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Herbert Benezet Tyson Letters - Introduction and Index

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Introduction to the Herbert Benezet Tyson Letters

By George Rugg

Herbert Benezet Tyson was born in 1842 or 1843 in Germantown, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. He was one of 32 members of the United States Naval Academy’s class of 1862 ordered into active service in May 1861, soon after the outbreak of war. In 1862-64 Tyson served as midshipman and, subsequently, lieutenant on the U.S.S. Hartford, flagship of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under David G. Farragut. He was aboard the Hartford during Farragut’s victories at New Orleans and Mobile Bay; in the latter of these engagements (5 August 1864) he commanded the first division of the flagship’s guns. In 1865 Tyson served aboard the U.S.S. Connecticut of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, on an extended cruise undertaken by that ship to and around the Caribbean.

The Tyson collection comprises a group of five letters, with dated content ranging from 24 February to 5 May 1865, written by the 22-year-old lieutenant to his brother, Carroll Sargent Tyson, in Norristown, Pennsylvania. At the time the letters were written Tyson was serving as navigator on the Connecticut, a side-wheel steamer of 1725 tons. The letters total 36 pages (18 leaves) on 11 individual sheets, mostly folded. The leaves are numbered 1-6 and 8-19; leaf 7 is missing. Taken together, Tyson’s letters provide a nearly continuous account of the Connecticut’s movements in the Caribbean during these months.

On 13 February 1865 Captain Charles S. Boggs, commanding the Connecticut, received sailing orders from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:

Sir: As soon as the U.S.S. Connecticut is in all respects ready for sea you will proceed with her on the cruise herein indicated.
     After leaving Boston proceed, via Bermuda, where you can touch at the Leeward and Windward islands and visit the principal ports of those islands; thence along the Spanish main, looking in at La Guayra, Cartagena, and any other places that, in your judgment, the interests of our country may require; thence, via Aspinwall and Cape San Antonio, to Hampton Roads, Va.
     The chief object of this cruise is to ascertain if there are any rebel privateers or pirates in those limits. Should you anywhere on the route hear of such vessels you will promptly proceed in pursuit, and use your best exertions to overtake and capture them when you can do so without violating the rights of neutral nations. … (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies …, Series I, Vol. 3, p. 422).

After leaving Boston on 19 February, the Connecticut proceeded on the course outlined by Welles, visiting Bermuda, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Barbados, moving on to the coast of South America, to Panama, and to Cuba, and so returning to Hampton Roads (26 May 1865). Throughout the war, many neutral ports in the Caribbean had been convenient havens for vessels aligned with the Confederacy. But in this instance, Welles’ “privateers or pirates” (i. e., commerce raiders) would prove to be in short supply. The cruise, coming as it did in the dying days of the war, was largely uneventful. The only significant encounter with a Confederate vessel occurred in Havana harbor; the ship eventually surrendered to the Spanish authorities. Indeed, Tyson writes from Martinique that “This cruise is probably as pleasant a one as had ever been taken. We seem to have nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.”

The letters are overwhelmingly given over to descriptions of the islands and their ports, and to the many social engagements that grew out of Tyson’s trips ashore (he was generally responsible for meeting with the American consul in the Connecticut’s ports of call). Among the locations described at greatest length are St. George (Bermuda); Cape Haitien (Haiti); Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic); San Juan (Puerto Rico); Charlotte Amalie and Frederiksted (Virgin Islands); Basseterre (St. Kitts); and Fort Royal (Martinique). Tyson’s description of the incident at the British colony of Barbados — the Barbadan governor’s effective refusal to allow the Connecticut to spend more than the conventional 24 hours in port — is consistent with the account in the naval Official Records (Series I, Vol. 3, pp. 492-3).

After the war Tyson married, and was employed in the textile industry in Philadelphia.

Bibliographic note: Records pertaining to the Connecticut's cruise of February to May 1865 may be found in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Washington DC, 1894-1922, Series I, Vol. 3, pp 422-533, passim).

Index of Letters

MSN/CW 5010-1LetterFebruary 24, 1865Off St. George's Island, BermudaHerbert B. Tyson
MSN/CW 5010-2LetterFebruary 27 - March 6, 1865At sea, and off Cape Haitien, HaitiHerbert B. Tyson
MSN/CW 5010-3LetterMarch 19-21, 1865Off Charlotte Amalie, Island of St. ThomasHerbert B. Tyson
MSN/CW 5010-4LetterMarch 24 - April 8, 1865Basseterre, St. Christopher Island; Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe; Fort-de-France, Martinique; Bridgetown, BarbadosHerbert B. Tyson
MSN/CW 5010-5LetterMay 3-5, 1865Off Aspinwall [Colon], PanamaHerbert B. Tyson

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