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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

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 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p95  Chapter VI

A Scarcity of Commissions

On the Juniata — Shooting Up a Town — Portland, Newfoundland, Halifax, Portsmouth — To the Atlanta — President Cleveland Keeps His Promise.

I reported on the Juniata in February, 1886. She was being revamped, repaired and made ready for a three years' cruise in Chinese waters. In 1882 Admiral Dewey, then a commander, was assigned to the Juniata and while en route to China was taken ill and had to be removed from the ship at Malta, where a British surgeon removed one of his kidneys — a remarkable operation at that time. Captain P. F. Harrington was then ordered to the command of the ship and to continue with her to China. Upon her return from this voyage she was detained for a long time at the Brooklyn yard in command of Executive Officer William T. Burwell, with whom I had many dealings in after years. Later the Juniata was placed under command of Commander George T. Davis. The ship had a fine set of officers — Max Wood, Asher Baker, "Tommy" Rodgers, Chapin, George, Herbert and others.

The winter was very severe and Wallabout Bay was frozen over. The crew was quartered on board the old receiving ship Colorado. One morning the captain directed me to borrow some hose from the receiving ship. Her executive was Lieutenant Commander –––––––––, another "sundowner." When I spoke to Mr ––––––––– and delivered my message he broke into a violent fit of temper and shouted, "Damn you, the last time I loaned you the hose it came back in a rotten condition." I told him that no man, officer or anyone else could damn me, and that never before had I seen him  p96 or his hose. I left the ship and made my report to our Executive, Burwell. Ill feeling already existed between the two men. Burwell went to his ship and denounced him, demanding that he apologize to me, which he did.

I had two cousins living on West 34th Street in New York and employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Koster and Bial's famous concert hall and beer garden was on 23rd Street and we used to visit there with passes given us by the manager. It was a popular rendezvous for the navy men, as was also the White Elephant at 33rd Street and Sixth Avenue. At one place or the other it was always possible to find some men on leave of absence. Koster and Bial used to deliver twelve bottles of beer to us in cases for seventy-five cents.

We also patronized Bartley Campbell's Fourteenth Street Theater, and it was there that I first saw The Old Homestead. It was necessary to guard the expenditure of our money as our pay was only three dollars a day. Once a boyhood friend, Frank Rayne, then with the Iron Age, a weekly paper, took me to see Jim the Penman at the old Madison Square Theater.

Delays of one character or another kept the Juniata at the navy yard for a long time, and while awaiting repairs it was decided that we should go to sea and put in the time at target practice and drills until July 1st, when a new appropriation of money would be available.

About June 10, 1886 we put to sea. The second day we ran into a fog and floated with the current. It was customary during target practice to fire one solid shot and the gunner doing so had special commendation. I arranged with Asher Baker, who was first in command, to let me, if possible, fire the fo'castle gun at about two minutes after midnight. By working fast I got it off in a minute and a half. The fog cleared the next morning, and we found that we were much nearer to the shore than we had thought.

Upon our return to New York, a day or two later, we were surprised to see in the New York Herald a  p97 headline which read, "Earthquake Off the Jersey Coast." The accompanying article stated that early on the morning of June 11th, a heavy earthquake had occurred in a certain town in New Jersey, that buildings were shaken, windows broken on the main street, and that there had been a general shake‑up. The truth was that my solid shot had gone straight up the main thoroughfare and buried itself in the outskirts of the little town. The Lord was good to us, and no lives were lost. The captain called us in and said it was his idea that it was a proper time for everyone to keep his mouth shut and we followed his advice.

Forty‑two years later, when addressing the National Republican Club in New York on the cruiser question, I made public confession of my part in the Jersey earthquake. To date I have not been sued for damages.

The summer days in New York passed pleasantly and the midshipmen often attended the ball games.

I had a year or less only before promotion time. To my regret orders came early in July detaching me from the Juniata, and directing me to proceed to Portland, Maine, and join the Galena of the North Atlantic Squadron. Burwell, our acting captain, offered to get my orders revoked so that I could remain on his ship, but though I appreciated his kindness I thought it best to take the assignment. I went by rail, by way of Boston, where I had to change cars. I had never been there before and by mistake, when leaving, I boarded a local train. The conductor refused to stop and let me off, and I was obliged to jump somewhere north of the Charles River and walk back to Boston to get the right train.

