The Reluctant Midshipman Alexander Duer Gedney Pt 1

the-reluctant-midshipman-alexander-duer-gedney-pt-1

The fifteen year old from Goshen, New York really did not want to be in Annapolis, but most of all Alexander Duer Gedney did not want to be at the Naval Academy. All of this I discovered later. For it was the date of admission listed for the young middie that first made me curious.

Gedney’s entry record shows that he arrived at the academy on November 24th, 1859. That looked like a misprint or an outright error (by navy regulation, Sept 30 is the prescribed cut-off). Then I noticed that a good number of his fellow candidates arrived at the academy in late October and November of that year, well after the normal September window. So what exactly was going on?

I turned to the correspondence of the Naval Academy Superintendent, Captain George S. Blake, to look for any clue as to this anomaly. I started with his letters to the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey. In the beginning of the school year of 1859, Blake was dealing with various problems  – a watchman drunk while on duty, fall out from the Foot Outrage, selection of new text books, etc. All of these important and unimportant items, Blake was discussing with the secretary. Then, towards the close of that month, I found the answer.

The ship selected as the school ship that year was the USS Plymouth. It had returned from the summer cruise September 27th, had disgorged the upper classmen two days later, and began to be outfitted to house the plebe class. At that time, Blake tallied the plebes at 85 in number, and asked Toucey to hold off on any further candidates until November first, when he would have a better idea of how many they could accommodate aboard the vessel.

So after Blake issued word that there was room for more, Gedney was among those forty plus candidates that were given the chance to join the plebe class.

Gedney’s was a short career as a midshipman – in, on Nov 24th, and out, forty-nine days later, on Jan 12th. The fact that his career was ended by a dismissal, is a clear indication that a serious infraction was involved. Another curiosity, so I checked his demerits next.

A perusal of his conduct records show that he was on a tear to collect all he could. None are recorded for the few days left of November when he started, but once December rolled around, he racked up 126 in that single month. (Two hundred in a year were grounds for dismissal). The bulk of the demerits were for disruptive behavior; he was constantly annoying his teachers and his fellow midshipmen. In fact, he managed to tick off one fifth of the members of the plebe class on board the school ship with him. And once he hit January, Gedney upped the ante. He pushed his demerits above the two hundred mark before his dismissal on the 14th.

But his dismissal was not for his demerit count. The name of Gedney is conspicuous in Blake’s correspondence for the first part of January 1860, but not for gallantry. Officers were writing reports about his activities to Blake, and he in turn was writing to the navy secretary. On New Year’s Day, Gedney was in custody, locked in one of the ward rooms of the school ship. He used his locker key to unlock this door and was caught. He repeated this feat by using a “false key” three times on the fifth of January, and again was reported each time. On the eighth, he picked the lock on the door and was turned in by a fellow midshipman and penalized with ten demerits. But Gedney was not through that day. One of the Lieutenant’s caught him red handed with a book into which he had pasted obscene prints that he had cut out of a pornographic volume, and thereby doubled his demerits for the day.

This letter from Blake’s correspondence from earlier in the month began to make sense:

  Naval Academy
Annapolis Md
  Jany 5 1860

Sir
In order to prevent the introduction of
obscene books on board the Plymouth, you
will direct the officer in charge to have all
books and packages received on board for
the Acting Midshipmen opened and
carefully examined in the presence of
the owner and all books of this description
and articles that are prohibited by the
Regulations will be retained and the owner
punished as the nature of the offense
may require.-
I am very respectfully
Your obt servt
G S Blake
Sup’t’d’t

Commander
Thos T Craven
Comdt of Midn

I ran a check on the other midshipmen who reported Gedney’s misbehaviors and found that one of them, William Knox Wheeler, had been himself reported for loaning an obscene book to a crew member on January 1st. I haven’t created a database for the conduct files for that school year, so I decided to comb through them one by one. I discovered that a total of five midshipmen were involved with obscene material on New Year’s Day. Besides Midshipman Knox, one was cited for possession of an obscene book, and three others for the reading of one. Since Gedney was in custody on that date I did not see a direct connection, but evidently the Commandant of Midshipman, Thomas T Craven did. About Gedney, he states:

The example which he has set by
the introduction of obscene books and prints,
had already done amongst his young class-
mates, an immense deal of harm.

