- 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
His rough recruits were lounging at the rail, quarreling, puking, goosing one another, pining already for the joys of New York, sweet home of chicken fricassees, clam pots, chunk apple pies, egg flips, spruce beer, and gingerbread. Not even James Knox Polk could have mistaken these for country squires. Theirs was a bristling urban world of Irish saloons and German groceries, ward bosses, volunteer fire brigades, and rifle guards that marched with fife and drum on Sunday afternoons, led by mascots in tall fur shakos and black porters with a bull’s-eye target. It was a world of accessible comforts and easy companionship in which a man could pause on almost any street to wet the whistle at a tavern of the proper stripe. It was a world of Barn-Burners and Hunkers, Soft-Shells and Hard-Shells, Loco-Focos and Anti-Renters, Native Americans and National Reformers, factions and rivalries and splinters of a Byzantine complexity, which dealt with one another with all manner of bizarre and slanderous propaganda, stuffed ballot boxes, graveyard voting rosters, dark-lantern marches, kidnapings, arson, riots, slungshot, and brass knuckles.
These, presumably, were the Institutions of the East that certain of the New York volunteers intended to engraft upon the wild root stock of the Pacific coast. As a first step, they set about establishing them on the colonel’s transport ships. Almost every day Stevenson was compelled to promulgate new rules, and almost every day the men devised new antics not yet categorically proscribed: diving overboard for an unauthorized swim, climbing the rigging for an unsanctioned view, refusing to fall in line until one had finished shaving, eating in the bunkroom.…
To remind the regiment of their historic mission, the colonel would order the drummers to beat the long, insistent roll “To Quarters! All hands on deck to repel boarders!” Then, with everyone rolled out, he would deliver a fine, brisk, soul-inflating speech, afire with the enthusiasm of those rousing songs they used to sing at Niblo’s Gardens—“Success to California … likewise to Oregon … and the rooster that crows there … must be Uncle Sam.…”
But the boys were too far from the pain and glory of war. Their pranks began to smack of revolution. An impudent corporal in Company F called Sergeant Webster a son of a bitch. A frisky recruit in Company B poured flour and molasses over the sleeping person of Private John B. Brady; and every single man in the supposedly well-behaved company of Captain Francis Lippitt (he was the military academy martinet from Vermont) contrived to “lose” his very becoming French hat. The colonel sensed that he would have to rise to the occasion. He read aloud the articles of war, adding reminders: sleeping on duty will get you twenty days in the guardhouse, with two hours of each day trussed to the rigging by both hands; insubordination—leg irons and a ball and chain. Hereafter, all soldiers of the regiment shall go to bed at 9:00 P.M. to the sound of a drum.
The bedtime regulation caused an ominous rumble of discontent. It was as hot as Hades below deck, and you could not eat or smoke or sing. One of the sergeants, passing the order along, told his platoon he didn’t give a damn whether they obeyed it or not. The colonel, fortuitously, overheard. Hastily convening a court-martial, he broke the sergeant to the ranks and sentenced him to holystone the deck. The sergeant glared at him defiantly.
“Have him trussed up by the thumbs until he apologizes,” said Colonel Stevenson. “Maintain discipline, sir.”
Next day, Captain Folsom, the staff quartermaster, came in to report that the sergeant’s punishment was upsetting the men.
“Did you know they’re planning a mutiny this afternoon?”
The colonel inflated his chest and examined Folsom, a West Pointer and no slouch, but not as spunky as he might have been.
“No, sir,” the colonel said. “But I do know that there will be no mutiny aboard this ship this afternoon. And further, Captain Folsom—you are well aware that I sleep over nine hundred pounds of gunpowder; but do you not know, sir, that I have a train from that powder to my berth? I do, sir, and you can rest assured that before I will suffer the command of this vessel to pass from me, there will not be a plank left for a soul aboard to cling to. And now, Captain Folsom, let the mutiny proceed!” Folsom presumably spread word that Colonel Stevenson had come unglued and was threatening to blow up the ship, for the mutiny did not proceed.