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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York

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 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p3  Chapter I

Laying the Keel

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When I was old enough to think in terms of the future, no other career than the Navy entered my mind. This was but natural, as my father was in the service. I was about twelve years old when such thoughts became really active. I told all my companions that I would become a naval officer. I think this gave me increased prestige among them, for they thought of the Navy as something mysterious and exciting. At that time it was not as well known and understood as it is today, due to the films and the greater number of illustrated magazines.

I was then red headed, though in after years my hair turned to a darker shade. Naturally, I was called "Reddie." I had a reputation of being a fighter. I did have many fights though I was not quarrelsome nor a bully. My inclination was always to avoid a fight. I believe that my evident desire to keep out of physical combats actually brought me into fights with other boys, that, with more of a show of assertiveness, might have been avoided. I was slow to anger, and this was often interpreted for fear.

I can recall a host of fights with boys at school and with neighborhood boy gangs where I lived, in the northwest section of Baltimore. I was agile and strong and knew how to handle myself when once aroused. I remember very vividly one boy in our school who gave me considerable annoyance. I saw by his attitude that he was determined to pick a fight with me, and I  p4 did my best to shun him. He was by nature a bully; I had seen him fight and knew he was good with his fists. I found myself fearing him, and that feeling caused my pride to suffer. I would go out of my way in order to avoid him. He was the leader of a type of boys who hang around a bully. I was finding it harder and harder to keep out of his way and realized that sooner or later I must fight him. My heart always skipped a beat whenever I saw him.

One day I was returning from school alone. When I was only a few blocks from my neighborhood, I saw this boy and a half-dozen others coming from the other direction, and I knew that I could not avoid him. The bully suddenly confronted me and began to criticize me. I remember he called me a gentleman. He seemed to think that was something to be ashamed of. The usual fighting epithets were passed between us. I confess I was both confused and scared. Then he challenged me to fight him. I must have seen that a fight could no longer be postponed. My red‑head temper suddenly flared forth; I told him to put up his fists and sailed into him, getting in the first blow on a vital spot in his face. He was the most surprised boy I have ever seen. I beat down his guard and struck him so many hard blows that he gave ground at once. I followed him and, as the boys say, beat him up unmercifully. Fear seemed to lend me strength for he was actually bigger than I. When I realized that I had mastered the bully, I became a most elated youngster. Now I was enjoying the fight. Then he turned and ran, saving his face by yelling: "Cheese it, the cops." I looked around and there was not a cop in sight. I did not follow him, nor did his gang. I was surprised when the bully's companions gathered round me and said that I was now their leader.

Beating the bully lifted a heavy weight from my mind. My morale received a decided boost. However, my victory, instead of stimulating a desire to fight, actually had the opposite effect. I found myself hating physical combat as much as ever.

Being the son of a naval officer, I was made captain of a military company organized in our neighborhood. I wore my father's old sword, and its possession enhanced my importance in the eyes of my companions. Our company, armed with wooden guns, engaged in frequent combats with other companies, many bruises being exchanged and many wooden guns broken. I once had my sword seized and carried off by a rival company, which  p5 was a great mortification. We managed to retrieve it after a fight in which we drove off our opponents.

My father settled his family in Baltimore where his father had always lived. I was then about four years old. I think I was about seven when I first saw a warship. Several of them were in the harbor for some historical anniversary, and the captain of one of the ships invited my mother to bring the children to luncheon. I was much impressed. The ships were spotlessly clean, and the sailors took charge of me and showed me over the ship. Some had sailed with my father. A salute of twenty‑one guns was fired, and I remember the women were all frightened at the noise. The guns used in the salute were the big broadside guns of the old frigates, that made a great noise and quantities of smoke. An officer walked from gun to gun counting and ordering "Fire," until the number was reached. A very vivid recollection is hearing an altercation between the admiral and the captain in which their voices were raised to what I considered an angry pitch. The admiral told the captain: "Carry out my orders, Sir, and don't question them." The captain answered: "Aye, Aye, Sir." Then he saw me looking on with wide, frightened eyes and, turning to the admiral, said: "This boy is Lieutenant Commander Yates Stirling's son."

