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SOME OF THE NOTABLE OFFICERS ASSIGNED TO ROBERT J. WALKER
In a mutually beneficial arrangement, naval officers were assigned to the Coast Survey. This afforded early command opportunities for these officers as well as training them in aspects of navigation, charting, inshore piloting, and other naval skills. With the addition of steam vessels, the Coast Survey became even more desirable as a training ground. For many naval officers attached to the Survey at this time, this was their first experience with steam vessels, preparing them for the upcoming conflict. The commanding officers of these vessels read like a “Who’s Who” of Civil War fame as David Dixon Porter, John Rodgers, Samuel Philips Lee, C.R.P. Rodgers, Thornton Jenkins, Daniel Ammen, C. H. McBlair and Alban Stimers among others all served in the Coast Survey’s steamships. These ships became an intrinsic part of great national endeavors driven by remarkable changes in transportation technology, new insights in science, and the unprecedented expansion of United States Coast line in the first half of the 19th Century.
Lieutenant (Commanding) Carlile P. Patterson (1816-1881) was the Walker’s first Coast Survey commanding officer, assuming his post in Mobile from Capt. Evans of the Revenue Marine. Patterson served with the Coast Survey with distinction as a naval officer on detached service, and commanded the Survey’s first vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, the schooner Phoenix, in 1845. After commanding Walker, Patterson resigned and headed into merchant service with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, commanding the steamers Oregon and Golden Gate on their regular voyages from Panama to San Francisco from 1849 to 1853. Patterson was in command when PMSSC Oregon brought the news to San Francisco that California had been granted U.S. Statehood. He remained in the west until 1861 with his family. Returning east with the Civil War, Patterson rejoined the Coast Survey and in 1874 became Superintendent, a post he held until his death.
Patterson was followed as captain of Walker in quick progression by Lieutenant James Alden (1810-1877), a promising naval officer who had served in the Wilkes Expedition, on board USS Constitution on a global cruise, and the Mexico War, where he served with the Home Squadron off Mexico. Detached for Coast Survey duty, from the summer of 1849 through the late winter of 1851 Alden commanded the steamer John Y. Mason and then Walker. From Walker he went west to command the Pacific Coast-based steamer Active until 1860. A distinguished Civil War career saw Alden promoted to Captain and then Commodore, and postwar he served as a Rear Admiral commanding the European Fleet of the U.S. Navy.
Samuel Phillips Lee
Walker's next commander was Samuel Phillips Lee (1812-1897), who would also rise to positions of prominence in naval rank as a Civil War Rear Admiral and commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the Mississippi Squadron, and the postwar North Atlantic Squadron of the U.S. Navy.
Benjamin Franklin Sands
The next commanding officer of Walker after Samuel P. Lee, and the longest serving master of the steamer, was Benjamin Franklin Sands (1811-1883). Sands' autobiography notes that he took command in March 1851 in Mobile, and commenced surveys from Pensacola to the mouth of the Mississippi before taking Walker out of the Gulf to Hampton Roads, and thence to Baltimore, where he laid up the steamer. He and the crew continued working local waters in two smaller coastal schooners (Sands 1899:213). Reactivating Walker in December 1852, Sands took the steamer back into the Gulf, where he commanded it through 1857. Of that time on board, he wrote:
I was engaged upon this interesting hydrographic work in the Gulf of Mexico, the fields of my especial surveys being the Florida Keys and the west coast of that state, including Cedar Keys, Tampa Bay and Pensacola Harbor, thence west, taking in the Bay of Biloxi, Chaudeleur Sound, the Deltas of the Mississippi, and the westward thereof, including Atchafalaya Bay and Sabine Pass on the Texas Coast (Sands 1899:213)
Sands and his crew aboard Walker also charted portions of the Gulf Stream from Florida to Cape Hatteras in 1855, which was a key interest of Superintendent Bache (Sands 1899:214).
Benjamin Sands, like his predecessors, enjoyed a prominent career that included early Coast Survey duty in the 1830s and early 1840s, and service in the Gulf during the Mexican War. He served with distinction on post-war Coast Survey duty, including his time on Walker. Sands' Civil War service was as a captain in blockading squadrons on the Atlantic and in the Gulf, and a post-Civil War career as Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In 1871, Commodore Sands was promoted to Rear Admiral.
Alban C. Stimers
As the list of commanders shows, as an early steamer in the service of the United States Government Walker served as a training platform for a number of officers eager to learn the operation of steamships at a time when there were not enough of the vessels to provide an opportunity for all who had the interest or desire to learn. Among those assigned to Walker from the U.S. Navy was Alban C. Stimers, a 25-year old second engineer attached to the ship on November 18, 1852. Stimers rose rapidly in naval ranks and during the Civil War served as the Chief Engineer of the United States Navy. He played a major role in working with John Ericsson on the construction of USS Monitor, and sailed with the ironclad, although not a member of the crew, on its famous voyage south in 1862 and the resulting battle with CSS Virginia, the former USS Merrimac.
Thomas Bee Huger
Walker's executive officer in 1855, William Gamble, went on to command the ironclad USS Osage in 1865 and retired as a commander. Another noted Walker crew member was a young officer, Joseph Fry, who served aboard in 1850-1851. Fry left the Navy with the advent of the Civil War and served the Confederacy with distinction as a blockade runner. "On the beach" after the war, Fry accepted the position of master of the steamer Virginius, chartered by Cuban nationalists to run guns into Cuba to support an uprising against the island's Spanish rulers. Virginius was captured off Cuba by a Spanish warship on October 30, 1874. The "Virginius Affair" was one of the more prominent diplomatic crises faced by the United States in the late 19th century. Fry and his crew were imprisoned, tried as pirates and most were executed within days despite diplomatic protests in a notorious case that inflamed passions on both sides of the Atlantic and nearly brought Spain and the United States to war.
