By Russell Neyman.
I’d like to tell you a little about Charlie, my great-great grandfather, the anchor of my book, “Shadows of the Mast.” This is a project that has taken a thousand hours, many thousands of dollars, and a span of nearly ten years. He was commonly referred to as Commander Charles Nelson Atwater, but his friends called him Charlie and his family used the nickname, “Benjie.” He was born in 1857, just before the American Civil War, and died in 1916, just as World War I began. I know him better than anyone alive.
Things started for Charlie and me in 1997, on the day the USS CONSTITUTIONwas pulled out of drydock after an extensive overhaul to sail around Boston harbor for the first time in decades. You remember that ship, don’t you? She was a fast and rugged frigate from the War with the British in 1812, and got the name “Old Ironsides,” because the enemy’s cannonballs simply bounced off her thick planking. That day, I pulled out Charlie’s sea diaries, and have been swept into his life ever since.
The journey has taken me back to the Civil War, Niagara Falls, the Far East, Annapolis, and the Golden Spike Ceremonies joining the Transcontinental Railroad. I know more about the United States Naval Academy’s Class of 1878 – just 16 cadets, by the way – than any man alive. That particular group began their careers in an inauspicious time. For all practical purposes, there was no American Navy; just a patched-up collection of rotting and rusting hulks from the Civil War, commanded by too many overstuffed heroes from a prior era. When he first went to sea, the US Navy was a laughingstock.
Charlie was certainly not a hero, at least in the conventional sense. He was a smoker and a drinker, although you get the impression that he hid the latter from his family. He was stubborn and argumentative, and his commanding officers reprimanded him and put him on report.
He served on several ships past their prime but, nevertheless, famous. He was one of the junior officers on the last day of CONSTITUTION’Slast official cruise as an active ship. And he had a real knack for rubbing elbows with notorious people – former President Grant, Col Milton Cogswell, hero of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in 1861, a murder in Japan, Tammany Hall and Robert Leujene, later commandant of the United States Marine Corps. His father was the Major of Lockport New York, and his cousin was President William Howard Taft. And there were always the Victorian ladies in his life – remember, much of what I know dates back to his twenties – his diaries detailing his affairs ashore as much as his life at sea. When he wasn’t doing his Navy thing, Charlie was on a constant search for a mate!
The one he finally married, of course, was Mary Snowden, daughter of a New Hampshire doctor. She was a stern, immovable woman, a relic of the Victorian era. They had two daughters, one of whom was Katharine Atwater Smith, my mother’s mother.
So why has it taken so long to complete this project? The “peeling the onion” cliché really applies here. As I delve into one interesting chapter of his life, I get a glimpse of another fascinating character or piece of history that I cannot ignore. The trips all have side trips, and the people he knew need to be known, too.
The latest revelation is an episode during an obscure battle in the last weeks of the Spanish American War that barely registers a blip on the radar screen of American Military History. Ensign Charles Nelson Atwater hopped in a shoreboat and led a detachment of sailors and marines, attacking a Spanish-held lighthouse in Porto Rico. Details are hard to get, but apparently a shell from his own ship struck the lighthouse wall a few feet from Charlie but didn’t explode. So, my family came that close to being non-events ourselves.
There are so many yet unanswered questions! Whatever happened to Judge Heatherington, who murdered his wife’s lover in Japan, in 1895? Where is Milton Cogswell’s golden sword, given to him by the City of New York at the end of the Civil War? What was the Committee of 395 aboard the USS TRENTON? And, why did Charlie’s classmate Ed Preble, grandson of the famous Revolutionary War sea captain, quit the Naval Academy? When you read the final piece, take a few minutes to read my afterthoughts on researching. The serendipity that brought some of the information to me is mind-boggling. It’s been quite an adventure.
“Shadows” is of interest to several historical publishing companies, including Naval Institute Press, but I don’t have a firm offer to publish it yet. I may simply self-publish it, hopefully within a year, but I promise all of you, it will be printed. I’ll keep you posted.