|Naval Officers, by James Fenimore Cooper|
|Commodore Melancthon Brooks Woolsey|
|Alida Livingston Woolsey and Rev. Isaac Pierson Stryker|
|Rev. Melancthon Woolsey Stryker|
Commodore Melancthon Taylor Woolsey
James Fennimore Cooper
Young Woolsey was born about the year 1782, his parents having married near the termination of the war of the Revolution. His early education was that usually given to young gentlemen intended for the professions, and the commencement of the year 1800 found him a student in the office of the late Mr. Justice Platt, then a lawyer of note, residing at Whitesborough, in Oneida County, and the member of Congress for his district. This was the period when the present navy may be said to have been formed, the armaments of 1798 and 1799 having substantially brought it into existence. Young Woolsey, being of an athletic frame and manly habits, had early expressed a desire to enter the service, a wish that was gratified through the influence of Mr. Platt, as soon as that gentleman attended in his seat in Congress, which then sat in Philadelphia. We ought to have mentioned that Mr. Justice Platt was the husband of a sister of his pupil's mother, and consequently was the latter's uncle by marriage. [Correction: This mistake is continuously made. Jonas Platt married Helen Livingston, the AUNT of Catharine Livingston, the wife of Arthur Breese and mother of Admiral Samuel Livingston Breese.]
Woolsey learned a great deal of the elementary portions of his profession during the few months he served in the Adams. He was of an age to see the necessity for exertion, as well as to comprehend the reasons of what he saw done, and few midshipmen made better use of their time.
In dropping out of the East River into the Hudson, the pilot got the Boston on a reef of rocks that lie near the Battery. Woolsey, who had made himself a good deal of a seaman while in the Adams, was rated as a master's mate on board the Boston, and he was sent ashore with a boat, with orders to go to the navy-agent, in order to direct him to send off a lighter, with spare anchors and cables. On landing, he met the navy-agent on the battery, and communicated his orders. The latter asked Mr. Woolsey to proceed with his boat a short distance, in order to tow a lighter round to a pont where it could receive the ground-tackle needed. Supposing he should be conforming to the wishes of his captain, and knowing that, in consequence of meeting the navy-agent on the Battery, he might still return to the ship sooner than he was expected, the young officer complied. As soon as the duty was over, Woolsey returned on board the Boston, repaired to the cabin, and reported all that he had done. His captain heard him with grave attention. When the midshipman had got through with his story, and expected to be applauded for his judicious decision, the reasons for which he had paraded with some little effort, Capt. McNiell looked intently at him, and uttered, in a slow, distinct manner, the words, "D__d yahoo!" Woolsey remonstrated, with some warmth, but the only atonement he received was a repetition of "D__d yahoo!" uttered in a more quick and snappish manner.
This little affair was very near driving our young officer out of the ship; but his good sense got the better of his pride, and he came to the wise decision not to let his public areer be affected by his private feelings. Ships were then difficult to be found; the cruise promised to be both instructing and agreeable, in other respects; and large allowances were always made for Capt. McNiell's humor. We say the wise decision, since an officer is usually wrong who suffers a misunderstanding with a superior to drive him from his vessel. So long as he is right and does his duty, he can always maintain his position with dignity and self-respect.
The Boston was the ship that carried Chancellor Livingston and suite to France, when the former went as a minister to negotiate the treaty for the cessation of Louisiana. The passage was pleasant enough, until the ship got near her port, when she was caught in a fearful gale, that blew directly on shore, and came very near being lost. Every one admitted that the frigate was saved by the steadiness and seamanship of the old officer who commanded her. He carried sail in a way that astounded all on board, but succeeded in clawing off the land. We have heard Woolsey say that he carried on the ship so hard that the muzzles of the quarterdeck guns were frequently under water. In a word, the struggle seemed to be between the power of the elements and the resolution and perserverance of a single man, and the last prevailed.
After landing the minister, the Boston, in pursuance of her instructions, proceeded to the Mediterranean, where she was to join the squadron under the orders of Com. Dale. But it did not suit the caprices of Capt. McNiell to come within the control of a superior, and he managed in a way to avoid both of the officers who commanded while the ship was out. He gave convoy, and for a short time was off Tripoli, blackading, but the Constellation appearing before that port, he immediately left it, and did not return.
Woolsey used to relate a hundred laughable anecdotes concerning this cruise, during which Capt. McNiell committed some acts that hardly could be excused by the oddity of his character. While the ship was on the African coast, the captain sent for the pilot, a Frenchman, in order to ascertain the position of a particular reef, or a shoal, about which he had some misgivings. Woolsey entered the cabin on duty just as this consultation was held. The Frenchman was pointing to the chart, and he said, a little at a loss to indicate the precise spot, "La-la, Monsieur." "La-la-la, b__r la, where's the reef?" demanded McNiell.
