He died December 24, 1912, at San Diego, California, at the age of 84, being at the time of his death the oldest man on the retired list of the navy.

During the Civil War he served as sergeant in Battery K, 4th U. S. Artillery, and as a seaman on board several naval vessels. He also had the honor of serving under Admiral Dewey on the Olympia during the Spanish-American War. He was transferred to the retired list on February 7, 1900. Purdy served as captain of the hold on board the Mohican from May 25, 1885, to August 28, 1888.

2. David Ireland, seated with arms folded. Ireland was born in 1833, and was therefore 55 years old when the picture was taken. He first enlisted in the Navy on April 8 1850, so he had seen 38 years of service when on the Mohican. He served on many ships in all parts of the world and died at the Mare Island Hospital on January 16, 1894, aged 61 years. He served on board the Mohican from May 25, 1885, to November 20, 1890, as captain of the forecastle, seaman, and captain of the hold.

3. John King, seated on ditty box. King was born in England in 1834, so at the time the picture was taken was 54 years old. He followed the sea in merchant ships for a number of years before enlisting in the navy, which he first did on April 9, 1875, he then being in his 42d year. He was finally discharged on April 2, 1896, and admitted to the Naval Home at Philadelphia. He served on board the Mohican from May 25, 1885, to January 25, 1899 as Chief Gunner's Mate. The exact date of his death is not known.

4. John T. Griffith, seated with hands behind his head. Griffith was born at Albany, New York, December 25, 1826, being 62 years of age when the picture was taken, and the oldest man of the group. The record of his first enlistment is not at hand, but he last enlisted on October 18, 1888, and was finally discharged on December 10, 1889. He served on board the Mohican as Chief Carpenter's Mate from June 3, to June 30, 1888. The date of his death is not known.

The fine type of old salt depicted here is now extinct so far as our navy is concerned. It seems, therefore, that it is fitting for the historical interest to make a record in print of some of the things that are known concerning these men. It is felt also that those of the old navy who were closely associated with the wonderful sailor men of those days, as well as those of the modern navy who never had the pleasure of such associations, will appreciate quotations from the letters to Captain Blakely written by the officers who were shipmates of the men in the picture.

Admiral Nicholson wrote:

I remember very distinctly the photo referred to in your letter. It was taken in the Mohican one day while we were at sea running down the trades. I was on deck and noticed the four old salts over in the port gangway, where the quartette usually congregated, and it struck me that it was a subject for a fine picture. I called Drs. Harvey and Whitaker, who were doing most of the photographic work on board ship, and suggested that they bring up a camera and catch them, which they immediately proceeded to do with the well known results.

The man standing up is Purdy, captain of the hold, who was a great big six-foot-two man from New York State. Purdy was a great disciple of Ingersoll and Tom Paine and in all probability at the time pictured was giving them something from 'The Age of Reason" or "The Rights of Man."

The old chin-whiskered fellow was King, quarter gunner, a fine old sailor, but one of the old style that went ashore once a quarter and had to be  p4 brought back by the master-at-arms each and every time, but a splendid old fellow nevertheless.

The smooth-faced fellow was Dave Ireland, who told me he was from Delaware, and I knew he corresponded with some nieces in Delaware. He had passed his earliest years in the merchant service, part of it in English ships, and often regretted that he had not joined the navy earlier. . . .

He was of a saving disposition, and I heard at the time of his death that he had 10,000 dollars in cash. I remember in Auckland once he overstayed his leave, which was quite unusual for him, and was brought on board by the police which cost him three pounds, and ever afterwards the boys of the ship would get him wild by attracting his attention and holding up three fingers. On one occasion they so riled him that he threw the quarter-master's glass at them.

The other man was "Griffin," the armorer. A very quiet, self-respecting old fellow, and the last I heard of him he was somewhere around Mare Island.

Purdy, I saw a few years ago at San Diego. He had charge of a naval militia ship down there. Old King passed his earliest years in the East India Company's navy. The last I heard of him he was at the Naval Home in Philadelphia.

Admiral Eberle wrote:

I remember very distinctly Chief Gunner's Mate John King who is seated on the ditty box, Captain of the Hold Gilbert H. Purdy who is standing against the ladder spinning yarns, and Quartermaster Dave Ireland, who is seated against the ladder with his arms folded.

I do not remember the fourth man seated on the division tub with his hands behind his head, but I am reliably informed that he was a Chief Carpenter's Mate by the name of Griffin, or Griffith, probably the former. He was identified by Chief Boatswain McKenna, and Robert J. Niddrie, who is in the Electrical Department at the navy yard — both of whom were apprentice boys with me on the Mohican. They state that they remember when the picture was taken by Dr. Whitaker, and that Chief Carpenter's mate Griffith had been previously on the Adams and had been transferred to the Mohican for passage home. (note) The Chief Carpenter's Mate of the Mohican was a man by the name of Brady. From their statement, and to the best of my recollection, Ward, armorer, was a smaller man than the one in the picture and wore a beard more pointed and somewhat on the style of Purdy's. they state that King and Ward had been in the British naval Service when young men.

