The War of 1812 established the fledgling U.S. Navy as a potent force in the Western Hemisphere. Its commanding officers’ stories paralleled the growth of the Navy itself, having been the first midshipmen and lieutenants at the sea service’s rebirth in 1798. After the war, they took command of the first squadrons in foreign waters to protect U.S. commercial interests.
Although the United States previously had assigned individual warships to the Pacific, a squadron for the Pacific Station was not established until 1821. The squadron’s mission was to protect U.S. commercial interests and to establish a naval presence in the midst of the South American revolutions of Bernardo O’Higgins, Simon Bolivar, and Jose San Martin. To command the squadron, one of the Navy’s most experienced captains was chosen, Commodore Charles Stewart. He set out for Cape Horn and the Pacific burdened by personal setbacks. After three years, he returned to Washington with a tainted reputation to face a court-martial.
By summer 1821, Stewart was one of the Navy’s most senior officers. Commissioned as a lieutenant on board the United States in 1798, he served in numerous actions through the end of the War of 1812. Indeed, he likely fired the last shots of the war when, as commander of the Constitution, he defeated two British ships simultaneously (the Cyane and Levant) in a February 1815 engagement. He was in the merchant service prior to his commissioning and again prior to the war and was familiar with merchant activity in the Pacific. Having recently completed three years as commodore of the Mediterranean Squadron, he was an experienced leader and diplomat.
Upon his return to the United States, he learned that Captain James Barron had killed his childhood friend and former shipmate, Captain Stephen Decatur, in a duel in 1820. In the summer of 1821, Stewart headed the court of inquiry to determine if Barron was to return to active duty. He found more troubles at home. His wife, Delia Tudor Stewart, had sold many furnishings from his Bordentown, New Jersey, mansion to pay for her active social life (including entertaining the deposed king of Naples and Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph). As was delicately put by her brother-in-law, Robert Hallowell Gardiner, “Mrs. Stewart was invited to accompany [her husband], for the Commodore was not satisfied with her management of the farm at Bordentown.”1 Rather than risk losing more of his belongings, Stewart decided to have his wife accompany him for his three years in the Pacific. A socialite fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, she was to be of assistance in his dealings with the South Americans. In addition, her brother, William Tudor, was the U.S. minister at Lima.
On 8 September 1821, Stewart received his instructions from Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson: pay the usual civilities to the authorities of other countries; ascertain whether commerce has been molested by belligerents; observe strict neutrality; act only in defense; and do not allow on board party men, money, or provisions, except specie.
By the time Stewart returned to Washington in 1824, he faced a court-martial and four charges: unofficerlike conduct, disobedience of orders, neglect of duty, and oppression and cruelty. The decision to court-martial Stewart was based on complaints by one of the new South American governments: in his absence, the rebel Peruvian government had made official complaints against him for his actions as squadron commodore, and this complaint had been seconded by U.S. consular officials.2
The gravity of Stewart’s case was intensified by the fact that there were other senior officers scheduled to be court- martialed in the summer of 1825, including David Porter, who was accused of overstepping his authority by landing troops on Puerto Rico to exact punishment for an insult to one of his officers (the so-called “Foxardo Affair”). Because the United States still was in its diplomatic infancy and the Monroe Doctrine had been just established, Stewart’s case became one of national and international importance. Cabinet-level meetings discussed the issue in late 1824. On 20 December, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams personally met with Stewart. The charges, Adams noted in his diary, were “very serious.’”
The Navy’s reputation suffered its first blow during the summer of court-martials. On 11 August 1825, Porter’s court-martial resulted in a guilty verdict and ended his naval career (he subsequently entered service with the Mexican Navy). One week later, Stewart’s court-martial began at the corner of 1st St NE and Maryland Avenue in Washington.
