The Midshipman Who Really Wasn’t There – Joel Welcome Berry

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I am trying to be thorough in my canvassing of the midshipmen at the Naval Academy for the school year of 1860-1861. There are certain statistics I am collecting to include in the history I am writing. To that end I went about gathering the names of the midshipmen that were at the institution in all four classes that fed into that time period. This meant going back to the class that entered in the fall of 1857, ditto for the classes of 1858, 1859, and for the entering plebe class of 1860.

I learned about an annual publication listing the graduates of the Naval Academy, and I found one on eBay that had been published in 1944 and won the bid for it. This gave me a good base from which to start. So I dutifully harvested the names into a database – both those who had graduated, and those who had not. Those were the only two categories included therein.

I eventually realized that I was missing the complete picture. Nowhere had I come across a list of the people that had showed up for the exam, but failed to get in – either for academic or medical reasons. That is, not until I was able to look through the microfilm containing the correspondence of the Naval Academy Superintendent. In them I was able to locate the entire list of candidates that appeared before the boards for the target years I was studying.

I identified the missing ones and added them to the database.  I now had all the candidates listed with a date and a number, which represented the order in which they were examined. And it is this order that I utilized, when going through the names one by one for research.

A few years later when I arrived at Midshipman Joel Welcome Berry of Georgia, the 58th candidate for the class of 1859, I ran into a mystery. Here was someone who clearly had been accepted into the academy but was missing from all the official lists. I found him, no problem, in other documents – the 1850 and 1860 censuses; he was a student at Georgetown College in DC (just prior to his appointment to the academy); and ascertained that he fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy in Phillips’ Georgia Legion.

The mystery was solved by delving further into the correspondence of the superintendent – in which I turned up this letter written to the Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Toucey:

                            Naval Academy
Annapolis Md
Oct 31 1859
Sir
I beg leave to state to the Department
that Mr Joel Welcome Berry, obtained from
the Store Keeper of the Academy the usual
outfit immediately after passing his exami-
nation, but subsequently returned the articles,
& left Annapolis without having joined the
institution.-
I would ask whether his name is
to be retained on the rolls.-
I am respectfully
Your obt servt
G S Blake
Superintendent

I had encountered short naval academy careers before, but none as short as Berry’s – which looks to be at most a single day, and just might possibly be measured in hours.

But why had he walked away?

It may be impossible to decisively conclude the exact reason for his action, but the other records I turned up, reveal specific circumstances that within themselves would give a young man strong impetus to pull away from the naval profession. (And I am not ruling out that it could be as simple as when he stepped aboard the schoolship Plymouth as a plebe, this brief view of what a naval life entailed, turned him off).

His father, Andrew Jay Berry, was a planter, a prosperous merchant and a local political leader in Coweta, the county he helped pioneer and settle. There he met and married Emily Elizabeth Parks in 1830. Their first born, William Byrd Berry, followed in his father’s footsteps. The next, Thomas J. graduated from West Point in 1857 and had a career in the army out west. Joel came next and was to represent the family in that other branch of government service, the Navy.

His mother passed away in 1857, and I surmise that he may have received an inheritance from her. For in the 1860 census (taken 6/8/1860) J W Berry was listed in his own household, right next door to his father and brothers in Newnan, GA. He was quite wealthy for an 18 year old – his real estate holdings of 10,000 ($312,000 in today’s dollars) and personal holdings of 13,000 ($405,000) meant that he did not have to find his way in the world. His occupation was listed as Farmer (in distinction to his father as Planter) and according to the slave schedules for that year, he owned 12 slaves to aid in his farm’s operation. This may have weighed foremost in his mind when after qualifying for the academy on that day in October, he immediately returned his uniform and left.

It was a short life for J W Berry after leaving the academy. As mentioned above he enlisted in Phillips’ Georgia Legion and was fairly active as his unit was sent north from Georgia to the battlefields of Virginia. But when 1863 rolled around he was absent without leave from the muster rolls for months on end.

Drink may have been increasingly the driving factor in his life (his brother Thomas once advised him in a letter “to shun it as you would the most poisonous reptile”). The advice went unheeded, for in one drunken episode in 1864, Joel killed two men in his hometown, and fled northward from the expected retaliation of the slain men’s families – not just to the Carolinas or Virginia, but clear out of the Confederacy, and held up in New York City.

There he remained. He never returned to Georgia, and died in NYC in 1869.

 

Buzzing Along Under the Monorail

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There I was on a trip, zipping along under the monorail. It was surreal, almost psychedelic.

Visions of 2001: a Space Odessey.

But I get ahead of myself.

Our world as a married couple expanded a bit when my wife took a new job at Virginia Mason Hospital. So our footprint in Seattle was enlarging. She had a further distance to travel, double what it took me to go to the Fifth Avenue Theater. She easily walked it. Or depending upon schedules I was sometimes able to drop her off at the Spring St entrance.

For the past five years we had been pretty insulated, having met each other in show biz, it seems the only people we knew were family or in show business (and a good percentage of individuals in those two categories overlapped).

At Virginia Mason she worked in the kitchen, cutting raw produce for the hospital cafeteria and for the patients’ meals. Carrots and celery for instance. In fifty pound bags – character and muscle building.

She co-ordinated closely with one of her co-workers, Dan Daniels. His job was to receive the produce, store them, then distribute them where and when needed; i.e., her cutting board. Not too long after she started there, he invited the two of us up to his home to introduce us to his wife, Mary. And for many times after.

Dan and Mary lived in the Queen Anne District, which, as some readers may know, is north of the downtown Seattle area. We were only familiar with a few things up in that neck of the woods. Things like the Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle; and our favorite restaurant at the time, Bloch’s.  (It was great for after a show. We came for the sandwiches. I always had the hot pastrami, and my wife had the prime rib. Yum).

Dan and Mary were fun-loving, festive folks. And holidays for them were always an excuse for a party. They were also artistic souls and everything was always tastefully decorated to the hilt. They introduced us to other things as well.

It must have been a New Year’s Eve celebration. There were noisemakers and party hats. And champagne at midnight. I believe it was the first time I had ever sampled the “bubbly.” I had had beer before, and that always with food, and never to the point of drunkenness. This new concoction was definitely something different.

It’s why I found myself in the passenger seat of the Roadrunner, buzzing along under the monorail at night back to our apartment. The supports to the monorail track flicked by with rythmic regularity. Any lights we passed seemed to bend around and through the windshield and side window and funnel somehow through my wide awake eyes, directly into my brain. It really was the “light show” segment from “2001.” The swift motion of the vehicle that cradled me, instead of comforting, added an element of creepiness, an edge of unease.

That “trip” contributed a great deal to the reasons I have been a teetotaler for the majority of my life.