The Many Vicissitudes of Wadsworth and Co.

This semester the Naval History and Heritage Command made a site visit to USNA. In conjunction with that visit, I gave a talk at the USNA Museum about one of my favorite characters in my research on the First Barbary War: Henry Wadsworth. This post is a lightly edited version of that talk. I intend to return to Wadsworth and his family once the main book is finished, perhaps fleshing this piece out into a more scholarly article or more likely, a more creative storytelling project.

If you look just down the way from Preble Hall, in between Sampson Hall and the Officers’ Club, you’ll see a big monument. Around here we call that monument the Tripoli Monument, and it commemorates the noble dead of the First Barbary War. By no means does it have the names of all those who died during the war—in fact we’re going to talk about a few whose names are conspicuously absent. It only records the names of those who died in battle or in the service of their duties. The memorials tell us only one thing about the men whose names are there—that they died. I want to tell you about the life of one of those men. His name was Henry Wadsworth, and when he died, he might have been a midshipman—or he might have been a lieutenant—and I’m happy to talk later about how it’s possible that we don’t know.

Henry Wadsworth came from an illustrious family in Maine. His father Peleg was a general during the American Revolution, and he was a Congressman from the state of Massachusetts starting in 1793.[1] If the name Henry Wadsworth sounds familiar, it might be because his nephew—and namesake—was the famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And our Henry shared a bit of his nephew’s literary flair. Henry Wadsworth joined the navy in 1799, and he spent some time in the Caribbean serving under Captain James Sever. He was 17 years old when he was assigned to the USS Chesapeake, under Commodore Richard Valentine Morris, in 1802. The Chesapeake’s destination was the Mediterranean, and its mission was to fight against Tripoli.

This is where I want to pick up Wadsworth’s story. He began writing a journal/letterbook when he reached Gibraltar on June 15, 1802. I want to shout out Kate Hanson Plass, the archivist at the Longfellow House National Historic Site, who digitized the entire journal and letterbook just for me (from which almost all of the information in this talk is taken).

From 1802 to 1804, Wadsworth wrote letters back to his family with a tremendous amount of detail about his surroundings and his feelings about those surroundings. He also made several sketches and watercolor paintings in the journal. He recorded the battles and conflicts, as you might expect, but he didn’t keep close accounting of the ship’s location or the wind speeds or the depth of the ocean, as you would expect from the official journal of a midshipman. This journal and series of letters that he wrote back to his family were meant to connect him to the things he knew and held dear. They were, for him, lifelines to home. In their pages, we find a picture of an interconnected and sophisticated space in the Mediterranean, told through the eyes of an immature kid who doesn’t always see the complexities of his situation.

Today I want to talk to you about the many vicissitudes of Wadsworth and Company. There were many high points of his career in the navy. He was one of the few officers who served without interruption under two different commodores, and the ones he served under happen to be the polar opposite of each other. He enjoyed his time in the Mediterranean under both commodores, and his enchantment with certain aspects of his life comes through loud and clear. But there were also low points in his time in the Mediterranean—though he doesn’t always see them as low points. So I want to tell you about some of these highs and lows, and think about what we can learn both about the First Barbary War and the way Americans saw themselves in the world.

Let’s start with the vicissitudes of Wadsworth’s community. I’ll not go into detail about exactly what the community of an American squadron in the Mediterranean looks like. Wadsworth shipped out on the USS Chesapeake, the flagship of the second squadron bound for the Mediterranean. Though US naval ships had a tightly circumscribed and hierarchical community, the captain, Richard Valentine Morris, disrupted the community from the beginning. He brought his wife and his two-year-old son Gerard on board. Mrs. Morris was a subject of fascination for Wadsworth—he wrote about her several times, and he described her in glowing terms: “All the virtues which constitute the chief loveliness of your sex” (he’s writing to his sister) “are in her conspicuous”—her love of learning, her interest in domestic affairs. And yet he can’t help himself: “her person is not beautiful, or even handsome, but she looks very well in a veil.”