Charge One: Unofficerlike Conduct
Serving on stations such as the Mediterranean, African, or Pacific served two purposes: to support U.S. overseas interests, and to provide experience to officers and men. The Pacific Station was an “extensive and rather lonesome one,” but “there was some compensation in the fat fees received for carrying private specie.”4
Among the 29 specifications under the charge of “unofficerlike conduct” were claims that Stewart had carried specie on board a U.S. warship, that he had aided and protected U.S. commercial ships carrying contraband, and violated the blockade imposed by a foreign nation (i.e., by the Peruvian rebels blockading Spanish royalist shipping).
Stewart did provide materials such as rope and sailcloth and services to U.S. commercial vessels operating in the South Pacific. In addition, both the ship-of-the-line Franklin and the schooner Dolphin (the two vessels that comprised Stewart’s small squadron) carried specie or bullion on behalf of U.S. merchants seeking protection for their goods from the forces struggling for control over South America. One of these merchant ships was the Canton, which had been taken by the Peruvian rebel government in violation of a blockade in spring 1822.
The Navy Department, however, had “officially sanctioned the practice of carrying specie in October 1818 when acting Secretary of the Navy [John C.] Calhoun gave Commodore David F. Patterson . . . permission for ships under his command to transport specie belonging to U.S. merchants.”5 Stewart had some of the Navy’s most senior officers, all of whom had commanded ships in the Pacific, testify on his behalf. Captain Charles Ridgely of the Constellation stated that he had carried specie belonging to the merchant Eliphalet Smith, and “brought home near $200,000 which he had shipped” and consigned to merchants in Boston. Ridgely not only considered it his duty to take the specie and its owner on board for protection, he invited him. Captain John Downes of the Macedonian likewise confirmed that it was customary to take on bullion. And Captain James Biddle of the Ontario reported that he had “on several occasions supplied American vessels, particularly in the Pacific.”6 He also commented in general on all the charges brought against Stewart by the Peruvian government: “I believe it is impossible for any commanding officer to be in the Pacific without giving offense to the one side or to the other. The royal party, knowing the general feeling of our countrymen, are jealous of them; the patriots, on the other hand, expecting too much, are dissatisfied.”7
Merchant Smith’s testimony supported Stewart’s character. When asked if he offered Stewart an interest in a commercial speculation, Smith replied that he had offered Stewart a number of speculations, but Stewart rejected the offers, stating he “legally could, but morally speaking he could not free” himself.8
Most of the specifications under the charge of unofficerlike conduct were not proved, though the specifications of carrying specie and aiding U.S. commercial vessels were. The board, however, rightfully rendered a not-guilty verdict, declaring that Stewart acted “in strict obedience of his duty by instruction and the law of nations; his conduct was highly meritorious and praiseworthy,” and his actions were for the “good of public interest and commerce.”9
The patriot government of Peru had proclaimed a blockade of the coastline still under Spanish control and claimed that Stewart violated this blockade. Several U.S. and foreign ships were detained in Callao. In reality, the patriots’ blockade was little more than haughty words and was enforced indifferently. Stewart wrote a letter to the patriot government that was “so persuasive that the Peruvian government freed the detained ships. [Supreme Court] Chief Justice John Marshall called it the best statement of the principles of blockade he had ever seen.”10 It was not surprising that Stewart was cleared of this charge, for the inclination of senior U.S. officials “utterly den[ied] the legality of that blockade in all its ports.”" That Stewart resolved the issue diplomatically and not by force in the midst of revolutions was a testament to his abilities. The resolution of the issue was imperative to U.S. credibility in the region and to the viability of the young Monroe Doctrine.
Charge Two: Disobedience
The nature of the second charge of disobedience of orders (which had seven specifications) was that Stewart had knowingly and willfully received on board the Franklin a spy in the royalist army from Peru. Of all the charges this was perhaps the most serious, and much of the court-martial centered on its intricacies.
The Franklin indeed did transport the officer (named simply “Madrid”) from Peru during a three-week transit from Lima’s port of Callao to the port of Chilca. The question became one of Stewart’s level of involvement.
According to the testimony of the Franklin’s officers, the Spaniard had been seen speaking with Mrs. Stewart ashore. She then directed the ship’s steward, Peter Birch, to “take care of that poor man, and give him to eat and not to let him suffer from anything to eat or drink.”12 She told him not to let anyone, especially her husband, know Madrid was there, though most of the officers were aware of his presence. She then approached the merchant, Smith, and asked his advice. Smith told her to take no action without the consent of the commodore.