The admiral patted me on the head and in a changed voice said kindly: "Are you going in the Navy, too?" I answered, smiling and much relieved, for I had never heard grown men quarreling before: "I hope to, Sir."

My home life was always happy. My mother was a very beautiful woman and was always much admired. Although most exacting, she gave her children great affection and every care. She was most ambitious for us all and constantly stimulated our young minds to read good books by reading aloud to us. She was especially ambitious for me, at first, and for some years, the only son among three daughters; and she spent much of her slender allowance on private teachers to cause me to skip grades at school. I am afraid I did not always fully co‑operate. I was not a good student.

Years back, when my father was ordered to sea, he was quite sure of being away from home for three years. Warships at that time were just emerging from the days of sail. Steam frigates and corvettes made up most of the navy list. On long passages, sail invariably was used, and many months were occupied in crossing  p6 the vast expanses of oceans. Steam was raised only rarely. Ships steamed when entering and leaving port and to avoid too long a stay in those tropical area called the "doldrums."

I was about twelve when my father left us to join the frigate Lackawanna in the Pacific Ocean. I remember bidding him a tearful good‑by at the railroad station. I recall two of these sad departures and two glad home-comings after three years' absence. While he was on sea duty in far‑distant seas, our only knowledge of my father's welfare came in bulky letters that arrived in bunches, sometimes at long intervals, and in which the whole family shared, including my father's father and his numerous brothers and sisters, all older, for he was the youngest son and greatest favorite. These letters stirred within me a strong desire for a naval life. My mother always read them to us aloud. They were full of most exciting details of his life on a warship: gales, tropical coral reefs, savage people, hunting, and yellow fever. Father's Chinese steward died of yellow fever when the ship was leaving Callao, Peru, for Australia, and we did not know for nearly six months whether father had caught the plague or not.

His return from one of these long cruises in a far‑distant ocean was a great occasion; not only because of our great affection for him, but also because of the wonderful collection of treasures he brought back. One by one they came out of boxes and numerous sea chests reeking with pleasant Oriental odors. He always had appropriate gifts for the family and also for numerous others. I shall never forget when a box arrived, brought by two sailors in a cart. In it was father's dog Tom and a monkey that had been taught to ride on the dog's back. My mother was always given jewelry and my sisters silks and fans. I remember there was a cabinet in our parlor filled with all sorts of barbaric things collected from the islands of the Pacific. There was also an Indian head from Peru out of which all the bone of the skull had been taken through the neck, and the head shrunk by drying to the size of a large monkey's head, with long hair, but with the likeness of a man preserved.

On one of his long cruises my father bade good‑by to my mother, his daughters, and two sons. My young brother was then about three. He died of diphtheria a few months later, and another son was born shortly before that sad event. When my father returned, the new son was about the same age as the son he  p7 had left behind. I sometimes think it was hard for him to realize that he had lost one son and gained another.

I met many naval officers from time to time. It seemed they were always dropping in during my father's absences at sea to tell my mother that they had seen him and that he was well, or to bring some small package he had sent from some place in the antipodes. When father returned from sea, he was usually stationed in Washington, either at the Navy Department or the Navy Yard. He would commute from Baltimore, and sometimes he would take me with him to spend the day. In that way I absorbed a lot of the Navy and knew all his most intimate friends.

I recall how delighted I was when my father was given command of the receiving ship Dale at the Washington Navy Yard. It was a housed‑in old sailing ship where enlisted men were quartered after enlisting and until they could be sent to seagoing ships. We rented our house in Baltimore and moved to Washington. We all lived on board the Dale, which was fitted up most comfortably for our family, although the cabins seemed very small after a house. I was then going on fifteen and rather venturesome. The sailors rigged up a sailboat for me, and I spent much of my time when not at school on the river. At the Navy Yard I was thrown in with many naval boys, sons of officers, and I learned that all hoped to go to Annapolis, about which they seemed to know more than I did. I went to school at "Baldy" Young's on H Street and insisted on taking the studies prescribed for those who were contemplating entering the Military Academy or the Naval Academy.

My father took me to the White House to see President Grover Cleveland and asked him for an appointment to the Naval Academy for me. The President gazed down at me benignly from his superior height and said to my father: "Why, Commander, your son looks too young to go to Annapolis this year. Maybe next, it will be possible. Shall I have his name put down for an appointment then?" Although fifteen, I was still dressed in short trousers, which was a mistake on our part.