On another occasion, while the ship lay at Malaga, Woolsey was sent on shore, at nine, for the captain, who had dined that day with the consul. Sweden was at war with Tripoli, at that time, as well as ourselves, and a Swedish squadron was then at Malaga, the admiral and captains also dining with the consul on this occasion. McNiell was seated between the admiral and one of his captains, when Woolsey was shown into the dining-room. The young man reported the boat. "What do you say?" called out Capt. McNiell. Woolsey repeated what he had said. McNiell now leaned forward, and his face within two feet of that of the admiral, he called out, "These bloody Swedes keep such a chattering, you must speak louder."
But these were trifles in the history of this extraordinary man, and we only relate them on account of their connection with the subject of this sketch. After remaining abroad near or quite a twelve-month, the Boston returned home, where her commander was discharged from the service, and the ship was laid up in ordinary, never to be re-commissioned. She was subsequently burned at the taking of Washington.
We do not happen to possess the proofs to say whether Woolsey returned to America in the Boston, or whether he joined one of the ships of Com. Morris' squadron, at Gibraltar. We cannot find any evidence that Capt. McNiell ever joined either commodore, and it is not easy to see how one of his midshipmen could have got into another ship without such a junction. At any rate, Woolsey was certainly in the Chesapeake, as one of her midshipmen, while Com. Morris had his pennant flying in her, and he went with that officer to the New York, acting Capt. Chauncey. On the passage between Gilbraltar and Malta, the Enterprise in company, occurred the explosion on board the New York, by means of which that frigate came very near being lost. Woolsey always spoke in the highest terms of the coolness and decision of Chauncey, on this trying occasion, by which alone the vessel was saved. As it was, nineteen officers and men were blown up, or were seriously burned, fourteen of whom lost thier lives. The sentinel in the magazine passage was driven through to the filling-room door, and only a single thickness of plank lay between the fire and the powder of the magazine, when the flames were extinguished.
Woolsey went off Tripoli again, in the New York, and was present when Porter made his spirited
attack on the wheat-boats ashore, and in the abortive attempt that was subsequently made at
cannonading the town. We are not certain whether Mr. Woolsey returned home in the Adams, with
Com. Morris, or whether he continued out on the station until the New York's cruise was up.
There could not have been much difference in the time, however, our young officer serving afloat in
the Adams, Boston, Chesapeake, New York, and, we believe, in the Adams, again, with little or
no interruption, from the time he entered the service, in 1800, to the close of the year 1803.
During these cruises, Woolsey made himself a sailor, and a good one for he was for the time he had
been at sea, and the opportunities he had enjoyed.
In the course of the exchanges that were made, Capt. Campbell took command of the Essex. About this time Woolsey received an acting appointment as a lieutenant, and when Capt. Cambell again exchanged with Com. Rodgers, the latter coming home, and the former remaining out in command, Woolsey went, with a large proportion of the officers of the Essex, to the Constitution 44. In the Constitution, then the commanding ship, Woolsey remained on the Mediterranean station, until near the close of the year 1807. He had, for his messmates, Charles Ludlow, William Burrows, and various other young men of merit. None of the lieutenants, Ludlow excepted, were commissioned, but they were all held in abeyance, with orders to Com. Campbell to report on their qualifications and conduct. That officer was so well satisfied with his young men, however, that in the end each of them got his proper place on the list. In that day lieutenants were frequently very young men, and it sometimes happened that their frolics partook more of the levity of youth than is now apt to occur, in officers of that rank. One little incident, which occured to Woolsey while he was under the command of Com. Campbell, tells so well for the parties concerned, that we cannot refrain from relating it; more especially as the officer whose conduct appeared to the most advantage in the affiar is still living, and it may serve to make his true character known to the country.
Com. Campbell had brought with him, to his ship, a near relative, of the name of Read. This young gentleman was one of the midshipmen of the frigate, while Woolsey and Burrows were two of her lieutenants. On a certain occasion, when the latter was "filled with wine," he became pugnacious, and came to voies de fait with his friend Woolsey. The latter, always an excellently tempered man, as well as one of great personal strength, succeeded in getting his riotous messmate down on the ward-room floor, where he dictated the terms of peace. As such an achievement, notwithstanding Burrows' condition, could not be effected without some tumult and noise, the fact that two of the ward-room officers had come to something very like blows, if not actually to that extremity, necessarily became known to their neighbors in the steerage. From the steerage, the intelligence traveled to the captain, and, next morning, both Woolsey and Burrows were placed under arrest. As between the two parties to the scene nothing further passed or was contemplated, they were particularly good friends, and the offender no sooner came to his senses than he expressed his regrets, and no more was thought of the affair. Capt. Campbell himself was willing to overlook it, when he learned the true state of things, and all was forgotten but the manner in which it was supposed the commodore obtained his information. That the last came from some one in the steerage was reasonably certain, and the ward-room officers decided that the informer must have been Mr. Read, on account of his consanguinity to the commanding officer. On a consultation, it was resolved to send Mr. Read to coventry, which was forthwith done.
