San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter IV.

HAVING already stated the fact that I came to San Francisco about seven years ago, it might, perhaps, be a good idea to let the reader know how I got here.

I did not come out on one of those railroad passes especially designed for the accommodation of senators and congressmen and such other politicians as may be willing to take pay for voting against any and all propositions to compel Messrs. Huntington, Crocker, and others to pay that seventy million dollar debt that the Southern Pacific Company owes the United States.

I did not beat my way out, either, but I have often wondered whether or not the public ever stops in the middle of a political campaign to consider seriously which one of the three individuals is the worst rascal: the man without money or employment, commonly called the tramp, who may be in search of honest work when he steals a ride on the brake of a freight car; the smooth-tongued "gentleman" who is elected to office on his solemn promise to vote honestly, and then, as soon as he is elected, shows his true colors by voting in the opposite direction; or the railroad magnate, who issues passes to the dishonest office holder, as part payment, on account, for acting dishonorably with his constituents.

The dishonest office holder who accepts the hospitality of railroad companies, and rides free while he is in office, is a worse thief a hundred times over than the poor tramp, because he robs the honest people who put him into office, while the tramp only steals a ride from a gigantic corporation of freebooters.

Apropos of the author, I am an American citizen. I was born in Claiborne County, Miss., on the 15th of November, 1865. My ancestors on both sides of the house were among the earliest settlers of Claiborne and Jefferson Counties, they having gone there, from Virginia, about the year 1790. They did not go there empty-handed, but carried with them their slaves and mules, and developed the agricultural resources of the greatest cotton State in the Union, incidentally killing off the troublesome Indians as they went along.

For full particulars concerning my ancestors and relatives after they went to Mississippi, see the history of that State, and note the names of the Harpes, Dardens, Calhouns, Campbells, Whitneys, Comptons, Valentines, Hubbards, Hastings, Smiths, Bolles, Georges, Chaineys, Corbins, Martins, and Zollicoffers.

Many of my relations reside in Virginia and the Carolinas. The early part of my life was spent on what was left (after Grant got through) of the old cotton plantation, with my parents, brothers, and sister.

My father, who in 1861 was classed as one of the solid financial men of the South, was fifty years old at the close of the war. Finding himself at that age with a large family, and not a dollar in the world,--his entire estate having been swept away by the fall of the Confederacy as if by a cyclone,--he adopted that which he considered the wisest course for him to pursue during the few remaining years of his life: He became a country school teacher, and devoted his time to the instruction of the children of his friends and neighbors. He never took his own children to his school; we had a nice little private school at home, with mother for teacher.

At the age of ten I was sent to the little country school of Mrs. Elizabeth Pattison Montgomery, near the spot where the town of Martin, Miss., now stands.

My father died when I was fourteen, at which time I was still attending Mrs. Montgomery's school.

My father was buried in the private burying plot in the cedar grove in front of the old family residence of his father and mother.

Of the many good things that his old friends had to say on the occasion of the funeral, I shall never forget the words of Mr. J. D. Phillip: "The worst thing that I ever knew him to do was to swear; and he commenced that when he heard of the election of Abraham Lincoln. He was a careful observer, and he foresaw the terrible destruction that the ascendency of fanaticism was bound to bring to American peace and happiness."

Having a pretty good idea of my mother's limited income, and having been brought up with the old reliable American idea that all legitimate labor is honorable, I decided to do something for myself.

An opportunity presented itself in this way:

In the autumn of 1881 I read an advertisement in the New York Weekly Sun, setting forth the fact that the National Publishing Company of Philadelphia required the services of a few agents to procure subscribers for a publication entitled "The Life of President Garfield."

I dispatched a letter to the publishers informing them that my services were at their disposal provided they would give me the agency for Claiborne County. By return mail I received a satisfactory letter, and later a prospectus of the book and a package of orders for subscriptions.

