Sometimes a naval career’s beginning predicts how it will end. This was certainly true for Rear Admiral Lester Anthony Beardslee, who went ashore with Matthew Calbraith Perry when the commodore took the first steps to “open” Japan in July 1853. That experience shaped almost everything that would follow in Beardslee’s long naval career. At its conclusion, nearly 50 years later, he became the prime mover in a campaign to memorialize Perry on the very spot he had landed. In between, Beardslee’s professional life epitomized the role the Navy played in the late 19th-century Pacific.
A Distinguished Career
Lester Anthony Beardslee was born into a farming family in Little Falls, near Utica, New York, in 1836. Despite his parents’ fears that the Navy would corrupt him, he went off to Annapolis at age 14, where he spent two years at the U.S. Naval Academy, and then went to sea on board the sloop-of-war Plymouth, bound for East Asian waters. When his ship reached Japan, Beardslee was one of the lucky 250 men chosen to form Perry’s honor guard when the commodore presented a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Japanese on Kurihama Beach.1
The young midshipman never forgot that moment, which set into motion the forces for change within the Japanese government that led to Commodore Perry’s success, upon his return seven months later, in concluding a treaty that marked the beginning of Japan’s diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States and other non-Asian nations. The presence of Beardslee, along with the other sailors and the Marines who went ashore with Perry, foreshadowed what would become an almost continuous American naval presence in Japan for the rest of the 19th century.
Beardslee went on to a varied and distinguished naval career. Although he graduated third from the bottom of his Naval Academy class in 1856, that lackluster performance proved no predictor of what would follow. Five years later, on the eve of the Civil War, he was already a lieutenant. He had an exciting wartime career, taking part in the Union attack on Charleston Harbor in 1863 and capturing the commerce raider CSS Florida off the coast of Brazil a year and a half later. He commanded and returned the ship as a prize back to Hampton Roads, Virginia, where he saw the war come to an end.2
Beardslee’s early postwar service was anything but monotonous. Late in the summer of 1867 he returned to Japan as captain of the steam-powered two-masted shallow-draft gunboat Aroostook. In January 1868, while the ship patrolled off Osaka to compel the Japanese to open another port to foreign trade, tragedy struck when the East Asia Squadron commander and 11 others drowned in an attempt to go ashore. Shortly thereafter, Beardslee and his shipmates witnessed one of the first clashes of the civil war that ended the shogunate and made the young emperor Meiji the supreme ruler of a new, modernizing Japan. Thirteen months later, Beardslee left the Aroostook to be succeeded by none other than the later-famous naval strategist, then–Lieutenant Commander Alfred Thayer Mahan. Obviously enthralled by what he had experienced in Japan, Commander Beardslee subsequently volunteered to take the tiny fourth-rate screw tug Palos to the Asiatic Station. In 1870 she became the first American naval vessel to transit the Suez Canal.3
Return to Japan
Thirty years passed from that assignment to Beardslee’s return to Japan as a retired rear admiral. During that period, like many other post–Civil War officers, he spent twice as much time ashore than at sea.4 Nonetheless, by his retirement in 1898, he had long since demonstrated that he was a multitalented, exceptional naval leader well suited to become an unofficial sailor-diplomat. He made the transition from sail to steam and wood to ironclad, authoring a book about the properties of wrought iron and steel that facilitated that great change.5 He became a talented hydrographer and surveyor, charting in 1879 the coast of what later became Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska.6 An enthusiastic fisherman, he published articles about fish and fishing in Forest and Stream under a pseudonym for nearly 30 years. That netted him the distinction of having a species of trout named in his honor.7 And in a tour of duty that must have reminded him of his earliest days in the Navy, Beardslee served in the 1880s as the last commanding officer of the sidewheel steam frigate Powhatan, one of the “black ships” that had served as Perry’s flagship in Japan.8
