*An address delivered at the unveiling of the Tingey Tablet at the Washington Navy Yard, November 20, 1906.
The American people have awakened to the value of historic associations. They are minded that hereafter no site of a noteworthy public event shall go unmarked. In this spirit we are here to commemorate the beginnings of the Washington navy yard.
Congress, by act of February 2, 1799, authorized the building of six ships, of seventy-four guns each. The Secretary of the Navy named Washington as a place where one of the ships should be built. He bought for $4000 a tract of 40 acres here on the eastern branch. Benjamin Stoddert, of Georgetown, was as a gracious man of business. He looked the country over to discover a person suited to the task of laying out and getting into working order the new yard. Plans drawn by the ingenious Latrobe he had in hand, but what he wanted was a man of administrative ability, of experience and sound judgment as to building and fitting out ships of war, and maintaining a plant for speedy repairs. Such men were rare in those days.
There was living, however, at Kingston, N.J., "an officer," to quote the Secretary's words, "of great merit in our service.* * A man of understanding, who, having seen the navy yards of England" would "be able to direct the laying out of that in Washington to the greatest advantage." In obedience to a summons this officer came here in midwinter to a place that was little better than a wilderness. Walking around the tract—at some Points drifted snow had covered up the stake and stone—the new-comer examined the lay of the land, and the water facilities, and pronounced the site "eligibly chosen." With the advance of the season he erected a high board fence, and had men at work building a wharf. From this date down to February, 1829, the man diligently applied himself to the growth and development of this yard; and when death overtook him here, at the age of al- most eighty, all Washington mourned the loss of a friend. Today we do honor to the memory of Capt. Thomas Tingey of the United States Navy.
The son of a clergyman, he was born at London, England, on the 11th of September, 1750. When not quite twenty-one he was put in command of a blockade house and a guard of twenty-two men at Chateaux bay, on the coast of Labrador. This was Fort Pitt, built in 1763 to protect the fisheries. Tingey's orders were from Commodore Byron, then governor of Newfoundland— grandfather of the poet—a somewhat eccentric commander, known to the service as "Foul Weather Jack." They bear date 31 July, 1771, from on board the Panther, at St. John's; and they direct Mr. Tingey to proceed in the sloop Nautilus to his lonely destination.
Tradition says that young Tingey resigned from the British navy because of a difficulty with another officer. However this maybe, he seems to have found his way to these colonies. The statement also rests on tradition that he served in the continental navy, and at the close of the Revolutionary war made his home in New Jersey, where he entered into trade with the East Indies.
Sometime, while our infant navy was getting itself born, Tingey appears to have returned to his profession; and by the last years of the century he had gained repute as an officer of superior talent. Upon there organization of the navy, in 1798, the President named him as one of the additional captains, and gave to his com- mission the earliest date of the five then appointed. Capt. Tingey was assigned to the command of the Ganges, twenty-four guns, then fitting out for sea at Marcus Hook. He ranked third in the squadron for the West Indies, his seniors being Barry and Truxtun.
Two small vessels were added to his command, and he was ordered to guard the Windward passage, between Hispaniola and Cuba. The duty of protecting our merchant vessels against the attack of French privateers he performed with spirit and with due circumspection.
One day the Ganges was entering the port of St. Thomas. Her commander had learned that it was the intention of the Danish authorities, when he should have saluted their flag, to return the salute with a smaller number of guns. He sent an officer on shore to inform the commandant of the port that the Danish flag would be saluted only upon condition of return of gun for gun. Needless to say, the condition was complied with.
During the same year 1799), Tingey fell in with a British frigate, whose captain dispatched an officer to the Ganges to make inquiries with regard to the presence on board of British seamen. Capt. Tingey was informed that his simple assurance would be sufficient to prevent an officer being sent to examine the protections of his crew. "I did not hesitate to say, "so he reports to the department," that I considered all my crew Americans, born or adopted; but I told the officer further that I did not believe there was one single protection in the ship, the only one we carried in our public ships being our flag." He adds that he had declared to his officers a purpose to fall at his post rather than to submit to an investigation; and that he had pledged himself to his crew that not a man of them should be taken from the ship by any force whatever while he was able to stand at quarters.
