Laughing with the Czar

Laughing with the Czar

Harlowe, Jerry

An 1866 voyage from America to Russia proved that the monitor class of ships could cross the seas.

Although the ship had seen her share of action and on station time along the coast of the now– defeated Confederacy, the U.S.S. Augusta was again to be of service to her country. Although decommissioned after the war, this aged ship was put back in commission and re-crewed under Commander Alexander Murray. As the captain of Augusta, the 31-year-veteran of naval service would also be in overall command of a three-ship special mission.

Along with the iron-hull, double-ender U.S.S. Asholut under command of Civil War hero Commander John C. Febiger, Augusta was to escort the double turreted monitor U.S.S. Miantonomoh on the ironclad’s attempt to “cruise the principle ports of Europe, to prove the ability of turreted vessels to perform long ocean voyages.” Miantonomoh carried a special passenger, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V Fox. Fox was an ardent supporter and promoter of the monitor class of warship. He had been at Hampton Roads during the engagement of U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia and had since then never ceased to believe in monitors. Now he, above all others, was determined that monitors would be sea-going ships of war and, if constructed properly as Miantonomoh, capable of crossing any ocean to meet and defeat an enemy.

The cruise’s purpose was to extend the thanks of the United States to Russia for its support during the Civil War and to demonstrate continued support for Czar Alexander II, who had narrowly avoided death in a recent assassination attempt on April 16, 1866. A joint Congressional resolution of May 16, 1866, praised the Czar and called for a copy of the resolution to be delivered to him personally.

This, then, was to be a trip of world importance. In addition, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells instructed Fox wherever possible to divine foreign naval intelligence. With some forethought Fox invited the naval attache of the British Legation in Washington to join him in the crossing. Having Captain Byhteson, Royal Navy, aboard would be perfect assurance that a successful Atlantic crossing would not be dismissed by the Europeans as a trick. Who would doubt the British when it came to affairs nautical?

Aboard Augusta was its chief engineer, 44-year-old James M. Adams, a native of County Cork, Ireland, and a Virginia citizen. As a young child Adams displayed in innate ability and understanding of things mechanical. His formal schooling was rudimentary, but his ability to comprehend the nature and usage of machinery set him apart from his peers. In 1842 Adams immigrated to America and, armed with a laudatory letter of introduction from his prior employer in Ireland, was hired by the U.S. Navy Yard in Boston. His abilities with the new concepts and applications of steam propulsion to war ships later led to his successful entry into the Navy in 1847 as a third assistant engineer.

Adams’ promotions came twice before the Civil War began and twice more during the war. His wartime duty kept him aboard the ships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the Western Gulf, and the Mississippi River Squadrons. His service included at least two monitors, the U.S.S. Tonawanda and the U.S.S. Kickapoo.

Clearly qualified in handling steam machinery and auxiliary steam equipment, he set off on the Atlantic, the crowning glory of his 20-year navy career.

The three-ship squadron assembled at St. Johns, Newfoundland, from whence they would strike out for England at the earliest fair weather. On June 5, 1866, at 10 p.m. the three set to sea. The journey started with a little bad luck as the Asheulot, “in passing out of the harbor.. unfortunately sunk a brig but without damage to herself, and without causing any detention.”

The small squadron arrived at Queensland, Ireland, on May 16 at 4 p.m. It had been a relatively smooth crossing, accomplished in 10 days and 18 hours but one that kept Adams and his crew busy most of the time. The Augusta towed Miantonomoh for over 1,100 miles as “a matter of convenience and precaution rather than necessity.” This occasioned “the Augusta’s engines showing signs of weakness, which once or twice occasioned vexatious detention.”

On arrival the monitor had coal to spare and was in such good condition that she could have been cleared for action and blasting at any target with little bother. By far the monitor’s design had made her the most comfortable ship in which to make the crossing, considering the rolling of ships at sea. The Augusta was built for the civilian coastal trade and not ocean voyages, while the Ashoelut was designed as a shallow-draft double-end gunboat for river warfare. The monitor rolled only 7 degrees to windward and four to leeward, while the Augusta reached 18 degrees, and the Ashuelot, 25 degrees.

