May 29th and the USS Alliance

The great American historian David McCullough once wrote, "History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are."

It's probably obvious by now, but if it isn't, let me state that I strongly agree. I believe that "history" is not just a one-time isolated event that happened long ago. I believe that "history" affects us all individually--the decisions made by our ancestors, our leaders, even total strangers, all have an impact on who I am today. So when I read history, I read it with an eye towards making a connection (no matter how slight or minor) to who I am, and what I do, and what I believe. Here's an example.

On this day, May 29 1781, the USS Alliance, captured the British HMS Atalanta & Trepassy off the coast of Nova Scotia. How's that connected to me? I'm glad you asked. . .

The USS Alliance was a 36-gun sailing frigate of the American Revolutionary War, later to be famous for having fired the last shot of the war. Her keel was laid down in 1777 on the Merrimack River at Amesbury, Massachusetts and launched on 28 April 1778. Her first, and perhaps most controversial commanding officer was Capt. Pierre Landais, a former officer of the French Navy who had come to the New World in hopes of aiding the US revolution at the expense of his old enemy, the British. The Continental Congress gave him command of Alliance, the finest warship built to that date on the western side of the Atlantic.

The USS Alliance

Unfortunately, Capt Landais was famous for his temper and stubborn refusal to follow orders, and was relieved of duty by Commodore John Paul Jones in 1779 off the coast of France (he was later court-martialed and expelled from the naval service).

In 1781, the Alliance was under command of her new captain, CAPT John Barry, when she was chosen for a special task: carry the US's "envoy extraordinaire" to France to negotiate for additional funds, arms and supplies. As the Alliance was the speediest and most competent ship in US Navy, it was her task to carry the envoy, Col. John Laurens, to Groix Roads. Laurens would be traveling with three companions: Thomas Paine, Major William Jackson, and Louis-Marie, vicomte de Noailles (a French Officer serving in the US).

The Alliance's important passengers (L to R): Col. Laurens, Maj Jackson and Thomas Paine

After delivering her cargo and spending almost almost three weeks in port, Alliance headed home on the afternoon of 29 March. Almost continuous bad weather slowed the Alliance's progress and lightning shattered the frigate's main topmast and carried away many of her sails while damaging her foremast and injuring almost a score of men.

Jury-rigged repairs had been completed when Barry observed two vessels approaching him from windward 10 days later but his ship was still far from her best fighting trim. The two strangers kept pace with Alliance roughly a league off her starboard beam. At first dawn, they hoisted British colors and prepared for battle. Although all three ships were almost completely becalmed, the American drifted within hailing distance of the larger vessel about an hour before noon; Barry learned that it was the sloop of war HMS Atalanta with the smaller Trepassey, also a sloop of war. The American captain then identified his own vessel and invited Atalanta's commanding officer to surrender. A few moments later, Barry opened the inevitable battle with a broadside. The sloops immediately pulled out of the field of fire and took positions aft (behind, for you landlubbers) of the Alliance where their guns could pound her with near impunity. In the motionless air, Alliance - too large to be propelled by sweeps - was powerless to maneuver.

A cannon shot hit Barry's left shoulder, seriously wounding him, but he continued to direct the fighting until loss of blood almost robbed him of consciousness. Capt. Hoystead Hacker, the frigate's executive officer, took command as Barry was carried to the cockpit for treatment.

Hacker fought the ship with valor and determination until her inability to maneuver out of her relatively defenseless position prompted him to seek Barry's permission to surrender. Indignantly, the wounded captain refused to allow this and asked to be brought back on deck to resume command.

Inspired by Barry's zeal, Hacker returned to the fray. Then a wind sprang up and restored the battered frigate's steerage way, enabling her to bring her battery back into action. Two devastating broadsides knocked Trepassey out of the fight. Another broadside forced Atalanta to strike, ending the bloody affair. The next day, after repairs had been made, Alliance sailed for Boston on 6 June with her two captured British ships in tow.

Captain John Barry; the statue of Barry at Independence Square, Philadelphia; an Irish stamp with Barry's likeness

While the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown on 17 Oct 1781 (effectively ending the ground war), the war at sea continued until the Treaty of Paris was signed on 3 February 1783. Four weeks later, not knowing that the War had ended, CAPT Barry and the Alliance defeated the HMS Alarm and HMS Sibyl - in company with sloop-of-war HMS Tobago-off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Alliance fired the last shot of the American Revolutionary War.

It's a semi-interesting story (depending upon your interests), but what's the connection?