But the Commodoress, as Wadsworth called her, wasn’t the only woman on board, and here we come to one of the highlights of Wadsworth’s community: the birth of a child. On February 22, 1803, he wrote that “Mrs. Low (wife to James Low Captain of the Forecastle) bore a Son in the boatswain’s store room: on the 31st inst. The babe was baptiz’d in the Midshipmen’s apartment”—that’s where Wadsworth himself would have bunked. “The Contriver of this business was Melanchthon Taylor Woolsey a Mid: who stood Godfather on the occasion & provided a handsome collation of Wine & Fruit…the child’s name Melanchthon Woolsey Low; All was conducted with due decorum and decency, no doubt to the great satisfaction of the parents, as Mr. Woolsey’s attention to them must in some measure have ameliorated the unhappy situation of the Lady, who was so unfortunate as to conceive and bare, on the Salt Sea.”

The museum collections include a portrait of Melanchthon Brooks Woolsey, the son of our Melanchthon Woolsey. This Melanchthon Woolsey was also a naval officer, following in the footsteps of his father. Our Melanchthon was a midshipman on the Chesapeake who, I’m guessing, unexpectedly found himself throwing a christening party on board. While having women on board ship—and even giving birth on ship—wasn’t totally unheard of, this ship is the only one I know of in any of the squadrons where there were multiple women of all classes on board. Morris had to get special permission from the Secretary of the Navy to bring his wife on board, but we don’t know whether that was true for the carpenter, the boatswain, the corporal, and of course James Low, the captain of the forecastle, who also brought their wives on board.

The ship wasn’t the only community that Wadsworth was a part of. The Chesapeake was the flagship of a six-ship squadron, and Wadsworth kept tabs on the lows of the community as well as the highs. In the month of October 1802, he recorded five deaths in the squadron. Four were from accident—a boat from the USS Enterprize overturned and the four men in it were drowned near Livorno. The other death was from a duel: a lieutenant on board the Constellation killed the captain of the Constellation’s marines, Captain McKnight. Wadsworth has little to say about this death, but the captain of the Constellation, Alexander Murray, was more voluble about the hazards of dueling. “The unhappy catastrophy, of Capt McKnight, who was a very deserving Officer, tho rather irritable, induces me to wish that an article might be incerted in the regulations for the Navy, rendering every Officer liable to heavy penalties, & even to loss of his Commission, for giving or receiving a Challange, & also the seconds, for aiding & abetting in such unwarrantable acts, especially upon Foreign Service, I woud even extend it further, & make every Officer Amenable to such penalties, if they did not make their Commander acquainted with events of that serious nature, for had I have had the least hint of the meeting, I coud have prevented it, & saved a worthy Member to his family, & Country.”[2] Murray didn’t get his wish—duelling remained in the navy for half a century. Historian Charles Oscar Paullin puts the last duel of the navy in 1849; between 1799 and 1848, he says, “the mortality of naval officers resulting from duels was two-thirds that resulting from naval wars.”[3] And this duel in October 1802 was one of three that Wadsworth had a personal connection to.

I could go on for a while about the vicissitudes of Wadsworth’s community—including Wadsworth’s unflattering descriptions of his fellow midshipmen, his closest associates but certainly not his friends. But for Wadsworth, this tour in the Mediterranean was about more than just his closest community. He wanted to see the sights, to feel like a part of something bigger, both temporal and geographical. Every time he had the chance, he went out to tour the country wherever his ship was docked. He quoted extensively from guidebooks he read, and he invoked ancient stories of the history of the places he went.

Wadsworth was a very educated young man, and he seems to have wished to bring his education to bear on his naval career. For instance, when the Chesapeake passed within view of Carthage, he lamented that he could not take a boat to shore and explore the ruins. He noted that some of the crew from the USS Enterprize had done just that, but they had almost been captured and held to ransom, so it was deemed unsafe for any other Americans. Perhaps it was the crew of the Enterprize or a similar excursion who brought back the jar helpfully labeled “Ruins of Carthage” that resides in the museum’s collections. I’m sure Wadsworth was jealous that he wasn’t the one to acquire those ruins.