Fox was excited about the nearly flawless voyage. He left the monitor at Queensland to make the quicker overland trip to London to arrange for the entry of the monifor up the Thames, and to start his own mission of gathering naval intelligence. It would take the monitor and her escort several more days to steam through the Irish Sea and up the English Channel, but when the 250-footlong ironclad entered the Portsmouth Navy Yard there was an excitement not seen in England since the Spanish menaced Queen Elizabeth with a few ships of their own.

The press was excited about the novelty of the ironclad and its singular, menacing appearance. J.F. Loubat, in his 1879 Narrative of the Mission to Russia, quoted one: “A real monitor has just crossed the Atlantic, and is now lying in British waters. The American Monitor is literally a floating gun carriage, nothing more. She has not the least resemblance to any ordinary man-of-war either in shape or arrangements, but she does carry guns – enormous ones, too, and the Miantonomoh has carried them across the Atlantic.”

The Royal Navy was well aware of the raw power and devastation that could be wrought by the 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbore naval gun. At the time there was no gun in any of the world’s navies that could match it and there was no ironclad, British, French, or Russian, that could absorb the damage of four 15-inch wrought iron bolts fired by this ironclad.

As the Royal Navy and the public considered this iron warship, Adams was no doubt pleased with the voyage. As the cruise continued to visit other ports of call in France (where its appearance helped Napoleon III decide not to further reinforce his Mexican adventure), Sweden, Russia, and other countries, Adams was one of the Navy officers who thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of it all. There were dinners without number, accolades and speeches galore, and flirtatious ladies at every stop.

The Cronstadt Herald described the welcoming of the Americans in Russia: “The vessels were advancing in a line of three columns. The American steamship Augusta, followed by the monitor Miantonomoh, formed the middle column, the flank columns being composed of the vessels of our iron-clad squadron…. As the Augusta came near to the ports of the great roadstead the Russian Imperial flag ran up her top-gallant mast, and she began to fire the national salute of twenty-one guns. This was responded to by the same number of guns from the battery of merchant’s wall, and hoisting of the American flag to the flagstaff of the inner guardship…. A multitude of ship’s boats of the Imperial Navy, and yachts of the River Yachting Club of St. Petersburg, tacking under sail in every direction, came forth to meet the American friends…. At ten the steamship Luna, having on board a considerable number of passengers and a band of musicians, appeared in the little roadstead. As the Luna came near to the American steamship Augusta the band on board the Luna began to play the American national hymn, and the public on her deck, as well as the immense crowd, assembled on the pier of the commercial harbor, welcomed the guest by loud and prolonged “oora” (cheers). The officers and crew of the Augusta answered by cheers and waving their hats…. It was a sight of truly imposing effect. The American monitor slowly gliding past the beholders presented an original and martial picture. At three-quarters past ten the American steamship and monitor were coming near to the anchorage which they had to occupy.”

Salutes, counter-salutes, visitations, and other pomp and circumstances continued into the evening, just a taste of what was in store for the Americans.

