The Youngest Officer in U. S. Navy History

Samuel Barron III, the youngest officer in U. S. Naval history, at a later stage of his career.

Samuel Barron III, the youngest officer in U. S. Naval history, at a later stage of his career.

I’ve always loved the way history has of creating odd incidents of little significance amid the sweep of grander events. I was reminded of one such in reading Richard Zacks The Pirate Coast. It details the ‘secret mission’ Thomas Jefferson gave to William Eaton dealing with the Bashaw of Tripoli, who had enslaved 300 U. S. sailors and marines from the wrecked U. S. S. Philadelphia. It is a well written account of faithlessness, double-dealing and a government acting against its’ own best interest. Jefferson unfortunately comes out of it with his sanctimonious image as a founding father less than lily-white. If you get the chance, read it. Good book.

The little tidbit that went immediately into my ‘odd facts’ file, though, didn’t concern any of the primary personalities involved, but one of their sons- in this case Samuel Barron III. He was the son of Commodore Samuel Barron, who served with distinction in the Virginia State Navy during the Revolutionary War, and later with the United States Navy. When he died in 1810, he left his wife and young son without a means of support. The Navy could not legally contribute to their upkeep since survivor’s benefits did not come into vogue until the founding of the Navy Mutual Aid Association in 1879. What they could do, thanks to Barron’s esteemed and productive service, was to take his son on the rolls as an ensign (the lowest grade of commissioned officer, equivalent to second lieutenant). Since the newly created officer wasn’t actively serving, he could only draw partial pay, but it was sufficient to aid his widowed mother.

The reason he wasn’t actively serving? He was just over two years old at the time.

Don’t Miss This Photo Collection…

Curiosities: Rare Historical Photos.  Some of the information is a bit off (eg. the ‘Child Laborers in 1880’ shot is actually a photo of newsboys in St. Louis in 1910, by Lewis Hine) but it is still a collection that is well worth the time to browse through. Many more at link, but may take a while to load.

The unbroken seal on King Tutankhamen's tomb.

The unbroken seal on King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Osama bin Laden, age 14, second from right. I have no idea why the pink Cadillac.

Osama bin Laden, age 14, second from right. I have no idea why the pink Cadillac.

Mount Rushmore in its natural state, sans carving

Mount Rushmore in its natural state, sans carving

A Ship Debased: The Gleb Boky

The Gulag transport "Gleb Bokii"

The Gulag transport “Gleb Boky”

The Solovetsky Islands lie in Russia’s extreme north, less than 100 miles from the arctic circle. It is an archipelago consisting of six islands, the largest of which, Bolshoi (Great) Solovetsky, is home to the Solovetsky Monastery, one of the holy places of the Orthodox church. Later, with an opposite purpose,  it became associated with a different archipelago. The monastery became the Solovki Special Purpose Camp, the “mother of the Gulag”, according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In 1923, when the camp was established the entire monastic complex was turned into a prison. The churches as well as other buildings were converted to barracks for the prisoners soon to follow. The monastic library was destroyed, the church’s valuables were looted and the bells were removed. A red star replaced the cross atop the onion dome. The monks were driven out or arrested.

When the complex was still a monastery there was a small fleet of steamships used to ferry pilgrims from the mainland; some owned by the monastery and others by private business. They were crowded with pilgrims, the poorest of whom were given free passage. Among these was a small wooden steamer, the Saint Savvaty (Savvaty was one of the founders of the monastery, so it was only natural that one of the pilgrim ships was named for him). When the Bolsheviks took over the monastery complex they also took over the monastery fleet, and the Savvaty (or possibly the Solovki, the Archangel Michael, or the Zhizhgin. No one has a definitive answer. Due to size and age, the Savvaty seems most likely.) was renamed for a Bolshevik “saint”- Gleb Boky, a member of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. He was also the man in charge of the Soviet Union’s labor camp system. As such he was responsible for much of the refined cruelty in the Solovki camp, which later became standard practice throughout the Gulag.

It was on Solovki that food first became dependent on fulfillment of the “norm”. If a prisoner did not meet his production quotas he either did not eat or was fed a starvation ration. Punishments were also standardized here, such as forcing prisoners to stand naked in sub-zero temperatures in winter, or among hordes of mosquitos in the summer. These new concepts and refinements extended also to the transportation system. Solovki was ideally located for the earliest labor camp. Surrounded by freezing cold seas, escape was impossible. And the monastery steamers made a tightly controllable way to ship the prisoners there. The Gleb Boky was conveniently to hand and so was made to carry a different kind of “pilgrim”, eventually to deliver over 300,000 unfortunates (best estimate I could find) during the Boky’s career.

