The first generations of men that joined the Navy and Marines after Congress passed the “Act to Provide a Naval Armament” in 1794 made history during a period of major change.
Initially, a modest fleet of frigates and other vessels battled the world’s most powerful navies in a series of conflicts at home and abroad. They often did so against long odds, as evidenced by the 50-1 superiority of the British navy during the War of 1812. Years passed, during which time the nation’s political leaders and military commanders found their sea legs. More and better warships heralded the transformation from sail and wood to steam and iron. Better-educated and experienced men professionalized the service.
Many of these sailors and Marines sat for their photographic portraits. Their likenesses, forever preserved on the silvered plates of pioneer daguerreian photographers, speak to these heady antebellum times.
A representative group of these men are included here.
Witness the navy lieutenant who finally surrendered his vessel after being hunted by a British convoy during the War of 1812.
Witness another lieutenant who supervised the largest amphibious landing of its time during the Mexican War.
Witness the Marine officer who received a brevet for his actions during the storming of Chapultepec and capture of Mexico City.
Their stories and uniform descriptions are crafted from primary sources, including books, official reports and military records, and surveys of the Schultz Collection that appeared in the 2002-2003 Daguerreian Annual.
Distinctive Assistant Surgeon
One of the changes in the Navy’s Uniform Modification Order of 1847 is the epaulettes worn by the assistant surgeon. The 1847 modification permitted medical men to wear them when in full dress. Also of note is his collar embroidery, which was altered from oak leaves and acorns to sprigs of oak leaf. He holds a Model 1841 naval officer’s sword.
Making History at Antón Lizardo
The planners of army-navy operations to capture the Mexican port and stronghold of Veracruz in early 1847 selected an accomplished career officer to lead landing operations at the fishing village of Antón Lizardo. He was a distinguished son of Maryland, French Forrest, pictured here about 1845 in an undress uniform that conforms to 1841 regulations.
Described by one source as fearless in battle, Forrest’s reputation traces to the War of 1812. As a midshipman, he participated in actions that included the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
He proved his mettle again in Mexico. As captain of the frigate Cumberland, he commanded the force that captured Tabasco in the fall of 1846. A few months later, he had charge of 30 vessels and about 12,000 troops that embarked from Antón Lizardo and landed on Collado Beach during operations that ended in the successful Siege of Veracruz. The Antón Lizardo undertaking was the largest of its kind in U.S. military history.
This amphibious feat was surpassed during the Civil War. Forrest, by this time, had cast his fortunes with the South and became a flag officer of the Virginia State Navy. When this organization became part of the Confederate Navy, he received a captain’s commission—the third most senior officer in the ranks. During the war, he served in several key positions, notably as commander of the Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk, where he oversaw the conversion of the captured Union warship Merrimack to the ironclad Virginia. He also served as acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy. A son, Douglas, also served as an officer in the Confederate Navy.
Forrest died of typhoid fever in late 1866 at Washington. He was 71.
Two Terrible Moments in Time
During William Montgomery Crane’s event-filled navy career, two particularly noteworthy moments occurred 30 years apart.
The first dates to the War of 1812. On July 12, then 36-year-old Lt. Crane commanded the brig Nautilus off the coast of his home state of New Jersey, when a squadron of five vessels approached. Crane received mixed signals from the unknown vessels and took off. The squadron sailed in pursuit. Hours passed, during which shots were traded as the hostile vessels gained the advantage. Crane could not escape.
He stated what followed in his after-action report.
“The chasing ship put her helm up, hoisted a broad pendant and English colours, and ranged under my lee quarter. Unable to resist, I was compelled to strike the flag of the United States.”
The lead enemy vessel proved to be the British frigate Shannon with 38 guns. A negotiated exchange released Crane from captivity, and the navy exonerated him and his crew of any wrongdoing.
The second event occurred in 1844. By this time, now 68-year-old Crane lived in Washington, D.C., where he served as chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography. On February 28, he and a group of military and political elite, including President John Tyler and several of his cabinet, cruised the Potomac River in the Princeton, designed by John Ericsson and launched five months earlier. One of the vessel’s mammoth guns, named the Peacemaker, exploded when fired, killing and wounding a number of guests, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. As head of ordnance, Crane was not charged with any wrongdoing for the accident. Still, several sources suggest he never quite recovered from the effects of that grim day aboard the Princeton. Two years later on a March day in 1846, he locked himself in his office and slit his throat from ear to ear with a razor blade.
He is pictured here about 1845, dressed in a captain’s uniform consistent with 1841 regulations.