The North Atlantic Squadron was then in command of Rear Admiral Luce. It was made up of five ships for exercise under sail. Colby M. Chester, still living, was in command of the Galena, and Rear Admiral Richard Wainwright, then a lieutenant, was senior watch officer.

Portland was a beautiful city, even in those days, and  p98 especially pleasant in the summer. I was ordered one day to represent the ship at a party on one of the neighboring islands in the harbor. I was still a bashful boy, but my classmate Burnstine was somewhat of a wag and a practical joker. He pointed out to me a good looking young lady sitting across the hall and asked if I would like to meet her. Upon receiving an affirmative answer we started to walk over toward the girl. Then he suddenly disappeared and I retired in confusion. The next afternoon I rode over to Diamond Island. (When Portland began to receive tourists the name of Hog Island was changed to Diamond Island.) In the bow of the boat I saw the same young lady, and had courage enough to explain the situation of the previous night. In the course of our conversation it was developed that we were bound for Diamond Island to visit the same family — the Berrys. Berry was in the class below me, and I had only recently left him aboard the Juniata. I often think of the enjoyable parties we had there, and of his hospitable mother.

We left Portland and maneuvered south. Then the Galena was ordered to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At that time there was a dispute between the United States and Great Britain over the Canadian fisheries. We had a miserable job in the fogs of Newfoundland, and met with some ticklish experiences. I recall that we circumnavigated Prince Edward Island without seeing land. Our chief task was to take provisions to the fishermen. When our duty was finished we started for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with orders to stop at Halifax en route.

I shall always enjoy the memory of my stay in Halifax. I was sent by our captain to call upon the United States Consul General, Mr. Phelan, who came from St. Louis, and was a warm friend of my father. He had two daughters and a niece, and I became a frequent visitor at his home. The climate of Halifax is superb, just cool enough for summer time.

We had a queer officer on board the Galena. We went  p99 on shore in a whale boat one afternoon, and he asked me to go to the police station with him, which I did. There he informed the chief of police that he came ashore only once in three months and always got drunk. He said that in case that happened to him in Halifax he would like to be cared for and sent back to the ship. Sure enough, the officer told the truth! At two o'clock that night he was arrested and taken to the police station for causing a disturbance in one of the main streets. The chief of police recalled his remarkable story, treated him kindly, sobered him up, and sent him back to his ship on the early market boat with polite instructions, however, that he must not come ashore again in Halifax. The officer was a rather peculiar character who had entered the navy during the Civil War.

On my second visit to Portsmouth I entered society. The first Sunday afternoon there I went for a walk on the Kittery Navy Yard hills, and looking down on the path below me, I saw two terrified young women who implored me to kill a big snake which they were afraid to pass. To show what I could do I jumped off the embankment where I stood and landed on the snake with both feet. Immediately I became a hero! The reptile was simply a good-sized garter snake. I recognized the breed, having seen hundreds of them in Missouri. The young women proved to be daughters of two naval captains, and I was soon invited to dine at their homes. At that time Portsmouth had great popularity in naval circles. Many of the town's fair daughters had married into the Navy, and many of the sons were naval officers. I remember particularly the Eastmans and the Carpenters who lived there and the Brooks and the Merriman families who were at the Navy Yard.

As the Galena needed repairs it was decided to transfer the officers and a part of the crew to the Constitution, and thus for three months I had the distinction of living on board that famous vessel — an honor that I did not fully appreciate at that time. To my mind she was about  p100 the biggest thing that would ever be launched, and I noted the great distance from the foremast to the mainmast and her high hammock nettings.

Snow fell early in the Portsmouth latitude and Griffin, Carter and I had many sleigh rides with the young ladies from the Navy Yard and Portsmouth. We visited all of the manufacturing towns in the vicinity and had many pleasant New England evenings. One trouble was, however, that at all of these parties there were more girls than men. Similar conditions seem to prevail still in naval circles everywhere.

Our repairs were completed early in December and the Galena was ordered on the early winter Caribbean cruise. She was regarded as a yellow fever ship, as several times epidemics had broken out while she was in southern waters. Capehart, one of our officers, had just recovered from an attack. The theory of the mosquito carrying yellow fever germs had not been developed at that time.

