After his short career as a merchant seaman and later as a midshipman in the United States Navy, Cooper found himself Possessed of a store of knowledge about the sea and seamen that was to be of incalculable benefit to him when he began to write his romances of the sea. His Pilot, Red Rover, Wing-and-Wing, Two Admirals, Miles Wallingford, and the Sea Lions were the direct result of his youthful contacts with ships and seamen, and are in part the basis of his literary fame. For Cooper was the first writer to set the scene his story on an American ship, the nautical technique of which he handled like a born sailor.
During his later life his best friends were naval officers, men with whom he had messed as a young reefer. Almost the only dedication in any of his books is to his old friend and shipmate aboard the Wasp, Captain William Branford Shubrick. It appeared in a late edition of the dot, published only two years before his death, and seems worth reprinting because it reveals the deep and lasting affection in which Cooper held his former shipmates:
My Dear Shubrick:
Each year brings some new and melancholy chasm in what is now the brief list of my naval friends and former associates. War, disease, and the casualties of a hazardous profession have made fearful inroads in the limited number; . . . I cherish the recollection of those with whom I once lived in close familiarity with peculiar interest, and feel a triumph in their growing reputations ... But neither time nor separation has shaken our intimacy; and I know in dedicating to you this volume, I tell you nothing new, when I add, that it is a tribute paid to an enduring friendship, by
Your old Messmate, The Author
His lifelong interest in the Navy was such that it led him to write in later years two books that are still regarded by students as authoritative for the period they cover—his History of the Navy, and his Lives of Distinguished American Officers. To these two works he devoted a world of laborious and painstaking research, for in them he was recounting the deeds of many of the men whom he had known intimately and whom he could claim as close friends.
Cooper’s entrance into the Navy was at an unfortunate time for him. If he had entered but a few years earlier he would have been able to take part in the stirring exploits in the Mediterranean when we fought the corsairs of Barbary. If he had stayed in the Navy a little more than a year longer he would have found ample field of activity for his restless spirit, for by that time the Navy would have been playing a prominent part in our Second War with Great Britain. The country might have lost a forthright writer of tales of adventure but it would have beyond doubt gained a splendid naval leader. For Cooper had in him the qualities that make for a successful naval commander; he delighted in responsibility and command, possessed a high degree of selfconfidence and initiative, had dauntless courage, and was an intense patriot. His friend Shubrick called him “A born sailor.” But fate and the designing hand of a loving wife ruled otherwise. Cooper entered the Navy at a time when Thomas Jefferson’s policy of pacifism was at its height. The Navy had but 12 seagoing vessels afloat. There was little employment for seasoned naval officers, and practically none at all for a midshipman just entering the Navy. It is not to be wondered at that Cooper soon tired of the service.
In the Office of Naval Records in Washington one will find numerous references to a young midshipman, James Cooper, but never to James Fenimore Cooper, whom the world now knows as the famous novelist. The reason for this is clear. He was christened James Cooper and so signed his name in all his correspondence until 1826, fifteen years after he had resigned from the Navy. In that year the Legislature of the State of New York changed the name to Fenimore-Cooper, his mother’s maiden name having been Fenimore. From that time on Cooper signed his name James Fenimore Cooper. He rarely used the hyphen and finally dropped it altogether.
When James Cooper was 13 years old his father sent him to Yale, where he entered in the second term of freshman year the class that was to be graduated in 1806. But this attempt at an education ended in disaster, for Cooper found himself expelled in 1805 during his junior year. His father, Judge William Cooper, a former Congressman, decided that a naval career might better suit the restless spirit of his son. As there was no naval school worthy of the name, he sent young James to sea as a sailor before the mast to give him a taste of salt water before applying for an appointment in the Navy. Thus it came about that in the autumn of 1806 Cooper signed on as a seaman on the ship Sterling, Captain John Johnston, of Wiscasset, Maine. Cooper later remarked: “This was the fashion of the day, though its utility on the whole may very well be questioned.” On board the Sterling he found a boy, Ned Myers, an apprentice to the captain. A warm friendship sprang up between the two boys, and but for Myers we would know next to nothing of this initial taste of salt water of our first great American novelist. Thirty-five years later when both men were in middle life Myers visited Cooper in his home in Coopers- town, and from that renewed association came a volume of reminiscences of Myers’ life at sea, edited and for the most part written, as the result of long conversations with Myers, by Cooper himself. The book is called Ned Myers; Or, a Life Before the Mast, and was first published in 1843. It gives an excellent picture of the life of an American seaman in the first quarter of the last century, and is well worth reading though it is one of the least known of Cooper’s books.