To my mind his shenanigans were consciously entered into, having as their goal to be expelled from the academy. The obscene books just brought him closer to his ticket out of there. Blake records Gedney’s frame of mind, in this observation to Toucey:

When remonstrated with by me, he has
replied that he came to the Academy
against his wishes, & intended to leave it.”

So he got his wish and more. Gedney did put in a resignation (and Blake notes that it was without the consent of his father). With this in hand, Blake advised Toucey not to accept his resignation, but rather recommended that he be dismissed outright.

Toucey took Blake’s recommendation and dismissed the midshipman. Gedney probably did not even care as to the stigma attached, I surmise he was just happy to be out.

Stay tuned for part two next week in which I look into who or what brought him to the academy, and about his latter end.

The Illusive Midshipman Charles Polhemus

The Illusive Midshipman Charles Polhemus

Probably the most difficult midshipman to get a bead on was Charles Polhemus. I first looked him up back in 2009, with nothing but the slimmest of clues. I had no indication, where he had been born or from what state he had been appointed.

I concentrated on the censuses for 1850 and 1860 and got a hit on a Charles G. Polhemus of NY. Though each census showed a different NY county, I knew him to be the same individual in both because the other family members’ given names were the same in each instance, with a corresponding increase in ages. And the ages listed for Charles was on track to be my midshipman, but there was nothing else that confirmed that he was the actual person for whom I was looking. I noted down the details from the two censuses, hoping to track down some links that could corroborate his identity.

Many people with the name Polhemus popped up for the state of New Jersey, and in particular Burlington County, but no one there matched my midshipman. So, Charles G of NY was looking more and more plausible. Besides I learned that “Polhemus” was of Dutch origin which again can fit nicely with the Knickerbocker state. Further research revealed that this Charles Polhemus served in the Civil War in a New York Regiment, the 13th Heavy Artillery – a fact that would not be unusual, as other midshipmen had switched from webfeet to landlubbers, especially those middies who had resigned from the Academy.

But it was all a false trail.

When I found the list of the candidates for examination for the Naval Academy, I filled in some important details for my illusive Charles Polhemus. He held an appointment from the 2nd Congressional District of New Jersey (which includes Burlington County) and  passed his examinations on 9/26/1857. The possibility that the Charles G from NY was my midshipman began to dim. (Not totally, as I had come across appointments that originated from one state even though the candidate lived in another – especially when the appointing Congressman was a relative).

And so things sat for several years.

With the inclusion recently of the naval hospital records on Ancestry.com, I was able to zero in on the right Charles Polhemus.  For three days in November 1857, Charles was admitted to the naval academy hospital for bronchitis.  As with all the Acting Midshipman admitted, their place of birth was recorded. C. Polhemus was born in Chile. This “rare” tidbit combined with the other data that has accumulated on the internet in the intervening years gave me the breakthrough I needed.

This Charles Polhemus was related to the New Jersey family that I had run across earlier. His father was John Hart Polhemus sr., who was a grandson (and namesake) of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. John moved down to South America sometime in the late 1820s and entered into business.  In Lima Peru he met and married an English woman Marianna Dean on August 28, 1836. My Charles was born to the couple in Valparaiso, Chile on December 27, 1841. Some sources state that President Andrew Jackson had named John, the American consul in Valparaiso.

As you can guess, there was a very good reason then for the family of my midshipman not to show up in my earlier searches of the US census for 1850.  They were out of the country. The future midshipman returned to the US from Valparaiso on February 8, 1851 entering through Baltimore, with two of his brothers (their mother had died in Peru in 1849).

And there is another good reason why my midshipman is missing in the 1860 census.