On her trip to France in 1781, the Alliance was carrying historical figures with a strong connection to South Carolina. Col John Laurens (the "envoy extraordinaire") was born in Charleston, SC and was the the son of Henry Laurens, whom the town and county of Laurens, South Carolin is named after. Many of my in-laws live (or have lived) in Laurens and Laurens County through the years.

Henry Laurens; Laurens County, South Carolina

He was traveling with Maj William Jackson, a British emmigrant who came to Charleston in the 1760s. Jackson served as the secretary to the United States Constitutional Convention and served with distinction in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After the war he served as one of President George Washington's personal secretaries. (Just to clarify, Fort Jackson was not named for him-it named in honor of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States).

If you dig around enough, there's always a connection to the past.

By the way, on 20 Jun 1783, the Alliance struck a rock in Chesapeake Bay. When it was reported that the necessary repairs would be quite expensive, Congress has no funds and sold the Alliance in 1785. She was converted to a cargo ship and sailed to China by a new route through the Dutch East Indies and the Solomon Islands.

Apparently, no details of Alliance's subsequent career have survived. However, when she was no longer seaworthy, the former frigate was abandoned on the shore of Petty Island across the Delaware from Philadelphia. At low tide, some of her timbers could be seen in the sands until her remaining hulk was destroyed during dredging operations in 1901

"History is the memory of things said and done."
Carl L. Becker

History, Hidden in Plain Sight

As a historian, I find that some of the most interesting stories are not the ones you go looking for, but the ones that you stumble across. During the past year, I’ve stumbled across inspiring stories of world-changing events, presidential history, and canine patriotism. The story I’m about to relate is a sobering story of indulgence and excessive opulence—how immense wealth and fortune can negatively influence a family.

This weekend was the annual “Passport DC” event, where many of the 174 foreign embassies in Washington, DC host lectures, events, and most popularly, open houses. A stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, north of DuPont Circle, is commonly known as “Embassy Row” and is home to some of the most extravagant and unbelievable houses in DC. Most of these mansions were originally built for extremely wealthy families in the early 1900’s, but were abandoned or sold during or after the Great Depression.

On Saturday, we rambled through the embassies of Uzbekistan, Trinidad & Tobago, the Bahamas, and most interestingly, the Indonesian Embassy. While I was at the Indonesian Embassy, I saw several names that seemed vaguely familiar. The thread of history dangled in front of me and I was compelled to follow. . . .

Steel drums at the Trinidad & Tobago Embassy

Thomas Francis Walsh (1850-1910) was an Irish-American who came to America as a poor immigrant at the age of 19. He was trained as a carpenter, but was ultimately interested in mining. He eventually discovered one of the largest gold mines in America (the Camp Bird Gold Mine near Ouray, Colorado, which at its peak was producing $5000/day in gold ore. It produced and estimated $30 -50 million and is still an active gold mine!) The man who came to America penniless now lived a lavish lifestyle that included trips to Europe, fine clothes, and expensive motor cars. Overnight, the family went from “wearing red flannel to sleeping under $4,000 silk sheets”. Around 1898, the family (which included his wife, Carrie Bell Read, and two children, Evalyn and Vinson) moved to Washington, D.C. and entered the world of high society, where Tom Walsh was known as the “Colorado Monte Cristo”.

The "Colorado Monte Cristo", Tom Walsh

The Camp Bird Gold Mine; Colorado

In 1903, Walsh finished construction on a new house at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue, the most expensive private house built in DC at that time (it cost $835,000 at the time; that’s an astonishing $20.2 MILLION in modern dollars.) The 4 story mansion boasted 60 rooms. Walsh specified to New York architect Henry Anderson that he wanted the main staircase to be reminiscent of an ocean liner, and thus he created an open decked promenade through three floors of carved mahogany. Magnificent, inlaid wood panels covered the walls, and there is even a small pipe-organ in the main dining room. To access the theater and ballroom on the fourth floor, guests rode in one of the earliest residential elevators in America. As testament to his financial beginnings, Walsh had the architect inlay a large piece of gold ore in the arch of the main entrance.

The exterior of "2020"

The Walsh mansion on Mass Ave soon became the scene of some of the most lavish entertaining in Washington, and the Walshes hosted US officials, along with foreign heads of state. The King of Belgium, King Leopold, became a personal friend and often stayed at “2020” when he was in town.

