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“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
Sutherland was a filibuster with an appetite for Mexican girls and golden Jesuses, and he craved a tour of California. He sent a petition directly to Secretary Marcy through some friends in the capital, warning that legal entanglements would prevent Stevenson from leaving New York and suggesting that an acquaintance of Sutherland’s from Philadelphia—one Captain Henry M. Naglee of Company D—be appointed commander, instead. Marcy forwarded the letter to Colonel Stevenson, who answered by setting a sailing date—Friday, September 25. Sutherland’s intrigue was precisely the sort of challenge the colonel relished: covert, political, and dastardly. A few years earlier, during a presidential election, Stevenson had served his party and himself by playing double-agent in a plot the Whigs had concocted to import dozens of unemployed pipelayers from Philadelphia to New York to vote as repeaters in the precincts of lower Manhattan. Stevenson was therefore wise to all the dirty tricks of wicked statesmen and adept in all the classic postures of defense. He at once doubled the guard on Governors Island and gave instructions not to allow any unidentified persons to land. Leaving camp, he would draw his cloak up to his earlobes and surround himself with bodyguards. At midnight on September 23, accompanied by six men armed with cutlasses and pistols, he crossed the channel to Brooklyn in a rowboat with muffled oars and said a furtive farewell to his three daughters in the house of a friend.
The government had chartered three vessels, each with a capacity of seven hundred tons, to transport the volunteers. The Susan Drew , commanded by the mild-mannered West Pointer Lieutenant Colonel Henry S. Burton, was distinguished by her figurehead—a blowsy blonde (presumably Susan) with an upturned backside of transcendent grandeur. The Loo Choo , under Major Hardie, was graced by most of the literary and forensic talent in the group; and the Thomas Perkins was honored by the personal presence of Colonel Stevenson, who chose her, after careful reflection, as his flagship.
On Wednesday afternoon, September 23, steamers towed the transports down from the Brooklyn Naval Yard and warped them against the quay at Governors Island. All sails drooped. The decks were strewn with crates and boxes; hawsers dangled from the railings; and the sailors were grousing about having to sail on Friday. As for the regiment, every company was under strength, and one had dried up completely. The colonel, out of respect for maritime superstition, agreed to hold off the day of departure until Saturday; but he ordered the volunteers to board the ships immediately. He had received word from a friend in the sheriff’s office that process servers were on their way.
Last letters must now be sealed and mailed, last gifts dispatched: a pair of gloves, a smelling bag, a needle case. Captain Dimmick, braced with sugared brandy, wrote his wife: “Cheer up—be courageous for days of Joy are yet to come. The God of Battles will Shield me and nerve my arm in the hour of danger against my country’s foes and protect and console you in your lonely hours.…”
Last orders: Colonel Stevenson to company commanders—“All clothing and other articles refused to be paid for must be delivered to the Quarter Master at the Store Tent of the Regiment within four hours.…”
Last visitors: Lieutenant John Hollingsworth’s Uncle Chase drew Captain Naglee aside and muttered in his ear, as old men do: “ Naglee, if anything happens to him [Hollingsworth], say he died a clever fellow and bury him with the honors of war.”
Naglee assured him the regiment would never come within a hundred miles of an armed Mexican.
“Yes,” said Uncle Chase, “but you may fall out among yourselves.…”
Last souvenirs: a lithographer on Nassau Street turned out a satirical engraving of a volunteer in uniform, embracing a sorrowful doxy two feet taller than himself.
“Goodbye, Liz! Here’s my daggero type likeness! I’d stand treat but I haint got the ghost of a red cent left, our uniforms is so very expensive.”
And Liz, tearful but game: “Well Jake as you’r goin away, I’ve got three shillin so let’s go down to George Brown’s in Pearl Street and get two stews and a couple of horns!”