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.

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.