For a long time, Mr. Read was only spoken to by the gentlemen of the ward-room on duty. They even went out of their way to invite the other midshipmen to dine with them, always omitting to include the supposed informer in their hospitalities. Any one can imagine how unpleasant this must have been to the party suffering, who bore it all, however, without complaining. At length Woolsey, while over a glass of wine in the cabin, ascertained from the commodore himself the manner in which the latter had obtained his knowledge of the fracas. It was through his own clerk, who messed in the steerage.
The moment an opportunity offered, Woolsey, than whom a nobler or better-hearted man never existed, went up to young Read on the quarter-deck, and, raising his hat, something like the following conversation passed between them.
"You must have observed, Mr. Read, that the officers of the ward-room have treated you coldly, for some months past?"
"I am sorry to say I have, sir."
"It was owing to the opinion that you had informed Com. Campbell of the unpleasant little affair that took place between Mr. Burrows and myself."
"I have supposed it to be owing to that opinion, sir."
"Well, sir, we have now ascertained that we have done you great injustice, and I have come to apologize to you for my part of this business, and to beg you will forget it. I have it from your uncle, himself, that it was Mr. ___."
"I have all along thought the commodore got his information from that source."
"Good Heaven! Mr. Read, had you intimated as much, it would have put an end to the unpleasant state of things which has so long existed between yourself and the gentlemen of the ward-room."
"That would have been doing the very thing for which you blamed me, Mr. Woolsey -- turning informer."
Woolsey frequently mentioned this occurrence, and always in terms of high commendation of the self-denial and self-respect of the midshipman. We had it, much as it is related here, from the former's mouth. It is scarcely necessary to tell those who are acquainted with the navy that the young midshipman was the present Commodore George Campbell Read, now in command of the coast of Africa squadron.
The Constitution was kept out on the station some months longer than had been intended, in consequence of the attack that was made on the Chesapeake, the ship that was fitted out to relieve her. This delay caused the times of the crew to be up, and the frigate was kept waiting at Gilbraltar in hourly expectation of this relief. Instead of receiving the welcome news that the anchors were to be lifted for home, the commodore was compelled to issue orders to return to some port aloft. These orders produced one of the very few mutinies that have occurred in the American marine, the people refusing to man the capstan bars. On this trying occassion, the lieutenants of the ship did their duty manfully. They rushed in to the crowd, brought out the ringleaders by the collar, and, sustained by the marine guard, which behaved well, they soon had the ship under complete subjection. This was done too, as the law then stood, with very questionable authority. Subsequent legislation has since provided for such a dilemma, but it may be well doubted if the majority of the Constitution's crew could have been legally made to do duty on that occasion. So complete, however, was the ascendancy of discipline, that the officers triumphed, and the ship was carried wherever her commander pleased.
Nor was this all. When the Constitution did come home, she went into Boston. Instead of being
paid off in that port, which under the peculiarities of her case certainly ought to have been done, orders
arrived to take her round to New York. When all hands were called to "up anchor," her officers fully expected another revolt!
but, instead of that, the people manned the bars cheerfully, and no resistance was made to the
movement. The men, when spoken to in commendation of their good conduct, admitted that they had been
so effectually put down on the former occasion, that they entertained no further thoughts of resistance.
Woolsey did his full share of duty in these critical circumstances, as, indeed, did all of
Woolsey had greatly improved himself not only in his profession, but in his mind generally, during his different Mediterranean cruises. Shortly after the constitution was paid off, he repaired to Washington, where he reamined some time, employed in preparing a system of signals. The year 1808 was one during which the relations between this country and England very seriously menaced war. The government, in anticipation of such an event, saw the necessity of making some provisions of defence on lakes Ontario and Champlain. Woolsey, during his stay in Washington, had so far gained the confidence of the Department, that he was selected to superintend the construction of, and to command the first regular armaments ever made under the Union, on these inland waters. It was decided to build a brig of sixteen guns on Lake Ontario, and two gun-boats on Champlain. Five officers were detached for this service, including Lieut. Woolsey, who had command on both lakes. Lieut. John Montressor Haswell was sent to Champlain, with Messrs. Walker and Hall, while Woolsey took with himself, to Ontario, Messrs. Gamble and Cooper. It is now believed that all these gentlemen are now dead, with the exception of the last, who is here making an imperfect record of some of the service of his old friend and messmate.