The young midshipman did not miss his chance to take other souvenirs, however. On many occasions, he visited religious sites with his friend Lt. Crane. In Pisa and in Palermo, he decided to take souvenirs of his visit. In Pisa, he describes how he took “the hand and arm as high as the elbow of some old man,” while Lt. Crane took “a thumb” and a third man “two fingers more.” It’s not clear to me whether these were actual body parts or pieces of statuary. But in Palermo it was definitely body parts. The two young men visited the catacombs of a Capuchin monastery where the burial practices were unique, to say the least. In this monastery, which you can still see today, bodies weren’t buried—they were suspended from hooks unwrapped or embalmed in any way, and then the bodies essentially mummified. Many of them didn’t totally mummify, so the bodies rotted on the hooks. Each body was accompanied by a card with the deceased’s name.

Wadsworth and Crane decided they wanted to have pieces of these bodies. Wadsworth “endeavor’d to break off the fingers of Countess Daina, but her Ladyship was too damn’d tough.” Lt. Crane was more successful; he “bore off a toe of Michael Angelo, who died in 1693.” Wadsworth did get his souvenir eventually: he took a paper from the hand of a dead friar, “tearing apart his hand, which I hope may be no detriment to his entering the Gate.”

It is doubtful that Wadsworth and Crane took the least bit of thought about whether what they were doing was legal. Certainly it wasn’t thoughtful, and I can imagine that the locals weren’t that happy about Americans coming in and defacing their dead loved ones. But it wasn’t strictly illegal. Anglo-American law, insofar as it spoke to the idea of body-part thievery at all, maintained that there is no property in a body, and thus stealing body parts was of no consequence. (The development of body-part-theft law is how we arrive at recent roadblocks over the repatriation of Native remains, by the way.)[4]

But I’m talking to you about contrasts, and I wouldn’t want you to think that Wadsworth only took things and left nothing behind. He visited Rome in May 1803, where he visited a place he called St. Paul’s Cathedral (which my NHHC colleague Travis Moger notes is not likely its actual name).  Near the cathedral, Wadsworth discovered a statue of the saint, which he said was covered in names. He “penciled [his] own on a book held open in his right arm” and left.

Only once does Wadsworth think twice about defacing the things he sees. In the same visit to Pisa where he took the arm of the old man, he saw that the walls of the cathedral were covered in graffiti. He even recognized some of the names: Gustavus Adolphus, Hyde Parker. He pulled out his pencil to inscribe his own name on the wall when he noticed that next to one name someone had written “he’s a damn’d rascal.” In between two other names, someone had drawn a line and written “two fools.” He decided that, “for fear someone would pay me a compliment likewise, I threw aside the foolish ambition of writing my name among Kings and Admirals, quietly pocketing my pencil.”

These examples serve to demonstrate Wadsworth’s immaturity, but they also show us how much he wanted to set his own experience into larger contexts. He wanted to matter, and he wanted the United States to matter. This is, in part, why he judged his shipmates so harshly—he didn’t think they reflected adequate glory on the United States Navy. He also took affront when the British didn’t observe any niceties surrounding George Washington’s birthday. Wadsworth saw the new United States as worthy of notice.

But he didn’t always have the maturity to understand the politics of his circumstances. He tended to make snap judgments about events that didn’t account for the complexities of the Mediterranean community, and he was also too naïve to see when his personal beliefs didn’t align with the needs or motives of the larger mission. Wadsworth was uniquely situated to perceive how the war got fought—under Morris, he spent time in Morocco, Tunis, and Algiers while Morris tried to keep the peace with those three states. Under the next commodore, Edward Preble, he spent most of his time off Tripoli bombarding the port.

