“Recollections of a Rebel Reefer,” by James Morris Morgan (London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1918)


Chapter III


     In September 1860 I went to Annapolis and presented myself before the Board of Examiners for admittance.  The dignity and solemnity of the officers who, arrayed in their uniforms and with their swords beside them, sat at a long table, caused me to have a slight attack of stage fright; but the ordeal was soon over and I was allowed to go out in the fresh air in utter ignorance as to whether I had passed successfully or not.  My mind, however, was soon relieved by Lieutenant Scott, who passing by said to me, ‘Youngster, you are all right.’


     The historical frigate Constitution (Old ironsides) had recently been fitted out as a schoolship and lay at anchor in the Severn River.  I was directed to go on board and found on her deck a number of other boys as green as myself.  Things went very easily at first, as we had nothing to do besides loafing around the decks and wondering at the strangeness of our surroundings.  We had no wants, unless it was a longing for the cute little jackets with the brass buttons and beautiful gold anchors on the lapels of the turned down collars.  The captain and the lieutenants were just too sweet for anything, answering our fool questions as though their one object in life was to please us.  But we were ungrateful and took much more interest in the boatswains, mates, and the old grey-haired sailors who kept the ship clean and spin yarns.  The sailors first initiated us in the mysteries of getting our hammocks ready and how to swing them on the berth deck, and also how to lash them up in the morning when we ‘turned out’ preparatory to stowing them snugly in the hammock nettings.  Everything was going on pleasantly until one day, to our great delight, our uniforms arrived; they were so pretty that it seemed a pity they should make such a difference in our happy lives, but such was the fact.  We had no sooner got into our regulation togs than a great change in the demeanour of everybody else seemed to take place.  Those affable and chummy lieutenants who an hour before had treated us almost as equals, even condescending to joke with us, now stood on their dignity, and if they spoke at all it was to give an order or a reproof.  The old sailors gravely saluted us as they passed, but they would not stop for a little conversation.  I wondered what we had done to deserve such treatment, but I was not long in finding out.  With the uniform I had come under naval discipline; and it was extraordinary how those soft-spoken lieutenants licked up into shape.  I, who had never obeyed anybody within less than a week, would jump as though I was shot when one of them would give me an order.  The routine of the ship had commenced in earnest – reveille; dress (and woe betide him who had lost a button or whose shoestring was not properly tied); lash t he hammocks; carry them up to the spar deck and stow them neatly in the nettings; breakfast; recitation; drill at the great guns; recitation; infantry drill; recitation; cutlass exercise; recitation; dinner; recitation; boat drill, or loosing, reefing, or furling sail.  After supper were the study hours until nine o’clock, and then, after slinging our hammocks, discipline was suspended and we were allowed half an hour to skylark and have a little rough house – which would always be interrupted, as taps sounded, by the hoarse voice of the master-at-arms bellowing, ‘Silence, fore and aft, gentlemen!’ My young sisters at home were constantly, at this time, writing me letters filled with good advice and begging me to control my temper and to be kind to those nice navy officers, samples of whom they had met only at cotillions, and little did they dream how those so gentle and elegant gentlemen could on occasion roar like bulls of Bashan and scare a midshipman out of seven years’ growth.  They also implored me not to get frisky and try to lasso the commandant of midshipmen.  To those who knew the late Rear Admiral C. R. P. Rodgers, that embodiment if dignity and elegance, I need not say that I followed my sisters’ advice.   The drill I most enjoyed was when we were exercised in the rigging, making and furling sail.  The masts of the old frigate were very lofty, and when the officer of the deck through his speaking-trumpet would give the order, ‘All hands make sail!’ we would rush to our stations and stand close to the rails anxious and impatient as young racehorses at the starting barrier.  At the order, ‘Aloft, t’gallant and royal yardmen!’  ‘Aloft, topmen!’ ‘Aloft, lower yardmen!’ we would spring into the shrouds, and hardly touching the ratlines with our twinkling feet, a perfect stream of midshipmen would dash up to the highest yards decreasing in numbers on the shrouds as they reached their stations.  Then they would step on to the foot ropes and crowd as closely as possible to the mast until the order was given to ‘lay out and loose!’ when they would go out on the yardarms and cast off the gaskets.  Then would come the orders in rapid succession, ‘Let fall!’  ‘Sheet home!’  ‘Lay in!’  ‘Lay down from aloft1’ – when as though by magic the bare poles would be hidden by her snow-white canvas from her trucks to her deck, and the midshipmen, helter-skelter, would come leaping from ratline to ratline until they reached the deck, while some of the more venturesome would leap to a backstay and slide down with fearful velocity.  They were a gay and reckless set of boys, but the ‘Brood of the Constitution’ will be remembered as long as history is written.  It is true that at that time we only had one hero amongst us – that we knew of – but others developed later.  Our hero at the time was a red-headed, freckle-faced, loose-jointed, slabsided, tall, and lanky youth from the very depths of Missouri.  He first appeared on the deck of the Constitution dressed in coarse and baggy clothes set off by a huge green cravat tied in a monstrous bow-knot.  He gazed around the deck in a supercilious sort of way, walked over to a hatchway, and leaned against a windsail that was ventilating the berth deck, with the result that he almost instantaneously found himself three decks below where he thought he was.  We thought he had been killed, but his long arms, which he had thrown around the windsail, saved him, as he had only slid the distance rather rapidly.  Coming on deck he informed us that he had ‘slid down three stories.’  He introduced himself by saying that his name Was William Pipkin, but that they always called him ‘Bill Pip’ for short at home, and that he would be just as well pleased if we called him that, as he was more accustomed to it.  Needless to say, we accommodated him.  He took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket, cut off a big hunk which he placed in his mouth, and then generously offered the exquisite and elegant officer of the deck, Lieutenant Robert Wainwright Scott, a chew, which was declined with a savage glare that would have caused heart failure in any of the rest of us, but which did not trouble ‘Bill Pip.’  Shortly after he had got into a uniform some ladies, among them the wives of some of the officers, visited the ship and remained aboard rather late.  It was getting dark when they made a move to go ashore, and one of them expressed herself as being a little nervous about the long walk after reaching the shore.  The gallant Lieutenant Upshur, who was the executive officer of the ship, said that he was sure any one of a number of midshipmen who were standing near would be delighted to accompany them, and, unfortunately for him, he called ‘Bill Pip,’ who was the tallest of the lot, and said, ‘Mr. Pipkin, I am sure you will be glad to escort these ladies.’  To the lieutenant’s horror and amazement, the lanky boy replied, ‘I am very sorry, Mr. Upshur, but the last thing my mother said to me when I left home was, “Bill Pip, you keep away from the women.”’  But who can foretell what a boy will turn out to be?  ‘Bill Pip’ resigned at the outbreak of the Civil War and went South.  He did not like the navy and refused an appointment iin that of the Confederacy.  He enlisted in the army as a private, but the navy still pursued him.  He was one of a number of artillerymen detailed to fill the complement of the Arkansas’s crew and was in that vessel when she ran through the ironclad fleet above Vicksburg and the wooden sloops-of-war of Admiral Farragut’s fleet below that city.  ‘Bill Pip’ by his own gallantry and merits rose to the rank of full colonel in the army, and after the war went into business, amassed a fortune, and died a millionaire! Lieutenant Commanding [sic: officially, he was just “Lieutenant”] George W. Rodgers was the captain [sic: he was officer in charge] of the Constitution.  He was afterwards killed at an assault on Fort Sumter when in command of the U.S. monitor Katskill [sic: Catskill].  He was a strict disciplinarian with very gentle manners; all the same, the most refractory midshipman did not care to be haled before him on any charge whatsoever.  On Saturday nights we frequently had dances – which we called ‘hops’ – on board the frigate, and many of the belles of Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington used to attend them just as they do in this day and generation.  The berth deck would be decorated with flags and the Academy band furnished the music.