The port of Oswego was selected as the place where the brig was to be constructed. The contractors were Christian Bergh and Henry Eckford, both of whom afterwards became known to the country as eminent constructors and shipwrights. The brig was called the Oneida, and she was laid down on the eastern point that formed one side of the outlet of the river. In 1808, Oswego was a mere hamlet of some twenty, or five-and-twenty, houses, that stood on a very irregular sort of a line, near the water, the surrounding country, for thirty or forty miles, being very little more than a wilderness. On the eastern bank of the river, and opposite to the village, or on the side of the stream on which the Oneida was built, there was but a solitary log-house, and the ruins of the last English fort.
The arrival of a party of officers, together with a strong gang of ship-carpenters, riggers, blacksmiths, &c., produced a great commotion in that retired hamlet, though port it was, and made a sensible change in its condition. For the first time, money began to be seen in the place, the circulating medium having previously been salt. The place was entirely supported by the carrying of the salt manufactured at Salina. Eight or ten schooners and sloops were employed in this business, and the inhabitants of Oswego then consisted of some four or five traders, who were mostly ship-owners, the masters and people of the vessels, boatmen who brought the salt down the river, a few mechanics, and a quarter-educated personage who called himself doctor.
The reader can form an idea of the knowledge of the men who then practiced medicine, and who called themselves "doctors" on the frontiers, by the following anecdote. Colonel, then Ensign, Gardner of the "old sixth," had been a student of medicine with Hosack, previously to his entering the army. "faute de mieux," he prescribed for the men under his orders, and the writer of this article, in the familiarity of a messmate, used to say the G of his surname stood for "Gallen." When Mr. Gardner joined the mess, the "doctor" mentioned in the text was absent, nor did he return until the army officers had been some time at Oswego. The "doctor" and the "mess" were next door neighbors, the former living in a small building that joined the mess-house, cooking for himself, &c., &c. Many a time did the late Capt. Gamble and the writer risk breaking their necks, to crawl out on the doctor's wing and drop snow-balls and other "cooling ingredients," by means of the chimney, into the doctor's mess. The first evening of this personage's return to Oswego, he made his appearance in the mess, where he was cordially received, and formally introduced to the ensign by the writer.
Woolsey and his party hired a house and commenced housekeeping, their mess being soon increased by the arrival of a small detachment of the Old Sixth Infantry, under the orders of Lieut. Christie, subsequently the Colonel Christie who died in Canada, during the campaign of 1813. Ensign Gardner accompanied the party. This gentleman rose to the rank of Colonel also, acting as adjutant-general to the division of Gen. Brown in the celebrated campaign of '14, and has since been deputy postmaster-general, auditor of the Post-office Department, &c., &c.
This joint mess made a most merry winter of it. Woolsey was its head by bank, and he was its soul in spirits and resources. Balls, dinners, and suppers were given to the better portion of the inhabitants, and, from being regarded with distrust as likely to interfere with the free-trade principles that the embargo then rendered very decided on all the Canada frontier, Woolsey became highly popular and beloved. He had nothing to do, in fact, with the smugglers, his duty being strictly that of a man-of-war's man.
In the mean time, things did not drag on the point. Eckford was present, in person, and he went into the forest, marked his trees, had them cut, trimmed, and hauled, and in the frame of the Oneida in a very few days. The work advanced rapidly, and a small sloop of war, that was pierced for sixteen guns, soon rose on the stocks. Understanding that the floor-timbers of the salt-droggers never decayed, Woolsey had the frame of this brig filled in with salt, using the current coin of the place for that purpose. In that day, every thing was reduced to the standard value of salt, at Oswego. A barrel of salt on the wharf was counted at two dollars; and so many barrels of salt were paid for a cow, so many for a horse, and one barrel for a week's board of the better quality. The living was excellent, salmon, bass, venison in season, rabbits, squirrels, wild-geese, ducks, &c., abounding. The mess, however, pronounced cranberries the staple commodity of the region. They were uniformly served three times a day, and with venison, ducks, &c., made a most delicious accompaniment. Woolsey was a notable caterer, keeping his mess in abundance. The house had been a tavern, and the bar was now converted into a larder, the cold of that region serving to keep every thing sweet. It did the eye good to examine the collection that was made in this corner by Christmas! At the fireside, Woolsey was the life of the mess in conversation, anecdote, and amusement. He would have been a treasure on such an expedition as that of Parry's.
One day, an inhabitant of Oswego came running into the mess-house to say that a Lieut. R__, from Kingston, was then on board the brig, in disguise, examining her. The officers were at the table, and Woolsey cooly expressed his regrets that Mr. R. had not let him know of his visit, that he might have had the pleasure of his company at dinner. As the gentleman evidently wished to be incog., however, he could not think of disturbing him.