In replying, March 7, 1799, the Secretary says: "The President highly approves of the conduct you pursued with regard to the British frigate you fell in with."
This behavior on the part of Capt. Tingey furnishes one of the earliest instances of that determined resolution evinced by the little American navy, which at last compelled England to abandon the position she had assumed of exercising the right to take away from whatever deck she should find him upon a man whom she deemed to be a British subject.
What with convoying merchant vessels, visiting different harbors and chasing privateers, Tingey was kept busy enough. His most important capture was that of the Vainqueur, eight guns and eighty-five men, a swift vessel, overhauled only after a chase ninety miles. -Upon the signing of the treaty of peace with Prance our navy was reduced, and many officers, of whom Tingey was one, were discharged. Here turned to his home in New Jersey, and again applied himself to mercantile pursuits.
But the public demand for a navy, which Congress in part had answered by providing for these six seventy-fours, would not suffer such a man as Tingey to remain long out of the service. As we have seen, he was sent for to come to Washington and call into existence a navy yard.
He was first made superintendent, and, then, in 1804,by virtue of a special act of Congress, he was reappointed a captain in the navy and commandant of this yard. Energy and discretion marked his administration of affairs. He was zealous and un- tiring. The valuable historic sketch of the yard, by Chaplain Hibben, speaks of its first commandant in terms of unqualified praise. It alludes particularly to the mass of letters on file at the department, all written in his own hand, as proving with what painstaking fidelity he looked after detail of these many exacting duties.
In 1808 Tingey submitted to the Secretary of the Navy a set of rules for the government of the yard. So well adapted were they to their purpose that the department applied them to every yard on the coast. Preble says that they appear to be the basis out of which have grown all the subsequent regulations for the government of our navy yards.
There is a chapter in our early annals of which, it would seem, we have small reason to be proud. In 1814, when the British forces entered Washington, the responsibility lay upon Capt. Tingey of protecting this navy yard, with its vessels and stores. Much working at cross purposes, and consequent confusion, marked what by a stretch of courtesy may be entitled the defense of Washington on that unfortunate occasion. Upon the night of the 24th of August three great fires lighted up the sky. There were burning at the same time the Capitol, the White House and the navy yard. Secretary Jones had given to Captain Tingey a positive order (said to have been agreed to by the unanimous vote of the entire cabinet) which compelled that officer most reluctantly to apply the torch. Fortunately, the commandant's house was spared from the flames. Tingey's report of his performance of this duty reveals the character of the man.
Captain Tingey in his long residence here showed himself to be a good citizen as well as a valuable officer. He took a lively interest in what was going on in Washington. He knew and liked the townspeople. They liked and admired the" Commodore," as the commandant of a navy yard was in that day popularly styled. His name heads the list of the vestry of Christ Church in 1806. He was an incorporator of the cemetery of that church—now the Congressional cemetery. His remains lie at the entrance, close to the office of the superintendent, so that the stone to his memory is the first object that greets the visitor. Captain Tingey was a man of fine proportions and of handsome features. He had a dignified and courtly bearing. He was fond of society, where his knowledge of the world and really kind heart made him a general favorite. He maintained health and strength to an unusual age, and was "busy in these scenes until the last plaudit."
Is it too much to believe that this excellent officer had transmitted to his descendants somewhat of his own gallant spirit? His grandson, Thomas Tingey Craven, born at this yard, fought the Brooklyn at the passage of the forts below New Orleans;
While another grandson (brother to Thomas), Tunis Augustus MacDonough Craven, went down with his ironclad Tecumseh, in Mobile bay, quietly stepping to one side at the foot of the ladder, that the pilot might rush up and escape with his life.
May this yard long continue to prosper and grow more and more useful to the country. Happy, indeed, is it that its early fortunes were presided over by so true a man as Thomas Tingey.