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Crazy Drunk

Ron Coddington
Oct 30, 2015 · 4 min read

Lieutenant Sylvanus Backus was crazy drunk. Stumbling around the quarterdeck of the Mohongo after midnight with a drawn sword, his raucous behavior stirred the sleeping crew. The warship’s executive officer soon arrived on the scene, relieved Backus from duty and sent him below decks under guard.[1]

But Backus broke free. The Mohongo’s commander, Capt. James Nicholson,[2] wakened and was apprised of the situation. He ordered Backus to be confined to his room and a sentry posted at the door.

Nicholson went back to bed. “Immediately after I heard a great noise in the wardroom and got up and went into the wardroom where Mr. Backus was endeavoring to break open the door of his room. As I entered the wardroom he said ‘that damned old cuss wishes to frighten me with a court martial.’”

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Carte de visite of Lt. Sylvanus Backus, U.S. Navy, by Hodcend & Degoix of Genoa, Italy, about 1862–1864. Collection of the author.

Nicholson said, “’Mr. Backus, unless you keep quiet, it will be necessary to put you in irons. Mind, this is no ill threat, so you had better keep suit’ — or words to that effect.”

Backus replied, “I should like to know what I am confined here for.”

Nicholson responded with an order to shackle the young lieutenant.

Backus’s navy career had just ended.

His service began under similarly rocky circumstances nine years earlier. In 1857, Backus had been appointed as an acting midshipman to the U.S. Naval Academy from his home state of Michigan. Chronic misconduct resulted in his dismissal in October 1861, although Academy officials allowed him to resign rather than have the stain of an expulsion on his permanent record.[3]

Less than a year later, with a growing rebellion in progress and a desperate need for sailors, navy authorities reinstated Backus and listed his status as graduated with the rank of midshipman.

Ordered to active duty, Backus joined the crew of the Constellation. A sloop-of-war bristling with 25 guns and a compliment of 240 men and 45 Marines, she spent the war years guarding Union merchant vessels against enemy raiders in the Mediterranean Sea.

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The Constellation pictured circa 1890. Library of Congress.

In early 1865, Backus was detached from the Constellation with no blemishes on his record and a promotion to lieutenant. With the war winding down he was ordered to the steamer Mohongo. By all appearances he was on track to continue his career in the navy and perhaps retire in a few decades with higher rank and a comfortable pension.

Then came the events that brought his military service to a screeching halt. On November 19, 1866, the Mohongo was lying at anchor in the Bay of Valparaiso along the Chilean coast. Backus had the nighttime watch on the quarterdeck until relieved for intoxication. He was held in irons until he calmed down, and subsequently arrested and confined. Charges were preferred against him on three counts — Drunkenness, disrespecting his superior officer and insubordination.[4]

His trial, held on May 7, 1867, resulted in a guilty verdict on all counts. Backus received a one-year suspension and a public reprimand. Nicholson, perhaps still smarting from being called an “Old Cuss” by Backus, appealed the sentence as being lenient. The court reconvened and passed a much harsher sentence: A one-year suspension and loss of pay, and dismissal from the Pacific Squadron.[5]

On June 11, 1867, Backus appeared before an examination board back in the United States. It found that Backus was incapacitated from further service and ordered him retired — effectively an honorable discharge.

Backus returned to Michigan and became an attorney in Detroit. According to the 1870 federal census he resided in the home of a saloonkeeper.

Backus eventually applied for and received a pension that he drew until his death in 1915 at age 66. He was unmarried and without children.[6]

[1] Proceedings of the General Court Martial of Sylvanus Backus, May 7, 1866. Records of General Courts Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799–1867, NARS.

[2] James William Augustus Nicholson (1821–1887) of Massachusetts, the son and grandson of navy officers, began his navy career as a midshipman in 1838. During the Civil War, he was commended for his actions as commander of the monitor Manhattan during the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay. Nicholson remained in the navy after the end of the war and retired as a rear admiral in 1883.

[3] Sylvanus Backus pension record, NARS.

[4] Proceedings of the General Court Martial of Sylvanus Backus, May 7, 1866. Records of General Courts Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799–1867, NARS.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sylvanus Backus pension record, NARS.

Ron Coddington is a collector of Civil War era images, and the editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. He is the author of three books about Civil War soldiers and their stories. His next book will profile men who served in the Union and Confederate navies. Visit facesofwar.com for more information and a complete index of past columns. Follow Ron on Facebook and Twitter.

This profile originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Civil War News.

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