HMS Friday: The USS Cyane. Don’t Call It A Comeback
by Mark Lukach
Commodore Thomas Catesby Jones, commander of the Pacific Squadron of the United States Navy, heard a rumor that the United States and Mexico had gone to war, and he seized the opportunity to claim California as part of the United States. Jones sailed into Monterey Bay with two ships, the USS Cyane and the USS United States. The third member of his squadron, the USS Dale had been sent to Panama with an urgent dispatch stating his intent to capture several Mexican coastal towns. The Mexicans in Monterey surrendered immediately. Jones’ force vastly outgunned them, and many of the locals were pro-America anyway. Not a single shot was fired.
Yet by October 28th, Jones, and everyone else for that matter, realized that this preemptive move had been a huge mistake: the United States and Mexico were not at war. Jones had been given orders to invade in the event of a war. He sheepishly packed up his men, replaced the American flag with the Mexican one, and unceremoniously sailed off with his tail between his legs.
You see, by this time, the Mexican Republic was crumbling, with its northern holdings ripe for the picking. In 1836, the territory known as Texas had declared independence from Mexico, which brought into question what might happen to other parts of Mexico. On June 15, 1846, Alta California, the massive Mexican province that includes modern day California, also declared independence. Thirty settlers, occupied the small Mexican outpost at Sonoma, raising the “Bear Flag” of the California Republic, but the Mexican government immediately squashed that revolt, shipping out generals, including José Antonio Castro, the namesake of San Francisco’s Castro district, to ensure that California remained Mexican.
As the Lone Star Republic inched closer to annexation with the United States, the British, French, American, and even Russian navies patrolled California’s coveted coastline like a pack of hungry vultures. Everyone was ready to pounce on this promising territory at the faintest hint of an order to attack. So it’s no surprise that Jones jumped the gun and gloriously sailed into Monterey. Even if he was four years early, and was later censured by the US Congress for his invasive behavior.
War between the US and Mexico was officially declared by Washington on May 13, 1846. However, rumor still ruled the high seas. Commodore John D. Sloat, who replaced the ousted Jones, heard of the insurrection in Sonoma and presumed that it signaled the official war, so he immediately initiated an invasion of Monterey. On July 7, 1846, the Americans menaced Monterey with three ships: the USS Savannah, USS Levant, and in an act of déjà vu, the USS Cyane. Two hundred and fifty marines and sailors waded ashore, Sloat read a declaration announcing the territory as part of the United States of America, and just like the first time, not a shot was fired.
Talk about a comeback.
There are countless great comeback stories–Apple, The Play, Robert Downey Jr–but I really love the comeback story of the Cyane, a ship involved in two successful, initially bloodless conquests of California. How many other ships can claim two identical victories in the exact same place?
At 132 feet stem to stern, Cyane was what’s called a sloop-of-war: a single deck ship that carries anywhere from one to twenty guns. She was built in Boston in 1837, commissioned in 1838 by none other than Captain John “Mad Jack” Percival, and spent her early career in the Mediterranean. At her peak she carried 200 sailors, 18 large guns, and 4 small ones. She was quite a fighting ship.
Cyane would become a key component of the American naval force during the Mexican-American War and her legend continued far beyond Monterey. Under Captain Samuel Francis Dupont and his lieutenant, Archibald MacRae, Cyane’s crew would fight pitched battles in Mexico and then sail to Hawaii to guard the U.S. whaling fleet in Hawaii. There, Dupont and MacRae climbed Mt. Kiluaea and attended church with Abner Paki, the last known Hawaiian king to surf the big waves of Makaha.
In the years leading up to the American Civil War, Cyane became a major player in keeping European powers from meddling in the conflict, and she later suppressed a halfhearted and downright bizarre Confederate attempt to seize control of Alcatraz Island. Her deck was graced by legends; Percival, Catesby Jones, Sloat, Dupont, John Fremont, Kit Carson, and even three dozen black American soldiers during the Civil War. In my opinion, Cyane is one of America’s most under-celebrated legendary warships. I like her comeback story the best.
Which is all a very long way of saying that this column, the HMS Friday, is also back. A few years ago, we spun tales of Hugh Williams, salt, the Flat Earth Society, swimming clubs, you name it. Our intention was to celebrate the historical, the nonsensical, the legendary, and the exaggerated, and we had a blast doing it. But then, just like Jones sailed away from Monterey with his American flag embarrassingly packed with him, life swept us away.
But now we’re back. We’ve made a few modifications: mostly – every other week, rather than weekly, but the goal remains to entertain and educate you about the rich and mysterious history of the ocean. It’s good to be back. Just don’t call it a comeback.