This visit was the precursor of the construction of a ship at Kingston, of a force to overcome the Oneida. The English vessel was called the Royal George, mounted twenty-four guns, and was much larger than the American brig. She subsequently figured in Sir James Yeo's squadron, under the name of the Montreal. A few months later, while the Royal George was still on the stocks, Woolsey had occasion to go to Kingston. He was invited by a friend in that place to pay a visit to the navy-yard, and putting on his uniform, he went. While on board the new ship, the very officer who had been at Oswego came up and remarked it was contrary to orders to allow foreign officers to examine the vessel. Woolsey apologized, said he was ignorant of the rule, and would retire.
"I have the honor of seeing Mr. R__, I believe," he added, as he was about to quit the ship.
The other admitted he was that person.
"I regret I did not know of the visit you did us the favor to make on board the Oneida, until it was too late to be of any service to you. The next time, I trust, you will apprize us of your intention, when I shall be extremely happy to let you see all we have that is worth the trouble of examining, and of showing you some of the hospitalities of the place."
It is scarcely necessary to say that the lieutenant looked very foolish, and Woolsey had his revenge. It is proper to add that this personage did not belong to the Royal, but to the Provincial Navy, and was a man of confessedly inferior manners and habits.
AN OUTING TO NIAGARA
All the south shore of Ontario, with here and there some immaterial exception, was then a wilderness! Four days out, the provisions failed, and there was actually a want of food. It was not easy to starve so near the forest, certainly, but the men had been improvident, and a fast of a few hours threw Woolsey on his resources. Even the last cracker was eaten, and fish could not be taken. One old seaman had passed forty years on the lake, and he knew the position of every dwelling that stood near its shore. There might then have been a dozen of these little clearings between the Oswego and the Niagara, and one that contained three or four log-houses was known to be some two or three leagues distant. There was no wind, and the launch was pulled up to a beach where it was easy to land, and at a point at no great distance from these houses. It was so late, however, that it was not thought expedient to search for the habitations that evening. The whole party was about to bivouac supperless, when Mr. Cooper accidentally came across a hedge-hog, which he killed with the sword of a cane. On this animal all hands supped, and very good eating it proved to be.
The next morning, the two gentlemen, accompanied by the old laker and another man, set out in quest of the log-huts, which stood a mile or two inland. One was found at the end of an hour, but no one was near it. It was inhabited, however, and in a pantry were found two loaves of bread, and a baking of dried whortleberry pies, as well as some milk. Necessity having no law, one loaf, two of the pies, and a gallon of milk were sequestered, two silver dollars being left in their places. After breakfasting, and sending the old man to the boat with some food, the two officers followed their pilot toward the other cabins. These were also found, and in them the mistress of the mansion already invaded. A full confession of what had been done followed, and a proposal was made to purchase the remainder of the pies. This alarmed the good woman, who returned with the party forthwith, but who tooks things more composedly when she got her hand on the silver. So difficult was it to obtain flour in those isolated clearings that she could not be tempted to sell any thing else, and the party returned to the boat, with about a fourth of a meal remaining in their posession. A breeze springing up, sail was made, and Woolsey proceded.
Hunger and head winds again brought the adventurers to a stand. A solitary dwelling was known to be at no great distance inland from the point where the boat now was, and again the party landed. The boat entered by a narrow inlet into a large bay, that was familiarly called Gerundegutt, (Irondoquoit,) and was hauled up for the night. The whole party bivouacked supperless.
In the morning, the two officers and three of the men went in quest of the house, which was found, a mile or two inland. The man who lived here was a cockney, who had left London some fifteen years before, and pitched his tent, as he said himself, twenty miles from his nearest neighbors. He went forty miles to mill, by his account, making most of the journey in a skiff. He had neither bread nor flour to spare, nor would money tempt him. ...
These things were related more to show the state of the Ontario frontier five-and-thirty years since, than for any great interest they possess of themselves. Provisions were almost of as much importance among the swellers of the forest, as with the mariner at sea; money itself, though of rare occurrence among them, becoming nearly valueless compared with flour, in particular. Even the Oswego currency, salt, did not abound among them, the difficulties of transportation rendering it of imporance to husband the smallest article of subsistence.
The launch went out, and began to turn to windward, in squally weather and against a foul wind. In crossing Genessee Bay it came near filling in a squall, and it was found necessary to bear up for the river. Here the party passed another night, in a solitary log cabin, at, or near the point where the steamers and other craft must now make their harbor. Next morning the launch went out, though the wind was still foul. Then came the tug at the Devil's Nose, which has been mentioned, and the running to leeward to lie to in smooth water. At length the wind came off the land, when the remainder of the distance was run without much difficulty.