Upon speaking to a schoolmate of my intentions I was laughed at; but that did not discourage me. Acting upon a piece of quiet advice from headquarters, I called upon the most influential gentleman in the county, Colonel James S. Mason, editor and proprietor of the Southern Reveille, Port Gibson, Miss. The result of this call was the first newspaper notice that I ever received. This notice, setting forth the fact that I was the duly appointed agent for the National Publishing Company, and that the book was a splendid work, and winding up with the editor's "trust that the sprightly boy who will call upon you may be patronized to encourage him," had an affect upon the citizens of my native county that opened my eyes concerning the power of the press.

From that time on my success as a book agent was assured.

I soon became anxious to extend my territory beyond the county lines, and with that object in view I wrote to headquarters, and received a letter telling me to "go right ahead wherever I could sell books fastest." I did "go ahead," and what that section did not know of the life of our lamented president by the following Fourth of July was hardly worth knowing.

Just how many books I would have sold I can only judge from the fact that I secured four orders from every five heads of families that I called upon. All that I had to do was to say that the Reveille endorsed the book, and out would come $2.50.

In the midst of my success I received a set-back. Having bought a small forty-one caliber pistol, I proceeded to learn how to shoot, and, in so-doing, shot myself. The ball entered my right calf, and ranging downward lodged near the ankle joint, where it remained--thanks to the surgical skill of Dr. John W. Barber of Port Gibson--for ten years. I had the ball extracted by Dr. McNutt in San Francisco, in 1892, after having carried it around the world.

The accidental wounding of myself upset my plans completely. It was a long time before I could walk without great pain; but I was young then, and in due time the ball became encysted, and I started out again on new lines. I went to Philadelphia and became a reporter on the staff of the Times, under City Editor Julius Chambers. Mr. Chambers is at present editor of the New York Recorder.

While in the capacity of reporter I heard of the United States Naval Training Squadron, which at that time was offering special inducements to boys of my age who desired to "see foreign countries and become officers."

After thinking the matter over after a fashion, I decided to abandon the position of reporter and go into the schoolships, and learn navigation and seamanship.

On the Fourth of July, 1886, I found myself on board the United I had ship Minnesota, at New York, along with about two hundred other boys. I had been in the Naval Training Squadron nearly two years then; had passed through the regular courses of training on the New Hampshire, at Newport, R.I., and on board the cruising schoolship Portsmouth, in which latter vessel I had served thirteen months, during which time a cruise had been made to Europe and return, and also a six months' cruise to the West Indies and return.

To some good, honest citizens it may seem strange that I should in this volume give detailed accounts of the doings of certain officers of the United States Navy, whose acquaintance I made during the period of three years and a quarter that I spent in the service of our country.

In explanation I wish to say that the officers herein described are well known in this country; some of them having actually married San Francisco and New York society girls. Besides this, our naval officers are received into the best society the world over. They are, in fact, our nearest approach to titled aristocracy. To this latter reason, principally, is due the fact that they are always in demand in the better elements of society, as well as at the gatherings, public and private, of our coarse, vulgar, un-Americanized Parvenucracy. Therefore, I think it would be a serious mistake on my part to omit some information that I possess concerning certain officers. With a few exceptions, the officers of our navy are well educated, well-bred, courteous men; good-hearted, whole-souled, and honorable to a degree that is truly refreshing to a person who has traveled among the Parvenucracy. I take pleasure in saying that our naval officers are gentlemen as a rule, and it is with a feeling of regret that I admit that there are some painful exceptions to this truly good rule.

To know a man well, it is necessary to have seen him under a great variety of circumstances. What I know about these gentlemen I could never have learned at all had I not sailed on the same ships with them. I do not wish to be misunderstood, so I will say, right here, that I consider the worst naval officers whom I shall undertake to describe several degrees higher in the social scale than the shoddyites who run after them, dine them, wine them, cart them around the city,--when they are sober enough and will condescend to go,--and offer them their daughters, when there are no princes, lords, dukes, counts, or other drunken, blear-eyed, deformed, broken-down, foreign fortune-hunting sports in the country. When any of these latter are here the naval officers are not "in it."

