Short URL for this page:
After resigning the command of the Exploring Expedition in 1838, Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones remained on half pay for three years. Early in 1841, his health restored, he applied for active service and stated his preference for the Pacific Squadron. His wish was granted, and he was named to succeed Commodore Claxton in command of the Pacific Squadron.1 The old frigate United States was refitted to relieve her equally aged sister as flagship, and early in 1842 Commodore Jones sailed to take up his command.
The outward passage was uneventful, except for the fact that the run to Rio de Janeiro revealed that the "States frigate" could not face Cape Horn seas until she had been recaulked. This evidence of incompetence at the navy yards was nothing unusual, but Commodore Jones, enraged at a delay that might cause him to face a winter passage around the Horn, wrote one of those letters which help to explain his unpopularity with senior officers:
The history of repairs put upon this ship at Boston, New York and Norfolk within three years past, not only proves great incompetency somewhere, but readily accounts for the enormous, and I might say, criminal waste of public treasure appropriated for the Navy.2
This direct affront to the senior officers commanding those yards, and to the Board of Navy Commissioners, under whose jurisdiction such affairs came, could hardly have led these men to feel favorably towards its author.
The Welshman from Virginia took drastic action to end another practice which was against the public interest. Even as they had in Captain Ridgely's time, midshipmen were becoming involved in arguments which had to be settled on the field of honor. The commodore was responsible for the training of the "young gentlemen" and so felt constrained to curb dueling immediately. His remedy was that p60 which Ridgely had tried earlier — a pledge that they would abstain before allowing them to go ashore — and the result was the same. Midshipman Thomas B. Shubrick, of the South Carolina naval family, was the first to submit his warrant on the ground that no gentleman could accept such tyrannical treatment. Secretary Upshur, himself a Southern gentleman, agreed; Commodore Jones's action was strongly disapproved by the Navy Department. As before, no better solution to the problem was suggested.
The arrival of the United States in the Pacific was not an entirely happy one. Captain Turner had sailed for home, leaving Captain Aulick of the Yorktown as senior officer. The latter had expected orders to remain in command of the Pacific Squadron — in spite of the fact that he had only recently been promoted to captain — and was mortified to learn that the command had been given to Jones. He was so unwise as to show his disappointment in his relations with the commodore, who showed a tolerance and understanding unusual for him before relieving Aulick of his command. Even then, he took pains to point out that his action was due entirely to the fact that Aulick was too senior in rank to continue in command of a third-class sloop-of‑war, and there was no command suitable for him in the squadron.
Jones's sailing orders reflected the uncertainty felt with regard to Pacific area affairs in December 1841. The Oregon question was unsettled, American relations with Mexico were tense, Great Britain had just taken possession of New Zealand to keep France from occupying it, and it seemed quite likely that the powers would attempt to acquire additional territory in the region. As a result:
You will therefore omit no opportunity of affording them [Jones's officers and men] occupation and excitement by keeping your ships in motion as much as possible without losing sight of other objects, frequently exercising your guns, clearing the ships for action, exemplifying the arrangements necessary in the alarms of fire, and as often as they shall be together, passing them through such manouvers [sic] as their limited number will permit, so that should it ever be their fortune to be called upon to act in concert, the officers and men will not be taken altogether by surprise.3
Here was something new; for the first time the Pacific Squadron was to be what its name implied.
p61 Gathering the ships of his command, Commodore Jones proceeded to carry out that part of his orders referring to squadron maneuvers. An unusually long passage from Callao to Valparaiso was explained by the constant exercises. Most of the officers had never seen warships sailed in this fashion, and the "excitement" desired by Upshur was not lacking. Tacking, wearing, making and shortening sail together, all required a degree of precision undreamt of in handling a single ship. Moreover, this force was hardly homogeneous, either in size or in sailing qualities. The flagship had won for herself the reputation of being the fastest frigate in the world since, some years earlier, it had been found that trimming by the head had remedied her previously poor sailing.4 The sloops Cyane and Dale nearly equaled the States frigate on most points of sailing, while the Yorktown and Shark lagged far astern.
These maneuvers revealed clearly the limitations of the visual signal code then in use in the United States Navy. Most commodores had either substituted their own codes, or had dispensed with visual signals almost entirely — a lieutenant of the United States told Jones that he had served in the Pacific earlier with a commodore who made signals only twice during his entire cruise. Commodore Jones had devised a code which he hoped might become the standard for the Navy, but this seems never to have been adopted.