As commander of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron a decade later, Beardslee proved a savvy social lion, shrewd naval publicist, and diplomatically sensitive commander. With the help of his charming and wealthy wife, he gave parties on board his flagship, the cruiser Philadelphia, and hobnobbed with the elites of San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. In a stroke of public-relations genius, Beardslee accepted an invitation from an obscure Washington State county to bring his ships and men to its only city. That ushered in 30 years of fleet visits that foreshadowed the Navy’s Cold War–era participation in Seattle’s annual summer sea fair.9 And when, in the late spring of 1897, Hawaii’s attempt to restrict Japanese immigration triggered a diplomatic crisis, Beardslee swiftly and effectively moved his squadron to Honolulu to preempt the possibility of Imperial Japanese Navy ships landing forces there. Like Perry, he achieved success without firing a shot in hostile action. More important still, despite talk of war by hotheads in Tokyo and Washington, the admiral glossed over the incident by telling the press that he thought the Japanese harbored only friendly, not belligerent, feelings toward the United States.10
An Eventful Retirement
Lester Beardslee retired only a few months later. He and his wife bought an antebellum home in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he had supervised the construction of a naval dockyard and brought in the first Marines to what later became the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island.11 Beardslee grew restless, however, and after publishing an article on his first taste of combat in China in the 1860s, he decided to revisit the places there and in Japan that he had known as a young officer.12
When Admiral and Mrs. Beardslee arrived in Yokohama in October 1900, he found the city had changed dramatically since his last visit some 30 years earlier. Then, the town was still recovering from the terrible fire of 1866 that had destroyed most of the original foreign settlement there. Yokohama was a treaty port populated mainly by bachelor merchants and seamen who rarely came into contact with the Japanese other than the ladies of the pleasure quarter reserved for their use.13 Now it was a busy modern port, Japan’s fourth-largest city, in which foreigners and Japanese did business along a bund flanked by banks and consulates and mingled in the onetime pleasure quarter that had been transformed into Japan’s first public garden. The Beardslees moved into the opulent Oriental Hotel and soon slipped easily into a social life that resembled that of an American Midwestern or British colonial city.14
The admiral’s first excursion beyond the city was to Uraga, where he strolled wistfully along the beach at Kurihama. Nothing about the place seemed to have changed since the day he had arrived with Commodore Perry. Low hills curved around the beach where only the tiny waves lapping against the sands broke the silence. The old man tried but failed to find the exact spot where the Americans had come ashore, and when he asked some Japanese if anyone knew where Perry had landed, no one did. None, not even the older of them, remembered the historic day back in 1853 when the commodore had first set foot on Japanese soil. It was, as the admiral later said, as if memories of Perry “had been entirely wiped out.”15 So he set out to change that.
When Beardslee returned to Yokohama and broached the idea of putting up some kind of monument or marker where Perry had landed, he at first found little enthusiasm among his listeners. That changed dramatically, however, when he met Baron Kaneko Kentaro. The baron had recently become president of the Beiyukai (Friends of America Society) and long since proven a shrewd political operator on both sides of the Pacific.16 Born in the year Perry arrived in Japan, he had gone as a teenager to study in Boston, where he earned a Harvard degree and became friends with the city’s religious, academic, and political leaders.17 He returned to Japan as a protégé of Ito Hirobumi. In that capacity he met all sorts of the four-time prime minister’s needs. Kaneko gave advice on constitutional matters, served as a cabinet minister, and even arranged for Ito to perform the ritual deflowering of Tokyo’s most talented geisha.18 Kaneko saw memorializing Perry not just as an acknowledgment of the commodore’s role in Japan’s modernization but also as a way of strengthening ties with the United States. That seemed especially desirable at a time when the Americans had just become “neighbors” as colonial overlords of the Philippines. The Yankees were also championing the “open door” in China, a policy that might check European powers’ seizure of bases there that the Japanese considered threatening to their empire.