On the Sterling as a seaman he made a voyage to London, where several of his shipmates were seized by press gangs, including Captain Johnston himself, though he was later released. These incidents Cooper never forgot and they bred in him a dislike for things English that colored his later thought and writings.
The Sterling made one voyage from London into the Mediterranean. On this voyage they once narrowly escaped capture by a pirate, and one night when running close to Cape Trafalgar they sailed through Lord Collingwood’s blockading fleet, narrowly avoiding collision with one of his ships. After their return to London they were forced to lie at the wharves for several weeks waiting for a cargo. Cooper employed this period of idleness in rambling through the city’s streets and parks and visiting the Abbey and St. Paul’s with his shipmates. It was the last time that Cooper was to see England for 20 years, but when his first novel Precaution appeared 13 years later, his descriptions of London were so vivid and true to life that seasoned English critics declared it to be the work of an English writer. The Sterling left the Thames on July 28, 1807, and docked at Philadelphia on September 18. On the voyage home they sighted an English brig and learned from her captain of the Chesapeake-Leopard outrage. Three days before his arrival Cooper celebrated his eighteenth birthday.
Judge Cooper was well pleased with his son’s account of his voyage and felt that the young man had in him the making of a real seaman. So he used his influence as a politician to secure for him an appointment in the Navy. This appointment bore the date January 1, 1808. It was addressed to “James Cooper, Cooperstown, New York,” and was signed by the Secretary of the Navy himself. It read:
Navy Department, Jan. 1, 1808 Sir,
I have the pleasure to forward to you a warrant as a midshipman in the Navy of the United States dated this day. I enclose copies of the Navy rules and regulations, uniform and a mariner’s dictionary, and a blank oath which you will take and return to me with a letter accepting the appointment from the date of which acceptance your pay will commence.
Your obedient servant,
Cooper was in New York City when his appointment reached Cooperstown and it was not until February 19 that it finally caught up with him. On the 20th he took the oath required and promptly returned it to the Secretary with a letter explaining the delay. The oath to which he subscribed may still be seen in the archives of the Navy Department:
I, James Cooper—having been appointed a Midshipman in the Navy of the United States—do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever; and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, and in all things to conform myself to the rules and regulations which now are or hereafter may be directed, and to the articles of war which may be enacted by Congress, for the better government of the navy of the United States, and that I will support the constitution of the United States.
Sworn before me, at the City of
New York, Feby 20th, 1808
Wm. Williams, Jun
On the 24th the Secretary ordered him to report to the “Commanding naval officer at New York.” This officer was none other than the redoubtable Commodore John Rodgers. Rodgers assigned him to the bomb ketch Vesuvius then lying at the navy yard awaiting repairs.
The muster roll of the Vesuvius is still extant. It records Cooper’s first appearance on board her as February 24, 1808, showing that he reported for duty the same date as his orders from the Secretary. It also shows that he served on board her continuously from February 24 to July 4, 1808; that he was detached on the latter date with the brief memorandum, “To the Lakes.” No repairs of any consequence were made to the Vesuvius during Cooper’s tour of duty in her, and we can be quite sure that Midshipman James Cooper, U. S. Navy, was not overworked. On June 27 Commodore Rodgers received an order from the Navy Department to “make any repairs that may be necessary to the bottom of the ketch Vesuvius, after the repairs to the Constitution shall be finished. The mortar now on board the ketch Edna (Aetna) you will move on board the Vesuvius.” On July 5 another letter from the Secretary to Commodore Rodgers stated, “Of the officers under your command, I have attached to the service upon which Lieutenant Woolsey is ordered, Lieutenant Haswell, and Midshipmen Walker, Gamble and Cooper.” This letter helps to explain the cryptic notation “To the Lakes” found in the Vesuvius’ muster roll.
In his own History of the Navy first published in 1839, Cooper himself gives us the necessary information concerning this change in duty. It is the only reference that he makes in the work to his own naval service and even then he does not mention himself by name.