Before Commodore Jones receives full credit for transforming a group of individual ships into an efficient squadron, it is well to consider his plans for the number and employment of vessels on Pacific Station:
. . . My plan for the employment of a naval force on this station, if I had the requisite number of vessels, would be to keep one constantly cruizing between Conception and Callao, one at Callao, one between Callao and Panama, one on the coast of Mexico, and Gulph of Calafornia [sic], one on the coast of Calafornia, and N. W. coast, and two among the Islands, one entering and the other leaving at the same time. . . .5
He went on to point out that this would require seven vessels, exclusive of the flagship and her tender, a Baltimore schooner of superior sailing qualities. The ships would change stations every four months, so that each would visit every station twice during a three-year cruise. No doubt this would have kept the ships employed under way, but what about squadron maneuvers similar to those then being p62 practiced, to the enthusiasm of the junior officers? This plan made no allowance for periodic rendezvous for that purpose at all, and one is forced reluctantly to conclude that Commodore Jones was no more advanced than his naval brethren as regards the value of the squadron maneuvering as a whole.
In one respect, however, he proved that he was not averse to change. The earlier quoted plan for employment of the Pacific Squadron ended with this statement:
Two 2d class steamers would well perform the work of three or more sail vessels and there is no station where they could be employed to more advantage or with less expense than this. Coal at Talcahuano [Chile] is cheaper than anywhere in the U. S., and it is also said to abound on the Mexican coast.6
Alas, coal did not abound on the Mexican coast, and that at Talcahuano proved very unsatisfactory as steaming coal, but there could be little doubt that steamers would be very useful on Pacific Station. In time they would come, but Thomas ap Catesby Jones was never to direct the movements of a squadron of war‑steamers.
As August 1842 drew toward its close, Commodore Jones was at Callao with his flagship, and the Cyane, Dale, and Shark. There was a feeling of tension in the air — rumors of war between Mexico and the United States flew about; France had just taken the Marquesas and Washington Islands and was casting a covetous glance at Tahiti, a glance soon to be supplemented by the thunder of French guns as the empireº of Louis Philippe was again enlarged. No one could foresee the final outcome of the situation in Oregon where the joint Anglo-American possession seemed likely to be short-lived. It would not have been surprising had an occasional twinge of excitement joined the usual twinges of pain caused by the British musketball still lodged in Commodore Jones's shoulder.
On 27 August, HMS Dublin, the flagship of British Rear Admiral Richard Thomas, arrived at Callao, and the American commodore was invited on board to dinner. In return, the latter issued an invitation for Thomas to dine on board the United States. Meanwhile, the British consul at Callao died, and the senior officers of foreign warships present attended the funeral as a matter of course. There, a Peruvian diplomat told Jones of a secret mission upon which the British squadron was soon to sail. On 5 September, the mail steamer p63 from Panama arrived at Callao, and soon afterward, HMS Dublin weighed anchor and stood out; Jones's dinner for the British admiral would never be served.
The same steamer had brought Commodore Jones disturbing news. Not only was there information leading observers to believe that Mexico was already at war with the United States, but a letter from the American consul at Mazatlán furthered this belief. Moreover, Boston newspapers contained the news that Mexico had ceded Upper California to Great Britain for seven millions of dollars and a British guarantee of Mexico's possession of Lower California. Her Majesty's Pacific Squadron, the report continued, was to call at Panama to embark troops sent from the British West Indies for the occupation of Upper California.
Commodore Jones knew of his country's interest in California; he himself considered it the most important area in the eastern Pacific, after the Hawaiian Islands. Some years earlier Secretary of State John Forsyth had been directed to offer $500,000 for San Francisco Bay and the region to the north, but Mexico had refused. Prevented by averse winds from hurrying after the British, Jones conferred with the American chargé d'affaires at Lima. The diplomat agreed that everything tended to confirm the newspaper report, and that the country's interests demanded that the commodore act to prevent British occupation of California. He could only recommend action, however; the responsibility was Jones's alone.
At Callao, the wind veered fair on 7 September, and Jones got his ships under way, leaving a letter explaining his intentions for Lieutenant-Commandant John S. Nicholas of the Yorktown, then absent on a cruise to the southward. One day out, the ships backed main topsails long enough for their commanding officers to board the flagship. Captain James Armstrong of the United States, the Cyane's Commander Cornelius K. Stribling, and Commander Thomas A. Dornin of the Dale gathered in the frigate's flag-cabin where their commodore laid before each a letter summarizing briefly the evidence which had caused him to order them to sea. Each concurred in his decision to occupy Monterey.