Purdy was a man of great physical strength and was quite a spinner of yarns. Dave Ireland, the quartermaster, made a cruise afterwards on the China Station in the Marion with the rate of captain of the hold. . . .

 p5  It is stated that Old Ireland in his latter days was a very thrifty and saving, and had become a tee-totaler. I also understand that he had either nieces or nephews living in Delaware. It is told of the old man that when the doctors at the hospital at Mare Island found that he had not many months to live, suggested to him that he would be more comfortable in his old days by boarding with some family in Vallejo, where he could receive the comforts of home, but he stated that he could not afford it. However, when he died, it is stated that he had about 9000 dollars saved up.

Old John King was quite a character of the old days. I recall very distinctly that he would draw what money was due him and go ashore once in three months and promptly spend it for rum, and after he was brought back on board and sobered up he always said he was happy now because he could not go ashore for another three months. Boatswain McKenna reminded me of two escapades of John King which were very amusing and very characteristic of him. Once in Corinto, Nicaragua, when King had gone ashore and was overtime, a reward was offered for him, but somehow he heard about it and when chased by the Corinto police he made for the beach and swam off to the ship, being chased by the police in a shore boat; but he made the gangway before they could catch him. When the ship was at Callao, Peru, the Chief Petty Officers' Mess decided that they would elect a new caterer, and for some reason they elected John King. King took the mess money to go ashore to buy stores, as was the custom in those days. He sent back to the ship one Edam cheese and a bag of salt for his mess, and proceeded to have a good time until brought off by the police a week or 10 days later. But he was a good and faithful old soul, and was busy from reveille to taps.

King, Purdy, and Old Dave Ireland were in the habit of "hanging out" in the port gangway where you see them in the picture. No finer or more reliable seamen could be found anywhere.

From Captain Russell's letter:

King and Ireland I remember perfectly, having had Ireland for quarter-master of the watch many times when I was standing watch on the Mohican, and I remember to this day many of the conversations I had with Ireland, who was a very interesting old fellow, and told me a lot of his experiences. You will find by looking up the record of the Brazilian squadron, in the early fifties, that Ireland was down there on board one of the ships. . . .

Ireland came home on the Pensacola, arriving in Norfolk in 1884 after a trip around the world, and on the advise of a friend, he put about all his savings into a Norfolk bank just in time to have the bank fail and lose about everything.

The extracts quoted from the letters of Admirals Nicholson and Eberle, and of Captain Russell — which letters were written 25 years after the photograph was taken — show us how well the officers of the old navy came to know the men with whom they were shipmates. We also get from them a good insight into  p6 the character of the old time salt. That these men were of a type unknown to the younger generation of the new navy is evident to anyone who has the opportunity of visiting a modern man-of-war; but the impression they made on their officers shows us that there was something so unique and so impressive about these faithful old sailors, that their sayings and doings leave a lasting impress on the memories of those who had the pleasure of being shipmates with them.

This picture, "The Old Navy," depicts for us a rare combination of characters. We have here in Purdy the spinner of yarns and exploiter of theories — different from the usually accepted ones — but always of sufficient interest to guarantee an audience. In Ireland we have the serious-minded listener. A man of sturdy character who loved his ship and who loved to stay on board — preferring to save his money to spending it on a good time. King typifies the sailor of the stories: One who loved rum and who spent his money freely whenever he had the chance. He was the type who was absolutely reliable when on board ship, but did not see that the beach was for any other use than a place where one could get drunk. Griffith shows us the old man who has matured in the service — the kind that acquired none of the bad traits, but all of the good traits of the old time sailor.

While all of these men undoubtedly had their individual ideas of right and wrong, and while there is no doubt but that these ideas differed widely, all the evidence in regard to them — which evidence is true in general for many of the other old salts of their day — shows in all of them a great outstanding quality. This was their faithfulness and their energy combined. The following which Admiral Eberle wrote about King is true for all of them: "He was a good and faithful old soul, and was busy from reveille to taps." It is hoped that others who have information concerning such sailormen as are shown in this picture, will make a record in writing of it, so that the famous type will not be lost to the coming generations. -->

[decorative delimiter]

c Adjusting for inflation according to Morgan Friedman's Inflation Calculator, this paragraph would have read as follows in 2015:

. . . I paid the grocery bill during my father's illness. There were five of us in the family, and the bill was only $891.30. Our meat bill was $198.21 for the entire month. Eggs were $2.66 a dozen; chickens dressed were $6.65; milk, twenty-five quarts for $26.21; and a big turkey was only $33.26! The comb of honey, which I insisted upon having on the table for each meal, was only $3.99.

In Chicago today, I would not shop at that grocery store, except for the honeycomb, which is a fairly good deal.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 18 Jul 17