Digital version of a profile of Mike Sitrick, founder of my new firm, Sitrick And Company, to run Sunday June 3 in the New York Times.
For the Union Dead, Robert Lowell
On Boston Common, following a decade-long Memorial Day tradition, volunteers from the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund have set out more than 37,000 flags to mark the memory of all the Commonwealth’s soldiers who have died in battle defending the country since the Revolution.
Jim Gould, local historian and essayist, emailed me on Saturday the news that a flag had been placed on the grave in Cotuit’s Mosswood Cemetary of my great-great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas Chatfield, to honor his service in the Union Navy during the Civil War.
Chatfield survived the Civil War unscathed. Across the street from where I sit, in the park in the village center, sit two hulking granite boulders with bronze plaques affixed to their faces. There are enscribed the names of Cotuit’s veterans of the two world wars.
I did not serve in the military but a few men in the family have. From my fifth great grandfather Job Handy serving in the Continental Army in the American Revolution to the present with my son serving in the U.S. Army, there’s somewhat of a military tradition to honor. My father was in the Army in the early 1950s, stationed in post-war Germany. My brother Tom served in the Army’s special forces for nearly 15 years. My nephew is presently a Navy Seal. My son is a private in the 25th Infantry.
I missed the draft for the Vietnam war by a few months in 1976, then came close to enlisting in the Navy after graduating from college four years later (a missed opportunity I’ve regretted ever since). I should have served but didn’t.
Here’s to those who did serve or are serving now:
Here’s to Jim Forbes who served in the USMC at Khesanh. To Rick Larcom the Green Beret who lost his leg in Vietnam. To Sam Berry who flew an Air Force tanker. To Ben Field who is a sonarman aboard a USN submarine. Here’s to all who serve in distant wars today, who have served in the past, and who one day will have their graves marked on some future Memorial Day by a flag they earned through their service.
I have a nice collection of books and over the past two weeks I’ve winnowed down their numbers by dragging 20 black contractor bags to the Boys Club book trailer at the Barnstable Dump. I may have given myself a hernia in the process, as all of those books were upstairs, scattered between five book cases, and had to be Santa Claus carried downstairs and out the door over my shoulder.
I lightened the load on the old house’s bones and perhaps even slowed its sagging into the sand, but no one was happier to see the black bags of books leave forever than my wife Daphne, who asked me multiple times “what’s wrong with a Kindle?”
A lot is wrong with a Kindle. All those sad “books” locked away on a little plastic rectangle have nothing to compare with the impressive ranks on actual shelves of Shelby Foote’s trilogy of the American Civil War, Gibbons’ massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I also listened to via Audible during endless car commutes from the Cape to NYC), a signed three-volume hardcover set of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy, a full shelf of Pynchon, all of O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, and treasures dating back to college.
Friends and house guests can’t spend a pensive moment on a rainy day looking for a good book on the Kindle in my briefcase. I can’t excitedly press a masterpiece sitting on a device into their hands knowing it won’t come back, but still feel glad to give them the chance to experience what I had when I read the book for the first time.
What sits on a person’s book shelves may say more about a person than their Match.com profile or their Meyers Briggs score. Who hasn’t cocked their head to the side and spent a few minutes scanning book spines to get a sense of their host and their interests? When I was in college I was invited to dinner by my advisor John Hersey. His home on Humphrey Street in New Haven was packed solid with books, more than I had ever seen before or since. My read on him? People who write books own a lot of books.
My shelves — prior to the Great Reshelving of 2018 — would have told a browser that their owner catalogued according to the laws of entropy. Nothing was grouped correctly. Proust was hanging out with James Ellroy. Ancient software manuals sucked up precious space. Flimsy IKEA bookshelves had cracked and collapsed to reveal they were nothing more than corrugated cardboard encased in vinyl. Stacks of books lay under beds collecting dust bunnies. Torn paperbacks with no covers competed with first editions, great poetry, and irreplaceable yearbooks and family photo albums.
Being the nerd I am I went online to look for some guidance on how to most efficiently purge my collection and reorganize it across multiple bookshelves in separate rooms. Should I use the Dewey Decimal System? I did work in a library in college and the Cotuit Library is right across the street and I kind of know the DDS. Was there an amazing book app that would scan ISBN numbers and help me keep track of my lending? One lifehacking tip advised organizing books by the color of their spines the way teenagers sometimes organize their apps on their phones by the color of the icons.
In the end I went topical. Fiction and poetry are being shelved alphabetically in the main book case along with the best of my maritime history and fiction. Paperback fiction (in decent shape) went on the uppermost shelf that is conveniently paperback sized. Ancient history and literature — Herodotus through Runciman — went into a bedroom along with more marine titles, mountain climbing, survival stories, philosophy, and coffee table art books. The guest room got more beach reading and popular stuff like Stephen King, along with all the local flora and fauna and Cape Cod specific titles.
