More imaginary conversations with the ghost of my great-great-great grandfather, Commodore Robert F. "Fighting Bob" Stockton
©2011 Bob Stockton. Excerpted from 'Fighting Bob' (AuthorHouse) by Bob Stockton. All rights reserved by the author.
“Let me get this straight in my mind. You are in command of the frigate Congress, you and the ship are in Norfolk and you have orders to take some passengers to Hawaii. I do know that the Panama Canal wasn’t a reality at the time so I assume you had to sail around Cape Horn and enter the Pacific via the Drake Passage. That’s a pretty nasty stretch of water to navigate. There are high seas and squalls year ‘round and much heavier ships made of steel have gotten into trouble crossing the Passage. I was part of the crew of a ship which steamed west to east through there in 1971 and we were battened down tight as a drum. It must have been a very hairy… I mean dangerous transit.”
“I fail to see what hair length has to do with the Drake Passage so I shall assume that this is more of your assault on the English Language“.
Apparently the Commodore was feeling better.
“To address your concern regarding our transit we did have a difficult passage, however I was fortunate enough to have as my executive officer Sam Dupont. Young Sam was a midshipman who served under me aboard Erie and had often told me that he wished to emulate my skills in seamanship, navigation and leadership. It was through my personal conversations with Commander Dupont that I began to raise myself from the malaise in which I had found myself after the Texas affair.”
A different sense of the Commodore’s image was beginning to take shape in my mind. His voice was again becoming confident and authoritarian, his image in my mind was morphing back to the dashing naval officer, ready to meet any challenge.
“Several ports of call were necessary on a long voyage such as this in order to provision and effect any needed repairs. Our first stop was at the Port of Rio where a few of our men became drunk and caused a disturbance that warranted courts-martial. Sam wanted the offenders to be flogged whereas I was dead set against it. I had always been disgusted at this method of punishment which was nothing more than a holdover from the British Navy and had never permitted it in any of my ships in which I was in command. Commander Dupont on the other hand was adamant in his view that flogging was an absolute necessity. He was a strong advocate of this barbaric practice. Our debate over the issue lasted for several days. Sam felt that on voyages as long as ours that the men would eventually be impossible to control without some sort of severe disciplinary measure and flogging was the most severe of the lot.”
“Well? Who won the debate?”
“Debates aboard ship, Grandson, are always won by the ship’s captain. I did however agree to a greatly reduced use of the lash as punishment and then only in the most extreme and severe infractions of our naval code.”
“To continue, our next port of call was scheduled for Valparaiso, Chile. Our time spent there was unremarkable. We provisioned and I then set a course to the south for a stop at Callao, Peru where I expected to receive naval despatches which would update our information on the progression of the Mexican dispute. It was there that I had a confrontation with the civil authorities over the unjust imprisonment of an American merchant captain.”
“Ha-ha. Go get ‘em Granddad!”
I was thrilled to ‘see’ that he was his old self again.
“Ahem. Yes, well as Providence would have it I was aboard Congress one afternoon in Callao when we received a visit from an American merchant vessel officer from a ship that also happened to be in port. He stated to the Officer of the Deck that his captain had been imprisoned by the local authorities who were refusing to release him.”
My sense of the Commodore was of a robust, uniformed officer ready for any eventuality. He had recovered his old swagger.
“When I was informed of this injustice I departed ship immediately for the local prison to interview the merchant captain as to what exactly had occurred. The captain informed me that as his crew was rowing him ashore they were bumped by a boat from a Peruvian Navy vessel. A brief argument ensued and the two vessels went each their separate way. Sometime later after the captain had left the dock the argument between the two boat crews resumed and blows were exchanged. When the captain returned to restore order the local authorities seized him and threw him in prison.”
“Overstepped their bounds, did they?”
“I immediately paid a visit to the civilian authorities and politely requested that the merchant captain be released to my custody. I must emphasize that this request was delivered by me in the most civil and polite manner imaginable.”
“But they wouldn’t hear of it?”
“Must I remind you again, Robert, to please hold your observations until I have reached the end of my recollection?”
“To continue, the Peruvians were to a man the most bloviating collection of self important gasbags that I had ever encountered, American politicians notwithstanding. They continued to exaggerate the most minute of points, strutting and preening like cocks at sunrise. Eventually there came a point in our meeting where they refused to release the man. I then informed these silly dandies that if the captain were not released I was prepared to take hostile action to secure the man’s freedom.”
“Well sir upon hearing my ultimatum the mayor pleaded for time to send an emissary to Lima to determine what the central government wished to do in this affair. I then pulled my watch from my pocket and told the mayor that if my countryman were not released within fifteen minutes I would lay USS Congress to a position where her deck cannons would lay waste to much of the town. After a quite brief conference guards were sent to the prison and the merchant captain was returned to me, whereupon we left for our respective ships and bid farewell to the lovely town of Callao.”
“Bravo, sir! Well done. Would that we had naval officers here in the twenty-first century with your backbone.”
“Thank you, Grandson. I then directed Commander DuPont to lay a course for the Sandwich Islands. We reached Honolulu on June ninth, exactly one month to the day from our Callao departure. After disembarking our passengers we provisioned and departed for California, arriving in Monterey on July fifteenth. Our war with Mexico had been declared some three months earlier.”