With this support for his intended action, Jones ordered the squadron to keep on to the northward. The three square-riggers were able to maintain an approximately equal pace, but the little Shark, feeling p64 all of her twenty‑one years, lagged behind and was ordered back to Callao. Off Panama, the Dale was detached to carry the commodore's dispatches for transmission to Washington,a while the flagship and the Cyane kept on for Monterey. Off that port, they spoke the merchantman Fama who confirmed the news of war with Mexico, and on 19 October their anchors splashed to the bottom of Monterey Harbor.
Neither British warship nor British soldier was to be seen, so it was apparent that Jones had won his race. No preparations for defense had been made ashore, and the governor acceded to Captain Armstrong's demand that he surrender. On the next day, the American flag was hoisted over the capital of Upper California, and the American occupation had begun.
But it did not continue for long. Commodore Jones's eloquent proclamation had hardly been completed when it became apparent that someone was acting on erroneous information. The townspeople knew of no war, and an American whaler in the harbor was equally mystified. Jones wrote the United States Minister at Mexico City:
The day after the capitulation, I ascertained satisfactorily that as late as Aug. 25, 1842, no act of hostility had been committed against the U. S. by Mexico, from which I infered [sic] that the crisis in the dispute with that Country had terminated amicably; — whereupon I immediately restored the Mexican flag and authority over Monterey, in all due form and ceremony, and interchanged friendly salutations and visits.7
Jones understandably omitted a detail of the lowering of the American flag. His son, the Cyane's Midshipman Meriwether Patterson Jones, was sent ashore for this purpose, but he dramatically proclaimed that he would never strike the American flag; then he drank too much whiskey and rolled down a cliff. Young Jones, in a pleasantly relaxed state, was not badly hurt by his fall, but another had to haul down the flag.
The local authorities were inclined to view the whole mistaken occupation lightly, and a round of entertainment for the American officers preceded their departure. The merchants of the community were gratified to receive full payment for all commodities supplied the warships, especially since Mexican forces rarely paid for anything.
Unfortunately, the Mexican government could not share the attitude p65 of its representative at Monterey. The United States disavowed the act of the too‑zealous commodore, and Commodore Alexander J. Dallas was ordered to the Pacific by way of Panama to relieve Jones of his command. Upshur made it clear to the Welshman that this course was necessary to appease the Mexican demands and was in no sense an official judgment of his proceeding. But this letter did not reach Jones for some months because it was entrusted to Commodore Dallas.
It is very difficult to judge Jones harshly for acting indiscreetly. In a very real sense, he was a victim of the communications difficulty earlier pointed out. Everything led him to believe that his information was correct, and those with whom he conferred, concurred in his decision. He had received no orders from the Navy Department since his departure from the United States. As soon as his error became apparent, he restored Monterey to its rightful government, and it is obvious that his conduct was correct for the local authorities took no offense, nor were there any serious claims for indemnification of damage. Perhaps he should have taken more pains to learn the true state of affairs upon his arrival at Monterey. But this would have given the Mexicans time to prepare their defenses, and his force, a frigate and a sloop-of‑war, was small enough in all conscience. Moreover, he expected British warships and soldiers to arrive at any time. Of one thing we may be sure — had the rumors been true, and had Jones failed to act, he would have faced official inquiry on much more serious charges.
It is less easy to understand the commodore's attitude toward his recall. He must have realized that Mexico would accept nothing less as evidence of American good faith; yet he continued to act as though he expected the Navy Department to overlook his excusable error. After his eventual return to the United States, he persisted in his demands that he be returned to command the Pacific Squadron and refused all other posts offered by the Secretary. His querulous letters accusing his superiors of treating him unjustly must have made him enemies he could ill afford, and even his strongest supporters must have found his conduct trying.
After leaving Monterey, Jones had cruised leisurely along the California coast, touching at many ports and giving evidence of his friendship for Mexico. He had transferred his flag to the Cyane and p66 sent the United States to Honolulu to load provisions for the squadron. The "Old Waggon" belied her nickname and early reputation by returning to Monterey thirty‑one days after she had cleared that port. Four days of that period had been spent at Oahu. Jones considered this to be the "most extraordinary voyage ever made under canvas."8 At Los Angeles, Jones conferred with Mexican General Micheltorena who had led a military force toward Monterey when its seizure was reported. The meeting was quite amicable, although Jones refused to entertain seriously the Mexican's demand that he be reimbursed for damage to uniforms during his forced march.
