Barnacle Ben, The Sailor

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The yacht America was a well-travelled twenty-two-year-old when, in June of 1873, Ben Butler bought her for a mere $5,000. (He was the only bidder at an auction kindly arranged by cronies in the Navy Department.

The yacht America was a well-travelled twenty-two-year-old when, in June of 1873, Ben Butler bought her for a mere $5,000. (He was the only bidder at an auction kindly arranged by cronies in the Navy Department. He even had his prize refitted—at government expense—at the Charlestown Navy Yard.) After her smashing victory off the Isle of Wight in 1851, the America had gone through several private ownership changes and, temporarily renamed the Camilla , had seen duty as a Confederate blockade-runner. The Rebels scuttled her near Jacksonville, Florida, in 1862, but the Federal government raised her for use as a dispatch ship and blockader. For a few years after the war she was a training ship at the United States Naval Academy. Then Butler bought her and, with his smartly uniformed crew, raced and cruised her off the New England coast until his death in 1893, though with declining frequency toward the end. By 1901, her yachting career was over; she lay in neglect until she was presented to the Naval Academy in 1921, but even at Annapolis she continued in disuse. Little more than a rotted hull, she was broken up in 1945. So, although he could not have realized it, Ben Butler had been the America ’s master during the last of her glory years. In sailing vessels (as, legendarily, in flatware), Butler refused to settle for anything short of the best.

—J.L.P.