And while we’re discussing modifications, in typical HMS Friday fashion, it’s worth modifying, and even debunking a bit of established history. As alluded to earlier, Commodore Sloat invaded Monterey on news of the insurrection in Sonoma that had been led by the (soon to become) legendary John C. Fremont and Kit Carson. Sloat assumed the fighting meant war. However, the June 14, 1846 uprising was unsanctioned by the US government. As such, just like Jones four years earlier, Sloat acted on misinformation. Not only did the Cyane invade Monterey twice, she did so illegally – both times.
The irony of course, is that the United States and Mexico were in fact at war at the time of the Sonoma “Bear Flag Revolt,” and at the time of Sloat’s invasion…Washington had just not yet formally issued orders for the military to take action in California. This is probably why Sloat wasn’t punished as Jones had been. Orders had not reached him, but the US and Mexico were in a de facto state of war.
Yet as this reality dawned on a horrified Sloat – that he had in fact invaded without clear orders, he feared falling victim to the same fate as Catesby. Sloat wanted nothing more to do with it, so he handed over authority to a far more brash commander, Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Stockton had no problem operating on rumor, and didn’t wait for formal orders to continue his invasion south from Monterey. Under Stockton’s orders, the US Navy took over all of Southern California, all without firing a shot…all without the formal approval of the United States government.
All of this misinformation was finally cleared up in a tale that’s so entertaining it’s worth sharing in detail. In late August or early September, 1846, the Mexican Brigg Republicana was captured by Americans in Santa Barbara. Aboard the Republicana was an American spy who, in the presence of Mexican and American officers, had first identified himself as a British officer bearing correspondence for Commodore Sloat. But the purser on the capturing American ship, a man named Phelps, thought the Brit’s accent sounded a bit, well, Southern, and peppered him with questions. But the British officer stuck to his story. Later that day, when a second American ship, the USS Congress was sighted, the cagey young Brit finally “threw off his disguise” (according to Phelps) and revealed that he was in fact USS Cyane Passed Midshipman Archibald MacRae, of Wilmington, North Carolina. MacRae had traveled from Washington to Panama, where he apparently hijacked a small boat and sailed to Acapulco. There, he duped the captain of the Republicana into believing that he was a Brit who wanted to discuss an English-Mexican alliance. The captain eagerly ferried him north. When Republicana was captured, MacRae had to maintain the farce in front of his Mexican compatriots, but bolstered by the firepower of the arriving USS Congress, he handed over the orders from President Polk to seize California. In short, it was MacRae who brought the actual declaration of war.
So it’s not entirely accurate to call Sloat’s landing an unsanctioned invasion, which is probably why it has not been written that way into the historical record. The US and Mexico were at war when Sloat landed, but the attack orders, direct from the president, just hadn’t arrived yet. By the time MacRae was captured, Sloat had already turned over command to Stockton, and Stockton was already in command of Los Angeles. When all said and done, it was former New Jersey Governor and Cyane purser Rodman M. Price who finally issued the news of war to Stockton. “The official news of the existence of war came by Lieut McRae (sic)… from Washington to Monterey. And I carried it from there to Los Angeles,” Price wrote.
MacRae enjoyed a decade of remarkable adventures alongside Cyane’s captains Percival, Mervine and DuPont, who particularly praised MacRae’s bravery during Mexican combat, calling MacRae his “Fire Eater.” Nine years later, aboard a different ship, MacRae became the first person to chart the Bishop Rock, the six-foot-deep seamount that today marks the remarkable mid-ocean surf spot above the treacherous Cortes Bank. A few months after that, MacRae killed himself with a .45 caliber revolver. But that is another story.
As a final note, the USS Cyane is actually in the midst of her own, third comeback. After a storied 40-year career in the US Navy, Cyane was sold and scrapped. But today, a group of historical reenactors known as the Center for Living History are attempting to build a replica of Cyane for permanent display in Monterey Bay. Seems to me a fitting tribute.
Sources: Thanks to author Kenneth Lifshitz for a final review/fact check of this piece. Ken’s first novel, Monoville is a sprawling historical fiction that revolves around MacRae’s short life, and the larger than life characters he served alongside after the Mexican-American War.
cssvirginia.org for more about Jones
museumofmonterey.org for more about Sloat’s landing
elane.stanford.edu and coastalpost.com for useful overviews of early California history
cyane.org for more about the replica Cyane, and to donate
Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral for a great tangent on the fascinating life of Samuel Francis Du Pont, one of the Cyane’s most famous commanders.
archive.org for extracts from private journal-letters of Captain S. F. Du Point, while in command of the Cyane during the war with Mexico, 1846-48
Craig L. Symonds description of the Mexican American War and the “Fremont problem.”
“Mad Jack” Percival’s fascinating letter granting Archibald MacRae’s warrant (promotion) from Midshipman to Passed Midshipman – written aboard Cyane in 1839. This made MacRae eligible to become a Lieutenant.
Stockton’s letter to Congress explaining the whole nonsense of invading without formal orders, even though orders were en route.