Charles’ naval career was very brief. Having entered the Naval Academy in the fall of 1857, he resigned six months later – though  not through overindulgence in demerit worthy activity. His demerit total stood at 108 for that time period, half of what would have called for dismissal. (He did have a notable doozy, receiving 6 demerits for throwing a fellow midshipman down the stairs. And he evidently had a problem keeping his room clean, being cited a total of ten times for a dirty room – I have a suspicion he relied on servants at home for that chore). As the saying goes, he bilged (i.e. failed) in the February academic exams. The family genealogy shows that Charles died at sea on December 2, 1858, nine months after leaving the Academy.

I am in the dark about the circumstances behind his death. Had he gone to sea in the merchant marine? Was he out on a pleasure craft, or merely taking passage on a commercial carrier? Was he lost overboard or did he go down with his ship? I can only speculate.

For now, this final detail about Midshipman Charles Polhemus remains illusive.

When is a naval officer not a naval officer?

When is a naval officer not a naval officer

When is a naval officer not a naval officer?

The question does not rest upon what the word “IS” means. Rather it pivots upon what the phrase “naval officer” can mean in two different circumstances. The fact that the same two words describe or denote two different offices is the source of the confusion.

At least I was confused when I first came upon the designation of “naval officer” when reading about the makeup of the US Customs Service in the 19th Century, and in this specific instance I was looking at the appointed officials of the Port of New York. The chief officer in charge was called the Collector, the one responsible for collecting the import tax due on any foreign goods entering via that port. These taxes were the only revenue for the US government from the inception of the country until the beginnings of an income tax which saw its introduction at the time of the American Civil War.

(Aside – the Port of New York at times supplied as much as two thirds of all the revenue, and never less than half of what was taken in by the US Treasury).

The Collector, therefore, was a very important position, and he was appointed directly by the President of the United States. In practice it was a political plum, awarded to a fellow member of the President’s political party, as thanks for his aid in a successful election campaign. The Collector in his turn appointed the officials that would serve with him – with titles such as Auditor, Appraiser, Weigher, and their assistants such as Deputy Collector, etc., and in the case at hand – the Naval Officer and his deputy.

Originally I thought that this Naval Officer must be an officer of the US Navy who had been assigned duty to help out the US Customs Service. It would seem a simple request for the Treasury Department (the branch of the US government controlling the Customs and Revenue services) to ask for the loan of an officer from the Navy Department. In a similar vein I had found many examples where Acting Midshipmen left the Naval Academy (usually by resignation or dismissal) and ended up in the Revenue Service to command the ships that agency employed to enforce customs law, to interdict smuggling and occasionally to aid in life-saving. But this was not the case. The Naval Officer in the Customs House was a civil appointment, and he had a particular purpose to fulfill. The position was designed as an important check and balance to the Collector. The naval officer had to sign off on all the transactions that his boss approved. That was the theory, but in practice the fact that they owed their position to the Collector colored their judgment when it came to what their boss was doing, a recipe for fraud and corruption

I learned more about all of this when looking into the father of Midshipman Morgan Lewis Ogden jr., the subject of my two recent Research posts. His father Morgan Lewis Ogden Sr. had been the deputy naval officer of the Port of New York, commencing in May of 1843. From his time at the New York Customs House, Ogden learned some valuable lessons about the workings of this agency. He parleyed that knowledge into a whole new profession after his time there.

Ogden was instrumental in the 1850 Supreme Court decision (US vs Southmayd) that changed the way duties were assessed “on all future importations of sugar and molasses.” He advised Benjamin F Butler, the lawyer who was hired to argue the case before the court. According to prior statute, the assessments were made on the weight stated on the invoice – prior to shipment. By the time the shipment arrived in New York the weight was always less due to leakage and drainage. You can understand the shipper’s sense of injustice when he was taxed on the portion that was lost in transit. Now thanks to this decision “the duties are to be levied upon the actual quantity arriving in the United States.”

Subsequent to this, Ogden became a claims attorney, representing firms or individuals with claims against the US government for overcharges on import taxes. He kept a home and office in Brooklyn, and also a home and office in Washington DC. One might say that he was a bit of a “fixer” in these matters for he had a lot of clout in both cities. And it did not hurt that his older brother Samuel Gouverneur Ogden was the Auditor of the New York Customs House between 1841 and 1878.