Kaneko invited Admiral Beardslee to speak before the Beiyukai, whose members enthusiastically endorsed the idea of starting a campaign to get private funds and official assistance for raising a monument to Commodore Perry at Kurihama. Thanks to the baron’s political savvy and connections, money soon started pouring in—from trading firms, officials, and even the emperor himself in Japan and from merchants, religious leaders, and politicians in the United States. Barely six months after Beardslee had broached the idea, a massive, 33-foot tall, 19-ton slab had gone up atop a 4-foot-high pedestal on Kurihama Beach. Baron Kaneko had persuaded then-former Prime Minister Ito to write an inscription, outlined in gold, on its front. It simply said that this was the place where Commodore Perry had landed. The reverse side stated when the American had arrived and provided an English translation of Ito’s words.19
Lester Beardslee eagerly looked forward to the day the Perry monument was to be dedicated: 14 July 1901, precisely 48 years to the day since he had landed in Japan with the commodore. It was perhaps the second-most important day in the old admiral’s naval career. He and Baron Kaneko staged a spectacular dedication ceremony. The current prime minister and an array of officials, both Japanese and American, were there, primed to speak of transpacific friendship. Admiral Beardslee had persuaded Navy officials in Washington to order the deputy commander of the Asiatic Squadron, Perry’s grandson Rear Admiral Frederick Rodgers, in his flagship the armored cruiser New York, to the event. The Japanese sent their newest battleship, the Hatsuse, just home from her maiden voyage from England, and three other vessels to demonstrate their growing naval power and willingness to cooperate with the United States.20
Speakers from both Japan and America sounded paeans for Commodore Perry and looked forward to a future of friendship and cooperation between their countries. But the highlights of the day for Lester Beardslee were its personal touches. Rear Admiral Rodgers recalled the day his grandfather had departed for Japan and the day he returned home laden with gifts from the Japanese. Beardslee told the story of how he got to come ashore with Perry (with some amusing embellishments). And perhaps best of all, Japanese officials found an old Japanese fisherman who had actually seen the Yankees’ black ships arrive at Uraga. They seated him in a tent filled with artifacts from Perry’s time for all to see.21
A Legacy Continues
The dedication of the Perry monument got worldwide press coverage in the summer of 1901, and by the time he returned home a few months later, Admiral Beardslee may well have regarded the event as the capstone of his career.22 It proved to be his last achievement. Two years later, a few months after the 50th anniversary of his landing with Perry in Japan, he died suddenly of a heart attack in Augusta, Georgia, where he had gone to play golf.23 He left behind what some might consider his greatest legacy: a site that became, over the next century and more, a place to commemorate and celebrate the friendship between the United States and Japan. Today throngs of tourists and schoolchildren visit the monument and the Perry Memorial Museum nearby. Every July U.S. sailors from the nearby Yokosuka Naval Base join their Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force counterparts to reenact the arrival of Commodore Perry and his black ships and remind people of the importance of cooperation between their countries and their navies.24
Admiral Beardslee’s legacy is something much more than a historical monument on a distant shore, however. His life serves as a particularly pertinent reminder now, as the United States nears the end of a decade-plus of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, of what a navy is for. The Navy is not just a force for war, useful only as an instrument of coercion in times of armed conflict. It is, as Lester Beardslee’s career demonstrated, a versatile tool that can also be used in many ways in peacetime. Sailors can be scientists, technological innovators, and diplomats as well as masters of the seas. In doing so, they protect America’s national interests and promote peace and international understanding.
1. Bayard Taylor to J. Beardslee, 2 January 1854, in John Richie Schultz, ed., The Unpublished Letters of Bayard Taylor in the Huntington Library (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1937), 36. Peter Booth Wiley, Yankees in the Land of the Gods: Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 314–315, 372. “Lester Anthony Beardslee, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy,” www.arlingtoncemetery.net/labeard.htm.
2. U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association, United States Naval Academy Register of Alumni 1845–1993 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association, 1992), 150. www.arlingtoncemetery.net/labeard.htm.
