Death Before DISHONOR

Commodore Isaac Mayo served his country long and well, but his Civil War stance cost him his rank and good name. Today, a descendant has won a battle to restore both.

August 11, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The dark stain of dishonor that for 142 years marred the reputation of the brilliant but neglected Maryland "Naval Warrior," Commodore Isaac Mayo, has finally been erased. The struggle begun in April 1976 by his great-great-grandson is a tale of patriotic honor redeemed. It is almost classic tragedy.

The story begins with the start of the Civil War in April 1861. Mayo, about 67 years old, had served in the United States Navy for 52 years, almost 25 of them at sea. He lived in Gresham, the ancestral home on an estate of 1,400 acres on the peninsula between the South and Rhode rivers in Anne Arundel County. The house survives and the area is still called Mayo.

He was born about 1794, nobody is quite sure of the date, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier. He was appointed a midshipman in January 1809, when he was probably 15 years old. He came of age under fire with that extraordinary generation of Maryland seamen who fought in the War of 1812.

He served with distinction aboard the USS Hornet in combat with the British warships Peacock and Penguin. The Hornet, an almost legendary fighting ship, sank the Peacock in less than 15 minutes. Congress awarded Mayo a silver medal for his gallantry in action and Maryland presented him with a dress sword with hilt of solid gold.

Mayo went on to fight in the Caribbean against pirates, in Florida against the Seminole Indians and at Vera Cruz in the Mexican War. He even became the military governor of Alvarado, Mexico. He commanded the African Squadron in the suppression of the slave trade as commodore aboard the USS Constitution, which, in fact, captured a slaver.

He came home to the United States, still serving on the Constitution, when it was decommissioned in June 1855. He was four years older than his ship. And he was coming to the end of his distinguished Navy career, too. He was, indeed, a "Naval Warrior," the title chosen by Byron Lee for his biography of the commodore published by the Anne Arrundell County Historical Society. Lee himself is a retired U.S. Navy captain,

But in May 1861, Mayo faced the most wrenching decision of his lifetime. South Carolina had fired on Fort Sumter three weeks earlier. The Civil War had begun. On April 19, a Baltimore mob had attacked U. S. soldiers in a melee that killed four soldiers and a dozen civilians - the first bloodshed of the war. Annapolis was under martial law. Maryland teetered on the brink of secession from the Union.

Mayo was a proud American patriot. Lee, in his biography, recounts an official letter in which the commodore says proudly that his grandfather, Joseph Mayo, sent seven sons to the Revolutionary War and only two returned, one of whom was his father.

But he was a Marylander from southern Anne Arundel County where Abraham Lincoln received just three votes in the election of November 1860. (Lincoln got one in Prince George's, six in Charles, one in St. Marys and one in Calvert.) Mayo was a Southern sympathizer and a slaveholder surrounded by active supporters of the Confederacy. By the end of April 1861, 222 naval officers apparently more loyal to the South than the United States had resigned, according to a study by William S. Dudley, who is now director of the Naval Historical Center.

Mayo resigned on May 1, 1861, in an eloquent but stinging letter to President Lincoln.

"For more than half a century it has been the pride of my life to hold office under the Government of the United States," he wrote. "For twenty-five years, I have engaged in active service and have never seen my flag dishonored, or the American arms disgraced by defeat. It was the hope of my old age that I might die, as I had lived, an officer of the Navy of a free government.

"This hope has been taken from me," he wrote. "In adopting, the policy of coercion, you have denied to millions of freemen the rights of the Constitution and in its stead you have placed the will of a sectional Party and now demand submission in the name of armed force.

"As one of the oldest soldiers of America, I protest - in the name of humanity - against this `war against brethren.' I cannot fight against the Constitution while pretending to fight for it.

"You will oblige me by accepting my resignation."

He signed it "Most respectfully, Isaac Mayo, Captain U.S. Navy Late Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Coast of Africa, Constitution, Flagship."

"Most people think it was a very harsh way to address the President of the United States," Lee says.

He's not sure Lincoln ever read Mayo's letter. But on the back of the letter, he found the notation "Dismiss by order of the President. Done May 18, 1861" - an action tantamount to dishonorable discharge.

Some believe on that day Mayo shot himself. (The Sun, on Friday, May 24, 1861, reported that Mayo had died, "on Saturday last at his residence," meaning May 18, but offered no details.)

But Lee has become convinced Mayo died on May 10, as Mayo's descendants insist.

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