It was just as the day broke, that the party in the launch made the mouth of the Niagara. The lantern was still burning in the light-house; the two forts, the town of Newark, and the appearance of cultivation on every side, had an effect like that of enchantment on those who had been coasting a wilderness for a week. Even Oswego, though an old station, had little the air of a peopled country, but the region along the banks of the Niagara had been settled as long as that on the banks of the Hudson, and the transition was like that of suddenly quitting the forest to be placed in the midst of the labors of man. It was the Fourth of July, and the launch entered the river with an American ensign set. It proceeded to Newark, where the two officers took up their quarters for a week. In an hour a deputation from Fort Niagara came across to inquire who had brought the American ensign, for the first time, in a man-of-war's boat, into that river. On being told, a formal invitation was given to join the officers on the other side in celebrating the day.
Woolsey and his party remained some time in and about the Niagara. He passed up on the upper lake, and paid a visit on board the Adams, a brig that belonged to the War Department, which was subsequently taken by the British, at Hull's surrender, named the Detroit, and cut out from under Fort Erie, by Elliott, in 1812. The return to Oswego was less difficult, and was accomplished in two days. These were the first movements by American man-of-war's men that ever occurred on the great lakes - waters that have since become famous by the deeds of M'Donough, Perry, and Chauncey.
Although the Oneida was put out of commission, Woolsey still remained in charge of the station that had thus been created. In 1810, his brig was again fitted out, and she continued in service until the declaration of war. In the spring of '12, Woolsey seized an English schooner that was snuggling, brought her in, and had her condemned. This was the vessel that was subsequently lost under Chauncey, under the name of the Scourge. A characteristic anecdote is related of Woolsey, in connection with the sale of some of the effects taken on board this vessel. Every thing on board her was sold, even to some trunks that had belonged to a female passenger. Woolsey took care that the hardship of the case of this lady should be made known, in the expectation no one would be found mean enough to bid against her agent. But in this case he was mistaken. When the agent bid five dollars, a bloodsucker of a spectator bid ten -- "Twenty!" shouted Woolsey, seating himself on one of the trunks, in a way that said, "I'll have them, if they cost a thousand." This movement drove off the miserable creature, and Woolsey presented the lady her trunks, free of charges.
At the declaration of war [War of 1812], in 1812, which came so unlooked for on the country, and which would not have been made at the time it was but for a concurrence of unexpected circumstances, Woolsey was still in command on Lake Ontario, with the rank of lieutenant. His whole force consisted of the Oneida brig, while the enemy could muster a small squadron of several sail, among which was the Royal George, a ship heavy enough to engage two such vessels as the American brig, with every chance of success. As soon as the Oneida was actively employed, the naval station had been removed from Oswego to Sackett's Harbor, where she was lying at the declaration of war. On the 19th of July, the enemy appeared in the offing, with the Royal George, Earl of Moira, Duke of Gloucester, Seneca, and Simcoe. The first two were ships, the third was a brig, and the two last schooners. As soon as apprised of the presence of this force, Woolsey got the Oneida under way, and went out, with the view of passing the enemy, and escaping to the open lake, in the hope of being able to separate his enemies in chase. But finding this impossible, he beat back into the harbor, and anchored his brig directly opposite to its entrance, under the bank that is now occupied by Madison Barracks. The utmost activity was shown in making this arrangement, and in landing all the guns on the off side of the brig, and in placing them in battery on the bank.
Finding that the enemy was slowly working up on the outside of the peninsula, Woolsey now repaired in person to a small work that had been erected on the high land above the navy-yard, and made his preparations to open on the English from that point. A long thirty-two had been sent on for the Oneida, but never mounted, being much too heavy for that brig, of which the armament consisted of twenty-four pound carronades. This gun Woolsey had caused to be mounted on its pivot, in the work named, and, as soon as the enemy got wihtin range, he opened on them with it. The English had captured a boat in the offing, and sent in a demand for the surrender of the Oneida and the Lord Nelson, under the penalty of destroying the place, in the event of refusal. This demand Woolsey answered with his long Tom, when a cannonading that lasted two hours succeeded. As the enemy kept at long shot, little damage was done, though the English were supposed to have suffered sufficiently to induce them to bear up and abandon the attempt. Although this affair was not very bloody, Woolsey did all that circumstances would allow; he preserved his brig, and saved the town. He was assisted by a small body of troops in the work. If the enemy did not press him harder, the fault was their own; he had not the means of acting on the offensive.
The government deciding to increase its force on Lake Ontario, Com. Chauncey was ordered to assume the command. Woolsey continued second in rank all that season, however, retaining the command of the Oneida. He was in charge of this brig in the spirited dash that Chauncey made against Kingston, in November, on which occasion the Oneida was warmly engaged, receiving some damage, and having four of her crew killed and wounded. This attack virtually closed the war on the lake for the season, as the affair of Sackett's Harbor had commenced it.
