Gilbert Purdy recalls his sailing days before the Civil War

Posted on September 26, 2018 by


As I mentioned in the last post, I focus often on the Shenandoah Valley, but (and this is no mystery to those who used to read this blog when I was more actively blogging) I also have historical interests in other areas as well. One of those “other areas” is the early history of American men at sea. No doubt, tales of my time at sea aren’t nearly as extensive as some of those I’ve read, but reading their stories does conjure-up my own time at sea… the vastness of the oceans, the wind, salt, sea, and the heritage that came down through the Naval service to me and my family, in the present.

PurdyPerhaps my favorite photo from Navy history (and I have it on my work desk) is one in which a handful of “old salts” lounged about on the deck of the USS Mohican, in 1888. One of the four in that image is Gilbert H. Purdy, who has a story that caught my attention years ago. While he’s certainly not the only one to have served in both the Union Army of the Potomac AND the U.S. Navy, he also had a sailor’s story that reached as far back as the 1840s, and as far forward as the Spanish American War.

In my research on Purdy, I came across a particularly interesting article from the Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu), on March 1, 1909. Printed late in the old salt’s  life, it’s impressive to see his memory was (seemingly) clear, even down to the details of a rowdy episode while in port in Hawaii. Though the author of the article likely refined Purdy’s dialect, language, etc. (at least, from what I’ve seen, in comparison to another interview with Purdy by a reporter from the New York Tribune, in 1899), it’s pretty good stuff… though I haven’t fact-checked to see just how much Purdy may have… umm… well… exercised some personal artistic license (ok, ok… embellished, perhaps). Then again, sea tales are subject to scrutiny…

Away back in the spring of 1852 when whaling ships fairly jammed the ports of Lahaina and Honolulu there was a clash one night between the Honolulu police force and hundreds of sailors, when the police station caught on fire and one of the policeman was nearly lynched. One of the sailors who was in that surging, angry crowd, Gilbert H. Purdy, a former bluejacket of the United States Navy [though not at that time], and now one of the oldest sailor pensioners of Uncle Sam, is at present a resident in Honolulu.

Purdy was then a young man just passing his majority and he formed one of the thousands of daring spirits who wielded the harpoon and steering oar in quest of the oil-bearing whales of the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Purdy has had an adventurous career since he was a young fellow of sixteen, serving in whaling ships in the 40’s and 50’s, in old paddle wheel steamers plying between London and Mediterranean ports, participating in the Crimean war as a sailor on steam transports for the British government; carrying a musket [Cenantua note: well, this isn’t exactly correct, though he was with the Army of the Potomac, with an artillery battery, for a while] in the Civil War as a soldier, and then enlisting in the navy, with which he remained until he was retired for age, after having served in the battle of Manila Bay on Dewey’s flagship.

In the latter connection there is an interesting story told of Purdy, who was one of the few remaining old-type bluejackets – of the marline-spike days, in that squadron. Like all old salts he is crammed full of superstition, and one of his fancies was that May 3 was not a good day for a fight. It is said that this information was conveyed to Admiral, then Commodore, Dewey as the squadron swung over from Hong Kong to Manila Bay. Purdy moved along the deck into the sacred precincts trod by the Commodore who was standing with a man who represented the New York Herald. The Commodore asked Purdy what he wished to say. Purdy, and this story is told in the New York Herald of that day, begged pardon for making a suggestion, but inquired if the Commodore knew the following day was May 1. The Commodore said he knew that fact. Purdy went on to say that it would be a pretty good day to fight on but May 2 or 3 were not good days. When asked why the latter dates were not so propitious Purdy called attention to the Union defeats at Chancellorsville and other battlefields which took place on May 3, with the request that the engagement planned take place on any other day than the third of the month. The battle was fought on May 1, and a decisive victory it was for the American colors.

Gilbert H. Purdy’s trying life at sea and on the American battlefields of the Civil War gave him an iron constitution. Despite the fact that he was born in 1828, and is therefore eight-one years of age, he is yet a stalwart, well-proportioned man, looking twenty years younger, and just as full of the vim and ginger of robust manhood as any young Jack Tar. In fact, it is difficult to believe this man to be four-score years, when he talks of his experiences. Closing one eye and listening to his deep voice, his hearty laugh, his jokes and up-to-date slang, one imagines a healthy young bluejacket just ashore from the warship for a day.

Purdy was born in Dutchess County, N.Y., near Poughkeepsie on January 29, 1828. He lived there until 1845 when he set out for New Bedford, attracted by the adventure to be found in sea life. He went aboard the American ship Marengo, captained by Theo. Cole. On that ship Purdy got his first whale. The voyage lasted two years and seven months. The vessel stopped at the Cape de Verde islands and then passed around Cape Horn into the Pacific, stopping at the Galapagos where terrapin was shot. Then the vessel headed straightaway for the “Sandwich Islands” as they were then known, arriving at Lahaina, the then important town of the Hawaiian group on April 6, 1846. He remembers a fort there with Hawaiian soldiers, but some had hardly any uniform on at all. About seventy whalers were lying in the roadstead and Lahaina was a very lively town. The vessel came up to Honolulu for mail. “It was not much of a town,” Purdy remarked.