King Leopold of Belgium

In 1910, his daughter (and now only remaining heir) Evalyn became involved with Edward “Ned” McLean. Ned McLean would go on to become the publisher and owner of the Washington Post—but in 1910, he was another spoiled child born into wealth and privilege. He was the son of John Roll McLean (one of the original owners of the Washington Post, and the builder of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Line. The town of McLean, Virginia—where we now live—was named after John McLean!) Ned was born into a life of luxury and as the only heir to the family fortune, lived an extravagant childhood.

Ned & Evalyn; c. 1915

Rather than wait for a high society wedding, the 19 y/o Ned and 24 y/o Evalyn eloped to Europe with $200,000 in spending cash ($100K from each family as a modest wedding gift.) As they traveled around Europe and the Middle East, Evalyn indulged her love of jewelry, purchasing the 92-carat diamond known as the “Evening Star” from Pierre Cartier. At the end of their romantic getaway, the two found themselves back in Paris, unable to pay their hotel bill despite having just come from the casinos at Vichy where Evalyn had won $70,000. A quick telegram back to the parents resolved any cash problems, and Ned found himself with enough cash to buy his new bride a shiny new bauble for a final wedding gift—the 62-carat blue diamond known as The Hope Diamond (picked up for a mere $180,000). (There’s considerable speculation on whether the Diamond was purchased on their honeymoon or two years later, but we’ll stick with the honeymoon story for the moment.)

The Hope Diamond

[In a somewhat-related rabbit trail, the Hope Diamond is one of the most famous diamonds in the world. Many unsubstantiated rumors and legends abound about the Hope Diamond, but this much is a known fact: the Hope Diamond was once part of France’s Crown Jewels, and was often worn by French King Louis XV (at the time, it was known as the “Blue Diamond of the Crown (diamant bleu de la Couronne de France) and weighed an amazing 62 1/8 carats.). In Sep 1792, it was stolen during the French Revolution and eventually made its way to England and the US by the early 1900’s. The Hope Diamond weighs 45.52 carats, and has an estimated value of $300-$350 million US dollars!)

Evalyn Walsh; 1915

Evalyn loved the Hope Diamond, and for the next 30 years, wore it to almost every social function she attended. Pictures from the time captured her with the Hope Diamond around her neck. She loved it so much that she would hide the diamond around the mansion and the children (and later grandchildren) would play a high-priced version of Hide-and-Seek with it.

Evalyn Walsh; unknown date

Evalyn Walsh; 1936

Ned & Evalyn remained a fixture in the DC social scene, and she became close friends and confidantes to Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the oldest child of President Teddy Roosevelt) and Florence Harding, (the wife of 29th President Warren G. Harding). Their parties became the stuff of legend as guests dined on solid gold plates, and their children slept in a solid gold cradle (to be fair, the cradle was a gift from King Albert of Belgium.) Her parties would feature multiple orchestras and bands and sometimes included as many as 2,000 guests.

The McLeans' frivolous spending accelerated during their marriage and their inability to understand the basics of money management resulted in their virtual bankruptcy towards the end of their lives. Together, the couple wasted two family fortunes worth millions (billions in current cash value) by splurging on such exotic things as a million-dollar birthday party for their dog, who was allowed to wear the Hope Diamond on his day of honor. Additionally, the marriage was constantly racked by rumors of by infidelity and substance abuse (Ned was a spectacular alcoholic, while Evalyn was addicted to morphine). The couple divorced in 1929, though the decree was invalidated due to the divorce having been illegally obtained in Lithuania (That’s such an unusual event that I can’t even make any further comments about it.) Ned McLean eventually suffered psychiatric issues (official diagnosis: “Korsakoff's psychosis and brain atrophy from alcohol saturation”) and died in a Baltimore mental institution in 1941.

When Evalyn Walsh McLean died in 1947 (of pneumonia at the age of 60), she bequeathed the Hope Diamond to her grandchildren, though her property would be in the hands of trustees until the eldest had reached 25 years of age, some 20 years in the future. Unfortunately, she left this world with some outstanding debts, so the trustees gained permission to sell her jewelry to settle her debts. In 1949, many of her jewels were sold to New York diamond merchant Harry Winston, who eventually donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian in 1954, mailing it through the US Postal Service in a plain brown envelope.

After the Walshes and McLeans vacated 2020 Mass Ave, the luxurious building switched hands several times before being purchased by the Indonesian government in 1952 for $335,000. We've come a long way since the opening paragraph, and here's some shots of the interior.

The main staircase

The Embassy Dining Room

You can see the Hope Diamond on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

You can check out the exterior of the Indonesian Embassy at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

You can come visit us in McLean, Virginia at any time!