Both parties building in the course of the winter, it was found necessary to send several officers to Ontario, who ranked Lieut. Com. Woolsey. As this was done only to take charge of new vessels, he ever after was employed in command, when employed at all. Woolsey was second in command, however, at the attack on York, retaining his own brig, the commodore having hoisted his pennant in the Madison. Woolsey was also present at the landing and the attack on the batteries of Fort George, still commanding the Oneida, with the rank of lieutenant. As Perry was present on this occasion, our subject was only third in rank among the sea-officers engaged.
When the squadron returned to port, Woolsey found his new commission, and he was transferred to a large new schooner, called the Sylph, Lieut. Brown succeeding him in his old command, the Oneida. The Sylph was a large, fast-sailing schooner, that carried an awkward armament of four heavy pivot-guns amidships, mounted to fire over all. Woolsey was in this vessel, on the 28th September, when Chauncey so nobly brought the whole English squadron to close action, supported for a considerable time only by Bolton, in the Governor Tompkins, and the Asp, a schooner that the Pike had in tow. This was one of the sharpest affairs of the war, as long as it lasted, and would have been decisive had the Madison and Sylph been able to close; or, had not Sir James Yeo run through his own line, and taken refuge under the batteries of Burlington Heights.
As is usual, when success does not equal expectation, most of the superior officers received more or less censure, for supposed mistakes on this occasion. It is now well known that a complete defeat would have befallen the enemy had he been hotly pressed, and that he was seriously worsted as it was; but it is easy to discover the avenues to success, after the road has been once thoroughly traveled. It is a fact worthy of being remembered, that not an English vessel was taken in battle, during the whole of the war of 1812, with two very immaterial exceptions, unless she offered freely to engage. The exceptions were two small craft taken at the close of Perry's victory on Lake Erie, in which the whole English force had, in the first instance, very gallantly offered battle.
Woolsey did not escape criticism in this affair, any more than other commanders. His schooner did not prove of as much service as she might have been, on account of the awkwardness of her armament, which was changed to broadside guns, as soon as the squadron went into port again. Woolsey alleged that he was compelled to tow a large schooner, as was the fact with the Madison. Neither dared to cast off the tow, in the presence of the commodore, and the latter had sufficient reasons for not ordering them to do so. Woolsey very frankly admitted, however, that he impaired the sailing of the Sylph, by surging on the tow-line in the hope it would part; a false step, that dropped his schooner so far astern that she greatly embarrassed him by her yawing. It is by no means certain Sir James Yeo would have engaged at all, could the whole of the American force have closed at the same time, and he always had Burlington Bay under his lee.
A few days after this action, Chauncey chased to the eastward, under a crowd of canvas, with the mistaken notion that the English had got past him in the night. In the afternoon of the 5th October, seven sail were made ahead, and it was supposed the British squadron was leading down the lake. An hour later, the vessels ahead were made out to be schooners, when the commodore signalled the Sylph and Lady of the Lake to cast off their tows. This was no sooner done than these two fast schooners shot swiftly ahead. Seeing their danger, the enemy set fire to the dullest craft, and separated. The Pike now cast off her tow, and she soon succeeded in capturing three of the enemy. Woolsey soon after joined with a fourth, and, continuing on, next morning he brought a fifth out from the Ducks. The prizes were gun-vessels, and near 300 prisoners were made in them, including a detachment of troops. Two of these vessels were the schooners Chauncey had lost in his action with Sir James, earlier in the season. This affair substantially closed the cruising service of that year.
Woolsey went on, and entered Big Sandy Creek, with his charge, agreeably to a previous understanding. In the mean time, Sir James Yeo, learning the situation of the brigade, from the crew of the captured boat, sent a strong party, covered by three gun-boats, to capture it. The English entered the creek with confidence, throwing grape and canister into the bushes ahead of them, from some very heavy carronades. Woolsey set about discharging his guns and cables, in order to secure them, while Major Appling placed his command in ambush, a short distance below the boats. As the English advanced they were met by a most destructive fire, and every man of their party was captured. Among the prisoners were two captains, four sea lieutenants, and two midshipmen. The stores were safely conveyed to the Harbor, and Chauncey was enabled to raise the blockade, as soon as he could arm his new ships.
After the American squadron got out, Woolsey commanded the Jones 22. He was only the sixth in rank on the lake this summer, there being several captains present, besides two commanders that were his seniors. The Jones was kept in the squadron until Chauncey had swept the lake, but the commodore going off Kingston with a diminished force, in the hope of tempting Sir James to come out, he ordered Woolsey to cruise between Oswego and the Harbor, in order to keep the communication between these two important points free. At a later day Woolsey was sent to join Ridgely, who was blockading the Niagara. On this station the Jefferson and the Jones experienced a tremendous gale, in which the former had to throw some of her guns overboard.