When they reached Chilca, the Spaniard asked several times to go ashore. He finally was let go through the port. Commodore Stewart found out only later, by accident, that he had transported a foreign national.
Conspicuously absent from this trial was none other than Delia Stewart. Despite the pleas of her husband to come to Washington, she did not respond. She and her attorney replied only to interrogatories in the court-martial of First Lieutenant William Hunter, held a few weeks before Stewart’s. In it, she denied having any knowledge of how Madrid was brought on board. She did admit, however, that he had I brought her a verbal recommendation from two friends of hers in Lima, that he expected to be imprisoned simply for not taking out a passport for authorities. She “yielded to the recommendation of the two friends ... to his own innocence and to his impressive appeal to my humanity.”13 While Madrid was on board, Delia “did not inform [Commodore Stewart] of it, supposing that if he were entirely ignorant of the said Madrid being on board no censure could probably be attached to him.”
The culpability for this incident was clear: Delia Stewart had lied to her husband and placed his career and that of the other officers at risk. The officers and steward also were partially to blame, although as Hunter put it, “believing the orders would not have been given without the Commodore’s knowledge, I did not report it to him.”14 The court agreed and found Stewart not guilty.
Charge Three: Neglect of Duty
The third charge, “neglect of duty” for not exercising his ship’s guns, is a curiosity because the genesis of this charge was not apparent. All testimony by Lieutenants Hunter and Thomas Hammersley confirmed that Stewart regularly had exercised the Franklin’s guns. Further, Captain Ridgely stated that he was frequently on board the Franklin at Valparaiso and considered her in very superior order. The judges agreed and returned a not-guilty verdict on the charge.
Charge Four: Oppression and Cruelty
The final charge centered on one of Stewart’s young lieutenants, Joshua Sands. On 8 October 1823, Sands was arrested for alleged misconduct—initiating a brawl with another officer. Sands stated that he was confined in an “unusual and unnecessary manner” on board the Franklin from 9 October through 12 April 1824 without trial. After a wardroom brawl, Lieutenants Hammersley and Sands went ashore to duel. Three shots were exchanged without effect, and the duel was to resume the following morning. Stewart tried to save these hot-headed young men from the effects of their mistaken pride and reckless anger and ordered both to return to the ship. Sands sent a letter of refusal to Stewart. The following day, Sands, under suspension, again insulted Hammersley. There were not enough officers in the squadron to form a court-martial, since the three officers on the court of inquiry already had formed an opinion and five officers were needed. A court- martial was convened, however, when Captain Isaac Hull arrived to relieve the Franklin so she could return home.
Sands claimed his confinement was cruel. As Lieutenant Henry Ogden testified, Sands’s “floor was frequently covered with water two inches deep and he complained very much of rheumatism in his face and had a tooth extracted in consequence of it.”15 But Ogden also noted that no unfriendly feeling existed on the part of the officers generally toward Sands and implied that had Sands pledged not to quarrel he would have been released. Sands also had the use of the gun- deck to exercise. Regarding Hammersley, his salvation appeared to be his compliance with Stewart’s original direction to return to the ship. But Stewart had told Ogden that he “likewise considered Hammersley culpable and if he had enough officers on board would have arrested him too.”16
This must have been difficult for Stewart who, like Captain Edward Preble, was training a generation of young officers to lead the future Navy.17 Acting Lieutenant Louis Goldsborough stated that Stewart admitted to him that he regretted confining Sands and spoke of him very flatteringly as a very fine young man. Indeed, when Sands’s court martial was held, Stewart dismissed the sentence and the government did not reverse it. Perhaps this act fostered something in the quarrelsome Sands. Of the lieutenants and midshipmen on board the Franklin during her Pacific years, five rose to the rank of captain, one to commodore, and three to rear admiral—including Rear Admiral Joshua Sands.
The court returned a not-guilty verdict on Stewart’s final charge.