The next year, through a Congressman friend of the family's and a frequent skating companion of mine on the Potomac River, I managed to obtain an appointment. This Congressman could not find in his district a boy willing to go to the Academy; so the appointment could be filled by the Secretary of the Navy. The Congressman wrote a personal letter to the Secretary asking him  p8 to appoint me, and it was done. I reported for examination at Annapolis in early September, 1888.

I shall never forget how superior I felt when, after the lists were posted of those who had failed in different subjects, I saw my name did not appear. I soon entered the Naval Academy as a plebe.

Today, my memories of Naval Academy life during four years of mental grind are considerably blurred. I lacked fundamental grounding in the various basic subjects, but, even worse, I had not formed the habit of close application and was much keener for games and pranks than for my studies. At times, however, things seemed easy enough, showing that after all my brain was sound but that it needed much disciplining.

Probably, the more lasting memories of my cadet life were concerned with pleasant things, such as athletics, summer practice cruises, and "June Week," when Annapolis is in fiesta and large numbers of young girls arrive to gladden the cadets after their year of hard study. "June Week" ends with a ball, or "hop" as we called it, given by the new first class to the graduating class. During this week the Board of Visitors, comprised of well-known and important people, witness the drills and all student activities and report in detail upon ways and means for needed improvements and changes. The diplomas are given on the last day of this week, usually by the Secretary of the Navy, but sometimes by the President of the United States himself. This occasion is always to be remembered.

Hazing, during my time, was up for interdiction by the authorities, but except for an occasional court martial of hazers, followed by the dismissal of those convicted, that mild form of student torture of the underdog plebe went on just the same. I came in for my share when a plebe; and after I had become an upper classman, with the vivid memory of what I had been through, I had no hesitancy in passing the same treatment along to the new plebes. I really believe that both the hazed and the hazer enjoyed the experience, and the plebe, in most cases, was better for it. In my time the forms of hazing used could do no harm and often took away an overabundance of conceit from a too‑fresh cadet.

The Naval Academy, forty-eight‑odd years ago, although possibly owning almost as much ground as today, much of it unimproved, had only one‑tenth of the student body of today. Our  p9 battalion was composed of about two hundred and fifty cadets. There was one large barracks, housing most of the cadets; the overflow being taken care of in what was called "Old Quarters," these having been built about the time of the Civil War. The Gymnasium, Armory, and the buildings for engineering, ordnance, physics, navigation, and seaman­ship activities were brick and of simple architecture. There were many beautiful shade trees and cool walks, and the houses for the officers had wide porches and were almost concealed behind thick ivy vines. While the course in studies gave both theoretical and practical instruction in the newer arts and sciences, much time was devoted to seaman­ship and the art of handling full-rigged ships under sail. The study of navigation was most complete. The textbooks used, compared to those of today, were most elementary. Electricity was a child in swaddling clothes. Little then was known of the vast possibilities of either electricity or steam engineering. The steam turbine and super-heated steam were still to come. Radio, of course, had not been invented.

For the use of the cadets there were two training ships moored at the wharf on the Severn River. They were the Constellation and the steam corvette Wyoming, both warships of historic memories.​a The cadets spent every Wednesday and Saturday on board one or the other of these ships at seaman­ship drills. During the summer months we made a cruise in the Constellation. At the start of our first trip, while skylarking, I sprained my ankle and was sent ashore to the hospital. I thus missed the exciting experience of being shipwrecked. The ship stranded on a shoal just inside the Capes of the Chesapeake. Later in the summer we embarked again.

On these practice cruises the officer that stands out most prominently in my memory is Lieutenant "Karflip" Fullam. He was our tactical officer at the Academy and an instructor in ordnance and gunnery. He wrote the textbook we used. His handling of the battalion in most intricate evolutions won everyone's admiration. He was most energetic, quick in his movements, and sharp and decisive in his speech. As a deck officer he was a perfect example of a clever ship handler. After we had held our breath in admiration to see Fullam tack the Constellation under full sail through the narrow channel leading into Newport Harbor, he became our class hero, and we dedicated our year book to him. Lieutenant W. H. Fullam in after years became a prominent admiral and was superintendent  p10 of the Naval Academy about twelve years later, when my brother Archie was a midshipman there.