Having completed the round of friendly visits, the ships stood southward to Valparaiso. Here, there is reason to believe that Commodore Jones heard that his relief was on the way to the Pacific Station. At any rate, the United States sailed for the Hawaiian Islands soon after she had arrived at Valparaiso, supposedly because the Pacific islands had been largely neglected during Jones's cruise. However, it was believed in Valparaiso that the commodore did not wish to be relieved until his normal tenure of command had expired, and so sought to avoid Commodore Dallas in the more remote waters of the Pacific Station. In support of this view, there is the incident recorded years afterward by a distinguished officer who had been a midshipman in the United States. During this island cruise, a sudden squall carried away the frigate's main topgallant mast and the commodore's broad pennant at the main truck also fell "by the run." This being mentioned to the officer of the deck, he remarked that it did not matter since the pennant had been kept aloft "by the run" for some time. Moreover, the United States went first to Oahu and then stood to the southward through the other island groups, whereas the normal track for island cruising was just the reverse of this because of prevailing winds. Whether or not Jones had definite word of the impending relief, all events made it seem that he was trying to avoid anyone desirous of meeting him.
Arriving at Honolulu, Commodore Jones found that he was not the only naval officer who had taken possession of a foreign territory without authorization from his government. At the request of the British consul, Admiral Thomas had sent the sloop-of‑war HMS Carysfort to Honolulu to protect British interests. The sloop's Captain Lord George Paulet presented a series of demands to the King p67 of the Hawaiian Islands, and that monarch agreed to cede his kingdom to Great Britain on 25 February 1843. Not long afterward, the American sloop-of‑war Boston came in with dispatches from Commodore Lawrence Kearny of the East India Station, and remained at Honolulu to ensure that American interests did not suffer under British rule. Early in July, Commodore Kearny arrived in the Constellation, and immediately registered a strong protest against the cession. A few weeks later, Rear Admiral Thomas himself arrived on the scene and promptly disavowed Paulet's action. The Hawaiian Islands were thereupon returned to their monarch, and the British rule was ended after five months. Thus, the situation had already been resolved when the flagship of the Pacific Squadron stood into the harbor at Honolulu.
At least one officer had no doubt as to the true reason for Jones's island cruise. Commodore Alexander J. Dallas was surprised to find that no vessel of the Pacific Squadron awaited him at Panama. He made his way to Callao, and there found only the schooner Shark, although he might reasonably have expected to find several American warships at that port. But the Shark was a man-o'‑war, so he broke his broad pennant in her and assumed command of the Pacific Squadron on 12 July 1843. A letter was left for Jones, and the new flagship set out of in pursuit of the old. It was a long chase, and for the next few months the few people who were aware of the situation could laugh at the comic spectacle of one commodore chasing another through the eastern Pacific.
Dallas met the storeship Erie in the course of his pursuit, and shifted his flag to her — she was faster and more comfortable than the little Shark, but was no more successful in catching the flying Welshman. Dallas continued to dispatch letters after his predecessor even while continuing the pursuit. Jones finally received official word of his relief from French Rear Admiral Dupetit-Thouars at Nukahiva. In accordance with the implied desires of the Navy Department, the commodore headed toward Callao, where, for all he knew, Dallas was awaiting his arrival. On the way, he touched at Tahiti and there received a letter from Dallas which stated that his presence was desired in the United States as soon as possible. Commodore Kearny in the Constellation was likely to be at Valparaiso, and to that port Jones sailed in hope of getting passage.
p68 The retiring commander in chief did not find the Constellation at Valparaiso, but he did find more letters from Dallas. These contained conflicting instructions, and Jones was left to ponder whether he should await Dallas at Callao or return home immediately. Probably he had no desire to meet his irate successor, but it did seem more important that he return to the United States, and so to Callao he went to join Kearny in the latter's flagship.
