SCARCE LETTER FROM THE COMMANDER OF ‘OLD IRONSIDES’
DEFENDING HIS ACTIONS AS CAPTAIN AND RESTATING THE EVIDENCE GIVEN IN HIS COURT MARTIAL
STEWART, CHARLES. (1778 – 1869) United States Naval officer who commanded a number of US Navy ships, including USS Constitution; saw service during the Quasi War and both Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean along North Africa and the War of 1812. Scarce Autograph Letter Signed, “Cha. Stewart”. Four full pages, quarto. Philada[elphia], June 10th, 1829. Folds ‘dirty’ else very fine condition. To Hon. Samuel D. Ingham, Secretary of the Treasury, Washington.
To put this letter into perspective: the War of 1812 established the fledgling U.S. Navy as a potent force in the Western Hemisphere. Its commanding officers’ heroics paralleled the growth of the Navy itself, having been midshipmen and lieutenants at the Navy’s birth in 1798. After the war, they took command of the first squadrons in foreign waters, mostly to protect U.S. commercial interests.
It’s also important to note that in the summer of 1825, the US Navy was in the midst of number of notable court-martials. The Navy had just leveled judgment on one of its most important and senior captains who was a hero of the War of 1812, Charles Stewart, who had just returned from a controversial cruise to the Pacific coast of South America. It would prove to be one of the first tests of the new Monroe Doctrine.
So here, once again, Stewart reiterates the facts of that time.
“On my return to Philad[elphia] yesterday I recd. your letter of the 1st inst. with the one enclosed from Saml. Brown, formerly a Carpenter in the Navy. I beg leave to present to your view a true statement of his case, and beg you to refer it to the Secty. of the Navy with his letter to yourself. During my Command in the Pacific, Brown was detected, in embezlling the publick property from the ‘FRANKLIN’, and selling it to shore people for his own benefit, as will fully appear by the proceedings of the Court Martial which cashiered him and to which I beg leave to refer. On our return to the U. States the sentence of the Court was fully approved and carried into effect by the then President, Mr. Monroe, — his therefore referring to President Adams indirectly disapproving those proceedings is wholly false. On my trial taking place the next year, this Brown was produced as a witness, whom the Court refused to hear from his notorious bad character, and their knowledge of two criminal convictions, under which he had been found, – the record of the Court Martial proceedings above, and a conviction before the Criminal Court at New York for stealing a watch, for which he was confined in the State Prison at New York – and from which place with others he had been taken, with the consent of the authorities, during the late war, by Lieut. Gallagher, for the Ship under the command of Commodore Decatur. The court martial in my case refused the evidence of this man as a Court of Justice & Honor, on the strict rules of evidence as understood by them. He having been feloniously convicted, as above} was not a competent witness – which grounds was truly correct, notwithstanding Mr. Adams, afterwards disapproved of the Courts rejecting him on the score of ‘Competency’ and placing it on the score of ‘Credibility’. This censure of the Court originated in the total ignorance of the Service and the nature of Military Courts, on the part of the President and Secty, because they considered, as the articles embezzled by the Carpenter from the ‘FRANKLIN’, being Carpenters Stores, that they were specifically under his charge, he being the Ship’s Carpenter, and therefore the clandestinely taking them away and selling them was, not theft and fellony, but a breach of trust. This, however, in our service, is not the case, for all stores, except the rations, which is exclusively under the control of the Purser, are under the charge of the Commander, from whence not an article, even a Carpenter’s tool, can be drawn from the Store room but by his authority through the Commdg. Officer of the deck. This much for the positions in the trials. As respects himself, were he even an honest man, he would be no loss to the service, being, as a Ship’s Carpenter, wholly incompetent to the duties on any important occasion, as I believe he is a house carpenter and not a ship carpenter, from my own experience of him, as on all occasions of fishing put Spars, and securing them, I found him highly ignorant, and on important operations of that kind, while I commanded the ‘FRANKLIN’ I found him so highly incapable that I was obliged to give my own personal directions and attention – and which were not a few AS WE RETURNED FROM THE PACIFIC round Cape-Horn, with every Spar fished, or reefed except three, on board that Ship. I have the honor to be very respectfully Your most Obedt. Servt. Cha. Stewart.
P.S. The above I believe will be fully confirmed by a reference to the Court Martial proceedings and any of the Officers of the ‘Franklin’ during her cruise.”
Just a remarkable letter, full of important references and names of that period, wherein we get a first hand recounting of the facts in one portion of the court martial Stewart faced. [We strongly recommend reading: The Court-Martial of Charles Stewart, by Claude G. Berube and John Rodgard in the October 2002 Naval History Magazine, Vol. 16 Number 5 – which gives a full history of the events illuminated in this letter]. Very fine condition. A choice item for the collector specialist in American Naval history.