Then off to the Bering Sea, then back to Lahaina, on down to the equator, back again to the Islands, dropping anchor in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, where a quantity of provisions was taken aboard. The ship took off some passengers from Kealakekua – sailors who had deserted their ships at Lahaina, and then another trip to the frozen seas.

At Petropaulovsk, Purdy had his first bear hunt, with the bear doing the pursuing. He had read stories of how bears were killed and one picture stuck in his mind’s eyes, and that was the picture of a Norwegian hunter in a hand-to-hand fight with a great bear, the hunter plunging his knife into the vitals of the bear while being hugged in the bear’s deadly embrace. The captain and crew went ashore, and Purdy was left in charge of the boat, while they went inland. In some way the crowd missed a bear which ambled down toward the boat. Then more bears showed up and Purdy was scared. The Norwegian method of killing bears faded from his memory and he thought only of flight.

That voyage completed, Purdy went to Boston in 1848 and signed up on the brig General Worth for Mobile. There he joined the government steamer General Marcy; he thinks this is the name she bore. She was sent to Vera Cruz to tow vessels in and out of the harbor and assisted in bringing General Scott’s army back to the United States. He saw the American flag hauled down from the old castle. After the towboat went out of commission he went to Cincinnati, and at Toledo joined the crew of a canal boat. After many experiences on canals and rivers he went home, but was soon stricken with the California gold fever, while he was working on a farm. That farm, he says, was in the vicinity of the place where Theo. Timby, who was the real inventor of the monitor turret in 1841, tried his experiments with monitors. He was a farm laborer’s son. He tried the turret on a scow anchored in a small stream. The turret model, according to Purdy, lay in the Patent Office until Ericsson used the principle. The matter was placed before Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln, but the result was unsatisfactory, and Lincoln advised going ahead with it for practical use, saying that if it did half what was claimed for, it would do wonders.

In 1851 Purdy was shipped on the ship Corinthian, and arrived at Lahaina in the spring of 1852, and then came on to Honolulu. “I used to see the king out on the streets occasionally,” said Mr. Purdy. “The parliament house was down yonder” – pointing toward the Kawaiahao church. The crew left the ship here. One of the men who ran away from the ship was named Provost. Purdy afterward saw him in Australia and then as a naval officer during the civil war.


Honolulu Harbor in 1857, by F.H. Burgess

“I was in Honolulu at the time of the big row, when one of the sailors was supposed to have been killed in the fort. The entrance to the old fort was down on lower Fort street, and where the street now runs through to the waterfront. I was one of the crowd that tried to break down the gates to get inside. Where the present Salvation Army hall now is was a building and down at the foot of Nuanu avenue there was a stone building, near where we generally filled our casks with water. Overhead was the police station.

“A policeman named Sherman tried to arrest a man in the ‘Frigate Blonde.’ a building where the present Salvation Army hall is located. Burns is the man they tried to arrest. He knocked Sherman down and then a Hawaiian subject was put out of commission. Finally a native hit Burns on the head and they carried him into the fort for safe keeping. Then we heard that Burns had been killed inside the fort. It seems that Sherman struck Burns while the latter was in handcuffs. We tried to break down the gates, and if we had secured Sherman we would have probably lynched him.

“There was a lot of trouble, and although there was a Yankee sloop-of-war in port, called the Portsmouth, still they sent over to Hilo to get the frigate St. Lawrence here. But everything was O.K. then.

“While we were hanging around the fort a policeman came out and somebody sang out, ‘There he goes,’ and we run after him. He ran down to the police station. One of our fellows followed him inside and got cut with a cutlass. Jim Lockwood fell off the veranda and we carried him up to the ‘Frigate Blonde.’ When we got back the station was on fire. We got lines cut and pulled some butcher stalls and fish stalls away. A man rode up on horseback and said the consul wanted to see us. We went to his place and he advised us to disperse and not destroy property. He said that Sherman would be tried and if convicted would get his deserts. So we quit.

“The next day we see a hearse come out of the fort and we halted it. They had a British flag over the hearse. That flag disappeared quickly. A chaplain was there – I think his name was Damon. Damon said: ‘We are going to Bethel church.’ The crowd shouted something, but dispersed. We thought the hearse had our friend in it. Sherman was never tried. It looks to me like a case of the bigger man in official life he can lie. That’s what I think about that consul.”

Purdy left Honolulu about that time in the South America, commanded by Captain Smith, and went to Guam. They found a schooner there loaded for San Francisco.

Purdy’s experiences in the old days would fill a large-sized book. In fact, he has several journals of his doings throughout the Civil War and on down through his long enlistment in the Navy.

Purdy was at one time on the steamship Great Eastern. In his long service in the Navy he did not care to take a warrant and when he was retired it was on the pay of a seaman. At one time he was captain of the hold, and an effort is being made to give him the retired pay of that rating, although it is not known in the present day Navy.

At present he lives at the Popular House, on upper Fort street. Every day he may be found around the waterfront watching the activities on a busy harbor, which in his early days teemed with whaling ships.

WhaleI’ve got some more on Purdy I’d like to share at another time… most especially the myth that formed behind the man after Manila Bay. Remarkably, this “whale of a tale” (yes, I recall Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), apparently, wasn’t Purdy’s doing, but artistic license exercised by a writer who likely lacked any salt whatsoever behind his ears.


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