     Occasionally we had a little excitement on board of Old Ironsides.  One day ‘Fighting Bob’ Evans, not known by that sobriquet in those days, gave us a thriller.  Two boys, one big and the other small, had an altercation.  Bob had nothing to do with it, but con amore proposed to the big boy that he would help the little one lick him.  The little boy like a goose said that he did not want anybody to help him, that he would cut his antagonist with a knife if he was touched.  An officer passing by heard the remark, and thinking that it was Evans who had made it, promptly put him under arrest and marched him to the captain’s cabin, and preferred that charge against him.  Under the midshipmen’s code poor Bob could not squeal on his comrade.  Captain [sic] Rodgers arose from his seat; his wrath was majestic.  ‘And so, sir!’ he said to Evans, ‘you propose to raise a mutiny on board of my ship.  I will let you know, sir, that a midshipman was hung to a yardarm for mutiny before this, and you dare try to raise one and I will hang you!’  And turning to the officer said, ‘Confine him below.’  To one ignorant of the annals of the service this hanging business would have sounded like an empty threat, but it must be remembered that the hanging of Midshipman Spencer, son of the Secretary of War, on board of the brig Summers [sic: Somers] was at that time an affair of comparatively recent date, and worse than that the captain of the Summers, Alexander Slidell M’Kensie [sic: Mackenzie] was a ‘Rodgers,’ and Bob did not know but what the hanging of midshipmen ran in his blood.      The wardroom of the old frigate was away down below the water line and the after-staterooms were as dark as Erebus.  Bob was confined in the darkest of them. He stood it for about twenty minutes and then requested that he should be allowed to write a letter.  Permission being granted, he was taken into the light, and pen, ink, and paper furnished him, and this, according to the story which filtered down to us midshipmen, was the letter he wrote to his uncle, a lawyer in Washington:--