In the course of the summer of 1808, however, it was thought prudent to make a commencement towards the employment of a force in that quarter [our inland waters], England already possessing ships on Ontario and Erie. There being no special law for such an object, advantage was taken of the discretionary powers granted to the President under the act for building gunboats. A few officers were placed under the command of Lieutenant Melancthon T. Woolsey, and that gentleman was empowered to make contracts for the construction of three vessels, one of which was to be built on Lake Ontario, and the other two on Lake Champlain. The two vessels constructed on Lake Champlain were merely gunboats, but that constructed on Lake Ontario was a regular brig-of-war. The latter was of about 240 tons measurement, was pierced for sixteen guns and when delivered by the contractors in the spring of 1809, to the sea-officers appointed to receive her, she mounted sixteen 24-pound carronades. In consequence of an arrangement that was made about this time with England, but which was not ratified in Europe, this vessel, which was called the Oneida, was not equipped and sent upon the lake till the following year.
Lieutenant Haswell was sent to Lake Champlain with Midshipmen Walker and Hall, while Woolsey was sent to Oswego on Lake Ontario with Midshipmen Gamble and Cooper. Woolsey had engaged two distinguished New York shipbuilders to assist him with his brig—Henry Eckford and Christian Bergh. When the three officers arrived at Oswego they found a tiny settlement there of about 25 log houses. For a radius of 40 miles the unbroken forest extended back into the interior. On the eastern bank of the Oswego were the remains of the last English fort, the very fort in which many of the stirring scenes of The Pathfinder were laid many years later. In fact, for all those remarkable descriptions of the forests and waters of the St. Lawrence frontier we are indebted primarily to his tour of duty at Oswego when he was a midshipman in the Navy.
He found that Oswego was still a most primitive settlement. The only means of exchange was in salt brought up from Salina (now Syracuse). Woolsey rented a house in the little settlement for himself and his officers. The party was soon enlarged by a detachment of the Sixth Infantry under Lieutenant John Chrystie, who messed with the naval officers. Work progressed rapidly on the vessels under Eckford’s efficient direction. Eckford went into the forest himself, notched the trees he wanted felled, had them cut, trimmed, and hauled to the water’s edge, where in a few days the frame of the Oneida began to take shape. It was a merry winter for the whole mess. Balls and dinners were given, to which the dwellers in Oswego and the neighboring countryside were invited from miles around. Their living was excellent, for the lake supplied fine salmon and bass, and the forest an abundance of venison, rabbits and squirrels, while the young officers shot numerous wild geese and ducks. While the Oneida was under construction at Oswego, there was building at Kingston across the lake a brig of 18 guns, the Royal George, which later was renamed the Montreal and was added to Sir James Yeo’s squadron.
On November 7, 1808, four months after coming to Oswego, he wrote his brother Richard at Cooperstown:
The rumour of war is strong. If the latter should be true, adieu to Lake Ontario. I shall have the pleasure of seeing salt water once more. This Oswego has been crowded with company this last month—officers, traders, smugglers, etc. I have purchased a brace of pistols for twenty dollars which I shall keep in remembrance of your friendship. There is no prospect of my having occasion to use them in this quarter.
On April 8, 1809, Lieutenant Woolsey wrote the Secretary that the young officers under his command were all anxious for more active service, and that they had hopes to be ordered to some of the frigates which were then fitting out. He recommended them all in the highest terms for official consideration. Concerning Cooper he wrote:
Midshipmen Cooper and Hall, (the latter on Lake Champlain) have both been to sea in the merchant service. Mr. Hall is spoken of highly by Lieut. Haswell and Mr. Cooper so far as I am capable of judging (though his term of service perhaps does not entitle him to it) I think will qualify for promotion.
On the same day Cooper himself addressed the Secretary, an unheard-of proceeding in the Navy of today. He desired to be
removed from this station, to one of actual service. The importance of such a removal to myself, as affording an opportunity of acquiring experience, and a desire of improving in my profession, will, I hope, be a sufficient apology for troubling the Department with this request.
On June 10, Woolsey wrote he was leaving Oswego for Lake Champlain in order to lay up the gunboats. “Will leave Mr. Cooper here to wait your orders.”
Cooper’s eminent biographer, the late Professor Thomas R. Lounsbury, of Yale, states in his life of Cooper that the novelist as a midshipman once served on Lake Champlain. Professor Lounsbury was in error. Cooper never served on Lake Champlain. It is this present writer’s belief that Professor Lounsbury employed some one to make a search through the archives of the Navy Department, that the letter of June 10 was discovered, and that it was read hastily and carelessly. When it was found that Lieutenant Woolsey was setting out for Lake Champlain, it was assumed that Cooper went with him, and Lounsbury was so informed.