It is somewhat of a disappointment not to be able to say that I was brilliant in my studies. However, I was moderately athletic and could have been more so if I had not at that time an aversion for any sort of physical competition. I was good at football, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, track, and wrestling. I attribute my feeling about competition to bad handling of my case by the athletic instructor. He persuaded me to run a hundred yards against the stop watch. I ran the distance in ten and four‑fifths seconds. The world record was at that time ten flat. Then, without giving me training in how to start, he insisted I run against the best cadet runner for that distance. When the report of the starting gun penetrated my thick head, my opponent was, it seemed to me, so far on his way that I felt that I could never close up the gap. My feet seemed anchored to the ground. It took all the heart out of me. I thought I was not good enough, and I refused to go into the track meets. I did run the baseball bases and established a record one year.

I was keen about football, but although fast, I was too light in weight. I was captain of the second team and played both end and halfback. I substituted occasionally on the varsity. I wrestled in the gymnasium exhibitions several times.

Naval Academy days were none too pleasant. I resented restraint and strict discipline. Almost every year I accumulated nearly the allowed limit in demerits. I was very careless, and my sins were those of omission. One night a classmate and I had taken French leave, and the watchmen were wise that the cadets were scaling the wall and were on the lookout. When I reached the top of the wall on my return and was poised to jump down the fifteen or twenty feet, there was a watchman waiting for me. I could not stop, so I landed on him. He did not recognize me, and before he could recover, I was out of sight. The next day one of the watchmen carried his arm in a sling. I strolled up innocently, and he told me that it was a collarbone fracture. Years later he informed me he had known it was I all the time, but he had been in my father's ship at one time and would not report me.

There was a girl in Baltimore whom I had known for years. I imagined for some time that I was in love with her, but I did not consider she felt the same toward me. She was not a beauty  p11 and was probably a little flirt; at least she was always surrounded by men, which I have found is convincing evidence of that. On my third class leave, spent in the vicinity of that city, we were constantly together, and I returned, after a month, to the Academy head over heels in love with her. I could not keep my mind on the difficult studies. When I opened my books, my mind strayed off to all the good times I had had, and the girl's face was always before my eyes. I was in a near panic because I was making bad recitations and had been posted in one subject as unsatisfactory. I feared I would "bilge." I wrote to me father and told him I wanted to resign as I knew I could not keep up and would be "bilged" in February. He came down from Baltimore to see me. If he suspected what was wrong with me, he said nothing to me about it. I do not recall now what we talked about, but somehow he gave me the determination to stick it out. Hard study soon made things clearer to me, and I never was on the weekly list of unsatisfactory again.

My mother was skeptical about me. She was forever saying: "I'll give you just six more months to 'bilge.' " Whether she thought that remark would rouse my fighting spirit and cause me to study harder, or whether she was preparing her own mind for that disappointing event, I do not know.

At the end of my third year at the Academy, as a first-classmate, we embarked again on board the Constellation. I know that this training in a sailing ship gave me experience in many ways that was useful to me later. The cruise was too short and hurried: only three months; but it seemed to stir in me a latent instinct for the sea. Both my father and my grandfather on my mother's side had been captains of sailing ships. The first class for this cruise were divided into two details: white and blue. Cadets in the white detail wore sailor clothes and did sailor work. The blue-detail cadets wore their cadet uniforms and performed the duties of officers. My regular detail was mainmastman while in white, but as I was active and experienced, the officer of the deck suddenly ordered me aloft to help with the sending down of the main royal yard.

After weighing anchor in Annapolis, we had started down the Chesapeake with all sail set. There was a squall approaching, and the order had been given to shorten sail and send down topgallant and royal yards. Of course I was not a beginner in going  p12 aloft, but this time the conditions were far worse than I had ever experienced in our sail drills in quiet weather at the dock.

