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The Reluctant Midshipman Alexander Duer Gedney Pt 2

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So, whose wish was Alexander Duer Gedney bucking when he was attempting to have himself discharged from the Naval Academy? No brainer there. Most likely his family, so let’s take a look at them.

His father, Daniel Fowler Gedney was a lawyer, and in fact the District Attorney of Orange County NY at the time of Alexander’s appointment. His was the voice of a person who would have had the clout to ask for, and get that appointment. There was a nautical element on his side of the family. From way back they were boat builders. In fact they were proud of the fact that when they came from England to settle in Salem, MA in 1636, they came in a ship of their own making.

From Salem, succeeding generations of Gedneys moved westward. By the time of the American Revolution they had made it as far as New York (on the west side of the Hudson). But the family was increasingly involved in other pursuits other than boats and ships, and never to my knowledge with the Navy.

Aside – I did find one Thomas R. Gedney in the US Navy dating from 1815.  He was the naval officer who was involved in the affair of the slave ship Amistad. But this Gedney was a native of South Carolina, and I have not been able to establish if he had a connection to the New England/New York branches.

Looking up Alexander’s mother, Henrietta Robinson Duer, I tumbled to the origin of my midshipman’s name. He was named after her father Alexander Duer. This Alexander was a lawyer, a newspaper publisher, and a state politician from Goshen, NY, and may have himself been named after a family friend (and distant relation), Alexander Hamilton. His older brother, also carried Alexander as his middle name, but in this instance it was probably for his maternal grandfather, William Alexander, one of George Washington’s generals.

This older brother, William Alexander Duer opened the door to all the naval connections in the family. He had a son who was a naval officer (John King Duer), and two grandsons (one in the class before Gedney, and the other after). William Alexander Duer, himself, had been a midshipman, having been appointed in 1798, and served under Decatur in the Quasi War with France. He resigned from the Navy in 1800, to study law and entered on a career that eventuated in service as a judge, and later became President of Columbia College (1829-1842).

And the naval connections did not stop with his own family. His niece (and cousin to Gedney’s mother), Catherine Alexander Robinson, married naval officer Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and they had two sons who later became naval officers (one at the academy before Gedney, the other after). Alexander S Mackenzie is a controversial naval figure, famous or infamous depending upon whom you consult. Before there was a naval academy, he was the captain of the USS Somers in 1842, sent on a cruise to deliver dispatches and train up young midshipmen. When one of these middies and his two co-conspirators had been discovered plotting a mutiny, Mackenzie and his other officers condemned them to death on the evidence and hung them. This middie was the son of the then Secretary of War in the Tyler administration. A big controversy ensued. In the next administration, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, successfully used it as a call and a rationale for a naval school.

Perhaps, a little irony there, an irony whose base, Alexander Duer Gedney may or may not have been aware.

So, then, what happened to Gedney after his dismissal from the academy? I know the “what,” and the “when,” but can only surmise about the “why.”

Gedney died at sea, having been lost overboard from the clipper ship Jacob Bell, drowning off Cape Horn. This was on May 21, 1860.

In checking out the Jacob Bell I found out the following information: she had been built in 1852 for the NY shipping firm A. A. Low & Bros., which was involved in the China trade. I had to consult a couple of different sources to piece together how their vessels operated. There was a cyclical pattern to their voyages, they departed NY in January and returned the same month, the following year. They passed Cape Horn in both directions, rather than circumnavigating. I surmise that Gedney left in the Jacob Bell in January of 1860, the same month he was ejected from the academy, and lost his life on the outbound voyage.

What is unclear in this instance is whether he was operating under his own wishes, or that of his parents. He may have been of an adventurous spirit and desired to be out on his own and not under the discipline of a military school. But I think that his family had the last say. They would have wanted him to make something of himself, especially after squandering the opportunity that the Naval Academy had afforded. And they easily had the connections to get him a berth on the clipper ship to China.

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About rwoz2

Poet, historian, writer for stage and screen. Responder to Jesus (Romans 5:8)

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