I am obliged to admit the deplorable fact that, particularly among the younger officers, from the ensigns of the senior grade on down through the ranks of ensigns of the junior grade, and cadets on their first cruises, there are to be found a few of the sorriest specimens of the true American gentleman that I have ever seen.

While I am loath to admit that some of these young fellows seem to have never in their lives possessed one iota of the requisite instinctiveness of anything above upstarts, and that they are getting worse and worse all the time, I am thankful that my experience in the schoolships of the service enables me to point out the causes that render such a state of affairs possible.

The older officers, from the admirals and commodores on down to the lieutenants, deplore the fact that the positions which they have filled with such credit to themselves and their country must in time be occupied by such dudes as now get into Annapolis. But these estimable old veterans are powerless to better the coming conditions. The politicians run things at Annapolis, and those whom they send there, to suit themselves, regardless of the future welfare of the American navy, the country, or anything else, except the feathering of their own nests.

First and foremost of all, the present system of officering the navy is wrong. I will prove the assertion by facts: The cadets are appointed to the Annapolis Naval Academy by the congressmen from their respective districts, as the vacancies at Annapolis occur. These vacancies do not often occur, and when they get into the hands of the congressmen they come high. The congressmen, having had their "legs pulled" during the campaign by all the political bosses in their respective districts, have got to devise all sorts of schemes in order to exist until they are called upon by the monopolists after election; consequently they cannot afford to appoint a cadet to Annapolis on his merits alone. The applicant whose father offers the highest bid secures the the appointment, regardless of merit, good breeding, common sense, or anything else that a gentleman should possess. The Parvenucracy, ever on the alert for such opportunities to place its sons in positions which should be occupied by sons of representative citizens only, is filling the navy with nincompoops. At Annapolis the old adage, "You must learn to obey before you can learn to command," is rapidly becoming obsolete; therefore, it is no wonder that some of our officers are regular Anglo-maniacs. Of course the reader remembers the story of Captain Marryat's midshipman, who, while giving orders from a book, gave the command to let go the anchor while tacking ship in mid-ocean, and then, when called to account for it by the captain, had the impudence to say that the wind blew the page over. We are getting lots of Midshipmen Easys in our service under the present system. The sons of the Parvenucracy make very good book sailors, that is, in calm weather.

Some years ago the politicians around Washington City set up a great howl that it was "too hard on the poor cadets to go out to sea before the masts for a few months for practice each year"; and thus they managed to get that excellent old rule practically abolished. If a cadet is too delicate to go through with the course of training that the seaman who does the fighting on a man-of-war has to go through, how is that cadet ever to become a good officer? The politicians do not seem to take this into consideration at all.

But I am devoting too much space to people who occupy only an insignificant place in the kind of society that I am dealing with, so I will proceed with my story of the trip around the world on the Essex, and tell a few of the things that I recorded in my diary about Commander Jewell, "Humpty Dumpty" Bicknell, "Missionary" Wadham, "Papa" Galloway, "Spunky" Walling, "Count" Fechteler, "Billy" Poundstone, "Boozer" Loomis, "Dude" Hoggett, Mr. Rodman, Dr. Hawke, Paymaster Smith, and others.

Having entered the Naval Training Squadron at the age of eighteen, to take the regular course to enable me to become an officer in the United States Merchant Marine Service, I had signed the articles of enlistment to serve in the navy during minority.

Although my course of training was practically complete at the time of which I speak, I still had more than a year to serve.

After the boys who enter the schoolships as I did finish the course on those vessels, it is customary to place them on board regular men-of-war to serve out the remainder of their enlistments.

The United States corvette Essex was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, fitting out for a three years' cruise to China and Japan. Although I knew that my enlistment would expire long before the Essex returned to the United States, I was delighted when I saw my name on the list of seventy-four who had been picked from the Training Squadron to man her for the expedition.

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


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