Dallas had accused Jones of deliberately avoiding him and this accusation could not go unanswered. The Welshman was quite blunt in his rejoinder:
That the activity of the Squadron under my command, and the punctual movements of my Flag Ship, should strike you with surprise is not so very unnatural, when compared with the indolence of my Predecessors on this, and I may add, on most other stations, where a Broad Pennant has flown since you and I entered the Navy.9
This aspersion on the activities of such revered naval officers as Charles Stewart, Isaac Hull, Jacob Jones, and their fellows, would have been most unwise under any circumstances, and its effect on Dallas was immediate. He wrote the Secretary of the Navy:
Commodore Jones' entire conduct since his knowledge of the intention of the Gov't. to relieve him from the command of the Pacific Station, and also his disobedience of my orders, render it necessary that I should particularly call the attention of the Dept. to the same and request that he be placed on his trial before a Court Martial.10
However, Jones arrived in the United States to find that his fellow Virginian, John Y. Mason, was Secretary of the Navy. After reviewing the evidence, the latter decided that Dallas had been correct in assuming command of the squadron when he did, but that Jones also had acted properly in continuing to exercise his command until he received official notice of his relief. No action on Dallas's charges was taken, and Jones was not censured for the Monterey episode.
Commodore Dallas did not have long to enjoy his command in the Pacific. The Savannah frigate came out to carry his broad pennant, and in her he resumed the normal round of visits to Callao and Valparaiso. He complained that his health had been impaired by the discomforts suffered in small vessels during the pursuit of Commodore Jones (Dr. Maxwell thought it in large part attributable to overindulgence in strong drink). Dallas finally decided to return p69 home as his illness was growing worse. Accordingly, orders were drawn up for Captain James Armstrong of the United States to assume command of the squadron pending the arrival of Dallas's relief.
The States frigate stood into the anchorage at Callao on 5 June 1844, and her officers observed that the flags of all ships present were at half-mast, while the American warships were firing minute guns. Commodore Alexander J. Dallas had died on board the Savannah on the preceding day. Armstrong immediately assumed command of the flagship and of the Pacific Squadron, the Cyane's Commander Stribling took charge of the United States which was to return home, and Commander George N. Hollins shifted from the Savannah to the Cyane. Arrangements were made for Dallas's interment at Lima, notwithstanding the late commodore's request that he be buried at sea.
The Dallas-Jones episode had an ironic sequel. When later again assumed command of the Pacific Squadron in 1848, his first duty upon arriving at Callao was to supervise the disinterment of Dallas's remains for return to the United States. As chief mourner, Commodore Jones occupied a place in the boat immediately astern of that bearing the coffin to the storeship Erie; finally Commodore Dallas had caught up with Commodore Jones.
Captain Armstrong's interim command was not so eventful as the cruises of his immediate predecessors. He engaged in a controversy with the Peruvian government and with the American chargé at Lima over the practice of sending carpenters from the ships of his squadron to repair American merchantmen in Peruvian harbors. Local shipwrights not unnaturally felt that this business should go to them, and complained bitterly. The chargé thought their arguments reasonable, but Armstrong did not believe that he should depart from the established practice. Repeated remonstrances by the chargé were finally effective, but Armstrong retained the right to assist merchant vessels whenever it seemed that local prices were unduly high. Since naval personnel so employed were not supposed to receive any compensation in addition to their normal pay, American shipowners were eager to avail themselves of the services of experienced naval carpenters, rather than pay often exorbitant sums for the doubtful repairs made by local laborers.
p70 Meanwhile, in San Francisco Bay General Micheltorena was showing his resentment against Americans by ordering their whaleships to anchor in an area inconvenient for taking on wood and water, and by imposing irksome restrictions on their barter with the Californians. The whalers appealed to Captain Armstrong, and he took the flagship to Monterey for a conference with Micheltorena. Perhaps the Savannah's 32‑pounders were the convincing argument; at any rate, the general promptly removed the restrictions. Once more the whalers could anchor off Sausalito and trade for produce with only nominal regulations to observe.
When news of Dallas's death had reached Washington, Commodore John D. Sloat had been ordered to assume command of the Pacific Squadron. He arrived at Callao to find only the Shark present. Armstrong had left no indication of his intended movements; indeed, he had left no information at all to guide his successor. Sloat was critical of the officer who had left the vast American commerce in the southeastern Pacific virtually without protection, and for a time it seemed that Dallas's chase of Jones all over the eastern Pacific might be re‑enacted. However, Armstrong was not seeking to avoid his relief, and Sloat was able to break his broad pennant in the Savannah at Callao on 20 March 1845.
