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From the Schofield Letters: USS Constellation

Yates Past - January 2010

Anchored in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland is an old sailing ship which is now a National Historic Landmark. It houses a museum and is open to the public for tours. It is the USS Constellation......the second of three ships to bear that name for the US Navy over the years. The first was a frigate that served proudly during the years following the American Revolution. The most recent was an aircraft carrier that served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf and was just recently (2003) decommissioned. The sloop in Baltimore was the last wooden sailing ship built specifically for the Navy. It was built in 1854 and saw action in the Mediterranean protecting merchant ships from Confederate raiders during the Civil War. Between 1869 and 1893 it was used as a practice ship for cadets at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. That was where future Admiral Frank H. Schofield of Yates County came to know the ship. In his first year at the Naval Academy (1886) , he sailed on the Constellation from Annapolis to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a summer cruise. His parents back home in Yates County were very nervous about their son’s first time on board ship. They were farmers and had very little knowledge of the sea. His mother especially was a major league worrier. She was afraid that Frank would get seasick (he did) and cautioned him in a letter.....”Be very careful when you have to climb the mast. Take good hold and don't miss. Be especially careful in the night and when you are seasick and dizzy. Be careful and hold on tight when you are vomiting." She warned him about leaning too far over the railing on the ship. She was afraid he would fall overboard and drown since he had just recently learned how to swim at the Academy. Her fear was justified and intensified when, on the return voyage, one of the cadets fell overboard and two of the Marines on board jumped in to save him. All three drowned. At the end of his third year at the Academy, he took his last summer training cruise on the USS Constellation. The ship almost made it out to open sea when it ran aground off of Cape Henry in Virginia. Knowing how much his family worried about him, he quickly fired off this letter hoping to pre-empt any news that they might read in the papers about the shipwreck. His letter was three days late for that, and resulted in tears of relief after an anxiety-filled weekend in the Schofield home. (Photo used with permission from Historic Ship in Baltimore, Baltimore, MD)

by Rich MacAlpine

U.S.S. Constellation
Norfolk, Va.
June 19, 1889

Dear Ma & Pa,

We have been shipwrecked but now all are safe. Half a dozen men and cadets have bad bruises and jams on their hands and feet but otherwise the men have not suffered except from overwork.

About yesterday noon we were sailing down the Bay with a fair wind when we were overtaken and surrounded by a fog. We took in part of our sails but continued on our course for Cape Henry. At 2:10 in the afternoon, we were called “All hands bring ship to anchor!” We were just answering their call when suddenly the ship struck bottom. The waves were running rather high and the wind was on shore so that we were soon tossed up on the beach most uncomfortably high. A boat containing men with one officer and cadet immediately put off for shore to ascertain our whereabouts and telegraph for assistance. On board ship, we worked like tigers sending down all the yards, masts, and heavy spars possible to keep us from being thrown on our beam’s end. Everybody was cool and collected and worked methodically and with a will. I was given charge of the two down decks and had my hands full and running over. About an hour after we struck, a leak was reported to me in the forward part of the hold. I examined and found two quite large streams of water pouring into the ship. I had it reported to the Captain and he gave orders that it should be kept quiet for a time but that careful watch should be kept. Shortly after that another and larger leak was discovered in the middle of the ship. All this time the vessel was being thrown up and down on the waves. Each time she came down and struck bottom the whole tremendous framework of the ship would shake and tremble and grate until it seemed as if something must go to pieces. The water kept coming in more rapidly than ever and the hold began to fill very fast. About 6 pm most people began to think that we would have to abandon ship. You could see the sailors and cadets stealing odd moments to go below and secure such valuables as they possessed. I had rather hard work to keep them from coming below. At seven so much water was in that we had to get the stoves up from below. At eight we started the pumps but for two hours could make no headway. When we could not fit pumps, I got cadets and men and formed bucket lines, dipping the water out of the hold. The pumps were kept going all night and finally we began gaining on the water. At about midnight, the news had reached the Cape Henry life saving station of our peril and they immediately came to our relief. Signal lights were exchanged between ship and shore and shortly after ---- boom! ---- a gun was fired at us! Something struck in the water a few yards short of the ship. Boom again---and again--a splash forward of the vessel. A third report across the vessel shot an iron ball and attached to it a small but very stout string. The string was caught and half a mile of it was hauled in. Then we found attached to that a larger string. Half a mile of this was hauled in and we saw coming in a large “life hawser”. When within about ten feet of the ship’s side, the lines parted and our “life hawser” was gone!

Shortly after midnight, a tug arrived from Norfolk. The Captain of the tug came on board and asked ten thousand dollars to pull us off the shore but we finally got him down to five thousand. He however could not pull us off but took an anchor out into deep water for us and dropped it with a hawser attached. We then waited until high tide and pulled ourselves off. By eight o’clock in the morning, several tugs came to our assistance. At one o’clock in the afternoon we started for Norfolk in tow and here we are! The pumps have to be kept going night and day to keep us from sinking but all danger is over. A diver is going down this morning to examine the vessel’s bottom which is undoubtedly in very bad condition. We will probably lay here a month nearly and we may not be able to finish the cruise at all.

Lovingly, your son Frank

The Constellation was quickly repaired and returned to service at the Naval Academy until 1893. Between 1894 and 1933, the ship was used as a stationary training vessel at the Naval Training Center at Newport, Rhode Island. It was put in storage for a few years, but saw service again during World War II as a reserve flagship for the Commander of the Atlantic Fleet. After the war, it went back into “mothballs” until it was towed to Baltimore in 1955 for restoration. For more information on the Constellation visit Historic Ships in Baltimore.


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