Elias Welles Trueman: Were there Officers such as he?

Elias Welles Trueman: Were there Officers such as he?

             Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century officers such as Lieutenant Trueman were not uncommon in the Navy. Trueman is modeled generally upon Captain Charles Wilkes, who came the closest of anyone to singlehandedly, though unintentionally winning Southern independence.

Born in New York in 1798, Wilkes was a graduate of ColumbiaCollege (now ColumbiaUniversity), who joined the Navy in 1818. From 1838 to 1842 he commanded a six vessel squadron on the United States Exploring Expedition with many accomplishments including discovery of Antarctica. On his return, he was court martialed for the loss of a ship and for consistent mistreatment of his officers and excessive punishment of his seamen. He was found guilty of the mistreatment and excessive punishment counts.

In 1861 with the rank of Captain, he commanded a squadron pursuing the commerce raider C.S.S. Sumter. At Bermuda he flaunted British neutrality, blockaded St.   George’s Harbour, and fired upon a Royal Mail Ship, R.M.S. Merlin. On November 8, 1861 he forced the R.M.S. Trent to heave-to, ordered her boarded and forcefully removed Confederate representatives James Mason and John Slidell over protests of the British commander.

The British response was national outrage and the dispatch of 10,000 troops to reinforce the Canadian garrisons. The Royal Navy began to prepare for operations in American waters and Parliament thundered with calls to defend the honor of Her Majesty’s flag. Only the personal intervention of the Prince Consort kept events from spiraling into conflict. It was the last significant public service of Prince Albert, who died shortly thereafter. Had he not intervened, the tempestuous personality of one American Naval Officer might have done what “King Cotton” could not, bring the British Empire into the war on the side of the Confederacy.

In 1862, Wilkes was promoted to Commodore. Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles objected to the promotion as not in accordance with regulations and a bitter personal feud followed concluding in another court martial for Wilkes in 1864 for general insubordination effectively ending his wartime service.

Capt Charles Wilkes


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