So, when is a naval officer not a naval officer? It’s a bit of a trick question. Both are. But a civil appointee who is a part of the Treasury Department is not the same as a commissioned officer in the armed services of the United States.

(Side note – I have found, so far, ten individuals who were appointed to the US Naval Academy in the ante bellum period with relatives that were Collectors in the Customs service. And only one who was related to a naval officer in the Customs Service).

The Costive Case of Gilman D Gove

The Costive Case of Gilman D Gove

I was entering data on Acting Midshipman Gilman D. Gove for his stay at the US Naval Academy hospital from December eleventh through fourteenth in 1855, and there it was, another term that I needed to look up. Though I had a sense what it might mean from a root word with which I was familiar, I was puzzled as to what medical connotation it might carry. The word was “costiveness.” Its root word “costive” had conveyed a sense to me that something was being held back, as in that someone who was costive, was not speaking, was holding back his opinion.

I was surprised to learn that its first meaning was the medical condition – constipation, and the secondary meanings were what I thought were its first. (And it also shed some new light on my original understanding). The word constipation had been used in every case up to this one, and why the records keeper for the case of Midshipman Gove chose to use the word “costiveness” remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it was a different record keeper than whoever kept the former entries and it was his vocabulary of choice.

There are some unsettled facts about Gilman. I found a birth record from the state of New Hampshire that states he was born on May 12, 1837 in Kensington (the town in which his grandparents lived and from which there are many Goves). Yet the naval academy records, the 1870 and 1880 Federal censuses, and the government hospitals in which he was a patient, all list Louisiana as his birth state. Indeed, they were transplants to that area from New England. His father, Asa Dearborn Gove had moved the family from his wife’s home in Boston, Massachusetts to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1832. In Boston he had been in the fruit business with his brother Amos. He continued in that line in their new home, trading in fruit around the Caribbean. So, though Louisiana would seem the most likely birthplace for him, Kensington can not be ruled out.

Some time in the 1850s his father moved the family and business to New York, and it is from that state that Gilman was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1852. Gilman graduated from the academy in 1856 and served only two years before resigning in 1858.  I do not know the reason for his resignation. His father passed away in 1860, so he might have resigned to help an ailing parent. Asa had sold the business in New York and bought a farm in Windsor, Illinois. Gilman’s name does appear on the 1860 probate papers as administrator.

With the coming of the Civil War, Gilman entered the navy once again. He traveled to the nearby town of Neoga, Illinois in March 1862 and enlisted in the volunteer navy. He served as an Acting Ensign in the Mississippi Squadron, on at least two gunboats, the USS Black-Hawk and the USS Benton. He was serving on the later when he again resigned in February 1863. Again I do not know the reason for the resignation.

He most likely returned to Illinois. The IRS records for 1865 list him with his brother Howard in Charleston, Illinois, which put them close to their mother in Windsor. The 1870 census places their mother in Kansas City, Missouri, living with her daughter’s family.  The boys are also listed in this residence and working as clerks for their brother-in-law. Their sister’s husband, William Beecher Stone owned an agricultural warehouse which dealt in farm implements. The next census (1880) indicates that Gilman and Howard followed  Mr. Stone to Galena, Kansas. A huge lead strike was discovered in Galena in 1877, setting off a rush, and Stone got in on the ground floor. Gilman is listed as a clerk in the district court, and living with Howard’s family. Howard was working in Stone’s lead mining company, and within a few years Gilman was also.

In December 1891, Gilman was diagnosed with nervous prostration, and admitted to the Government hospital in Leavenworth Kansas on 5/5/1892. He was discharged after a four year stay, but only to be transferred to the Government Insane Asylum in D. C., where he died two months later; the cause – general paralysis and insane with dementia. Was lead responsible? Another unanswered question.

So, this is my summation of the life of Gilman D. Gove, full of facts and connections but with some dangling questions, big and small. Nowhere in all these records did I find his middle name recorded. Two family names are possible candidates: Dearborn (his father’s middle name) or Donnell (his mother’s middle name).

As they say, “The answer is out there.” Somewhere in the costive universe there are answers to all these little questions about Gilman D. Gove.