The USS Marion and the Asiatic Station

The screw-sloop Marion, last wooden ship of the “Old Navy” on the Asiatic Station.

Rear Admiral David B. Harmony, who had last served in the Far East seventeen years earlier, remained at Yokohama only until the Alliance could be summoned to convey him to Hong Kong. To his embarrassment, his temporary flagship grounded on the submerged end of a breakwater while standing out in clear weather, a mishap later attributed to her navigator’s color blindness. Tugs working nearby came to her assistance, as did the commanding officer of HMS Mercury, who brought an anchor and a cable in his steam launch, and the Alliance was floated without damage at high water.

Harmony ordered the Marion, which had spent her entire six months on the station riding at anchor off Yokohama, to Nagasaki for docking and then to Chemulpo. The Alert was kept at Kobe and the Alliance at Nagasaki, both ready for sea at short notice although active cruising was limited by a Bureau of Equipment directive that coal consumption be kept to a minimum. The Monocacy remained on the Yangtze, where she was joined in April 1892 by the steel gunboat Petrel, another of the vessels of the “new” Navy. Called the “baby battleship” because of her heavy armament—four 6-inch guns, of which two could bear on any target—the Petrel was handicapped by her 11-knot speed and poor performance under sail. Nonetheless, she was to spend the next twenty years on the Asiatic Station, with time out for brief periods on Bering Sea patrol.

The Palos, the squadron’s lame duck, was still on the Pei Ho, and Lieutenant Commander John C. Rich reported that her boilers could no longer produce enough steam to turn her engine. Noting that a vessel so decrepit ought never to have been sent to the Pei Ho, the admiral ordered the Marion to tow her to Nagasaki for survey as soon as the danger of storms on the Yellow Sea had passed.

Almost immediately upon hoisting his flag, the new commander in chief began to receive reports pertaining to the situation along the Yangtze. He was not especially concerned, holding that American business interests in China were almost entirely in the hands of foreign and Chinese merchants, none of whom could claim the protection of the United States, and that American-flag shipping had almost disappeared from Chinese waters.

The protection of missionaries, however, was his responsibility, and the missionary community was hardly insignificant in terms of numbers. The treaties forced on China in 1858 and 1860 had introduced religious toleration to that nation, and the thirty years following had brought a steady increase in Christian missionary activity. By 1890, there were 513 American missionaries representing nineteen denominations in China; only the British supported a greater number. And, while foreigners generally resided at one or another of the relatively few treaty ports, missionaries were wont to range far into the hinterland “only controlled by their own interpretation of the wishes of the Almighty.”1 Thus, to afford them even a modicum of protection taxed the resources of naval officers, many of whom undoubtedly agreed with the Monocacy’s Commander Francis M. Barber that all entitled to and claiming the U.S. government’s protection should be brought more directly under that government’s control.

But 1892 was a quiet year throughout the Orient. Even Korea was so tranquil that the State Department agreed that a warship need not be kept at Chemulpo. The Marion, which towed the Palos to Nagasaki in mid-June, thereafter cruised in northern Japanese waters, and the Alliance sailed for Mare Island in August. A few weeks earlier, the Palos’s fate had been decided by a board of survey which found that thorough repair of her hull and machinery would require expenditures far beyond the old gunboat’s worth. Admiral Harmony recommended that she be decommissioned and sold. The Navy Department concurred, so the veteran Palos, literally worn-out after twenty-two years on the Asiatic Station, was stripped of usable fittings and sold for scrap on 25 January 1893.

The spring of 1893 found Admiral Harmony concerned about the Chinese reaction to exclusion legislation recently passed by the U.S. Congress. Considering the Yangtze Valley the area most likely to experience anti-foreign turbulence, he assigned the Marion, Monocacy, and Petrel to spend the summer shuttling between Shanghai and the river’s treaty ports, while the Alert in Japanese waters would respond to developments elsewhere on the station. The admiral himself was nearing the statutory retirement age, so the Lancaster steamed to Yokohama to await his relief, Rear Admiral John Irwin, who assumed command of the Asiatic Squadron on 7 June.

