Monday, February 15, 2010

9:40 PM, February 15th, 1898

This man John Henry (Dick) Turpin was in the pantry of the wardroom when there was an explosion. He says he felt the deck under him "heave and lift." One of the first men the US Navy was later to make a Chief Petty Officer from the ranks of their African American enlistees, he made his way out of the ship, jumped in the water, had another man grab onto him, and then he was rescued.
That night it was the USS Maine (ACR-1) in Havana Harbor. Contrary to popular belief it has never been established what actually sunk Chief Petty Officer Turpin's first ship. It is widely believed that a coal bunker explosion sank the Maine. There is no conclusive evidence for that cause, or for the cause of a mine. The mine seems unlikely based on the later actions of Spanish naval personnel who rushed to the 90 survivors aid. The die was cast, and "Remember the Maine" became a battle cry that led to a war the United States was itching to have in it's then Imperialistic aims.

I am reading a bitter book by James Bradley that makes President Theodore Roosevelt out to be nothing short of a precursor to Hitler. Hence my fascination with the Maine. As bad as Roosevelt is made out to be by Mr. Bradley (who was born the year I was), the book makes some valid points. Nevertheless, it is oddly Dick Turpin, perhaps the Navy's first black Chief Petty Officer, a Master Diver, Chief Gunner's Mate and later Master Rigger that I ended up focusing on.

While Mr. Bradley fumes over the horrid things undeniably done in the run up to two World Wars, I see Dick Turpin, who later was heroic in surviving yet another Naval ship explosion on the Bennington.

Dick in older age tried to return to military service for World War II. He was an "inspirational speaker" for the US Military. He won several boxing crowns in the Navy, taught boxing at Annapolis and was known to be something of a human jungle gym in Bremerton Washington, where he later died, probably the Last Surviving member of the crew of the Maine.

Kids loved him and climbed all over him when he was on base in Bremerton. He is, as shown above, a fine figure of a man. By some accounts, he should have received the Medal of Honor for his role in saving men.

The Maine died 112 years ago. Dick Turpin lived on to reach his nineties and died March 10th, 1962, proving that the times were changing from the bitter vision of the book "Imperial Cruise." They were changing because of men like Chief Petty Officer Turpin, for whom there was no record of complaint about his lot in life. He simply went forward, being first, doing good, and having courage. Someone by which to "Remember the Maine."

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Jam Inn said...

James Roberts, b. 1753
The Narrative of James Roberts, a Soldier Under Gen. Washington in the Revolutionary War, and Under Gen. Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, in the War of 1812: "a Battle Which Cost Me a Limb, Some Blood, and Almost My Life"
Chicago: Author, 1858.

James Roberts' Narrative indicates that he was born in 1753 "on the Eastern Shore of Maryland . . . in a state of slavery" (p. 9). Roberts accompanied his master, Francis De Shields, in the Revolutionary War and moved with him to Philadelphia after the war. Upon the death of De Shields, Roberts returned to Maryland with hopes of "being set free, with my wife and four little ones" (p. 10). Instead, Roberts was sold, separated from his family, moved to New Orleans, and auctioned to Louisiana planter Calvin Smith for fifteen hundred dollars. Roberts was sent to combat again during the War of 1812 and fought under "General Jackson" (presumably Andrew Jackson). Despite being promised his freedom in exchange for his service, Roberts was returned to slavery after fighting in the Battle of New Orleans. Roberts' Narrative indicates that he eventually obtained his freedom, although when and how remains unclear. Roberts then dedicated part of his life to agitating for the freedom of all slaves.

Roberts, who intimates that he is more than 80 years old when he writes his Narrative, offers several reasons for producing his short autobiography, including a desire to "have my narrative written by a colored person," and to contribute to "the destruction of the iniquitous and soul and body destroying system of Slavery" (p. iii, iv). According to Roberts, a combination of morality and "political expediency" would eventually lead to slavery's downfall in the United States (p. vi). Roberts admits that it may take years for these two ideals to overcome slavery and slave holders, but he intends for the Narrative to aid in the struggle.

Works Consulted: Roberts, James, Introductory lessons, with familiar examples in landscape for the use of those who are desirous of gaining some knowledge of the pleasing art of painting in water colours; to which are added some clear and simple rules, . . . To which are added, instructions for executing transparencies, . . . By James Roberts, . . ., London, W. Bulmer and Co., 1800.

Meredith Malburne

Jam Inn said...

African American Sailors in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Lake Erie.

As a result, the northern lakes arena witnessed the hardest and bloodiest fighting of the war. On 3 March 1813 official policy changed when Congress passed a law authorizing the enlistment of "persons of color, natives of the U. States." The United States Navy was integrated by law, and it is estimated that black seamen constituted between ten and fifteen percent of the Navy's crews before, during, and after the War of 1812.

In March of 1813, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry was assigned by Commodore Isaac Chauncey to finalize construction and take command of the Lake Erie flotilla, based at Erie, Pennsylvania. By mid-July the 11 vessels comprising Perry's squadron were built, fitted out, and ready to sail, save for one major stumbling block. Needing more than 700 men to man his ships, Perry could muster only 120 men fit for duty. Due to limited resources at Erie, Perry was forced to depend upon his superior for reinforcements. Purser Samuel Hambleton complained in his diary that, "Our force consisted principally of the refuse of Commodore Chauncey's fleet... Despite the deficiencies of his reinforcements, Perry had no choice but to accept their services, white and black, and their efforts more than sufficed. On 10 September 1813 Perry gained a decisive victory, capturing British Commander Robert Heriott Barclay's entire squadron in a frenzied three-and-a-half hour battle near Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Two hours of incessant broadsides transformed Perry's stately flagship, the 20-gun brig Lawrence, into a blasted hulk with nearly 80% casualties.

Just when defeat seemed inevitable, Perry hauled down his "Don't [sic] Give Up The Ship" battle flag and transferred to the U.S. Brig Niagara, Lawrence's sistership. With a fresh 20-gun brig under his feet, Perry broke the chaotic British battle line, hurled broadsides from Niagara's larboard and starboard sides, and forced the entire six-ship enemy squadron to capitulate. Perry speaks highly of the bravery and good conduct of the negroes, who formed a considerable part of his crew. ‘They seemed to be absolutely insensible to danger. When Captain Barclay came on board the Niagara, and beheld the sickly and partly-colored beings around him, an expression of chagrin escaped him at having been conquered by such men’

Little information has passed into history pertaining to the black sailors who fought with Perry, and few have been identified. Jesse Williams was an ordinary seaman on the flagship Lawrence, where he was wounded in action. Before being sent to Lake Erie, Williams served on the U.S. Frigate Constitution, where, as the 1st sponger (assigned to "sponge" the gun barrel to extinguish sparks before loading) on number 3 long gun. Williams participated in Old Ironsides' victory over HMS Java on 29 December 1812. In 1820, while a resident of Philadelphia, Williams was awarded a silver medal from the State of Pennsylvania for his role in the battle. Cyrus Tiffany may be the best known black seaman from the Lake Erie fleet because of his close personal association with Perry. Isaac Hardy was an ordinary seaman killed in action on board the U.S. Brig Niagara. Hardy's wife later applied for a widow's pension from the government. Diane Hardy also retained the same lawyer as Jesse Williams when she requested her husband's silver medal from the State of Pennsylvania.

Lake Erie's black seamen fought with courage, distinction, and dignity, and their efforts both served their country and helped secure the fundamental rights and freedoms of the United States of America- rights and freedoms that they themselves were not privileged to enjoy.

The Maritime Museum wishes to thank Author Gerry Althoff for granting us permission to use the above information.