The last service on the lake that season, was in transporting the division of Gen. Izard to the westward. Shortly after, Chauncey collected all his force at the Harbor, and prepared to repel an attack, which it was expected the English would make, having got their two-decker out.
Woolsey passed the flower of his days on Lake Ontario. No doubt this was of disservice, by withdrawing him, for many years, from the more active duties of his profession. But he liked, and was liked in, that quarter of the country, and family ties came in aid of old associations to keep him there. After remaining something like fifteen years in the lake service, however, he got the Constellation frigate, then attached to the West India Squadron. Com. Warrington had his pennant in his ship, most of the time, and there being very little difference in the dates of the commissions of these two officers, Woolsey always spoke with feeling of the extreme delicacy with which he was treated by his superior. On his return from this station, he had charge of the Pensacola Yard.
After quitting Pensacola, Woolsey preferred his own claims for a squadron, but he was sent to the coast of Brazils, where he commanded, with a broad pennant, the usual term. This was the last of his service afloat, or, indeed, ashore. His health began to decline, not long after his return, and he died in 1838.
Commodore Woolsey was of middle height, sailor-built, and of a compact, athletic frame. His countenance was prepossessing, and had singularly the look of a gentleman. In his deportment, he was a pleasing mixture of gentleman-like refinement and seaman-like frankness. His long intimacy with frontier habits could not, and did not, destroy his early training, though it possibly impeded some of that advancement in his professional and general knowledge, which he had so successfully commenced in early life. He was an excellent seaman, and few officers had more correct notions of the rules of discipline. His familiar association with all the classes that mingle so freely together in border life, had produced a tendency, on his excellent disposition, to relax to much in his ordinary intercourse, perhaps, but his good sense prevented this weakness from proceeding very far. Woolsey rather wanted the grimace than the substance of authority. A better-hearted man never lived. All who sailed with him loved him, and he had sufficient native mind, and sufficinet acquired instruction, to command the respect of many of the strongest intellects of the service.
The widow of Com. Woolsey still lives. She has several children, and we regret to say, like those of her sex who survive the public servants of this country, she is left with few of the world's goods to console her. Woolsey's eldest son is in the navy, and has nearly reached the rank of lieutenant.
Melancthon Brooks Woolsey, the son of Captain Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, USN, was born at Sacketts Harbor, New York, on 11 August 1817. His Naval service began as a Midshipman in September 1832 and he rose in rank to Lieutenant by 1847. In September 1855, Lt. Woolsey was placed on the reserve list, but was recalled to active service after the Civil War began in 1861. From late in that year until mid-1862 he commanded the gunboat Ellen during active operations along the Confederate coast from South Carolina to Florida. In July 1862 Commander Woolsey took command of the sloop of war Vandalia and in early 1863 became Commanding Officer of the steam gunboat Princess Royal, in which he served in the Gulf of Mexico until the war ended in 1865.
Captain Woolsey commanded the steam sloop Pawnee and the much larger Guerriere in the south Atlantic during the last years of the decade. Promoted to Commodore in 1871, he was in charge of the South Atlantic Station and, in 1873-1874, of the Pensacola Navy Yard, Florida. He died in of yellow fever at Pensacola on 2 October 1874.
The U.S. Navy has named one destroyer in honor of Commodore Melancthon Brooks Woolsey: USS Woolsey (DD-437), 1941-1974
Colored lithograph, after a drawing by Captain Melancthon B. Woolsey, USN
Rev. Isaac P. Stryker (27 July 1815, Orange NJ-1899) was a Presbyterian minister living in Rome NY. He married Alida Livingston Woolsey (1822-5 Jul 1859, Urbana IL) in 1848.
Reverend Stryker is a character in an X-Man graphic novel, played on the screen by Jack Nicholson.
Stryker, Melancthon Woolsey, a Presbyterian minister, son of Rev. Isaac P. Stryker, was born at Vernon, N. Y., January 7, 1851; educated at Hamilton College (1872) and Auburn Theological Seminary (1876); entered ministry in 1876, and has been pastor of Presbyterian Churches in Auburn, N. Y., Ithaca, N. Y., Holyoke, Mass., and Chicago, Ill. Dr. Stryker has been President of Hamilton College since 1892. He is a student of hymnology, and has published several volumes of hymns, among them The Church Praise Book, 1882; Hymns and Verses, 1883; Christian Chorals, 1885; the Song of Miriam and Other Hymns and Verses, 1888; Church Song, 1889. He lived in Clinton, N, Y.
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