In these two commodores, Wadsworth got to see the greatest contrast: Morris, who tried to take a more politically savvy approach to fighting the war, which wasn’t politically acceptable back in Washington, and Preble, whose grasp of politics and diplomacy was thin at best and downright counterproductive at worst. Of the two, Wadsworth got on better with Morris, with whom he seems to have had a close personal relationship. He wrote that Morris furthered his career by protecting him from political intrigue. When the Secretary of the Navy floated the possibility that Wadsworth might go to another ship, the commodore told him “you had better stay with me: for as your Father is a Noted Federal Character, & as Political Principles have some influence, perhaps you might be with a commander of opposite sentiments & who would not do you Justice—so that you might hang astern even after you deserv’d promotion.” And so Wadsworth stayed with Morris even after the commodore transferred ships from the Chesapeake to the New York. This was a highlight for Wadsworth.

The low point of Wadsworth’s political understanding—and the point that most clearly demonstrates his naïveté—came just a few months later, in September 1803, when Richard Somers, commander of the Nautilus, found the New York in Malaga. He brought with him news that Richard Valentine Morris had been recalled to the United States in disgrace. He would face a court-martial for his inattentiveness to the duty of his orders—fighting against Tripoli.

Given the huge number of days Wadsworth had spent touring Italy and other places in the Mediterranean, he must have realized that the commodore had not applied himself to the defeat of Tripoli as aggressively as he might have. And yet Wadsworth alleged that this recall had political motives: “We learned! Strange to tell! That the Commodore is order’d home; still more strange!! That he is unpopular with the People & with the Government.” He was incensed that the Secretary of the Navy had sent orders to Captain John Rodgers as though he were the commodore, ordering him to take charge of the squadron until the relief squadron arrived. Wadsworth blamed Morris’s fall from grace on the officers who had served under him, whom he described as “discontented.” He wrote in fury, “Were I commodore & used thus, I’d raise such a dust about the Navy Office that one could not see the Capitol from the President’s House.”

Wadsworth was probably the only one who thought Morris’s recall was unwarranted jealousy or malcontent. The Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State had received many letters from captains and consuls about the difficulty of working with Morris. Morris himself had not kept the Secretary of the Navy updated on his whereabouts and his motivations. This fact told against him at his court martial. But Wadsworth didn’t see it.

This wasn’t the first time that Wadsworth’s unquestioning loyalty to a commanding officer had put him in the distinct minority when the officer had been censured. His first billet had been with Captain James Sever, who was removed from the Navy under the Peace Establishment Act after he became increasingly irascible and erratic. Wadsworth saw the erratic behavior and yet, he wrote in defense of Morris, “This was the way Capt Sever was treated i.e. sacrificed to the murmurings of inferior Officers & the multitude,” though he did concede “I believe the fault in some degree lay at his door.” Nonetheless, Wadsworth wrote, Sever “is my favorite and has my esteem.” Perhaps with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, Wadsworth would have been able to see that the fault lay in some degree at Morris’s door too. However he felt about Morris’s recall, Wadsworth seamlessly integrated into the crew of Edward Preble’s Constitution when the new squadron arrived.

The final vicissitude I want to tell you about is the contrast between the highs and lows of Henry Wadsworth’s connection to his home. More than most, Wadsworth had a wide and devoted cadre of letter writers who sent him letters frequently. His father, his siblings, even his more extended family wrote him often—though not often enough for his taste. In return, the journal and letters he wrote were obviously intended for dissemination amongst the family. He wrote of things that he thought specific members of the family would be interested in; his casual references to literature and art imply that the recipient of the letters would be familiar with the works he referenced. One of the low points of his journal is his notation about the death of his sister Eliza, who was frequently the person he had addressed his letters to.

Wadsworth also had a network of friends—and lady friends—that he referred to often. Though he obviously enjoyed his time in the Mediterranean, his thoughts were never far from home. But he didn’t want to come home in disgrace, as his commander had done. He wanted to return having done something noble and courageous. On January 10, 1804, he wrote angrily of the celebrations in Tripoli after the capture of the USS Philadelphia, “for these three days of pleasure, we have in reserve for you three months, weeping and wailing at the end of which thou shalt mourn thy paltry city a heap of ruins & thank the clemency of Christians, who have left one stone upon another in thy detested nest.” This is the kind of hyperbole Wadsworth was fond of, but he then adds a personal touch, linking his desire for honor and his desire for home: “God preserve my life till this is accomplished, until with exulting heart I tread the land of liberty among my friends.”