The order to shorten sail was an emergency, for the squall had appeared suddenly and had taken us unawares. Before I had arrived in the maintop the wind and rain were upon us. The royal yard was about one hundred and twenty feet from the deck, reached after climbing two almost vertical shrouds and two swaying Jacob's ladders. As I went over the maintop platform, I glanced above me and realized I had over a hundred more feet to climb. I began squeezing out tar on every handhold to prevent being blown out into space by the great force of the wind and the pressure of the solid sheets of rain. On the ladders my body swung in and out in teeth-rattling lunges. I was drenched and nearly blinded by the stinging rain in my face.

I felt a sense of security, which was more imaginary than real, when I at last reached the royal yard and swung myself out on the frail spar. Clutching the flapping sail, I planted my feet insecurely on the swaying footrope. When I looked down, shivers went up and down my spine, for then the precariousness of my position was only too evident. One miss in a handhold or a foothold and then? A cadet had followed me, and I could see he too was holding on like grim death on the other yardarm. We used sign language between ourselves and to the deck below.

Exerting every ounce of strength we could muster and while the gale was at its height, we managed to furl the sail and get the yard ready for lowering. Then, holding on at the top of the Jacob's ladder, we saw the yard cockbill and swing out in space like a writhing serpent. As it was lowered, I followed it with my eyes, guiding it by the mast rope and prepared my nerves for the descent, which would be quite as dangerous as the ascent; but at least gravity would be in our favor.

When I reached the deck, I felt, I imagine, like an aviator after his first solo flight. I would have willingly turned around and gone through the experience again. Before the cruise was over, I know we all took going aloft in any weather in our stride. The physical condition and the confidence acquired that enable you to hang, without batting an eye, by one hand in space with a yawning drop below you are things the modern sailor never attains. That sense of exaltation was well worth the price paid.

The blue detail spoken of above throws a cadet on his own. Each had to maneuver the ship under sail. No one knew when  p13 he would be called to the ship's bridge, handed the speaking trumpet by the commissioned officer of the deck, and told to perform a maneuver. One day I was leaning against the mainmast when I heard my name called by a bull-throated boatswain's mate, for me to report to the officer of the deck. I was in white detail and I wondered: What have I done now? When I reached the bridge, the officer of the deck handed me the trumpet and said: "Mr. Stirling, you have been taken aback. The crew are at dinner; bring her back on the wind."

On previous occasions I had succeeded in tacking, wearing, box‑hauling, and bringing ship to anchor, and felt I had performed the evolutions to the satisfaction of the officer instructors who always appeared on deck with notebook and pencil in hand to sit in judgment. But even so, my heart sank at this assignment. I gazed aloft. The sails were all aback. Then I looked over the side and saw the ship was about dead in the water. I asked the helmsman: "How's your helm?"

"Down," he replied. The officer of the deck had luffed and put the sails aback.

Looking back today I cannot imagine why I was panicky, but then I was, and for a minute that seemed hours my mind drew a blank. I was absolutely overcome, and if I had followed my inclination I would have run down from the bridge. I saw the eyes of my people below eyeing me questioningly. Then I calmed and reason once more came to my mind. It was the maneuver of "Chapeling ship without touching a brace" that was wanted, described in our seaman­ship manual. A simple maneuver of using the helm and the movement of the ship through the water to bring her back again on the same tack and without changing the bracing of a yard. When once again the ship was back on her course, I walked down from the bridge much happier than when I had arrived there. I do not think that anyone knew what I had gone through.

After the cruise, when we returned to Annapolis and began our studies again, I began to realize that if I were going to graduate high enough to obtain the coveted commission, I must get much higher marks in my studies and stand far higher in the class than I had managed to do so far. In those days only ten cadets could be assured of commissions, and the additional ones depended upon vacancies made during the year in the list of officers of the Navy. The subjects of study now seemed more to my liking. They were  p14 all important to the naval profession. If I were going to be poor in these, of what use would I be as an officer? This thought gave me the incentive I needed to snap out of my mental apathy. After having stood in the forties in my class for three years, I came out at the end of the first-class year standing ten for the year. I found myself just in the nick of time.

