The Tragic Tale of the USS Oneida, Part One

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In the cool, clear evening of January 23, 1870, USS Oneida bobbed gently in the rolling swell inside of Yokohama Bay. Her less than graceful lines earned her the sobriquet “The Ugly Duckling” and she deserved it. She lacked berths for the enlisted men, and many of them spent their nights in the open air, sheltered only by the boom cover. They may have preferred sleeping in outside; the berth deck also housed the galley, and smoke from the cooking fires blew back into the men’s quarters where it mixed with the smell of a hundred unwashed bodies.

Many of the crew had been aboard Oneida for three years, and had grown to love the cramped vessel. Dr. Edward Frothingham signed on in January 1867 as a Surgeon’s Assistant. Only 27 when he came aboard, Frothingham had already served with the 44th New York Regiment in the Peninsular Campaign, transferred to the Medical Corps for the duration of the Civil War, entered Columbia University Medical School, earned his medical certificate, and applied for a position in the Navy; he alone among the seventeen applicants passed the Navy’s entrance examination. As a man of letters, he supplemented his meager Navy pay by agreeing to write columns to the New York Times each time Oneida docked.

Oneida spent three years wandering from one port to another, and Frothingham enjoyed himself capitally. He toured the Cape Verde Islands, and visited the American cemetery there; an American midshipman who’d lost his life to fever years before was its only inhabitant. Under the lights of a full Rio de Janeiro moon, he’d danced with dark skinned Portuguese girls at a ball thrown by Brazilian Emperor Pedro II in honor of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred.

Prince Alfred was Queen Victoria’s son, his mother sent him around the world on a goodwill tour, in command of the HMS Galatea. Oneida met Galatea again in Cape Town. By the time Oneida arrived,  Prince Alfred already had departed upcountry to hunt elephants. On his return, Oneida’s commanding officer, Captain Creighton, invited him to dinner, where the Prince regaled Frothingham and the rest of Oneida’s crew with the story of his hunt.

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Like all good hunting stories, they were mixed with a healthy dose of hyperbole; local scuttlebutt had it that it was the Prince’s escort who really killed two elephants for which the Prince received credit. The Oneida’s officers must have hidden any  incredulous smiles well; for the Prince reciprocated the dinner with an invitation to a Royal Ball on shore.

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Frothingham and Captain Creighton must have been on good terms, for each time Oneida docked, Creighton granted him leave to tour the sites. Cape Town’s hustle and bustle reminded him of Scranton. The local museum boasted stuffed lions, giraffes, birds and elephants, as well as a myriad of African weapons and examples of tribal dress, and relaxation came by watching cricket matches, or listening to the regimental bands play in the botanical gardens. Frothingham even attempted to climb Table Rock, making it nearly to the top before high winds forced his party to call off the ascent. The 99th British Regiment treated Frothingham to dinner at their mess, where they ate off plates looted from the Emperor’s Summer Palace in Peking.

Stepping off the ship in Singapore, dozens of Malays clad only in red loincloths surrounded Frothingham begging for grain. Chinese merchants, propelled about by bald slaves, plied their trade between the various ships anchored in the harbor. He saw his first Indian, a “barefooted Hindoo in white, with a turban and a caste mark on his forehead,” and delighted in finding himself “an old world, an old language, and an old religion is before us, yet old as they may be, they are new to us.”

Attending Singapore’s local Anglican church brought a touch of home, but exotic elements pervaded even the familiar service; servants operated “punkas,” wooden fans attached to the roof and moved backwards and forwards with ropes. The minister had a punka all his own as a special sign of distinction. Frothingham spent most of his time in Singapore’s Chinese district, there the plaintive cries of fruit vendors and water carriers mingled in the air with the heavy perfume of joss sticks, which the Chinese burned in honor of their ancestors. Frothingham “went local” setting aside his uniform for a loose cotton robe and white shoes purchased from one of the Chinese merchants using Mexican dollars.

Oneida was a warship, and in Japan, the internecine Boshin War raged; fought by forces loyal to the Emperor and those supporting the Tokugawa Shogunate. To show the flag and protect American interests, Asiatic Squadron headquarters dispatched Oneida to Kobe,  Japan.

Circumstances justified Oneida’s presence when soldiers attached to Daimyo Bezen’s rebel band fired on Commander English of the USS Idaho, the Prussian Minister Baron von Brandt, and Commander Creighton as they crossed Kobe’s foreign concession. The attack appeared to be little more than a few potshots fired in the general direction of the strolling foreigners, but to the Western powers it called for a strong reaction. The American and British resident ministers called out the Marines of their respective navies, included the men on the Oneida. Moving quickly, the joint force pursued Bezen’s forces into the Japanese countryside. When they failed to catch up with Bezen, and contented themselves with laying siege to the rest of Kobe.