Strong apprehension still existed that Mexico might cede California to Great Britain in exchange for sizable loans, and Sloat was cautioned to guard against this contingency. His squadron was to be concentrated on the Mexican coast to assure American merchant shipping of protection, but the commodore was to do everything possible to maintain harmonious relations with Mexican officials. Somewhat later, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft sent out orders for Commodore Foxhall A. Parker, returning with the East India Squadron, to remain on the Mexican coast with Sloat. If Parker himself desired to return home, he could do so in a merchantman or across the Isthmus of Panama. Or, if he wished, he could assume command on the Pacific Station (he was senior to Sloat), but in any event, his ships were to remain with the Pacific Squadron. However, Parker did not receive the order in time and took most of his squadron back to the United States. Only the Constitution was retained by Sloat for some months.
Meanwhile, Anglo-American relations were strained over the Oregon p71 Country, and Commodore Sloat soon felt the superiority of British sea power. The Pacific Squadron went to Callao for supplies during the summer, there finding Rear Admiral Sir George Seymour in the British battleship Collingwood in company with a frigate, two sloops, and a steamer. The British squadron was about to sail for Tahiti, but a mail steamer brought news of the passage of the Oregon Bill by Congress and of the annexation of Texas by the United States. For nearly a month this formidable force watched the much smaller American squadron, and the latter could not put to sea for want of supplies. Relations between the two squadrons were friendly, Sloat reported, but:
. . . I had not the least doubt that if his dispatches from his govt. would have justified him, he would have immediately attacked me, without the least regard to the neutrality of the port, and I was fully prepared for such an event, being entirely confident that the Peruvian govt. would not fire a gun for my protection or to sustain the neutrality of the port.11
The commodore's letter went on to advise Bancroft of the inferiority of his force and of the lack of any safe port on his entire station in event of war with Great Britain or France.
However, the next steamer brought dispatches that led Seymour to depart for Tahiti with his squadron, and Sloat could relax once more.
Then came news of trouble between American diplomatic representatives and the government of the Hawaiian Islands, so Sloat got under way for Honolulu where he arrived in September. Seemingly the difficulty had begun when American Commissioner George Brown claimed that an American citizen charged with rape of an Hawaiian girl was entitled to trial by a foreign jury. The local government refused to concede this point, and claimed that Brown was the author of anonymous letters containing "offensive attacks on the characters of some of H. M. ministers." The commissioner had been interdicted from further correspondence with the Hawaiian government, and all American affairs were in the care of the consul. Brown asked Sloat not to render the usual salutes, but the naval officer felt such a course would be unwise and refused to comply. After a month of meetings with Brown and the government, Sloat decided that both were wrong. The King and his advisers were favorably impressed with the commodore, but refused to settle the affair and conclude a treaty p72 with the United States. Sloat could not well prolong his absence from the coast; accordingly, he left the consul to exercise the duties of the commissioner until a relief for Brown could be sent out. Pending settlement of the controversy, American citizens were to be accorded the privileges given Englishmen and Frenchmen under the existing treaties between their governments and the Hawaiian Islands.
While the commodore was at Honolulu, the Constitution arrived on her way to the United States from Asiatic waters. Captain "Mad Jack" Percival was informed that Sloat felt it necessary to detain his frigate for service with the Pacific Squadron. Before "Old Ironsides" stood out for Mexico, Dr. G. P. Judd, Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who well remembered the Paulet incident, asked the frigate's lieutenant of Marines to survey the Honolulu region with a view toward planning fortifications against foreign aggression. Lieutenant I. W. Curtis made the desired survey secretly, and recommended that Pearl Harbor be developed as a fortified base. Nothing came of this, but Curtis was among the first to realize the potential importance of Pearl Harbor.
Back on the Mexican coast, conditions seemed unchanged, and Sloat settled down to await information definite enough to justify action under the "secret and confidential" orders sent out by Bancroft:
. . . Should Mexico, however, be resolutely bent on hostilities, you will be mindful to protect the persons and interests of citizens of the United States near your station, and should you ascertain beyond a doubt, that the Mexican Government has declared war against us, you will at once employ the force under your command to the best advantage. The Mexican ports on the Pacific are said to be open and defenseless. If you ascertain with certainty that Mexico has declared war against the United States, you will at once possess yourself of the port of San Francisco, and blockade or occupy such other ports as your force may permit. . . .
