- Historic Sites
“To A Distant And Perilous Service”
Westward with the course of empire Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson took his way in 1846. With him went the denizens of New York’s Tammany wards, oyster cellars, and gin mills—the future leaders of California.
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
As for the officers, they were expected to put together their own kit. One young lieutenant, rushing around Manhattan on a sultry afternoon, ran up a frightful bill at the outfitting shops: one pair of gold lace shoulder straps, $2.00; mattress and pillow, $9.50; four pairs of white drill pants, $21.00; two white marshal’s vests, $8.00; one India rubber cloak, $16.00; one silk vest, $2.50; one double percussion gun, $39.38; one pair of gilt epaulets, $10.00; one silk sash, $12.00; two and one-third dozen pairs of white gloves, $21.00; one glove box, $4.00. Add to this a copy of Scott’s Tactics and a copy of Cooper’s Tactics , pillow sheeting, cotton sheeting, cold counterpanes, buckshot, powder, several dozen pairs of black prunella stockings, plus four or five bottles of Monongahela (rye) whisky, a dozen bottles of old brandy, and a ten-gallon keg of sherry (a sensible contribution to the officers’ mess), and you reached a level of military procurement that significantly enhanced the popularity of Mr. Folk’s War with the merchant class.
Meantime, on Governors Island the enthusiasm of the volunteers melted in the August sun. Most of the men were afflicted with what they called “summer complaint,” a form of galloping diarrhea attributed to New York water; and others turned up with more serious complaints attributed to New York women. Captain Kimball Dimmick, lately of Chenango County, New York, often felt so puny in the morning, what with the megrims and the cholera morbus, the whining of the men, and the carping of the Tribune , that he had to fortify himself with brandy and sugar before he could face the 5:00 A.M. drill, and then he would venture out to find the island seething with mischief and disaffection. First one company, then another, refused to buy the very becoming uniforms. The colonel reacted by locking several-score troublemakers in the guardhouse; and that caused so much grumbling that he had to bring in a company of army regulars to restore respect for authority. “If we sail for California, I have no doubt that Stevenson would die at the first opportunity,” Captain Dimmick wrote to his wife. “I would not dare to go in his shoes.…”
Almost every day the parents or friends of some recruit would appear at the colonel’s tent to serve him a writ of habeas corpus for the release of a disgruntled volunteer who had decided he was too young, too old, or too frail to go to California. One ill-fated company lost thirty men in a day and was left with only twenty-two of its original seventy-seven recruits. Another, commanded by the former superintendent of a starchy military school in Vermont, lost four by desertion, eight by medical discharge, and one to a constable who arrived with a warrant and handcuffs.
To seal off some of the leaks, the colonel posted a cordon around the island and ordered that any soldier moving about the grounds must pass a guard tent and give a secret password. Defectors continued to scamper past the sentry post, however, cheered on by crowds of admiring volunteers. It was reported that a startled picket, hearing footsteps and a splash, rushed out and shouted: “Say Newport or I’ll shoot!” The story was untrue, of course, like most of the trash in the opposition press; but the security system obviously did not work. During the eight weeks from muster day to sailing day, Colonel Stevenson had to replace close to five hundred recruits, almost a 100 per cent turnover, and the screening became increasingly haphazard.
To add to his anxiety, the colonel was being subjected to various means of legal harassment. Certain putative creditors, apprised of his imminent departure, haled him into court, where an unfriendly judge forced him to post a bond to guarantee that he would stay within the jurisdiction of the courts of New York, an obvious impossibility for a military officer en route to distant and perilous service. Next, a group of volunteers, disqualified because of physical disabilities, brought suit, charging Stevenson with illegally detaining them for twenty days before giving them a medical examination. This malicious litigation apparently had been instigated by a mercenary soldier and free-lance revolutionary by the name of Thomas Jefferson Sutherland—a would-be officer and tactical advisor to the expedition, whom the colonel had rejected with characteristic vigor. (“I am quite capable, sir, of directing this expedition as the President has entrusted me to do, sir, without the advice of consultants.… Good day, sir!”)