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Deployment provided a festive change of pace from life aboard ship. British troops constructed a wall from whatever materials lay close at hand; the American troops spurred built a bigger one, on which they placed one of the Oneida’s howitzers. Britons and Americans bivouacked around campfires; perhaps the Marines told stories of Civil War battles, while their British counterparts recounted adventures in the Crimea, in India, or during the Opium War. The men of the ad hoc Expeditionary Force had little to fear from Bezen’s soldiers, armed only with swords. The occupation of the remainder of Kobe was a fait accompli, and Frothingham told the folks at home that. “All the circumstance of the case justified the military occupation of the town, and it was unanimously decided by the combined ministerial powers that the lives of the foreign residents should not be endangered by passing bodies of troops until satisfaction should be obtained for this past offense, and some assurance of protection for the future.” Frothingham looked up from his letter when a sentry sighted Bezen’s men. Orders rang out; “Turn out the guard! Fall in blue jackets! Right Face! Double quick! Ma-a arch.”

To light the scene, the British troops fired a rocket, the hasty shot went directly into a nearby tree, provoking laughter from American and Briton alike. A second shot, better aimed, lit the Expeditionary Force tramped into the woods after Bezen’s men. Left behind to man the hospital tent, Frothingham rolled up in a great coat to gather what sleep he could. What fighting there was  ended before he awoke. The rebel forces melted into the pre-dawn mist, and inflicted only two injuries; Walter G. Clark, apprentice boy, received a flesh wound to the shoulder, and Marine Michael J. DeWire lost a portion of his right hand warding off a samurai sword with the butt of his gun. By February 9th, 1868, an emissary from the Mikado arrived, bearing the Emperor’s apologies for the conduct of his adversaries and promising that foreigners would be protected.

Everywhere Frothingham travelled, a crowd of Japanese soldiers, sailors, and civilians followed him, begging for cigars and tobacco, and confessing their predilection for champagne and ale. An insatiable appetite for anything Western characterized the Japanese; they had no hesitation to ask for the smallest trifle, even the very buttons on the men’s coats. “Anyone fortunate to possess himself of a coat, or a European hat, or a pair of shoes, regardless of style, color or size,” Frothingham wrote home, “will strut through the streets proud of his newly acquired garments, unconscious of the ludicrous figure presented.” Frothingham enjoyed Japanese customs as well; off hours were spent in Japanese tea houses.

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Orders interrupted Frothingham’s idyll, Asiatic Squadron Headquarters sent Oneida to Siam with letters of congratulations for the new King of the Rear Palace, Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramintharamaha Chulalongkorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua. With a deep draught, the Oneida could not sail up the Maenam Chao Phraya River; so the King obliged the visiting Americans by dispatching a royal steamer to carry Creighton, Frothingham, and a few other officers upriver to Bangkok. The trip began at dusk; betel palms lined the shore, blocking any sound from the surrounding jungle. Millions of fireflies lit their branches, flashing synchronously. They, and the full moon shimmering on the river’s black water, made up only light. As Bangkok hove in to view, Frothingham the palms gave way to low huts, built on rafts anchored thirty feet out in the river. Curious families stared wide-eyed from small verandahs at the strangers on the royal steamer.

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Diplomatic protocal required a visit to the King of the Front Palace as well, a task accomplished the next morning when the American emissaries presented themselves to Phra Ong Chao Yodying Prayurayot Bovorn Rachorod Rattan Rachakumarn. He too bore a nickname; his father’s affinity for Washington led to the appellation Prince George.

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Duty done, Frothingham found himself free to enjoy Bangkok. During the afternoons, temperatures regularly reached 95˚ in the shade; escape could be had by sipping on coconut milk and eating mangoes. Donning local dress helped too. Frothingham put aside his uniform for a loose shirt of white muslin, and baggy pants to match, purchased from a Siamese merchant who’s shorn head bore testament to Chulalongkorn’s deceased father.  Frothingham made the most of the temperate mornings and evenings. Strolling the streets he saw yellow robed Buddhist priests going door to door begging their rice allotment from the populace. He took the steep path to Wat Sekat; its soaring minaret reminded him of the Tower of Babel. At the summit, circling vultures were at eye level, tracing their way through air over the bodies of criminals thrown from Wat Sekat’s path after their execution.

Executions were commonplace, and Frothingham attended the beheading of a Chinese merchant convicted of theft and murder. Two executioners carried out the sentence. The first partially severed the prisoner’s neck with a sword, and the second finished the work. Superstition dictated that insanity would result if only a single executioner did the job. Work completed, the executioners repaired to the nearest temple, where a sprinkling of holy water prevented the newly deceased from haunting them.

Through the good offices of a resident American, Frothingham received permission to tour the Rear Palace. The King’s temple, Wat Phra Kaew housed a giant Buddha cut from a single piece of jade, and decorated with diamond eyes. Although not surprised when his guide went prostrate three times before it, Frothingham doubted the man’s devotion; he’d failed to remove his cigarette before paying homage. The guide escorted him into the King’s Reception Hall. Among the Western pictures which lined the Hall, Frothingham recognized portraits of George Washington and Franklin Pierce. The King’s Menagerie concluded the tour, where his guide showed Frothingham the King’s collection of elephants, Chulalongkorn had granted many of the prized specimens rank on par with a noble of the fifth class. The most famous pachyderm, the Sacred White Elephant of Siam, proved not to be rather white, but only a disappointing dingy brown. Frothingham was only slightly mollified when the guide presented a white monkey.

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  1. The Tragic Tale of the USS Oneida, Part Two « Forgotten Stories
  2. The Tragic Tale of the USS Onieda, Conclusion « Forgotten Stories

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