Charles Stewart continued to serve in various posts for another 35 years, primarily commanding the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and in old age he received the honor of becoming one of the Navy’s first admirals in 1862. The court- martial was a turning point for himself, the Navy, and the nation.
First, although briefly considered as a presidential candidate in 1840, Stewart was permanently estranged from his wife. He was, however involved in the rearing of his children, Delia and Charles. Delia went on to England and became the mother of Charles Stewart Parnell, who became the leader of the Irish home rule movement in the British Parliament in the 1870s and was declared the “Uncrowned King of Ireland.” The strong case for Stewart’s defense restored his integrity and his reputation as a diplomat and naval leader.
Second, the Navy desperately needed a not-guilty verdict as several of it senior-most captains faced courts-martial in the summer of 1825.
Third, the United States had laid the foundation for becoming a hemispheric power with the pronouncement of the Monroe Doctrine and the dispatch of the Pacific Squadron to South American waters. To have the squadron’s first commander guilty of inappropriate diplomatic actions would have set back the rise of the United States as a global power.
A Scorned Diplomat’s Wrath
By the time the Franklin arrived on Pacific Station, the wars of independence had bled the fading Spanish empire of its most prized possessions, including Chile and Peru. Patriot leaders found themselves gaining territory against royalist armies, but there was a real danger they might face new masters. Other empires, namely the British and French, were on the horizon with warships visiting Pacific ports. There also was a new empire in the north—about to articulate the Monroe Doctrine—growing ininfluence.
The United States pursued a strict path of neutrality between the South American patriots and the Spanish government, but U.S. sympathies were with the rebels. Regardless, the patriot government of Peru during this time of crisis needed little prodding to voice its concerns. Commodore Stewart seeking an end to the coastal blockade, was an easy target. The fodder seemed to come from an unlikely source: a representative of the U.S. government. seeking an end to the coastal blockade, was an easy target. The fodder seemed to come from an unlikely source: a representative of the U.S. government.
Jeremiah Robinson, a U.S. commercial agent in Chile, had lived longer overseas than at home but maintained a vigorous correspondence with many members the U.S. and foreign governments. Robinson was promised a coveted assignment as the U.S. consul in Lima, a position instead given to Stewart's brother-in-law, William Tudor. Robinson had a lifelong dislike for U.S. Navy captains and during his service in South America referred to Commodores Biddle, Downes, and Ridgely all as "mercenary" and "hostile to patriots." Robinson initiated a correspondence campaign against Stewart at all levels of government, both U.S. and Peruvian, and it is likely this clandestine battle was the source of the charges brought against Stewart.
CLAUDE G. BERUBE
1. Early Recollections of Robert Hallowell Gardiner, 1782- 1864, printed for R.H. Gardiner IV and W.T. Gardiner by White and Home Company, Hallowell, Maine 1936, p. 170.
2. Robert Erwin Johnson, Thence Round Cape Horn: The Story of the United States Naval Forces on Pacific Station, 1818-1823 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1963).
3. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, 12 vols. (Philadelphia:]. B. Lippincott, 1874- 77), vol. 6, pp. 449-50.
4. Robert Greenhalgh Albion, “Distant Stations,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1954, pp. 265-77.
5. Bernard D. Cummins, “The United States Navy in the Pacific: A History of the Pacific Station Before the Mexican War, 1818-1846,” master’s thesis, Wichita State University, 1975, p. 29.
6. Records of General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department: 1799-1867; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #434, M273, Record Group 19, National Archives.
7. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #434.
8. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #434.
9. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, 1825, case #434.
10. Johnson, Thence Round Cape Horn, p. 32.
11. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, vol. 6, p. 429.
12. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, 1825, case #434.
13. Records of General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799-1867; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #433, M273, Record Group 19, National Archives.
14. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #433.
15. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #433.
16. Records of General Courts-Martial; 21 June-5 September 1825, case #433.
17. See Fletcher Pratt’s biography of Edward Preble, Preble’s Boys: Commodore Preble and the Birth of American Sea Power (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950).