Adams wrote home from Cronsadt on September 1, 1866, “Now sweet I must tell you what were doing the past 25 days. In the first place we paid a visit to ‘Peterhoff’ the residence of the Emperor in the summer. We were received by the officer of the Palace. He showed us all around the place, gave us a splendid dinner. Gold spoons. Who should have thought I should ever dine off gold spoons. After dinner we went to St. Petersburge in the Royal Yacht to another dinner…. Then they took us to the Hotel De France, gave us another dinner and sent us to bed then commenced the sight seeing. Palaces without number – churches.. residences, dinners without end. But I must tell you of one given by your countryman, Mr. Linnam, he gave us a splendid reception and was very glad to see me and introduced me to all his family also the sister of one who died in Baltimore. They were 8 years in your city and Spoke English well. One of them swooned over me but I do not part with my old sweet heart for any ones so you must not get jealous. He promised to send you a present but I have not received it yet. Then 5 of us was presented to the Emperor. He shook hands with me and asked how I got on with the Russian language. I told him I could say ‘da’ which means yes. He laughed and said when I came back from ‘Moscow’ I would do better. 3 days afterwards he invited us to a dinner at his palace at ‘Peterhoff’ which was a very grand affair. The Emperor and all the Royal family were present at the dinner. He got up and drank all our healthy and peace & prosperity between the United States and ‘Russia’. Something that has never been known in the annals of ‘Russia’ when he gave us a ball in the evening where his sister the Grand Duchess Mary presided. He came to the Ball in plain clothes and danced until 2 o’clock in the morning then took supper with us. the Ball was held in what is called the English Palace 3 miles from his own. We returned to our rooms in the Palace at 3 o’clock and next morning at 8 returned to St. Petersburg which was 20 miles. Then that day we started for ‘Moscow’ 480 miles in [?] Rail Road. We stopped at every station to receive [?] Peasant & nobility. It was eat & drink at every place we stopped and they could not get enough of us. People cheering us all the way. You could not get clear of the Ladies. They would want to cut the buttons off your coat but it was so everywhere we went. One Beautiful lady would insist to have one my buttons I gave her one. She took a pair of diamond earrings out of her ears and would have insist on me taking them. I would not then she took the charm from around her neck and put it on my watch chain. It might be very valuable to her but not to me. I will wear it. They are very devout. Something the same as the Catholic. We arrived at Moscow all safe and went to the largest Hotel I have ever seen. The Proprietor entertained when we stopped there at his own expense. Then it was nothing but sight-seeing, Churches & Palaces. We had nothing but Princes for our companion and Princesses to dance with. They gave us 12 public Dinners while we stoped there. Then they took us 40 miles in the Railway to see the [?] of Russia, their Holy City and was introduced to the Head Man of all Russia. He is even ahead of the Emperor. He is the same as the Pope of Rome. He took us all in his hand and gave us his blessing and a string of Beads which I intend to give to my sister ‘Maria’ on my return. The monks went craze over us where ever we went and were only too proud to show us everything. In fact, from the Emperor to the lower peasants their Country appeared to be devoted to us. They only wanted to see us. never were people received so well as we were. I met some Americans at Moscow and they were as bad as the rest. I am tired of telling you all the facts &c. we received but when I get home I will tell you about them as it will take me a month to tell you all. I am expecting your furs every day from Moscow. They are Black stable, only 250 Rubles, $150.00. They are worth in New York some $900.00 So if you do not want them you can sell them.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary event that came out of this cruise was the American purchase of Alaska.

The ironclad and the Augusta returned to the United States the following year, Miantonomoh arriving at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on July 2, 1867, having successfully steamed 18,000 miles. She went out of commission then, only to be brought back to service briefly before being delivered to the Cramp Shipyard for “rebuilding.” It was there that she was broken up and a replacement ironclad, stealing her name, was constructed by the builder. The reincarnated ship stayed on the register until well after the turn of the 20th Century when she was condemned.

The Ashuelot ‘s career came to an end in the East China Sea when on February 18, 1883, she ran upon the Lamock Islands just off Swatow, China. The Augusta, after a small respite on her return from European waters, was sold out of the Navy on December 2, 1868. She had been a coastal merchant steamer before the Civil war and was sold back into that civilian service and ultimate obscurity.

John Adams received an honorable discharge from the Navy on December 27, 1867 and returned to Baltimore to establish a small engineering firm.

However his business would fail in six months as his health failed with chronic dysentery. Admitted to the Hebrew Hospital and Asylum in Baltimore, on January 20, 1870, he died on March 4, 1870.

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