3. Lewis Randolph Hammersly, Records of Living Officers of the US Navy and Marine Corps, 7th ed. (New York: L.R. Hammersly and Co., 1902), 53. Robert Erwin Johnson, Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800–1898 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979), 138. Robert Seager II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1977), 62. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Aroostook_1861; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Palos_(1865).
4. William B. Cogar, Dictionary of Admirals of the U.S. Navy, Volume 1: 1862–1900 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 1:12.
5. RADM Lester Anthony Beardslee, USN, Wrought-iron and Chain-cable Experiments in the Strength of Wrought-iron and of Chain-cables. Report of the Committee of the U.S. Board Appointed to Test Iron, Steel, and Other Metals on Chain-cable, Malleable Iron, and Re-heating and Re-rolling Wrought-iron, William Kent, ed. (revised edition, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1879).
6. U.S. Navy Department, Reports of Captain L. A. Beardslee, U.S. Navy, Relative to Affairs in Alaska, and the Operations of the U.S.S. Jamestown under His Command while in the Waters of that Territory (Washington, DC: United States Navy Department, 1882).
7. Forest and Stream, vol. 61, no. 12 (December 1903), 393.
8. Cogar, Dictionary of Admirals, 1:12. Wiley, 388.
9. San Francisco Chronicle, 17 and 25 January 1896, 18 September 1897, 11 November 1903. Los Angeles Times, 26 January and 27 April 1896; 21 February and 3 April 1897.
10. William Michael Morgan, Pacific Gibraltar: U.S.–Japanese Rivalry over the Annexation of Hawai’i, 1885–1898 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 204–217. San Francisco Chronicle, 9 April 1897.
11. Cogar, Dictionary of Admirals, 1:12. Elmore A. Champie, Brief History of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina 1891–1962 (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1962), 2, www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/awcgate/usmchist/parris.txt.
12. RADM Lester Anthony Beardslee, USN, “Episodes of the Taiping Rebellion. The Shrapnel of General Aling, and the Battle of Muddy Flats,” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 98, no. 8 (August 1899), 430–434.
13. Kevin C. Murphy, The American Merchant Experience in Nineteenth Century Japan (New York: Routledge, 2003), 57–62, 74–79, 86–88.
14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Imperial_Japan. Basil Hall Chamberlain and W. B. Mason, Murray’s Handbook for Travelers in Japan (3rd. ed.: London: John Murray, and Yokohama: Kelly and Walsh, 1891), advertisement section, 16.
15. San Francisco Call, 15 September 1901.
16. Michael Auslin, Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 92–94.
17. Matsumura Masayoshi, Baron Kaneko and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905): A Study in the Public Diplomacy of Japan, Ian Ruxton, transl. (Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press, 2009), 492. Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993), 734–735.
18. Matsumura, Baron Kaneko and the Russo-Japanese War, 492–493. Leslie Downer, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2003), 37.
19. Beiyukai ryakushi [A Short History of the Friends of America Society] (privately printed, 1935), 16–21, in Yokosuka City History Office Archives, Yokosuka, Japan. Japan Weekly Mail, 20 July 1901.
20. Ibid.; http:/en.wikpedia.org/wiki/Japanese_battleship_Hatsuse.
21. Japan Times, 16 July 1901. U.S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, with the Annual Message of the President Transmitted to Congress December 3, 1901 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902), 379–383. Hirai family description, at www.baxleystamps.com/litho/meiji/1902060413-lel.jpg.
22. Japan Times, 16 July 1901; Jiji Shimpo and Tokyo Nichi Nichi, 15 July 1901. Atlanta Constitution, 15 July 1901. Baltimore Sun, 16 July 1901. Los Angeles Times, 15 July 1901. New York Times, 15, 18 July, 18 August 1901. Washington Post; 21 August 1901. San Francisco Call, 15 September 1901.
23. San Francisco Chronicle, 11 November 1903. New York Times, 14 November 1903.
24. “7th Fleet Sailors Participate in Kurihama Perry Festival,” 27 July 2010 press release, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=54735.