Navy secretary Gideon Welles fretted about the safety of California after the outbreak of war in 1861. The threat of rebel privateers preying upon mail steamers loaded with treasure and secessionists seeking to take the southern part of the state was real. Welles had but six vessels in the Pacific Squadron to patrol an immense area.
The flag officer in command of the Pacific Squadron, John B. Montgomery,[i] summarized the situation to Welles on August 23, 1861, “My very limited force of four steamers and two sailing ships will prove wholly inadequate for the protection of our commerce with the numerous ports along this coast, extending from Talcahuano to San Francisco, a distance of 7,000 miles.”[ii]
Montgomery asked Welles for four additional steamers. In the meantime, Montgomery assigned the ships at his disposal to cover critical areas. He dispatched one of his most reliable vessels, the Narragansett, to a 400-mile stretch of Mexican coast from Acapulco Bay to Manzanillo.[iii]
The Narragansett, a screw-propeller sloop that had joined the Pacific fleet a year earlier after a stint in the Atlantic Ocean, was armed with five guns. Her crew of 50 men and officers included John Sullivan, a career navy man known for honesty and integrity.[iv]
The son of Irish immigrants, Sullivan was born at sea in 1832, likely on the vessel that carried his parents from Ireland to America. Raised in the Boston area, he joined the navy at age 19 in 1850. He served aboard the Bainbridge and Falmouth, and joined the Narragansett about the time she was commissioned on November 6, 1859.
In early 1860, Sullivan and his shipmates on the Narragansett embarked on a four-month journey to the Pacific, and were perfectly positioned to protect the coast when the war came.
The Narragansett spent a significant amount of time in the vicinity of the Mexican port of Manzanillo, a potential target for Confederates. “The mail steamers, both from San Francisco and Panama, touch at Manzanillo on or about the 27th of each month,” noted Charles H. Bell,[v] who followed Montgomery as flag officer of the squadron in 1862. Bell added, “As these ships have generally a large amount of treasure on board, it is important that you be at the latter place at this particular date. Manzanillo has no harbor defenses and it is here that an attempt might be made to seize these ships by a party, consisting of rebels and traitors to our country, many of whom, calling themselves American citizens, are prowling about this coast.”[vi]
The Narragansett spent the duration of the war cruising Manzanillo and other harbors in he Americas, taking care, as Bell ordered, to “remain in port only long enough, from time to time, to refresh your crew and to replenish your stores. You must endeavor to economize your fuel by using your sails as mush as possible.”[vii]
In November 1864 during a brief stay in the Lima, Sullivan and two of his mates stretched their legs in Peruvian capital. They visited the studio of American photographer Villroy Richardson[viii] and posed for a group portrait. By this time, Sullivan had advanced in rank to acting boatswain, the officer responsible for equipment and crew.
The image of the trio of officers was likely the last time that they were photographed during the war. In mid-December the Narragansett received orders to report to New York, and arrived there on March 19, 1865, as the war in the east was winding down.
The Narragansett participated in no hostile actions during her wartime service. However, her presence in the Pacific reassured Americans in the West. “It can do no harm, but a great deal of good to have an armed vessel where the treasonous pirates smell her smoke once in while,” observed one newspaper after a visit by the Narragansett.[ix]
Sullivan mustered out of the navy less than a week later and settled in Boston. In 1867 he married widow Emma Kimball. Her first husband, a sailor on a civilian schooner, had died at sea shortly after the end of the war of disease.[x]
Sullivan and Emma began a family that grew to include three children. He supported them early on as a mariner, and later as a watchman at the Boston Navy Yard. He was an active member of the Kearsarge Association of Naval Veterans.[xi]
In 1891, when Sullivan was 59, his health began to decline. Dementia overcame him, and he was eventually moved to the Worcester Lunatic Asylum, where he died six years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. His wife and a daughter survived him.[xii]
[i] John Berrien Montgomery (1794–1873) of New Jersey started his navy career as a midshipman during the War of 1812, and distinguished himself during the Mexican War as commander of the Portsmouth. He advanced to command of the Pacific Squadron in 1859, and guided the fleet as flag officer until he was relieved in January 1862. He spent the rest of the Civil War in an administrative capacity, remained in the navy after hostilities ended, and advanced to the rank of rear admiral by the time he died. Montgomery Street in San Francisco is named for him.
[ii] Report of Flag Officer John B. Montgomery, U.S. Navy, commanding Pacific Squadron, of the inadequacy of the force for the protection of American commerce on the Pacific coast. ORN, I, 1: 71.
[iv] John F. Sullivan pension record, NARS.
[v] New York-born Charles H. Bell (1798–1875) began his navy service in the War of 1812. During the Mexican War period, he commanded the sloop-of-war Yorktown along the coast of Africa on a mission to disrupt the slave trade, and afterwards served at the New York Navy Yard. He commanded the Mediterranean Squadron at the start of the Civil War, and replaced John B. Montgomery in command of the Pacific Squadron in July 1862. Bell served in this capacity until 1864, when he was placed in command of warships in the James River in Virginia. He retired in 1868 as a rear admiral.
[vi] Order of Flag Officer Charles H. Bell, commander of the Pacific Squadron, to Commander Fabius Maximus Stanly of the Narragansett. ORN, I, 1: 471–472.
[viii] Photographer Villroy L. Richardson (born about 1827) of Ohio worked as a daguerreotypist in Zanesville in 1850, and married Rebecca Rees in 1851. At some point, perhaps as early as 1852, he was hired to work in the studio of photographer Benjamin F. Pease in Peru. Richardson opened his gallery in 1862, and remained active until the 1890s.
[ix] Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), December 29, 1863.
[x] In 1861, Emma Adelma Keyes married Washington Kimball. He died of fever on the schooner Dearborn during a journey from the West Indian Island of Sombrero to Philadelphia and was buried at sea. Her father, Ira W. Keyes, served in the Union army as a second lieutenant in Company H of the Fortieth New York Infantry from June to November 1861. In January 1862 he enlisted as a private in Company H of the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts Infantry, and mustered out as a corporal at the end of the regiment’s three-year term of enlistment.
[xi] Sunday Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), September 12, 1897.
[xii] John F. Sullivan 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 October 2015 issue of the Civil War News.