The great distance of your squadron, and the difficulty of communicating with you, are the causes for issuing this order. The President hopes, most earnestly, that the peace of the two Countries may not be disturbed. The object of these instructions is to possess you of the views of the Government, in the event of a declaration of war on the part of Mexico against the United States; an event which you are enjoined to do everything, consistent with the national honor, on your part to avoid.12
But if peace should continue, there were other important duties to be performed by the Pacific Squadron. Sloat was directed to send an p73 exploring party to show the flag in the Columbia and Willamette valleys in order to gain information about those regions and to convince American citizens that they were not being neglected. Afterward, the party might proceed overland to Puget Sound to gain information as to the strength of British posts in that area and to survey Vancouver Island.
However, this was a mission to be undertaken "should peace continue," and as yet the threat of war was undiminished. Therefore, November 1845 found the Pacific Squadron concentrated at the Mexican port of Mazatlán, chosen because messages sent overland across Mexico could reach Sloat there at the earliest moment. However, this display of force was alarming to the inhabitants of Mazatlán, so the commodore separated his vessels. The Shark was absent to the southward, the flagship Savannah remained at Mazatlán, and the other ships were sent to make surveys and to inquire into conditions at various California ports.
At least one of these visits resulted in a humorous incident which helped to confirm Sloat's belief that most of the Mexican harbors were virtually unprotected. The sloop-of‑war Levant touched at La Paz, capital of Lower California, and Commander Hugh N. Page was amazed when several magistrates boarded his ship to surrender the town. The governor, without means to protect the place and sure that the Levant's appearance confirmed the rumors of war, decided that he could only yield immediately. Instead, Page graciously accepted the hospitality of the townspeople. Some of his officers even visited silver mines •forty miles inland, and reported that the populace was most friendly. The Levant was the first American man-o'‑war to touch at La Paz, but she would be followed by others, not on friendly visits.
As spring came on, Commodore Sloat continued the dispersal of his forces. The Cyane, newly arrived from the United States, was sent to Oahu for supplies and thence to Monterey the sloop-of‑war Warren and the storeship Erie were ordered to follow the same route soon afterward; and the Portsmouth sloop was designated for the Columbia River mission. On second thought, Sloat diverted the Portsmouth to Monterey and thence to San Francisco, while the Shark carried out the sloop's original orders. It was the last mission for the veteran schooner. The Shark joined the Peacock as a victim of p74 the Columbia River bar on 10 September 1846, but Lieutenant Neil M. Howison and his ship's company reached the shore safely.
In the meantime, Sloat had other problems as well. Captain Percival reported that the Constitution was no longer fit for service, and the Levant and Warren were in little better condition. The Savannah's crew was also becoming troublesome; enlistments would soon expire for most of her men, and while they could be held with a twenty-five per cent increase in pay, this was not a sufficient enticement. Appeals to their patriotism were meaningless for many were foreigners. Moreover, there was danger that officers ordering punishment to men so held might have to face civil lawsuits upon their return to the United States. However, there could be no thought of detaching the Savannah at that time; the Constitution had already weighed anchor homeward bound, so the flagship remained the only large ship in the squadron.
Information had reached Sloat by the Cyane that Commodore Robert F. Stockton was on his way to the Pacific in the Congress frigate with orders to transfer her to Sloat, while he shifted in company with the Levant and Warren. If Sloat was in ill health, he might order Stockton to relieve him as commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron, but not otherwise. When one considers the strain under which Commodore Sloat had served during his cruise in the Pacific, it is not surprising that his health should have suffered. In March, he reported that he was "suffering severely with a diseased liver, Rheumatism, and neuralgia," while early in May, his health was "declining rapidly & becoming very precarious."13 But Stockton had been ordered to take a new commissioner to the Hawaiian Islands before joining the Pacific Squadron, and there could be no thought of Sloat's leaving the station for some time yet.
Commodore Robert F. Stockton.
Sloat remained at Mazatlán in the Savannah during the month of May. The Cyane joined him and, on 18 May, was ordered to Monterey with a letter for Consul Thomas O. Larkin. Sloat knew of the attack by Mexican troops on American forces north of the Rio Grande, but was not certain that this would lead to war; accordingly, he cautioned the sloop's Captain William Mervine to make no mention of the occurrence. If, however, Mervine learned that a state of war p75 existed, he was to take any measures necessary to prevent Mexican cruisers from putting to sea. Finally:
Should you fall in with a fast sailing vessel under Mexican colours that would answer for a small cruiser or dispatch vessel you will capture her and take her with you, but you will be careful not to let it be known that she is a prize, you will take out every person belonging to her and be careful on your arrival at Monterrey [sic] or San Francisco that these persons have no communication with anyone, until my arrival. . . .14
Sloat wanted to be sure that no action of the ships under his command was responsible for the outbreak of war, but he need not have worried; on 13 May, Bancroft had sent official notice of the beginning of hostilities. Commodore David Conner, commanding the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico, was also ordered to relay the news to Sloat, but the messengers so sent could not reach Mazatlán for some weeks.