One cold winter day we left the Portsmouth yard bound for Boston. I had expected to go ashore there to see some friends, but upon our arrival, and while the captain was at the commandant's office, the executive officer delivered to me detachment orders directing that I proceed to New York and report for duty on board the Atlanta, the first of the famous White Squadron to be commissioned. In half an hour I had packed my trunk, placed it on the port side of the quarterdeck, and was ready to leave when the captain returned. He decided at once not to let me go until we should reach Newport, R. I. Accordingly I did not go ashore at Boston, nor did I unpack my trunk, for I was given the next watch and tour of duty. Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, Commander-in‑Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, shifted his flag to the Galena for a short cruise, and I thus had the honor of being signal officer to that great man. I was detached at Newport, and proceeded by Fall River boat to New York.

The Atlanta was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard under  p101 command of Captain Francis M. Bunce, an efficient old‑time officer, and Robert M. Berry, of Arctic fame, was executive officer. I was assigned to the steerage and there were sixteen of us in those small "L" shaped quarters. The senior was Hiero Taylor who had passed the examinations for lieutenant, junior grade, and was waiting for his commission. The captain had a strict regard for regulations, and would not transfer him to the ward room before his commission arrived.

Taylor had entered the service in 1873, but promotion had been slow. He had a wife and three children living in Virginia. He is the officer of whom this experience is told. About 1883 he finished a cruise on the Adams in Alaska, and was directed to proceed to his home in Burlington, Iowa, to await orders as was the usual custom. He went to the post office daily for one year and three months looking for his orders. He was afraid to leave town on an extended trip lest the orders might come and read "without delay." Apparently the Navy Department had forgotten him. Whether or not he finally sent the Department word that he was alive I do not know, but from May of one year until September of the next is a long time for a poor ensign to live on sixty‑six dollars and sixty‑six cents a month.

The Atlanta had a fine personnel with Samuel Dana Greene, Norton, Leonard, Ben Bryan, Parsons, Bullard, Oman, Breed and Jenkins, as junior officers. Assistant engineers were still steerage officers. I had one locker in which to keep all of my belongings.

The story is told of Sidney Zollicoffer Mitchell, now a Wall Street magnate, that he owned a "plug" hat, and that on a two years' cruise he used it as a receptacle for a goodly portion of his effects.

When the Atlanta lay alongside the dock practically everyone was allowed to go on shore daily after working hours. The night following my arrival I was told it was the custom to throw dice to determine who should take the crowd to the theater. I innocently assented and was  p102 stuck for sixteen tickets! My shipmates decided that they wished to see the Black Crook at Niblo's Garden. That was all right, but when I took them to the show, they each wanted opera glasses! I went to the lobby and ordered sixteen pairs at twenty-five cents each, but when told that it would be necessary to make a deposit of twelve dollars for each pair I had to admit that I had only five dollars remaining. My guests had no opera glasses.

I was put on watch duty and made aide to the executive officer. A cousin in New York invited me to attend the performance of the Queen of Sheba on Christmas Eve at the Metropolitan Opera House. Alas! About six o'clock that evening the executive officer informed me that owing to the illness of Lieutenant Clason I would go on a full tour of duty in his place at midnight, and would have to be on board at ten o'clock! I failed to get into communication with my host and the result was there was a vacant seat at the opera and he was out eight dollars. That was a big sum of money to me in those days and it is still. I have never seen the Queen of Sheba. Lieutenants Bradley A. Fiske and William P. Clason were writing books and in port wanted the mid‑watches. As I deterred these watches I traded almost every one for the first or morning watches. The middle watch is the one from midnight to four in the morning.

The trouble with the Atlanta was chiefly with her engines. They would tinker with them for a time and then we would have another trial on the Sound. She was required to make sixteen knots. She carried a full set of sails and spars. The jib and the spanker were used once, but I never saw any of the others in service.

Returning to the navy yard from one of the Long Island Sound trips I was standing on the quarterdeck with some officers when we passed Whitestone Lighthouse. Someone inquired what it was and Bryan, "Whitestone, and I was born there." His statement was true.

 p103  Springtime came and I began preparing for my final examinations. Studying was difficult in the steerage where there were sixteen others. When off duty we played baseball, and Bowman, our navigator, broke his leg. I went ashore generally with W. H. G. Bullard, later a rear admiral. We were both "fans" and went to see the games on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The condition of our finances precluded attending games more frequently. We would make bets and the loser paid for our dinners — never more than seventy-five cents each, and then took the other to the Criterion Theater in Brooklyn, where we had box seats for a dollar each. This was our routine. How little it takes to make midshipmen happy!