Irwin’s tenure of command was uneventful and unexpectedly brief. The Petrel was ordered to the Bering Sea for the summer, and the Alert departed for San Francisco in mid-August. The steel gunboat Concord, larger and faster than the Petrel, was en route to the station, and the protected cruiser Baltimore was under orders to relieve the aged Lancaster, so the commander in chief could look forward to a proper flagship. These vessels had yet to reach the station when, on 11 October, Admiral Irwin received a confidential telegram informing him that he was to be relieved of his command on 27 October, on which date he and his staff would take passage in the mail steamer to Honolulu, there to hoist his flag in the protected cruiser Philadelphia as commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron. A day earlier, somewhat similar orders had been sent to Acting Rear Admiral Joseph S. Skerrett, commander in chief of the Pacific Squadron, who was to take Irwin’s place.

Such a “swap” of commands was not usual for the U.S. Navy, and it obviously requires some explanation. For this, one must look to Honolulu where, a few months earlier, a bloodless revolution had occurred. The last Hawaiian monarch, Liliuokalani, had been dethroned by American Hawaiians who seem to have triumphed mainly because of the presence of the U.S. cruiser Boston, which landed an armed force ostensibly to protect American interests. A provisional government, quickly formed and as quickly recognized by the U.S. minister, sent commissioners to Washington to arrange American annexation of the islands. A treaty to this end was drawn up and signed without difficulty, but the Senate delayed action on it at the request of President-elect Grover Cleveland. After his inauguration, Cleveland withdrew the treaty and ordered an investigation, which revealed that native Hawaiians generally preferred the deposed queen. The provisional government, however, refused to give way, nor would American opinion permit the use of force to restore a monarch. Thus, Hawaii remained independent under a government which intended that it become a part of the United States as soon as possible, while President Cleveland, who would not countenance annexation, was determined that foreign influence must not supplant that of his nation at Honolulu.

Admiral Skerrett had assumed command of the Pacific Squadron on 9 January 1893, one week before the Hawaiian revolution. Arriving in Honolulu soon after the event, he reported that the provisional government was incapable of gaining the public support necessary to win an election. His subsequent communications, however, indicated that Skerrett was being won over by that government, leading Navy Secretary Hilary A. Herbert to warn that his course should be one of complete neutrality toward both governmental and royalist factions. Soon thereafter, Skerrett managed to bring about the dispatch of a British warship to Hawaiian waters—which the United States was anxious to avoid—by indiscreetly telling the British minister that the vessels of the Pacific Squadron were not authorized to protect foreigners in the islands. This indiscretion, which the admiral himself reported, convinced Herbert that Skerrett must leave Honolulu. A simple removal from his command was out of the question, for the naval officer would almost certainly demand a court-martial which might be embarrassing to the government, so the secretary ordered him to exchange commands with the somewhat senior and presumably more perceptive John Irwin.

Joseph Skerrett, of course, was no stranger to the Far East, having commanded the flagship Richmond for some three years and served as the squadron’s senior officer after Peirce Crosby’s sudden departure in 1883. Skerrett hoisted his flag in the Lancaster on 9 December 1893, hoping perhaps that the Asiatic Station would prove a less taxing command than that which he had relinquished. However, it was not to be.

For a time, all went well. The Concord and the Petrel had reported for duty before the admiral’s arrival, and the Baltimore steamed into Hong Kong later in December. The Lancaster and the Marion, the last of the U.S. Navy’s old wooden warships to serve on the Asiatic Station, both departed in mid-February. The Lancaster, sailing from Hong Kong to New York by the Suez route, made a routine passage, but not the Marion.

The Marion stood out of Yokohama bound for Mare Island with fine weather and a fair wind. One day out, Commander Charles V. Gridley ordered her boiler fires burned down and her screw uncoupled. She made good progress under sail the next day, but on 22 February the wind increased gradually until it reached hurricane strength. The Marion was hove to under storm canvas, and boiler fires were lighted; but she labored so violently in mountainous seas that several boilers began to work loose in their saddles and all leaked badly. Water was pouring into the vessel through deck and side seams, while waves breaking on board carried away a boat and several gunport covers. Gridley had the prisoners released so that they could take a turn at the deck pumps, assist in the stokehold, or, if necessary, abandon ship. But the Marion and her men were equal to this occasion. The boilers were chocked in place, and half were made tight enough to provide steam to pumps and engines. Oil streamed from the weather bow exerted its calming effect on the troubled waters, lessening the impact of the waves. The gale diminished markedly the next day, and on 24 February Commander Gridley set a course for Yokohama, whence he reported that his vessel owed her survival to her own seaworthiness, adding that the service still had topmen capable of hazardous work aloft. After being docked and repaired, the Marion took her final departure from the station on 10 April.

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