The navigation season at Solovki extended only from June through September, but the needs of the labor camp often saw the ship making trips under conditions considered unsafe when it was a pilgrim ship. There is an account that one trip she became trapped in the ice for the long winter and the prisoners were left in the holds to starve or freeze to death, while the ship’s limited resources were used for the guards and crew. I have seen similar accounts for other ships of the Gulag fleet, but I cannot tell if it was one incident ascribed to different ships, or several similar incidents. From my reading of Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and others it would not surprise me if it happened more than once. Every time you think you’ve heard the worst about the Gulag some new barbarity crops up.

Another view of "Gleb Bokii"

Another view of “Gleb Boky”

The trip from the mainland to the camp could extend to over five hours even on a good day because of the age of the steamer and depending on conditions. Frequently the holds became so overcrowded with the zeks (gulag prisoners- zakliuchyonnyi) that some were left on deck, exposed to the elements, in the often light weight clothing they were arrested in. These were actually the lucky ones, since prisoners unlucky enough to be crammed into the bottom of the holds could be crushed or suffocated. The first work assignment on Solovki that many had was to bring up the bodies of those who didn’t survive the trip.

If you can locate a copy, Gulag by Tomasz Kizny has several excellent photos of the Gleb Boky, different from those posted, which are beyond my meager blogging talents to reproduce here. Among these photos are scenes of women prisoners being loaded aboard, their faces showing their terror- one raising her hands to protect her head from a threatened or impending blow.

The trip on the Boky was hardest on the women. The guards would separate the women they fancied and take them to the bow for an orgy of vodka and rape that some would not survive. The guards, of course, went unpunished. Those women who made it to the hold were looted of their meager belongings, not excluding shoes or clothing, by the women criminals they were locked up with. There is one account of the men criminals having stolen and ax and chopping their way through the wooden partition into the women’s hold, raping most of them and killing several. Like many of these accounts it is attributed to the Gleb Boky, but could have occurred on another ship.

The last account I’ve been able to find of the Gleb Boky mentions the ship in 1929. A group of zeks, led by former officers, planned a rebellion to take over the ship and sail it to Finland. The rebellion was quashed very quickly, in only a few hours. This was primarily because there was no rebellion. Two stoolies tried to recruit everyone they could who was interested in escaping (as who wouldn’t be?), then betrayed them to the authorities to gain benefit from exposing the “plot”. 51 zeks were executed.

The camp was finally closed down in 1939 and a naval unit stationed there. I have been unable to determine the evcntual fate of the Gleb Boky.

When the Fourth of July wasn’t something to celebrate

Colonel George Washington of the First Virginia Regiment

During the French and Indian Wars George Washington participated as an officer of  Virginian colonial troops, although he was occasionally given nominal command over small units of British regulars. The French and British had both claimed sovereignty over the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, the site of present-day Pittsburgh, and tensions eventually led to the Battle of Jumonville Glen in May of 1754. The battle and the glen got their names from Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, the commander of the French forces.

Washington had been sent to the area to enforce British claims, and had begun construction on a small fort at Great Meadows, waiting there for further news or instructions. Jumonville, along with a force of 35 soldiers, was dispatched to investigate the situation and to tell the British to get out. When Washington’s friend

Tanacharison, Half-Chief of the Mingo

and ally, the Mingo leader Tanacharison, located the French force, the two agreed to attack, Tanacharison leading a group of a dozen warriors, while Washington sent a group of forty men.

The battle that ensued had almost as many versions as it had participants, but the facts that everyone agrees on are that Jumonville wound up dead, and the battle became the first of the French and Indian War. Afterward Washington returned to the fort he was constructing naming it Fort Necessity. Washington received a promotion from Major to Colonel, due to the death of another officer, as well as reinforcements. Tanacharison was unable to convince the local chiefs to join the British and regretfully informed his friend that he could not participate.

Louis Coulon de Villiers

Meanwhile, a force of 600 French soldiers and 100 Indians had been dispatched under the leadership of Louis Coulon de Villiers, the dead Jumonville’s brother. They arrived at Fort Necessity on July 3.

Washington’s men were low on supplies and a torrential rain had turned the trenches he had ordered dug into streams. Despite this Washington was determined to hold. The battle proper began when de Villiers moved his troops into a nearby woods, within easy musket range of the fort. Knowing the French had to be shifted or he would lose defenders piecemeal, Washington sent his entire force to attack. When de Villiers counter-attacked, the British regulars held their ground, but the Virginian colonial troops fled back to the fort. Washington had no choice but to order a retreat. To add to his troubles a heavy rain again began to fall, leaving Washington’s troops with wet powder.

