Commodore Mayo: A man of adventure and tragedy

A century and a half ago, swashbuckling Commodore Isaac Mayo died on his own estate, symbol of a nation divided

  • Byron A. Lee spent three years researching the life of Commodore Isaac Mayo. His biography, "Naval Warrior: The Life of Commodore Isaac Mayo," was published in 2002.
Byron A. Lee spent three years researching the life of Commodore… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
May 14, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

He was a famed seaman — a prodigy who won a congressional medal at 18, fought in three wars and ended up commanding the 44-gun USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," as it tracked slave ships off the coast of Africa.

The reputation of Commodore Isaac Mayo was unassailable, and so were his credentials as a local gentleman as he settled in on the family plantation in southern Anne Arundel at age 67.

But if Mayo expected to spend his latter days in comfort, he misread the volatility of his times. A hundred and fifty years ago this week, the military hero for whom the community of Mayo is named ran afoul of none other than President Abraham Lincoln, saw his career end in shame, and ended up dead, probably by gunshot, before the end of May.

Few of the roughly 3,300 people who now live in Mayo, an unincorporated area southeast of Edgewater, know the full story of the man whose name appears on the front of their post office — his glory, disgrace and death, and of the eventual clearing of his name.

Even his biographer, Byron A. Lee, a man who spent three years researching Mayo, couldn't answer two key questions with authority: on what day, exactly, did he die; and was it by his own hand?

"He was a naval hero and a patriot, but parts of his life just weren't documented," says Lee, 83, now retired and living in Annapolis. "They may be lost to posterity."

If at least some of the story is fated to remain a mystery, one theme is clear: In the Anne Arundel of 1861, as elsewhere, people had to make hard choices as the Civil War began. Few had to make a starker one than the man from the plantation on the South River.

From Annapolis to Africa

As recently as 15 years ago, few in this area seemed to know much about Isaac Mayo — not even those you'd think might be familiar with such a colorful character.

"I realized [the community of] Mayo was named after him, that he was a prominent figure down there, and that he'd been in the Navy," says Mark Schatz of the Ann Arrundell Historical Society in Glen Burnie. "Beyond that, I have to say, I was hazy on the details."

Schatz, then president of the organization, decided to seek an author who could take on a Mayo biography. He approached Lee, a retired Navy engineer who had written a book about Parkhurst, a historic home in Harwood, in 1998.

Lee, too, started out less than familiar with Mayo. That soon changed. As he scoured letters and public records from Harwood to Washington, D.C., the man he saw coming into view qualified as larger-than-life long before his tragic end.

Mayo, he found, was born in Anne Arundel, probably in 1794, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier and a nephew of six more. He won appointment a midshipman at 16. Three years later, he made such a mark in battle during the War of 1812 that Congress gave him its Medal of Valor, his native state a dress sword with a hilt of solid gold. It was just the beginning.

The man whose name now graces everything from Mayo Road (the local name for Route 214) to the Commodore Mayo Kiwanis Club in Edgewater, served in the Pacific, battled pirates in the Caribbean and commanded a squadron of gunboats in the Florida Everglades during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), where he personally carried out the capture of a feared chief, Mad Tiger.

As Mayo plied the seas, his exploits grew more spectacular. While protecting a schooner returning freed slaves to a new settlement in Africa, he suffered musket burns when he came face-to-face with King Crako, the chief of a local tribe. Later, during the Mexican War, he moved his ships' guns onto land, using them to topple the walls surrounding Veracruz before the 1847 battle that took the port town.

He buried cannonballs from the engagement at Gresham, the family estate. "He wasn't shy about taking credit for that one," Lee says, laughing.

Unlike many Navy career men, Mayo never lost sight of life on land. He inherited 250 acres between the South and Rhodes rivers as a young man and spent the rest of his days expanding the place. By 1860, the Gresham Plantation numbered 1,400 acres, a significant portion of what is now called (what else?) the Mayo Peninsula.

In 1845, he even called in favors to help bring the brand-new U.S. Naval Academy to Annapolis.

"As an Anne Arundel County native, he considered Annapolis the center of the universe," Lee wrote in "Naval Warrior: The Life of Commodore Isaac Mayo," which appeared in 2002.

Schatz says that might have been his most lasting mark on the county.

There was little hint that the commodore would one day personify the divide between North and South — not even during the 1850s, when he was tasked with using the USS Constitution to suppress the slave trade near Africa.

If the mission posed a conflict for Mayo, who owned 15 slaves himself, he didn't let such a contradiction bother him — not yet, anyway.

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