The Midshipman was an Inventor Roswell Evander Morey

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This time out I am writing about another appointee from the state of Maine, Roswell Evander Morey. The last time I wrote about a midshipman who hailed from the Pine Tree state (L. B. Foster), he was one who turned his back on his state and the Union, went south and became a rebel. Roswell left the state also, though he took a different direction. He went west and became an inventor.

Though the 1860 US census lists Roswell was born in Maine, other records (the earlier 1850 one and then all the later censuses) indicate he was born across the US border in St Stephen Canada. Had this fact been known, his appointment to the Naval Academy would have been null and void. I have run across another midshipmen, who was born in Canada and kept that fact secret also.

If it’s any consolation, both of Roswell’s parents, his father Gibeon and his mother Abigail Sarah Farnesworth, were born in Maine and hence American citizens. According to that same 1860 census, Gibeon was a machinist in Machias, Maine. The area was known for machinery that processed one of Maine’s major crops – converting pine trees into lumber. These circumstances may explain Roswell’s later interest in machinery and invention.

Roswell’s career at the Academy got off to a rough start, with his academic standings hugging the bottom of the class. However, he did follow the regulations closely, indicated by his extremely low accumulation of demerits in his plebe year (1857-58). They totaled only 38 on the year  – nearly half of them involving a two day contretemps with a fellow midshipman – upon whom he had thrown water from an upper window. He was sent on the summer cruise on the USS Preble and would continue as a plebe.

There is a noticeable improvement the next year (1858-59), academically speaking – perhaps because he repeated all the plebe classes. His standings jumped to the top third in his class, but so did his demerits, almost tripling to 92, officially. He shipped aboard the USS Plymouth for the 1859 summer cruise, and reported for the 1859-60 school year as a third classman.

Come the end of his third year at the academy, a mystery crops up.  In the official record for the year most of his classmates – 42 out of the 45 total were continuing on to the next year, 1860-61. Roswell would not. He was listed 44th, two below those passing – this despite placing well in 5 of the 7 classes. And it seems particularly odd given that his standing in Seamanship was number three. Such a high mark would carry a lot of weight when it comes to one’s standing in the naval service. The number of his demerits also declined (down to 74).

So what kept him from continuing at the Academy? Why was he forced to resign?

Looking back on other correspondence there is one severe sounding reprimand from the Superintendent in January of 1860. Was this the camel back breaking straw that resurfaced to haunt him?

“Naval Academy
 Annapolis Md
Jan 3 1860

Sir
You are reported to me for
breaking the lock of a trap door in the
quarters & opening the same.-  You will
please reply in writing through the
Commandant of Midn to this most serious
charge.-

I am respectfully
Your obt servt
G S Blake
Sup’t’d’t

Acting Midn
R E Morey USN
       Naval Academy
       Annapolis Md”

I could find no reply from Roswell to the charge. His conduct roll states only that “No excuse” was given for this infraction, for which he received ten demerits.

Yet, he was still at the Academy five months later with no sign of a problem. In fact, his name was put on a list of midshipmen granted leave for the summer to commence on 6/16.  But a few weeks later (7/6), he was notified by Superintendent Blake that because he had failed to tender his resignation, as so directed on 6/19, his appointment was revoked. What happened between those two dates in June?

The only clue I have points to a matter of timing. The June examinations closed on 6/16, so perhaps his standings were not known at the time his name was included with those allowed a furlough.

In any event one way or another Roswell was going home. He was back in Machias with his family just in time for the (already cited) 1860 census on 7/17, in which he was listed as a sailor. The draft registration records for 1863 indicate that he still followed the sea in the merchant marine, but curiously lay no claim to prior military service.

After the war, he moved out to Lake Valley near Tahoe in California, bringing his parents with him, and remained in the state for the rest of his life, moving to San Francisco, then Alameda, and finally, Oakland, along the way working as an engineer, a bookkeeper and finally the manager at the Union Box Factory in Oakland.

Something about the Box Factory inspired his creativity. He applied for four separate patents over a period of 15 years.

1879 – for a return-crate

1880 – an improved fruit and berry basket

1892 – for a machine to form berry baskets

1894 – for a fruit basket and a crate.

As far as I can ascertain Roswell’s family was not aware that he had been at the naval academy. In the obituary for his son Charles, it only mentions that Roswell was a pioneer in Oakland, and had a box making plant.

Perhaps the stigma of dismissal, like that trap door in his academy room, was something better left unopened.

The Reluctant Midshipman Alexander Duer Gedney Pt 1

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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.