Hence the Savannah remained at Mazatlán, closely watched by vessels of Sir George Seymour's British squadron. The American commodore believed that the British had no designs on California, and were merely interested in his movements because of the Oregon situation. At any rate, it was useless to ask for reinforcements: ". . . it is immaterial what force we have here, they will always send double."15
On 31 May, Sloat received news of the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Surely this meant war, so the Savannah weighed anchor and put to sea. But on 5 June, she returned to her usual anchorage.
The meaning of this false start has received some attention from historians, and there is a persistent story that Sloat meant it to throw the British off their guard. According to this story, the Savannah stood out for the purpose of hanging a man condemned by court-martial; the sentence (reduced to 100 lashes) having been carried out, she returned to harbor. In a few days, the ship would signal once more that she was getting under way for that reason, but this time she would head for Monterey.
However, no official document supports this story. It is almost inconceivable that Sloat would have omitted it in his reports to Bancroft, p76 but no mention of it is made. Instead, the commodore's coded letter on the subject reads in part:
. . . I have upon more mature reflection come to the decision that your instructions of twenty fourth June last and every subsequent order will not justify my taking possession of any part of California or any hostile measure against Mexico (notwithstanding their attack on our troops) as neither party have declared war. . . .16
With this in mind, it is not difficult to understand the Savannah's return to Mazatlán. Sloat did indeed intend to proceed to Monterey when he sailed on 31 May, but once at sea, he had time to think over the situation. Battles did not necessarily lead to a declaration of war, but if the issue was not yet decided, a repetition of Commodore Jones's occupation of Monterey would almost certainly bring on a war. On the other hand, the Levant and Cyane were at Monterey, the Portsmouth was at San Francisco, and there was no Mexican force to oppose them. Admiral Seymour was at Panama, and so was in no position to intervene in Upper California. Under these circumstances, it is probable that Commodore Sloat required no other motive for his return to Mazatlán than to await more definite information of war.
It was not long in coming. The Savannah's anchor was weighed once more and she made sail on 8 June. She rounded Cape San Lucas, and Commodore Sloat ordered her put on a course for Monterey.
1 Simms (Navy Department) to Jones, 22 March 1841, "Letters to Officers, Ships of War, March 1798–September 1868," XXX, 313. It must be remembered that news of Claxton's death had not reached Washington at this time.
2 Jones to Upshur, 22 March 1842, "Letters from Officers commanding Squadrons, Pacific Squadron, February 1841–November 1886." Hereafter cited as "Pacific Squadron Letters."
3 Upshur to Jones, 10 December 1841, "Letters to Officers, Ships of War," XXXI, 381.
4 Herman Melville, White Jakt (New York: Harper and Bros., 1850), p261. Melville's Neversink was in fact United States.
5 Jones to Upshur, 18 June 1842, "Pacific Squadron Letters."
7 Jones to U. S. Minister at Court of Mexico, 22 October 1842, copy, ibid.
8 Jones to Upshur, 16 January 1843, ibid.
9 Jones to Dallas, 22 November 1843, ibid.
10 Dallas to Secretary of the Navy, 23 February 1844, ibid.
11 Sloat to Bancroft, 29 July 1845, ibid.
12 Bancroft to Sloat, 24 June 1845, "Record of Confidential Letters," I, 141.
13 Sloat to Bancroft, 17 March 1846 and 6 May 1846, "Pacific Squadron Letters."
14 Sloat to Mervine, 18 May 1846, "Area Nine File, 1814‑1910."
15 Sloat to Bancroft, 30 April 1846, "Pacific Squadron Letters."
16 Sloat to Bancroft, 6 June 1846, ibid.
a It was on this return cruise that the Dale stopped at Valparaiso to take on board the remains of Commodore Alexander Claxton, who had died in 1841 while commanding the Pacific Squadron and had been buried there (p56, with my note). The Dale reached Philadelphia in late October, 1843 and Commodore Claxton was given his final burial in Baltimore on October 30.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Thence Round Cape Horn
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 3 Sep 21