At this point de Villiers, who was uncertain if and when British reinforcements might arrive, sent an officer under a white flag to negotiate. Washington sent out two men to parley, but while he was thus distracted, the Virginian colonial troops broke into the Fort’s supplies of rum, getting drunk. Whether this was the straw that broke the camel’s back I don’t know, but when offered the terms that the garrison could leave peacefully leave after surrendering, Washington accepted.

On July 4, 1754, Washington and his troops abandoned Fort Necessity. I’ve often wondered if, 22 years later, on July 4th, 1776, Washington spared a few seconds to remember that less glorious July 4th earlier in his career.

A Last Word About Oscar

HMS Cossack LO3, Oscar’s ship

Since we’re on about ships and cats, I finally got my e-mail problems sorted and  contacted the HMS Cossack Association. You may remember HMS Cossack from my posts here , here and here as figuring prominently in the story of a cat named Oscar. The Secretary of the association kindly (and promptly) responded to my questions about this.

I had hoped that some of the brave crew of LO3 were still around, but sadly they are all gone (if you know any WWII vets, find out all you can from them- there are so few left), so there are no first-hand witnesses to Cossack’s engagement of the Bismarck or the supposed rescue of Oscar.

In the Secretary’s opinion, however, “the geographic separation between the ships make it virtually impossible that Oscar was picked up from Bismarck” He also stated he had no doubts as to the existence of a ship’s cat named Oscar, “but matelots, like fishermen, are prone to embellish their tales. It is though a good and intriguing story.” I heartily agree with him there.

So there you have it. An unimpeachable source has debunked the tale.  I was wrong about the Oscar story; it was nothing but spun yarn after all, though at least he actually was a ship’s cat. It is rather a shame. It was a good story.

Were There Cats Aboard RMS Titanic?

RMS Titanic, leaving Southampton

April 14th and 15th mark the 100th anniversary of RMS Titanic striking an iceberg and sinking in the north Atlantic. Since then Titanic has featured in hundreds of books, scores of movies, and dozens of websites.

Rather than rehash topics so exhaustively covered, I’m inclined to correct an (admittedly minor) error. Quite a few  websites have incorrectly claimed there were no cats aboard. In fact there were at least two and very probably more. Indeed, as early as the 1600s Louis XIV  ordered that all French ships were to carry two cats. Most ships of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including military vessels, carried one or more cats to help keep down rats, and as mascots, for good luck.  Other liners from the Titanic era, such as the Lusitania and the Empress of Ireland, carried cats as part of the crew.

We have statements from Titanic crew and passengers that there were plenty of rats aboard.  A fireman/stoker named Jack Podesta saw half a dozen rats running through the boiler room on April 13th. Mary Katherine Gilnagh, a survivor from third class, saw a rat scurry past her in the third common area on April 14th. Certainly the Titanic would have followed the general practice of the day, and kept cats, to keep the rodent problem under control.  Being such a large vessel, the Titanic undoubtedly would have had several.

Third Class common area where Kate Gilnagh saw a rat.

We have evidence for this from two of the Titanic crew. A fireman/stoker named Mulholland (whether this was  J. or Daniel I have been unable to verify. Both are on the crew list.) saw one of the cats, named Mouser (though that may refer to her duty as opposed to her name), removing her kittens from Titanic when the ship docked at Southampton. He was a member of the delivery crew, but was considering staying on for the maiden voyage. Supposedly, the cat’s action changed his mind.

Violet Jessop, while serving on Brittanic

Stewardess Violet Jessop (who also served on Brittanic, Titanic’s ill-fated sister) mentions a cat named Jenny, with a litter of kittens, who lived in the galley. Stories have circulated that this was the cat who carried her kittens off at Southampton but Violet saw this cat after Titanic left the port. She also mentions a “pantry cat”, that may be distinct from Jenny or Mouser, though I have been unable to find more information to confirm or deny it.

It seems unlikely that Jenny alone served as rodent control for a ship the size of Titanic. Certain departments may each have had their own ‘pest control officer’. Was Mouser the engineering department cat, like Jenny was the galley cat?  At this late date we may never know, but I think it is likely. In any event, we know that Titanic had at least one cat (Jenny), probably two (Mouser) and likely more.

They are still with us-

after a century of progress.

Rather than the typical season’s greetings, I wanted to show one of our more unfortunate Christmas “traditions”. I truly hope you and yours are not among them, and have a happy holiday.

Children at a soup kitchen, 1900

Soup kitchen, 1910

Soup kitchen for children, 1920

Soup kitchen 1930’s

Traveling soup kitchen, 1940’s

Soup kitchen, 1950

Soup kitchen, 1960’s

Table at a soup kitchen, 1970’s

Food bank, 1980’s

Feeding the needy, 1990’s

Feeding the hungry, 2000’s

Lining up for food, today