A student at the Naval Academy never will feel as self-important again in his whole naval career as when he reaches the exalted position of being a first-classman, more especially if he is also a cadet officer. A cadet officer within the walls of the Academy, and even in "crab town," as picturesque and historical old Annapolis is irreverently called by the naval students, is a somebody; and he is most conscious of it. The thin gold circles around his sleeve and the star above them give him the greatest assurance and inflate his ego enormously. The cadet officer of forty‑six years ago gazed proudly almost every minute of the day at these stripes on his sleeves. Each year he had seen those stripes on the arms of upperclassmen, men whom he had looked up to as being almost gods. Now here he was with these stripes on his own arm.

I had shown certain ability on the practice cruise and was down for two stripes, or cadet lieutenant. But before I could receive them, they had vanished. A boyish indiscretion in keeping a boat away too long on a picnic reduced the award to a first-class petty officer. I became the first sergeant of the first company. The captain of the company was Homer Ferguson, my roommate, and now the head of the Newport News Shipbuilding Company. I remember even now, forty‑six years later, my great chagrin at the loss of the stripes. Cadet Jack Myers, who became a well-known general in the Marine Corps, was the cause of my loss. He returned with one of the prettiest girls over an hour late, and I had waited for them. I could not shove off without him. Speaking of the blow this loss was to me, I visited that Naval Academy to see my son Yates, a midshipman, just after the stripes were awarded. I was then a rear admiral. He had written his mother that he had no chance of getting stripes. My wife and several of the girls went with me to see a football game at the Academy. Yates met us at the station, and there were two stripes on his overcoat sleeve. He told us with a smile and a twinkle: "I just borrowed this overcoat." Knowing he had won these stripes quite compensated me for my disappointment thirty-four years before.

 p15  Having the rank of cadet officer gives the privilege of wearing a sword instead of carrying a gun at all military drills. But what is more important still is the knowledge of the impression the stripes make on the galaxy of girls who flock to the Academy from the neighboring cities to attend the social functions given during the year. For that year a cadet officer also has the freedom of the Naval Academy gate. This gives him an added prestige and a sense of responsibility. He leads his unit in drill and in many ways has more opportunity of becoming proficient as an officer of the Navy.

After enjoying his prominence for a year, and, at graduation, upon donning the uniform of a cadet at sea, the same as that of an officer, he imagines the life of restraint within high walls has gone forever. How sadly he is mistaken! He soon enough finds that he is after all a very minor person indeed. On board ship he will discover that even his freedom has been in a measure curtailed, and that being a first-classman and a striper at the Academy really has a higher relative value and importance than a cadet at sea. He has begun now at the lowest rung of the naval ladder. It is a long, difficult, and often heart-breaking climb, through six grades, to the top, that of rear admiral. That far‑distant horizon does not now concern his young mind. His immediate horizons are the four walls of his tiny cabin or the steerage he will share with others. Also, there will be his gun division made up of young men of his age who will salute him and obey his orders, although possibly having more knowledge from a practical standpoint than he will have at first. Then there will be his division officer, who will be his guide, philosopher, and friend, and also his Nemesis if he is too neglectful of the things given out to him to do. Anyway, he is on his way up the ladder, and success or failure belongs to him and no one else. The Naval Academy has given him his start, but he will learn that it is but the starter's gun and that in winning the race he must rely only on himself and on his use of the qualities that nature gave him. That tiresome waiting to come on every rung of the ladder may try his patience and tend to dim romance. But if he has it within him to rise in his chosen profession, eventually he will succeed in cutting quantities of red tape and free his mind from too much naval conservatism and take up a torch for progress and improvement. But now such thoughts are not his immediate concern. Life lies ahead. He does not fear the future.

Thayer's Note:

a Good details of the Constellation, her construction, and her launch are given, predictably, in Eugene S. Ferguson's Truxtun of the Constellation, Chapter 28, and to a less extent on pp125‑126 and p136.

She can be seen in the background of an 1893 photograph of the Naval Academy crew, in Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute, 61:1558, and atmospheric photos of midshipmen on her deck are given in W. D. Puleston, Annapolis, p112 (taken in 1885) and G. E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, p9 (taken in 1889).

The screw-sloop Wyoming, commissioned in 1859, was famous for having forced the Shimonoseki Straits in July 1863 by attacking, singlehandedly, three Japanese warships and four land batteries: the story is told in Alden et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, pp365‑370.

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