Lot 217: B. F. TRACY (1830-1915) Secretary of the Navy
January 25, 2017
Wells, ME, USA
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Description: [NAVAL HISTORY] B. F. TRACY (1830-1915) Secretary of the Navy from 1889 through 1893, during the administration of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison. An 8-1/2 page lengthy letter written to Rear-Admiral Lewis A. Kimberly (1830-1902) officer in the United States Navy during the American Civil War and the years following. He was then appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Squadron. In March 1889, during the Samoan crisis, his flagship Trenton was struck by a violent cyclone while at harbor at Apia. Guiding his men with the words, "If we go down, let us do so with our flag flying," Kimberly skillfully beached his flagship, losing only one man in the raging storm that wrecked Trenton. This letter is a period copy of the original, and was given to Lieut. Commander Henry W. Lyon, who took command of the ship Nipsic after this crisis, sailing her to Hawaii. Provenance: Collection of Rear-Admiral H.W. Lyon [Maine]. Below is the full content of this letter.Navy Department, Washington. April 27, 1889.Rear Admiral L.A. Kimberly, U.S. NavyCommanding U.S. Naval Forces of the Pacific Squadron.Sir : The Department is in receipt of your cable dispatch of March 30, from Auckland, and also of your letter of March 19 from Samoa, with accompanying reports from Captain Farquhar, Commander Mullan, and Lieut. Carlin, narrating the circumstances of the overwhelming disaster which has recently befallen your squadron in Apia harbor.I need not say to you that this event has caused the Department profound sorrow, which, as the appalling extent and character of the catastrophe became known, was reflected throughout the country. Even if the Navy were possessed of an adequate number of ships to supply the necessities of the service, the loss of three at one blow would be a serious diminution of the available cruising force. To a Navy passing, as is that of the United States, through a stage of transition, when most of its previously existing vessels have disappeared and its new fleet is only on the threshold of existence, the blow comes with crippling force.The Department learns with the deepest pain that the wreck at Samoa resulted in the death of four officers. Captain C. M. Schoonmaker, Paymaster Frank H. Arms, First Lieut. F. E. Sutton of the Marine Corps, and Pay Clerk John Roche, and thirty-nine men of the Vandalia, seven men of the Nipsic, and one man of the Trenton. However severely the destruction of the vessels may be felt by the Navy, the loss of so many valuable lives is a far greater and more irreparable misfortune. Captain Schoonmaker died, as he had lived, at the post of duty, a gallant and generous officer, and a devoted servant of his country to the last. Weakened by long ettbrt, he was swept by the sea from the deck of his vessel, soon after she had drifted to her final resting place. The hurricane at Samoa has brought affliction to many American households, which will receive the deepest sympathy of the Government, yet it cannot be said that those who died thus manfully, facing danger in the execution of their duty, have died in vain.The Department, having closely examined the reports of the circumstances under which the disaster occurred, learns that on the 15th of March, when indications of bad weather first appeared, every preparation was made to meet the coming gale. The ships were stripped and steam was raised. The force of the approaching storm could not be foreseen, and there was every reason to hope and believe that the vessels would ride it out at their moorings in safety. The extraordinary violence of the gale rendered this impossible, while the crowded condition of the harbor, where the vessels lay exposed to the full force of the wind and sea, yet shut in on both sides by the sharp edges of coral reefs, made their position one of extreme danger. The Nipsic Commander Dennis W. Mullan, the innermost vessel of the fleet, was enabled to reach a place of comparative safety on the beach, where her gig's crew were lost while gallantly attempting to run a line to the shore. The Vandalia, commanded by Capt. C. M. Schoonmaker, and upon his death by Lieut. J. W. Carlin, after skillfully avoiding a collision as she dragged into the inner harbor struck the point of the reef not far from the Nipsic. Here she remained, exposed to the fury of the storm, her officers and men taking refuge in the rigging, while the seas swept over her and the spray and surf were flying to her mastheads. Many of her crew were lost in the attempt to swim ashore, and one man, E. M. Hammer (seaman), met hiis death in a brave but fruitless effort to carry a line to the Nipsic. The survivors, after remaining for eight hours in momentary expectation of death, were finally rescued through the efforts of the Trenton. The latter vessel, Capt. Norman