For the purpose of studying I endeavored to reach Annapolis by May 1st, but did not arrive there until three days before the examinations began. Some of my classmates had been there since February 13th, and naturally had a better chance than I. In fact, one man who arrived there among the first, got a second or third mark on the final examination. Physical examinations were held first, and there developed an epidemic of heart trouble. It seemed as if each year some new disease appeared. Having suffered a heat stroke I was later advised that I had failed to pass because of a bad heart. I went to Senior Surgeon Walton and he told me what my trouble was. He said when my heart valve closed there was a small leak. He thought it would get larger as the valve got older, and that would be my end. He asked if I took any violent exercise and was amazed when I told him I played first base on the Atlanta baseball team. I continued with my examinations although knowing that I had been turned down physically, and it was not encouraging. That was forty‑two years ago, and McKay, Rust and I, who were supposed to have bad hearts, are still alive.

Russell and I lived at Mrs. Munroe's boarding house. During the examinations Russell contracted the measles. He was put to bed and I had my examinations behind a  p104 screen. Surgeon Henry T. Percy who had been with me on the Galena advised me to ask for a physical re‑examination. It was granted and no fault was found with my heart. I have since diagnosed the trouble as this: I weighed only a hundred and twenty-five pounds and was afraid that I would be declared to be underweight. So on the morning of the first physical examination I ate heartily of Mrs. Munroe's of eggs, sausage, coffee, honey, and at least ten biscuits! This probably overtaxed my heart. My father and grandfather each weighed 225 pounds, and I knew that when I grew older I would not be underweight. It has turned out so.

The thirty‑one of us who went back to the Academy finished our examinations in June. Taylor, the star man in our class (he had the highest percentage ever made at the Academy even to this day), had been sent abroad and made a naval constructor. Howell resigned on account of physical disability and Thompson did not return. Three ahead of me were either disqualified physically or resigned and I was number twenty‑one.

Several cases of retirement and dismissal were pending in the Navy Department, and I believed that vacancies really belonged to our class. I wanted a chance to get a commission rather than to be called upon to explain why I had got out of the Navy. I had become determined not to return to Hannibal in case I failed to get my commission.

Accordingly I went to Washington, told the story to Senator Cockrell and to Colonel Hatch, and found that practically all of the pending cases were in the hands of President Cleveland. They went with me to see the Secretary of the Navy, and from there we went to the White House. Senator Wade Hampton, of South Carolina; Senator Harris, of Tennessee, and others who had known my father and grandfather happened to be there at the time. They learned what I wanted and all of them went in with me to see the President. With this formidable array of legislators coming in Mr. Cleveland arose,  p105 stepped forward, and inquired what he could do for us. I told him the situation.

"Well," he said, "I have had all of these cases under advisement for some time, and the question is should I retire these officers to make room for younger men or let them run on for a while?"

I told him my advice was to retire them. He smiled and said he would do the best he could.

I remained in Washington to watch developments. On June 29th, next to the last day before the close of the fiscal year, I found there was still one unsettled case and that it was in the hands of the judge advocate general of the Navy. It looked as if the twenty-first vacancy were not enough to save me. Twenty‑two were needed. With Senator Cockrell I again went to see the President. He listened to me, sat down at his desk, took up a pencil and on a small bit of paper wrote, "I want all of the papers in the case of Lieutenant ––––––––– in my hands, this date," and handed it to me.

I rushed to the Navy Department and saw Commodore John G. Walker, and was referred by him to the judge advocate general. I told him the story forgetting to hand him Mr. Cleveland's memorandum. He told me it was impossible to complete the case, as a number of his clerks were on summer leave and the rest were too busy. Then I handed him the slip of paper on which the President of the United States himself had written the order. His attitude changed immediately. he said, "Come back this afternoon." I soon heard typewriters clicking and learned that the office that afternoon experienced one of the most remarkable upheavals it had ever known. I told Commodore Walker what I had done and he said he would aid me. Three o'clock came, then four, and it was finally five before the papers were placed in my own hands.

President Cleveland had said that he would wait for me at the White House. It was June 30th, and the last chance. I ran to the White House and in front of the  p106 building were the President and Mrs. Cleveland sitting in their carriage. He was waiting for me as he had promised to do. He took the papers and signed them before midnight. I shall never forget that act of the President, and although it did not save my commission it did save that of one other man — Benjamin Wright.

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