A Warm Evening At The Rock


While Captain Newton approached the bottom rung of the dangling Jacob’s ladder he could think, during this last split second, that the Missouri was still a commissioned unit of the Navy; but the moment his fingers let go that last rung and he dropped into his gig, that moment she became a wreck, a menace to navigation, a nuisance to the authorities, a costly salvage problem for the United States, a mere port captain’s notice to mariners that “great precautions must be taken by the masters of vessels entering at night—” He dropped into the gig and was rowed away.

But Newton could neither shut his eyes to what was happening nor stop his ears to it. The forecastle deck fell in, carrying with it the two ten-inch guns, which exploded one after the other, as if in final salute to the disastrous day. Flames leapt to the top of the mainmast. The main-topsail yard plummeted into the web of rigging. Seven minutes after Newton let go that last rung, the whole tremendous mainmast with all its yards and topmasts fell to the deck with a sickening crash. At twenty-eight minutes before midnight the foremast also came crashing do’wn, followed by the mizzenmast. Only the smokestack, gaunt and glowing red, remained standing. At midnight it too dropped into a grave formed by the iron skeletons of the burntout paddle wheels.

At 3:20 A.M. the forward powder magazine, which had never been flooded, finally blew up, shattering the whole forefront of the hull. The force of the explosion broke windows ashore, even shook men out of their bunks in the Locust .

The crew of the steam warship Missouri , rescued to the last man, was glad enough to be safe on board the sailing warship Malabar . The night of August 26, 1843, was over.

In due course, Captain Newton returned to the United States for his inevitable court-martial, one of those troublesome formalities that captains have to go through on such occasions. The court found that the accused:

Kept on board turpentine in glass vessels immediately over the machinery in a storeroom with loose floor boards.

Allowed the demijohns to be stored with combustible materials in the starboard engineers’ storeroom, although he did not order them stored there.

Allowed naked lights to be used in the engine room; but that their use was justified by necessity.

Did not keep the pumps in order.

Did not inspect properly.

Failed to maintain such regulations as the safety of the steamship required.

And finally: “the charge is proved and the court do therefore adjudge Captain John Thomas Newton to be suspended from duty for the term of two years.”

On November 21, 1844, President Tyler, who had so gaily waved good-bye to the Missouri on her triumphant departure, signed his approval of the courtmartial’s findings in an uncertain handwriting that seemed to say, “I hate to do this, but it is my duty.” As if to prove it, on March 3, 1845, as one of his last executive acts, Tyler remitted Newton’s punishment.

The old sea dog returned to duty and again took up the thread of his naval career, now winding to a quiet close. He commanded navy yards first at Pensacola, Florida, and then at Portsmouth, New Hampshire; finally, he commanded the U.S. Home Squadron. At the age of sixty-five, in 1857, while serving as a member of a court of enquiry on someone else for a change, Captain John Thomas Newton died of apoplexy.