The Midshipman Who Wasn’t There – Thomas Theodore Turner

The Midshipman Who Wasn’t There T T Turner

I have researched 400 plus candidates who came to the Naval Academy between the years of 1857 and 1861, (both those who were accepted and those who failed either the academic or the medical exam).

In the course of running down what had happened afterwards to the successful candidates, I ran into numerous instances of obits and histories (family ones, written years later) that claimed such and such an individual graduated from the USNA. But according to government records, he hadn’t. Assumptions had been made that since ‘he’ was there – ‘he’ was a graduate.

The instances are almost too numerous to tally (a project for another day, perhaps). I was surprised then to come across a claim by an historian that one midshipman had not been there, whom I knew to have been there.

It happened early on when I was trying to winnow down the details behind the life of Thomas Theodore Turner.  Turner was appointed to the US Naval Academy from the first congressional district of Missouri in 1859.

One of my online researches turned up a reference in a book edited by Terry L Jones – “Campbell Brown’s Civil War: With Ewell and the Army of Northern Virginia.” The explanatory footnote for the individual mentioned in the diary on page 63 reads:

“Thomas Theodore Turner, of Baltimore, was eighteen years old and had received some military training in European schools and the Virginia Military Institute.  He accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy when the war began but never attended. Turner also refused an offer by Brigadier General William T Sherman, a close friend of Turner’s father, to secure him a lieutenant’s commission in the 7th US Cavalry.  Instead, Turner apparently joined the Confederate navy but then resigned his naval commission and joined Ewell’s staff in the fall of 1861 as a volunteer aide.  Upon the recommendation of Ewell, Johnston, and Stuart, Turner was appointed first lieutenant on April 29, 1862, and was assigned to Ewell as aide-de-camp.  He stayed with Ewell for most of the war, was wounded at Spotsylvania in 1864, and was captured along with Ewell and Campbell at Sayler’s Creek on April 6, 1865.  In October 1865, Turner married Campbell’s sister, Hattie.”

This flummoxed me. The only detail that appeared correct was his age when examined. Through further research I was able to ascertain that most of the information could be tied back to my T. T. Turner from Missouri, but not the Baltimore reference, nor the statement that he did not attend.

What I could tell for sure, Thomas Theodore Turner of St Louis MO was at the USNA. I have the date that he appeared before the examination boards and was accepted (11/24/1859), and the pages from the Register of Demerits for 1859-1860 in which his infractions are listed. Then there was all that correspondence from Superintendent Blake about Turner’s dabbling in alcohol in the spring of 1860. The first instance was overlooked and not reported to Isaac Toucey, the Secretary of the Navy, predicated upon a promise from the guilty middie that he would not touch it again. The second time he crossed the line, the report went all the way to the top with details about the first, and much details about the second (which was tied to a third). Evidently Thomas sought to excuse his behavior (to Superintendent Blake’s obvious annoyance) in a sea lawyer fashion by claiming that he had not broken his promise.

“I once gave you my word of honor Sir, that I would never have any thing more to do with liquor on board the ‘Plymouth’ & I have not-“

To his thinking, since he had been found drunk on a cutter “stowed away in her sails,” just hoisted from the water, and NOT on the schoolship Plymouth, his honor was intact.

A subsequent search gave me the answer to the confusion of identity in the Jones book footnote. Here another diary (In the Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany) contained a footnote about the cousins Turner, all with the given name of Thomas (to honor their mutual grandfather). To distinguish them within the family, each one’s locale was appended to their names – ‘Baltimore’ Tom, ‘Kinloch’ Tom (the Virginia family plantation), and our middie – ‘St Louis’ Tom.

Originally Blake had recommended ‘St Louis’ Tom’s dismissal based on his flagrant disregard for the regulations – and for the fact that he should have known better given his age – (at 18 he was one of the oldest members of the plebe class).

Turner had two uncles, both holding the rank of commander in the Navy. One Charles Cocke Turner then posted to the Washington Navy Yard may have lobbied Toucey upon his nephew’s behalf. Toucey wrote Blake and instructed him to supply a fuller explanation about the matter, Thus prompted to take a closer look Blake uncovered a possibility that Turner had not been intoxicated in the first instance.

The upshot was Turner remained in the class completing his plebe year in June, and went on the summer cruise as a member of the Third class. But almost immediately upon his return from the cruise – with the permission of his father, ’St Louis’ Tom Turner tendered his resignation from the naval academy – almost a year after his entrance.

The Reluctant Midshipman Alexander Duer Gedney Pt 2

the-reluctant-midshipman-alexander-duer-gedney-pt-2

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.

ET and Old Ironsides

image_2

When E T and the other soldiers awoke in the morning, most were unaware of what had transpired in the wee hours.  General Butler and his officers had been on the alert the whole time.  They had walked a tight rope. They didn’t know what to expect from the authorities ashore, both at the Naval Academy, nor of the civilian ones in Annapolis itself. It was a slave state after all, and hence held strong political and emotional ties to the seceded states.  And as the state’s major city Baltimore, had proved willing to resist the decisions of the Federal government, they were not sure which way this cat was going to jump.

On the other side of the coin, Captain George S. Blake, the Superintendent of the Naval Academy was himself convinced that the vessel off his station, having been observed descending from the direction of Baltimore, was filled with hostile elements bent on seizing the installation, its stores and weapons. Also at risk was the United States Frigate Constitution, posted here since September of the preceding year as a school-ship. Blake had orders from the Secretary of the Navy to defend her, or failing that, destroy her. To that end a sailor was kept in the hold of Old Ironsides, prepared to set a match to the 60,000 pounds of gunpowder stowed below.

In truth, both were men on the same side, yet neither knew. Both sides sent out feelers, that passed each other in the murk, and more misunderstandings ensued. By the first light of day, the two parties finally cleared things up. Both sides were going to get what they wanted. General Butler had a place to land his troops, the necessary next step on his march to Washington, and Captain Blake would get men to help defend the grounds, and most important of all, personnel to help man the Constitution.

Most of the Marines assigned to the Academy had been ordered to other stations prior to this.  Blake asked Butler if he could assign some men as a marine guard for the Constitution. Butler chose the Salem Zouaves and ordered them to transfer to the ship. He also put a call out for men who knew their way around a sailing vessel, a request easily fielded by companies recruited from the seacoast of Massachusetts.

So the soldiers made their preparations and breakfasted on whatever rations were left. And the Maryland came alongside the man of war.  And so E T stepped from one deck to another and became a marine for a time, serving on the historic and oldest vessel in the US Navy.