H. Farquhar commanding, had the misfortune early on the morning of the 16th to lose her wheel and break her rudder. Soon after the heavy sea, forcing its way into the house-holes in spite of obstructions, filled the fire-rooms and put out the fires. The flagship, now without steam or rudder, her anchors dragging, drifted almost at the mercy of the gale along the edges of the eastern reef, at times not more than 20 feet from total destruction. Every endeavor was made to control her movements, and her commanding officer states in his report that upon at least one occasion it was through the excellent judgment of Lieut. R. M. G. Brown, the Navigating officer, that the ship cleared the reef and the four hundred and fifty lives on board were saved. The Department notes with satisfaction your commendation of Lieutenant Brown and also of Lieut. Commander Henry W. Lyon, the executive officer, for their efforts to save the ship. After a collision with the Olga the Trenton passed over to the western reef, where she drifted with the current until she struck the ground near the Vandalia.From your own report, and from other accounts that have reached the Department, it appears that the conduct of those under your command evinced throughout that courage, resolution, and fortitude which the United States has learned always to expect from the officers and seamen of its Navy. When her Britannic Majesty's ship Calliope, fortunate in the possession of more powerful engines, succeeded in her gallant effort to pass the Trenton and steam out of the harbor against the hurricane, the ringing cheer from the American flagship, as her crew were standing in the face of death, showed a spirit alike generous and dauntless. During the whole of Saturday, when the Trenton was helplessly dragging her anchors on the verge of destruction, the officers preserved their composed and heroic bearing, and directed her movements with consummate skill; the crew were thrown into the rigging as a substitute for sails, and through the cool and exact judgment of those charged with her guidance, she was enabled to escape the extremity of peril. Finally, at the close of the day, when she brought up alongside of the Vandalia her officers and men, notwithstanding the suffering through which they had passed, and the dangers by which they were still surrounded, thought only of doing their utmost to assist their comrades of the Vandalia whose distress was greater than their own, and by firing rockets with life lines over the masts and rigging of the sunken vessel, they succeeded in rescuing all those who had taken refuge there; while under the inspiration of a sentiment which has awakened a response in every American heart, the band of the flagship, to encourage those who, dazed with fatigue and weakened by exposure, were still clinging to the rigging, played the national anthem.In reply to your request and that of Captain Farquhar for a court of inquiry, this Department has to say, that it deems such a court unnecessary. It is satisfied that the officers in command of the ships at Apia did their duty with courage, fidelity, and sound judgment, and that they were zealously and loyally seconded by their subordinates; that the hurricane which caused the destruction of the vessels and the loss of so many lives was one of those visitations of Providence in the presence of which human efforts are of little avail; that the measures actually taken by yourself and the officers under you were all that wisdom and prudence could dictate, and that it was due to these measures that a large proportion of the crews were saved; that the one step which might have averted the catastrophe, namely, to have put to sea before the storm had developed, could only have been justified, in view of the grave responsibilities resting upon you at Samoa, by the certainty of overwhelming danger to your fleet, which could not then be foreseen; that you rightly decided to remain at your post, and that the Department, even in the face of the terrible disaster which it involved, approves absolutely your decision, which has set an example to the Navy that should never be forgotten.To convene a court of inquiry under these circumstances would seem to imply a doubt on the part of the Department where no doubt exists; and instead of ordering an investigation, it tenders to you, and through you to the officers and men of your command, its sympathies for the exposures and hardships you have encountered, and its profound thanksfor the fidelity with which you performed your duty in a crisis of appalling danger.Very respectfully,B. F. TracySecretary of the NavyIt is interesting, and understandable, that the Secretary of the Navy would speak so favorably of all the men men involved in this crisis, even though the Commander of the Nipsic, Dennis W. Mullan, was removed from command of the Nipsic. Henry Lyons took command and sailed the Nipsic to Hawaii. VG.
Condition Report: VG