Late in June, 1809, Woolsey and Cooper set out in a boat manned with four men for Fort Niagara. Bad weather was encountered and the party was a week making the voyage. Four nights were spent in the boat and one night in a cabin on the banks of the Genesee River a few miles below the falls (the present site of the city of Rochester). Another night was spent, according to Cooper, on the shore of a large bay which he called Gerundegutt (Irondequoit). The party reached the mouth of the Niagara River at daybreak of July 4, 1809. The return trip to Oswego was made, thanks to fair weather, in two days.
On August 23, Lieutenant Woolsey wrote from Plattsburg to the Department that the Oneida was “in ordinary and moored in a safe berth near the mouth of the Oswego River.” The stores for the vessel were kept on shore in a good storehouse and were frequently visited by “Midshipman Cooper and the Pilot, Mr. Ford.” He had left orders with Mr. Cooper to have the brig’s decks calked before the workmen who had been engaged in her building should leave, “if he does not receive orders to the contrary from you.”
Three weeks later, on September 13, Cooper wrote the Secretary requesting a furlough,
For the purpose of making a European voyage— I trust, Sir, you will more readily excuse this liberty, when I inform you, that I have never been attached to any vessel in commission since I have had the Honor of belonging to the Service.
Just two weeks later the chief clerk of the Navy Department, Mr. Charles W. Goldsborough, acting for Mr. Paul Hamilton, the Secretary, granted his request but specified that he was not to wear the navy uniform on his journey and was to report himself to the Department on his return.
Just when Cooper left Oswego we cannot be certain, but on November 8, 1809, he was back in New York City after an absence of nearly a year and a half. He had changed his mind about another saltwater voyage. Again he wrote the Secretary:
Sir, I have the honor to state to you that having arrived here in pursuance of a Furlough for the Purpose of making a European voyage; the difficulty of procuring a berth on any ship bound to Europe as well as the advice of several officers of rank in the Navy, have induced me to relinquish the idea. Captain Lawrence of the Wasp has been so obliging as to inform me that he would receive me on board his ship. I therefore take the liberty to request that I may be attached to that vessel.
The Captain Lawrence referred to in this letter was the Captain James Lawrence lost on the ill-fated Chesapeake, and author of the Navy’s watchword “Don’t give up the ship.” Lawrence, then a lieutenant, was only eight years older than Cooper. Both officers were natives of Burlington, New Jersey, and their families had long been on the friendliest terms. In fact the Lawrences and Coopers had been next- door neighbors. On November 13, Cooper was ordered to the Wasp.
The “Muster Table of the U. S. Vessel of War Wasp, Lieutenant James Lawrence Commanding,” is still preserved in the Navy Department. The entries regarding the future novelist are interesting:
Commencement of Service—November 13, 1809
Expiration of Service—May 15, 1810
Term of Services—6 mons., 13 days
Monthly Pay—$19 per mo.
Whole Amt. of Settlement—$115.90
Amt. pd. by Purser in money—$141.08
Amt. of Hospital Fund—$1.22
Whole Amt. to be deducted from pay—$142.30
We may be sure that Cooper refunded this overpayment, for he was the most scrupulous of men in his business dealings. This same muster roll shows that Midshipman William Branford Shubrick was also on duty aboard the Wasp throughout the entire length of Cooper’s service in her. On this vessel began that relationship that was destined to become a lifelong friendship.
We have but little knowledge of Cooper’s duties on the Wasp during his 6 months’ service, except from a letter from Lieutenant Lawrence to the Navy Department on January 20, 1810. In this letter Lawrence protested against the extension of furlough for one of his officers, Midshipman John T. Drury,
As I am at present short of officers. He [Drury] has been doing the duty of Master’s Mate since I have been in command of the ship, and is the only one among my Midshipmen competent to that duty, excepting Mr. Shubrick and Midshipman Cooper, now on the recruiting service, which makes his services doubly necessary at this time.