Walker's crews were diverse and included naval and merchant marine veterans, immigrants, foreign nationals, and a racially diverse crew which often included African-Americans. Walker figured in an incident involving one of its black sailors while in Charleston in what seems to have been late 1858. The sailor, G.E. Stevens, explained in a letter to J.C. White from Pensacola on early January 8, 1859 that:
My duty on board this ship required that I should go ashore. The laws of South Carolina forbade my doing so. The day after I arrived I was ordered ashore and obeyed. When walking up King Street I was seized and arraigned before the Mayor. Fortunately for me, a young gentleman, a friend of Captain Huger (the Capt. of the Walker) saw the arrest and informed him immediately. The Captain rendered securities and I was released. (As quoted in Sterling 1973:219)
Thomas Bee Huger (1820-1862) joined the U.S. Navy as a Midshipman in 1835, he served in the Mediterranean and Home Squadrons, and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1848. Assigned to the Coast Survey, Huger was the Lieutenant (Commanding) of Walker in 1859, replacing B.F. Sands and remained in command until early 1860, although when the steamer was lost, he was no longer in command. Huger resigned from the Coast Survey and the Navy in 1861 and joined the Confederacy. As commander of the gunboat McRae, he was mortally wounded during the Union assault at the mouth of the Mississippi on April 24, 1862, and died of his wounds the following day.
John Julius Guthrie
The career and fate of the last captain of Robert J. Walker is important to note. John Julius Guthrie (1815-1877) was born in Washington, North Carolina. He received an appointment to West Point but after a year transferred to the U.S. Navy and served aboard USS John Adams before transferring to the USS Columbia in 1838, where he served until 1842. Guthrie was an officer of great character and promise, and in 1842 was promoted to Lieutenant and attached to the Sloop-of-War USS Warren. He then served on the USS Union (1844) the U.S. Schooner On-Ka-Hy-e (1845-1846) and the U.S. Schooner Flirt (1846), with the Home Squadron during the blockade of Veracruz during the Mexican War. Guthrie then joined the crew of USS Brandywine (1847-1850). He also served on USS Saranac (1852-1853), and USS Levant (1855-1858).
While on USS Levant in the Far East, Guthrie captured a Chinese flag while fighting ashore when the U.S. briefly intervened in the Second Opium War and sent ships to protect U.S. lives and property. After a brief landing at Canton, which was unopposed and without incident, the retreating U.S. boats were fired upon. In retaliation, Levant, USS San Jacinto and USS Portsmouth attacked and silenced the Chinese forts protecting the entrance of the Pearl River, with landing parties encountering fierce resistance when they took the forts and spiked the guns with a loss of ten dead and 32 wounded and hundreds of Chinese dead. Guthrie's bravery under fire and his capture of the flag attracted favorable attention, especially in his home state of North Carolina.
Guthrie's service also included time with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. as a hydrographer, and with the Coast Survey, when he commanded Walker. Following his time on Walker, in which his 17-year-old son, John J. Guthrie, Jr. was a member of the crew (and survived), John Julius Guthrie was attached to the USS Saratoga as its executive officer on anti-piracy patrol. On April 21, 1861, as Civil War commenced back at home, Saratoga captured an American slaver, the clipper Nightingale of Boston, off Kabenda Bay, forty miles north of the Congo on the west coast of Africa, and freed 961 slaves, landing them in Liberia. This was the last capture of a slaver by the United States' African Squadron.
When Saratoga returned home to Brooklyn Navy Yard, the war was underway, and Guthrie resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy on July 6, 1861. On July 13, he was appointed a 1st Lieutenant in the Confederate States Navy. Serving as commander of a floating battery at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi, and then briefly as the second commanding officer of the ironclad CSS Chatahoochee. Chatahoochee was disabled by a boiler explosion during Guthrie's command, and his colleagues later criticized his actions following the accident, when he came on deck and instead of taking command decided instead to bless and administer the final rites to his dead or dying crew. Guthrie went on to a successful career as commanding officer of the government-owned blockade runner Advance, but was not on board when the steamer was captured in 1864. In 1865, back in his native North Carolina at war's end, Guthrie applied for and received a pardon from the U.S. Government.
Ten years later, Guthrie returned to public service as the newly appointed Superintendent of the U.S. Life Saving Service's Sixth Life-Saving District to serve stations just being built on the Outer Banks, in 1875. On November 24, 1877, the USS Huron, enroute to the Caribbean, stranded in the surf off Nag's Head and began to batter apart with 132 officers and crew. Hearing of the disaster, Guthrie joined the steamer B & J Baker, attempting to arrive in time to rescue as many as they could from the wreck. On the morning of November 25, they reached the wreck in heavy seas and launched a boat to reach shore and make contact with the survivors. The boat was caught in a heavy swell and capsized, killing Capt. Guthrie and four of the steamer's crew. In all 102 people died, 98 of them Huron's crew (Stick 1981:83). The ocean that had not claimed John Julius Guthrie when Walker sank on June 21, 1860, finally took him seventeen years later.