To be honest, he kinda ruins the moment by continuing, “Untill I press to my throbbing bosom, the lovely, the enchanting Miss”…and then he seems not to be able to remember her name, because all he adds in pencil is “the most adorable & divine creature to be seen, Heavenly Angel.” Apparently he had a lot of ladies to choose from back home.

The letterbook ends on July 16, 1804. By this time, Wadsworth had been seconded to the USS Scourge, a prize that had been brought into the squadron. He had seemingly received a promotion to first lieutenant at the time. During the month of August, Preble bombarded the port of Tripoli nearly every day, and on many days, sent out gunboats to fight against the Tripolitan gunboats. Wadsworth commanded one of these gunboats. It was likely during these gunboat battles that MIDN Frederick Cornelius DeKrafft acquired the sword that now resides in the USNA Museum collections, though he doesn’t mention in at all in his own journal.

But the bombardment wasn’t working quickly enough for Preble. After weeks of bombarding and fruitless gunboat battles, he decided to try a more aggressive strategy—sending a fireship into the port of Tripoli. On September 2, 1804, Nathaniel Haraden, the master of the Constitution, wrote, “Lieutenant Wadsworth and Mr. Israel midshipman, six seamen from the Constitution & four from the Nautilus went on board the Intrepid which is now completed as an Infernal.” It was commanded by Richard Somers, and its goal was to destroy the 16 Tripolitan boats that lay next to the battery, as well as the battery itself. Wadsworth volunteered for this mission. So did Midshipman Joseph Israel, whom Wadsworth had served with before (and had written a very unflattering vignette of).

Purser John Darby of the USS John Adams described the Intrepid’s mission on September 3: “at 8 the Ketch Intrepid got under way and was sent into Tripoli as a fire ship. Commanded by Capt. Summers, – he had. Our Green Cutter to make their escape from her. At 3/4 past 9 she blew up in which unfortunately perished Capt. Summers. Mr Wadsworth. Mr Israel, Midshipmen, & 10 Men it is supposed that she took fire in the Magazine sooner than was intended or that they were attempted to be boarded by the Tripolitans and blew her up sooner than suffer her & themselves to fall into the hands of the Tripoleens. … – the loss of those brave Officers and men are much to be regreted by their country & friends Capt Summers was as brave & enterpriseing an Officer as ever steped the Deck of a ship possesing every Virtue that the human hart is susceptable of. Mr Wadsworth & Mr Israel. I am told were very promising young men (midshipmen) who was held high in the opinion of the commodore & bid fare to be an honor to their country in the line of their profession.”[5]

Thus ended the life of a young officer who, more than anything, wanted to be remembered. He wrote public letters to his family. He wrote his name on monuments and took souvenirs. But he also attached himself to men who proved unable to shore up their own legacy, much less his. And despite his fondest wish to come home having done something glorious, he was one of the very few officers over the course of the entire war who didn’t make it home.

And yet, we do remember him. Three years after his death, his sister gave birth to a boy whom she named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his memory. And today, out behind Preble Hall, stands a memorial that’s far more permanent than a pencil scrawl on a Roman monument, with the name Wadsworth on every side. So maybe in the end, he got what he wanted.

[1] A total of ten kids in the Wadsworth family, including Alexander Scammell Wadsworth, who also was a naval officer and married John Rodgers’s wife’s sister in 1824.

[2] U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, 6 vols. (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1939), 2:311.

[3] Charles Oscar Paullin, Dueling in the Old Navy (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1909).

[4] Susan C. Lawrence, “Beyond the Grave –The Use and Meaning of Human Body Parts: A Historical Introduction,” in Stored Tissue Samples: Ethical, Legal, and Public Policy Implications (University of Iowa Press, 1998), .

[5] BW4:506.


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