The two friends had been detailed to open up a recruiting station, probably in the vicinity of South Street, where seafaring men were likely to be found. The Wasp was short of seamen, and had been since her return from Lorient, France, from which port she had sailed September 28, 1809, reaching the entrance to Wall- about Bay, Brooklyn, on November 5, eight days before Cooper joined the ship.
The log of the Wasp for this period is still preserved in the National Archives. Entries from it relate that:
March 9, 1810. Mr. J. Cooper, Midshipman, went to New York for the purpose of opening a rendezvous for shiping seamen.
March 18, 1810. The pilot came on board, hove up anchor, and made sail for North River . . . the frigate Constitution bearing S. W. ½ a mile.
On March 27, they set sail for Boston, and the log records their arrival on March 30.
March 30, 1810. At 10 P.M. Anchored in 8 fathoms of water. Boston Light bearing NW½N about 3 leagues. Worked ship up to Fort Independence.
On March 31, 1810, Lieutenant Lawrence announced his safe arrival in Boston after a passage of 4 days. He had recruited 19 additional seamen here, the real purpose of the voyage. We do not know whether or not Cooper made this short voyage. If he did it was the only saltwater voyage made by him during his naval career. It seems more likely that he remained on recruiting duty in New York at the rendezvous he had opened 3 weeks before.
The log has two other entries of real interest:
April 11, 1810. Came to anchor in North River abreast the Battery in ten fathoms.
May 12, 1810. Commences with light breezes from the southard and pleasant weather. At 8 a.m. . . . Discharged Henry Williams, & James Cooper, Midshipman, left the ship this day. Ends with moderate breezes from the Southw. & Eastw. & clear weather.
The conscientious officer who kept this log was much concerned about the state of the weather. Little did he realize that “this day” marked a milestone in the life of a messmate who was destined for lasting and world-wide fame. This was the last day of Cooper’s service in the Navy, though his resignation was to be deferred for another year.
A week later he wrote his brother Richard a letter which explains this casual entry in the Wasp’s log:
When you were in the City, I hinted to you my intention of resigning at the end of this session of Congress, should nothing be done for the Navy. My only reason at that time was the blasted prospects of the service. I accordingly wrote my resignation and as usual offered it to Captain Lawrence, for his inspection. He very warmly recommended me to give the service the trial of another year or two; at the same time offering to procure me a furlough which would leave me the perfect master of my own actions in the interval. I thought it wisest to accept this proposition. At the end of this year I have it in my power to resign should the situation of the country warrant it.
Like all the rest of the sons of Adam, I have bowed to the influence of the charms of a fair damsel of 18.1 loved her like a man and told it to her like a sailor. Susan De Lancey is the daughter of a man of very respectable connections and a handsome fortune . . . amiable, sweet-tempered and happy in her disposition . . . Don’t forget to enclose a handsome sum to square the yards here and bring me up to Cooperstown.
The $26.40 still owing the purser of the Wasp was on his mind, though he was in love. He must “square the yards” before setting out for home. His furlough from the Navy Department, dated May 9, 1810, was in his pocket. He had permission to live his life as he desired for 12 months.
On January 1, 1811, he married the “fair damsel” Susan De Lancey, and loved her devotedly to the end of his days. Cooper would be the last man to confess that he was not master in his own household. He never suspected for a moment that he was not in full command. But as with many other masterful men, his wife generally had her way. It was so in the matter of his naval career. The young Mrs. Cooper had no mind to have her husband absent from her for prolonged voyages. Their combined incomes met easily all their needs. There was no reason, from her point of view, that he should remain in the Navy. The last letter from the Honorable Paul Hamilton, the Navy’s Secretary, to Midshipman James Cooper ended the young husband’s naval career:
Navy Dept., 6 May 1811
Midn. Jas. Cooper Cooperstown, New York.
I have received your letter of the 28 ulto. Your resignation is accepted. You will transmit your warrant to this Department.
Many years after Cooper had left the Navy and fame and honor had come to him as the first great American novelist, he received an invitation to join an organization of naval officers and civilians in New York interested in the activities and well-being of the Navy. It was known as the U. S. Naval Lyceum. His acceptance of this invitation, on February 10, 1834, shows how much he cherished his old comrades and associations:
I beg you to inform the gentlemen of the Lyceum of my acceptance of the compliment they have been pleased to confer on me. I have the more pleasure in this election, because it comes from a corps to which I once belonged myself, which I have always loved, and which has conferred so much credit on our common country ...
J. Fenimore Cooper