     MY DEAR UNCLE – I have committed mutiny and they are going to hang me.  If you want to see me again come quickly to your affectionate nephew.                                                                                               Robley D. Evans


     Poor little Bob, he was only fourteen years of age and of very small stature for his years.  The winter of 1860-61 was a very cold one to me.  I had once seen a snow flurry at home, but I had never before seen a large body of water like the Severn River frozen over.  The Northern boys were delighted and at once begged permission to go skating.  Seeing them gracefully skimming over the ice like so many swallows was fascinating to me, and I could not resist the desire to join them; so procuring a pair of skates, with many doubts I too went upon the ice.  We had gone ashore and walked some distance up the river to a place the higher authorities thought safe, and the master-at-arms patrolled the river-bank to afford assistance in case of need.  I had proceeded only a short distance from the shore when suddenly both feet went skyward and the back of my head hit the hard ice, and the force of my fall let me crash through it.  The depth of the water was over my head and I was weighted with a heavy regulation overcoat, but I could swim and dive almost as well as the average alligator of my native bayous.  I came up under solid ice, and then went down again, and was fortunate enough to find the hole I had come through.  I tried to climb up on the ice, but it would break as fast as I put my weight on it.  Slowly but surely I thus broke my way toward the shore, and soon fund myself in water that barely reached up to my armpits.  Seeing me standing on hard bottom the master-at-arms suddenly determined to do the great life-saving act, and came crashing through the ice ands seized me by the arm.  I was escorted to the ship in disgrace and reprimanded by the officer in charge for having gone on the ice without informing any one that I did not know how to skate.  The master-at-arms, who had seen my life-and-death struggle from the river-bank and who had done nothing to help me until I was safely standing on the bottom, and there was no further danger in coming to my assistance than getting the legs of his trousers damp, was showered with compliments and congratulated as a life-saver by the higher officers (who had not seen the incident), much to the amusement of the midshipmen who had been on the ice, many of whom had really risked their lives in their endeavours to get near me.


     In February the time for our first dreaded examinations arrived, and there was intense excitement in our little floating world.  Some forty-odd of our class ‘bilged,’ which in midshipman parlance means that they were found deficient in their studies, the result of which was that t hey received polite letters from the Secretary of the Navy informing them that if they would send him their resignations he would be pleased to accept them at once.  These acceptances arrived promptly, and through some misunderstanding were handed to the unfortunate boys before arrangements for their departure had been completed, and of course there ensued a most extraordinary state of affairs.  Here were some forty-odd young civilians suddenly freed from the yoke of naval discipline and detained on board a man-of-war where every movement was regulated by orders.  Naturally it was not long before pandemonium broke loose.  As long as the ‘bilged’ saw the officers around, the training they had received in the last few months kept them in order; but when night came and two bells (nine o’clock) were struck and the hammocks were slung, the usual rough play on the berth deck became almost a riot.