The Curious Case of L B Foster Pt 2

The Curious Case of L B Foster (pt 2)

Lyman Beecher Foster was appointed to the US Naval Academy from the state of Maine by Congressman Israel Washburn jr., a founding member of the then new Republican Party. Lyman had lived since his birth in 1841 in Orono, Maine. His father Cony Foster had successful businesses there and served the community regularly, holding many town offices, which included a 25 year stint as Justice of the Peace. Both sides of Lyman’s family were New Englanders of long standing, so it is particularly odd where he ended up.

He reported to the Academy on Sept 24, 1856 and passed both the medical and academic tests. Throughout his first year, he accumulated remarkably few demerits, a total of 43 which was reduced further to 23 when the Superintendent of the Academy ordered 20 removed. (This is the year he carelessly set fire to the bedding in the hospital noted in a former post). I have not located his academic records, but they must have been subpar for he is still listed in the fourth class for the 1857-58 school year, indicating in the parlance of the day that he had been “turned back.”

He did better repeating his plebe year, at the end ranking 27th in a class of 91 middies, and passed into the Third Class for the 1858-59 year. However, his demerits increased five fold to 112, including many tobacco infractions (smoking, chewing, and permitting others to do so).

By the end of his Third Class year he only ranked 44th out of 50, and was allowed to resign. His demerits had increased also (up to 161), of which three were violations of the regulations governing the academy. One of these states rather cryptically “Throwing torpedoes into No 4 Bldg.” I’m still scratching my head over that one.

Rather than return to Maine, he went to live with his older brother Charles Henry Foster, who was then editor of a newspaper in Murfreesboro, North Carolina. He settled right in, and once Sumter was fired upon in 1861, he remained aligned with his new country. In fact, he travelled to Charleston to volunteer there, but then returned to his new home and enlisted in a North Carolina unit. After recovering from a severe wound received in 1862, he transferred to the Confederate Navy in 1863, and served faithfully until the end of the war.

Lyman felt so strong about his new home, that he changed his middle name to Livingston, which was that of a treasured friend. Beecher was a hated name in the slave states, for Lyman Beecher was the name of a famous Presbyterian preacher and abolitionist, and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe who was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Rebel Treasure thirteenth post

ON THE USS CONSTITUTION – QUARTERDECK
LT. UPSHUR, a naval officer of 20 years, turns his eagle gaze from the work party to the approaching midshipman.

LON
(saluting)
Acting Midshipman Turner, reporting, sir.

LT UPSHUR
At ease, Mr. Turner. The Commandant has asked to see you.
(notices his sudden discomfort)
This is not about demerits.

An older naval officer, the COMMANDANT OF MIDSHIPMEN arrives on deck with ROMEO BROWN in tow, a handsome black man about Lon’s age, and CONGRESSMAN CLAY, a florid faced gentleman. A flicker of anticipation rises in Lon’s eyes.

COMMANDANT
(in answer to Lon’s salute)
Good afternoon, Mr. Turner. Getting right to the point you have a letter from home.

ROMEO
(with a grin, hands him the letter)
For you, Massa’ Lon.

Lon grins too and hurriedly breaks the seal and opens the letter. His grin fades and his face grows grimmer with each passing second.

COMMANDANT
I have a letter from your father also. He’s instructed me to receive your resignation, if you so desire.

LON
If you please, sir, would you accept my resignation?

COMMANDANT
(with a sigh)
Have it on my desk in the morning. Mr. Clay here, has requested the honor of asking you to dinner.
(hands him a pass)
So you are excused until the evening gun.

Mr. Clay steps forward and in a bit of a daze Lon shakes his hand. For his part, Mr. Clay pumps his quite approvingly.

ON THE USS CONSTITUTION – NEAR THE ENTRY PORT – LATER
The work crew of plebes struggles to bring up a howitzer barrel in their sling from the dock below. Lon and his new companions wait nearby for them to complete their task and for the way to clear.
Louis and Jimmy arrive to pepper Lon with questions.

JIMMY
So, what did he want?

LOUIS
(whispering)
Did he see us in the tops?

JIMMY
We’ve all got demerits, right?

LON
No. I got a letter from home.

LOUIS
You’re resigning, aren’t you?

LON
(nodding)
My father put it simple enough, “Resign or be disowned.”

Shouts of alarm erupt from the plebes behind them. Before Lon can look around, Louis rushes by and launches a flying tackle, sweeping two plebes from the path of the falling howitzer.
Romeo catches the tipping end and by raw strength arrests its fall. Lon recovers the loose end of the sling and slips it back in place. And Jimmy helps the plebes stabilize the spar, bringing the heavy iron cannon safely down to the deck.

LT UPSHUR
(coming up)
Well done, gentlemen, well done!

[next pt 14]