Two sentiments inscribed on his monument in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery honor his life and legacy: “Endowed with uncommon judgment, skill, and ability, he was conspicuous amongst the most distinguished of his professional compeers,” and “The manly qualities which he on all occasions exhibited endeared him to his associates, and forty-seven years of arduous service proved his devotion to his country.”
A navy depot, vessel and a town in Indiana are named in his honor. He is related also to Ichabod Crane, a career military officer believed to be the namesake of the scarecrow-like protagonist in the Washington Irving short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and writer Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage.
Lieutenants, Full and Undress
Two bearded lieutenants wear navy uniforms that conform to the 1852 regulations.
One officer, top, in undress uniform, has a fouled anchor in the center of his shoulder straps.
The other man sits in full dress complete with a fouled anchor insignia in the crescent of his epaulettes.
Broad Collars and Black Silk Handkerchiefs
Broad collars and handkerchiefs have been associated with the U.S. navy from its earliest days. These sailors show variations that occurred from ship to ship.
One seaman, top, has a single row of tape on his collar and a thin handkerchief. He is attired in warm-weather service dress of white with blue cuffs that match his collar. The straw hat in his hand features a dark ribbon around its crown.
Another man, below middle, sports a blue-tinted collar with two rows of tape and a large black handkerchief. He wears a double-breasted blue round jacket and trousers, and holds a straw hat with ribbon wrapped around the crown.
The collar worn by the third seaman, bottom, is ornamented with a star on each corner. His handkerchief is neatly tucked into his dress round jacket of blue double-breasted broadcloth with wide lapels and 2 rows of buttons.
Fashion by Perry
History remembers Cmdr. Matthew Calbraith Perry for his role in opening Japanese ports to America in the 1850s, and his command of vessels during the 1812 and Mexican wars. Forgotten is the role he played in navy fashion.
In 1837, more than a decade before his visits to Japan, Secretary of the Navy James K. Paulding tasked then Capt. Perry with the design of a uniform for engineers for the steam warship Fulton. This unidentified second assistant engineer, top, circa 1848, illustrates the look Perry prescribed. The officer wears a uniform with the hint of a silver star visible on the right side of his collar. Second assistants wore a silver star on the left side of the collar, and first assistants a silver star on each side. Also visible is his cap, which was allowed for all assistants. Chief engineers sported cocked hats and two gold stars on the collar.
In 1852, the navy replaced Perry’s fashion with the more conventional uniform worn by this second assistant engineer, bottom, circa 1854. His single-breasted, nine-button frock coat, shoulder straps without insignia, cap device of a gold-embroidered ship’s wheel with a silver anchor above gold braid define his rank. He cradles a Model 1852 Navy officer’s sword.
Robert W. McCleery sat for this portrait about 1855, a pivotal year in his life. In August, the Frederick, Md., native left his job at a Baltimore dry goods store and joined the navy as a third assistant engineer. The position suited him well, as engineering and scientific studies had long been a fascination to him. He landed his first assignment the same year on the Corvin, a steamer attached to the U.S. Coast Survey in New York Harbor. Over the next few years, he gained valuable experience aboard two other steamers, the Fulton and the Water Witch.
When the Civil War began, he remained loyal to the Union. Assigned to the steam frigate Wabash, flagship of Rear Adm. Samuel F. DuPont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, McCleery, now first assistant engineer, participated in the November 1861 victory at the Battle of Port Royal, S.C. “We had some pretty hard work as we led the squadron,” McCleery wrote to his brother. “When we came opposite the Batteries we would give them broadside after broadside, landing many of the shells in their midst.”
McCleery received a promotion to chief engineer of the Wabash in March 1863. Two months later, Rear Adm. Dupont granted him a month-long leave in recognition of his industrious work on the Wabash and his efforts to repair other vessels in the squadron. During his time off, McCleery suffered sunstroke and succumbed to its effects in early June. He was 31.
Waiting for His Lieutenant’s Bars
This man has passed his lieutenant’s exam at the Naval Academy, entitling him to wear this service dress uniform until a vacancy opened up. It conforms to the 1852 regulations. The lace-trimmed badge pinned to his coat is perhaps a token of affection from a loved one.
Medical men who ranked as passed assistant surgeons during the Civil War would recognize the shoulder straps of this physician, photographed years earlier. This doctor, whose name has been lost in time, wears the sprig of olive leaves and bar to indicate his rank as part of his regulation 1852 service dress uniform. The insignia appeared on shoulder straps from 1852 until 1864, when two bars on each end replaced it—the same as an army captain.
Boatswain’s Pipe in Pocket
Tucked into the breast pocket of this sailor’s double-breasted blue jacket, left, is a boatswain’s pipe, part of which is visible. It is attached to the gold-tinted cord over his shoulder. The presence of the pipe signifies his rank as a petty officer.