     To separate the goats from the sheep the ‘bilged’ were directed to sling their hammocks as far forward as possible instead of on their customary hooks.  When taps sounded and the gruff voice of the master-at-arms bellowed his usual warning of ‘Gentlemen!  Silence, fore and aft!’ the almost sacred order was received with derisive shouts of laughter from forward.  The petty officer repeated the order, which we all well knew emanated from higher authority.  There was an ominous silence as the master-At-arms retired up the hatchway.  Then suddenly, by some ingenious device of the ‘goats’ at the order, ‘Let fall!’ a whole row of hammocks occupied by ‘sheep’ came down with a crash, emptying their contents, midshipmen, blankets, and mattresses, in indescribable confusion on to the deck.  Man is no near akin to monkeys that , as Rochefoucauld said, ‘We even take a certain amount of pleasure in the very misfortunes of our friends.; and all the boys who had escaped the disaster burst into roars of laughter, which were quickly hushed by the arrival of a lieutenant on the scene.  The hammocks were reslung and for a few minutes after the officer’s disappearance from the scene there was silence again.  We were just dozing off when the sound of a giggle coming from forward made us sit up and take notice.  The order to keep silence was again given and received with laughter.  This brought Lieutenant, now Admiral, John H. Upshur, the executive officer, on the scene.  He ordered silence again and a ‘goat’ answered him with a ‘tee-hee.’  The lieutenant walked a little way further forward, stooping as he went to avoid the hammocks overhead, and repeated his command, which was received with a chorus of ‘ha-ha’s.’  When the young demons had enticed him as far forward as they wanted him, they commenced to roll thirty-two-pound round shot down that inclined deck.  The lieutenant manfully stood his ground for a moment, but the improvised ten-pin balls came faster than he could skip over them and he had to take refuge on the hatchway steps.  ‘Beat to quarters!’ he fairly roared, and to the accompaniment of the ‘long roll’ of the drums we jumped into our clothes and tumbled up on deck, where we took our stations at the guns; but not for long, for we were marched down to the main deck and there made to toe a seam and stand at ‘attention.’  Such was the habit of discipline that the ‘goats,’ forgetting that they were free, accompanied us.  The suave and elegant lieutenant in charge ordered a wardroom boy to bring him a table, a chair, a newspaper, and a hot cup of coffee, and made himself comfortable.  After what seemed to me to be an interminable time the deadly silence was broken by the officer saying that if the gentlemen who had made the disturbance would step forward he would gladly let the rest of us ‘turn in.’   He just said that for form’s sake, as no one knew better than he did that the traditions of the Naval Academy did not allow a midshipman to ‘squeal’ under any circumstances – and the hours dragged along.  At last, some of the fighting men of the class asked permission to leave the ranks, which was granted, as the lieutenant had been a midshipman himself and knew what was coming as well as the boys did.  These fellows went to the guilty parties and intimated to them that there would be some black eyes to carry home if they did not confess and let the rest of us have some rest.   The hint acted like a charm, and one after another of the newly made civilians stepped forward.  It was then so nearly time for reveille that it was hardly worth while for us to go to sleep again, but we had the satisfaction of seeing a very seedy-looking set of civilians go over the side the next morning as they bade farewell for ever to a naval career.


     Occasionally we were taken ashore for infantry drill with the battalion composed of the ‘oldsters’ who lived in the old Academy buildings.  The Professor of Infantry Tactics was Major Lockwood, a gallant officer who afterwards became a brigadier general in the Union Army.  Major Lockwood unfortunately stammered and once the battalion got facetious with him.  He had instructed them that they must never make a motion to obey and order until they heard the last sound of the command.  He was in front of the battalion holding the hilt of his sword in his right hand and the end of the blade in his left.  He gave the order to march all right, and then he gave the order to charge while he was walking backward intending to halt them when they got near him, but a fit of stammering came over him and he could only say ‘Ha-Ha-Ha-!’and before he could finish the word the midshipmen had run over him and also over the sea-wall and into the water, guns, uniforms, and all.  Of course for the moment there was a great deal of hilarity, but unfortunately those intelligent navy officers know an antidote for every prank a midshipman can conceive. By the end of 1860 a dark cloud had settled over our spirits, and we no longer spent our few moments of leisure skylarking, but instead discussed the burning question of secession.  We did not know anything about its merits, but conceived the idea that each State was to compose a separate nation.  Harry Taylor, afterwards rear admiral, who was from the District of Columbia, said that he was going with New York because that State made more commerce than any other one, and necessarily would have the biggest navy.  He was promptly called down by being informed that no one would be allowed to join any State except the one he was born in – and he was further humiliated by a much-travelled boy who asserted that he had been in Washington and that the District of Columbia had only one little steamboat out of which to make a navy, and that one ran between Washington and Acquia Creek [sic] and that she was rotten.  Personally, I was insulted by being informed that Louisiana had been purchased by the money of the other States just as a man buys a farm, and that therefore she had no right to secede.  This was said in retort after I had made the boast that by rights many of the States belongs to Louisiana.  So the wrangle went on day after day until the news came that South Carolina had in reality seceded, and the boys from that State promptly resigned and went home.  Then followed the news of the firing on Fort Sumter.  The rest of the lads from the South resigned as rapidly as they could get permission from home to do so – I among the rest.   I passed over the side of the old Constitution and out of the United States Navy with a big lump in my throat which I vainly endeavoured to swallow, for I had many very dear friends among the Northern boys – in fact, affectionate friendships, some interrupted by death, but a few others which have lasted for more than half a century.  To my surprise my captain, George Rodgers, accompanied me ashore and to the railway station, telling me, as I walked beside him, that the trouble would end in a few weeks and that I had made a great mistake, but that even then it was not too late if I would ask to withdraw my resignation.  As we passed through the old gate opening into the town, the gate which I was not to pass through again until my head was white, fifty years afterwards, and as we walked along the street, Captain Rodgers kindly took my hand in his, and then for the first time I realized that I was no longer in the navy, but only a common and very unhappy little boy.  But the Confederacy was calling me and I marched firmly on.  That call seemed much louder at Annapolis than it did after I reached my native land.