Navy Lt. Francis Winslow was between assignments and with his in-laws near Fayetteville, North Carolina, when secession tore the country apart in late 1860. The rift touched him personally. On the Northern side lay his home state of Massachusetts, and on the Southern side his wife, Mary, and their four children, three boys and a girl.
Winslow, 42, suffered conflicted emotions as he struggled to come to terms with his loyalties. He had had strong ties to North Carolina since his marriage almost 15 years earlier. “There were friends and relatives on both sides to whom he was deeply attached and, in addition, he was at the time in the heart of the rebelling country, surrounded by his southern friends and under all the influences of the environment,” explained his fourth and youngest child, Arthur, years later. “His wife and all her relatives were intensely southern in their feelings and prejudices, though many deplored the rupture.”
Winslow stood by as war fever gripped the townspeople. He watched them become more violent and threatening. When hostilities did come in April 1861, Winslow’s son Arthur noted, “He naturally became an object of suspicion and liable to arrest, as he was well known to be a United States officer. To escape this contingency he decided to leave for the North but, by that time, feelings were very much aroused and his escape was made with great difficulty, by secreting himself on board a schooner in Wilmington, North Carolina, which was about to sail for the North. So near was his capture that a search for him on board this schooner was made, but without success.”
The schooner arrived safely in Washington, and Winslow reported to his superiors for duty. Mary and the children, accompanied by a nursemaid, soon followed on another vessel bound from Wilmington to Washington. They continued on to Boston, where one of Winslow’s cousins put them up in a cottage in nearby Cohasset.
Winslow’s actions proved his allegiance to the Union and the navy with which he had been associated for almost three decades. He had entered the U.S. Naval Academy at age 14, graduated as a midshipman at 20, and at 26 advanced to lieutenant. He cruised the world on a variety of missions, which always ended with a return to the states to await new orders. On one such occasion in 1845, he met Mary Sophia Nelson. They married the following year. Children soon followed, and over time Winslow found it increasingly difficult to be at sea and away from his family.
Then the war came, and Winslow responded with renewed vigor to protect the Union and his family. Assigned as executive officer to the frigate Mississippi, Winslow and his shipmates steamed for the Gulf of Mexico and participated in the newly formed blockade of key Confederate ports.
In September 1861, Winslow received his first independent command when he was assigned to the Water Witch. She was a small ship, a light-draft, side-wheel steamer with a bare bones crew of 50 and five brass cannon. “The armament is sufficient to resist attack by boats or to bring-to an unarmed merchant vessel, but more than this we could not accomplish without heavier metal,” he stated in a letter home.
The Water Witch joined a vanguard of vessels that reconnoitered the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana during the uncertain early months of the rebellion, before the massive buildup of federal forces at the mouth of the mighty river and the subsequent occupation by those troops of New Orleans. The little steamer probed the waterways and distinguished itself in minor actions against enemy vessels. Winslow’s abilities came to the attention of his superiors, who rewarded him with a larger ship, the gunboat R.R. Cuyler, and, in May 1862, a promotion to the rank of commander.
Winslow assumed the mantle of leadership with style and grace. His integrity and fairness made a deep and lasting impression on the crew of the Cuyler. One of his subordinate officers declared, “He took care of us all as though we were children. There are not many officers in the service who can command their men as well as he did or in whom his men possess the same kind of confidence,” and added, “His kindness to me and the extent he seemed to feel for my success opened my heart to him and I would have done anything for him or to please him. We all loved him we could not help it.”
On August 22, 1862, the Cuyler was on her way to British Nassau to deliver dispatches when Winslow fell ill with yellow fever. The ship’s surgeon and several other crewmembers were also infected with the deadly virus. The Cuyler arrived in Nassau the next day and was visited by Surg. Richard Ratliffe of the 51-gun British frigate Melpomeme. Ratliffe examined Winslow and the other sick men. He advised that the only chance that they had for survival was to proceed north as quickly as possible. The captain of the Melpomeme, Charles J.F. Ewart, also came aboard and sat for a time at the bedside of the gravely ill Winslow.
The leadership of the Cuyler weighed their options. “On the 25th a consultation of the officers was held, and came to the conclusion that the shortest and only way to make the ship efficient was to proceed to some Northern port where we could get the sickness out of the ship,” reported the acting master of the Cuyler.
The gunboat immediately set out for New York in a race against time. Winslow’s condition continued to deteriorate, and the beloved commander succumbed to the fever while at sea at 6:35 p.m. on August 26.
The Cuyler arrived in New York four days later. By this time, the yellow fever had abated and most of the sick were in recovery. Mary learned of her husband’s death through a newspaper report, and was devastated with grief and sorrow. She was not alone. Family, friends and shipmates mourned his passing, including first cousin John A. Winslow, who would go on to captain the Kearsarge in the historic engagement against the Confederate raider Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in 1864.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox summarized Winslow’s contributions in a letter to a member of the family. “He was one of our best officers. Loyal to the flag, an accomplished seaman, and possessed of that rare virtue, modest courage. Moreover he was a Christian and went forth to encounter all perils, because it was his duty. Such men soon find their death, and their eternal reward.”
Two of Winslow’s sons followed their father’s footsteps and became navy officers. One of them, Cameron Winslow, advanced to admiral and served during the Spanish-American War and World War I.
Mary never remarried. She lived until her mid-seventies and died in 1903 at the Washington home of her son Cameron.
 Winslow, Francis Winslow: His Forbears and Life, pp. 308–310.
 Ibid.; p. 311.
 LaRue Perrine Adams (1843–1868) graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1859, and served as an ensign on the R.R. Cuyler. LaRue P. Adams to Mary S. Winslow, November 9, 1862. Francis Winslow Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
 President Abraham Lincoln’s Minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams Sr., sent a letter of thanks on behalf of the U.S. Navy Department to his counterpart, The Earl Russell. Dated September 30, 1862, it commanded Capt. Ewart, Surgeon Ratliffe, and their shipmates on the Melpomeme for their assistance to the crew Cuyler. Medical Times and Gazette, Vol. II, pp. 619–620.
 Report of Acting master Simeon N. Freeman, U.S. Navy, of the arrival of the R.R. Cuyler at New York. ORN, I, XVII: 304–305.
 North Carolina-born John Ancrum Winslow (1811–1873) graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1833 and remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. He held the rank of commander at the commencement of hostilities, and advanced to captain in July 1862. Less than a year later he assumed command of the Kearsarge, and was promoted commodore to date from June 19, 1864 — the day he and his crew emerged victorious over the Alabama. Winslow and his men also received the Thanks of Congress for their actions. Commodore Winslow’s uncle Joshua was the father of Francis Winslow.
 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Vasa Fox (1821–1883) to Winslow’s cousin Arthur Pickering, September 15, 1862. Francis Winslow Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
 Francis Winslow II (1851–1908) graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1870, and retired as a lieutenant in 1889. Cameron McRae Winslow (1854–1932) graduated from the Academy in 1875. During the Spanish American War, as a lieutenant on the warship Nashville, he suffered a wound in the hand by a gunshot while in command of en expedition to cut communication cables that linked Cuba with Europe. He transferred to the retired list as an admiral in 1916, and was called to active duty during World War I. During this time he served stateside as Inspector of Naval Districts on the Atlantic Coast.
 Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), March 25, 1903.
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, and a contributing author to the New York Times series Disunion. 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 May 2015 issue of the Civil War News.