One of the Heroes of Chapultepec
The storming of Chapultepec and capture of Mexico City in September 1847 remains a notable engagement in the storied history of the Marines. One of the officers that made the assault and received a captain’s brevet for his actions is pictured here. First Lt. Daniel James Sutherland posed for this portrait about a year before the engagement He wears the full dress Marine uniform as proscribed by the 1839 regulations. His rank is indicated by the size of the gold braid on his epaulettes and the double loop of gold lace on his cuff. He also wears a Pattern 1830 plate attached to his dress waist belt of white cotton. His sword, a regulation Mameluke, derives from the curved blades carried by Mamluk Egypt warriors. Note the sliding frog used to carry the sword—this device was used by company-grade officers (field officers carried their swords from slings).
Sutherland hailed from a prominent family in Philadelphia. His father, Joel, served in the War of 1812 and went on to a prominent career as a physician, lawyer and Pennsylvania legislator with a long list of accomplishments.
Sutherland opted to join the navy in 1842. Five years later he distinguished himself at Chapultepec and Mexico City. By 1857 he had advanced to major and Quartermaster of the Marine Corps.
His advancement in the Marines came to a crashing halt in 1860, when he was cashiered for some impropriety. A year later, on Nov. 15, 1861, Sutherland’s father died. His will stated in no uncertain terms that Sutherland would not receive any inheritance. Two weeks later, he was found dead in a hotel room in New York City. According to one report, Sutherland had fallen several times, resulting in severe head injuries. Another source suggested suicide. Among the items found in his room included an application to Keystone State Gov. Andrew Curtin for a colonel’s commission in a state regiment. Sutherland was 38.
In Florida, Two Assignments 25 Years Apart
In the late 1830s, Marine 2nd Lt. Josiah Watson served in East Florida during the Second Seminole War, one of three conflicts against these indigenous peoples during the first half of the 1800s. For Watson, a Washington, D.C., native who had joined the Navy in 1835, it was his first assignment in hostile territory—and not his last visit to Florida.
Flash forward to August 1860. Watson, now a captain, received orders to command a detachment of about 40 Marines at the Navy Yard in Pensacola, Fla. Unlike his first relatively uneventful tour of duty in Florida, this assignment ended when rebels captured the yard on Jan. 12, 1861, after the senior Union officer, Comm. James Armstrong, surrendered without a fight. According to the Compendium of U.S. Marine Actions in the Civil War by David Ekardt. “Watson was summoned to Armstrong’s office and was ordered to have his men surrender their weapons. The Marines were not in favor of surrendering their weapons and accouterments and did so only after much persuasion and direct orders from Armstrong. Eventually they stacked arms. The militia forces gathered on the parade deck after securing the Marines in a warehouse. They had been advised to lock them up prior to lowering the U. S. flag.” Watson left the next day with his wife, and traveled to Washington.
Promoted major, Watson did not live to see the end of the war. He contracted tuberculosis and died in February 1864, at about age 48.
Watson posed for this portrait about 1846, clothed in the undress lieutenant’s uniform following the 1839 regulations. Prominently displayed is his cap, which features the fouled anchor in the center of a wreath.
Midshipman Carnes Shoots a Deserter
One day in January 1849, Midshipman Edwin Osgood Carnes stood on a wharf in the Mexican port of Mazatlán, when he noticed one of his crew behaving oddly. Ordinary Seaman James Sheppard appeared to be deserting their warship, the Ohio. Carnes drew his revolver and fired a round, which hit and stopped Sheppard about 30 yards from the ship.
Carnes was one of the Navy’s up-and-coming officers. Born in France to wealthy Bostonians who settled in Ohio, Carnes began his service as an acting midshipman at age 15 in 1846. He spent the Mexican War along the coast of South America. His shooting of James Sheppard resulted in a court of inquiry that ultimately fully supported his actions. Carnes went on to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and graduated first in his class in 1852.
He is pictured here in 1853, wearing the uniform of an acting master. One of these daguerreotypes was sent to his family. On April 24, 1853, his father, Francis, stated, “We have received your admirable daguerreotype. It would be difficult to describe how much we are delighted and excited by it, how much obliged we are for it. It is an excellent likeness, but appears stronger to those who you knew only transiently. Like all daguerreotypes, it has not the gay and pleasant expression that can sometimes be transferred to the canvas by a painter.”
Carnes did not make the navy his career. He resigned in 1855 and became an attorney in New York City, where he married and started a family. In early 1859, he fell ill with consumption, and succumbed to its effects in Florida, where he may have gone for treatment, before the end of the year. He was 28. One wonders if Carnes would have re-joined the Navy had he lived to see the Civil War.