First came the purge and the purge intensified. In a moment I would ponder as book in my hand and make a quick assessment. Was it a duplicate and if so, was it superior to the other edition? Do I need three hardcover copies of Harry Potter and the Lost Prince of the Planet Xerox? Was it out of date, e.g. some business book about “Agile Lean 6 Sigma Teams?” that wasn’t relevant anymore to anybody and probably was that way the day it was published? Into the trash with it. Was it a one-off read that would probably never get picked up and read again? e.g. anything by James Patterson? Into the trash.
My criteria for disposal grew more weening the more weeding out I did. Sometimes I’d find a title so heinous I’d cringe that it even came into the house, let alone found space to molder in.
Once the purge was completed and five back-bending trips to the recycling center lightened the house by several tons, I started shuttling the survivors to their new homes. In the process I was able to dispose of one dilapidated IKEA bookcase and multiple temporary shelves in various bedrooms. I removed about 100 feet of shelving by the time I finished, and what remains has plenty of room for more books. All photo albums and yearbooks are in a set of shelves inside of a closet used to store old electronics and other detritus.
The most satisfying part of the Great Reshelving was the reunification of so many scattered titles and the discovery that my favorite authors are Don DeLillo, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Hannah, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy. I’m really into Byzantine History (especially the fall of Constantinople), the naval history of the Civil War, whaling, American small boat design, shipwrecks, mountain climbing, and English romantic poets.
As for apps, yes there are book apps that purport to make life easy, but in the end I just did it by the seat of my pants the old fashioned way.
I’ve been into non-currency applications of the blockchain thanks to Dries Buytaert’s thoughts about using it to reward contributors to open source projects, and Steven Johnson’s excellent article about blockchain, cryptocurrencies, ICOs, the Bitcoin Bubble and Etherium in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last January.
I signed up for po.et, received a Frost token and API URL; downloaded the WordPress plugin, uploaded the zip file to my account on WordPress.com and filled out the plugin’s settings with my name and the Frost settings.
I can stick a badge like this one:into my posts by adding “” to each post. What’s the big whoop? It’s essentially stamping a piece of my work with my Po.et token so it can be verified as my work and not an impostor’s nor a thief’s. I believe I can audit my work for it’s use (or abuse), use it on photos, audio… and maybe incorporate a payment system in the future.
Po.et has one of the best self-descriptions I’ve seen from a tech company in a long time:
Po.et is a tool that allows publishers to timestamp their digital works. Po.et uses blockchain technology in order to create digital “fingerprints” that can mathematically prove an article hasn’t been altered or tampered with.
Why Paul Theroux Loves Cape Cod https://nyti.ms/2qzzOzJ
Theroux is one of my favorite writers of fiction and acerbic travel. His 1978 novel Picture Palace is set on the Cape, and he’s had a summer place here since the mid-70s.
“It is my home, so it is in my dreams,” he writes, “a landscape of my unconscious mind, perhaps my mind’s only landscape.”
I just finished smearing cream cheese all over today’s New York Time’s front page story about how the U.K. company Cambridge Analytica filched 50 million Facebook accounts to fuel its data profiling engine for the Trump campaign and other Republican races over the past few years. It was spellbinding and infuriating at the same time, making for my best outraged breakfast in weeks.
Data services like Cambridge Analytica aren’t new, they’re usually just another pollster with a black box algorithm and some intimations that they have a pipeline to the source of the good data that others don’t. At the 2010 CES I was pitched hard by two companies who shall go unnamed but who both claimed to have full data feeds from either Google, Facebook’s “social graph” and a full record of every tweet ever twitted. They were selling their services to digital marketers such as myself to drive campaign development, media planning, and Big Data voodoo psychographic persona profiling. The one that said they had a full database of every tweet ever sent was applying some cockamamie sentiment analysis that could determine the difference between a teenager calling a Toyota Corolla “a sick ride” and a pissed off commuter calling the same car “a sick POS.” Another made it sound like they were kinda, sorta a Google portfolio company with Google investments and permission to get really deep into the good stuff. Neither of those two companies made a shred of sense so I begged off and went back to my sore feet and sense of wonder by the porn stars trying to crash the hospitality lounge Lenovo set up in the Bellagio across from the AVN Awards.
I walked away feeling very creeped out by those early social analysis firms’ claims of having a “special” relationship with the Big Three in social networking and search. For all I know they were only scraping profiles and copying tweets, and I doubt any of them had a true backdoor into Google’s search records John Battelle wrote presciently in 2003 prior to publishing his book about Google, “The Search” — that Sergey and Larry have long been sitting on the world’s most exhaustive “database of intentions” but don’t pimp it out because, well, because Google’s motto is “don’t be Evil.”
Andy Kessler told me in 1995 as I was figuring out the business plan for Forbes.com that the true currency of the Internet wasn’t goiing to be cash based — purchases, subscriptions, etc. — but informational. I wasn’t sharp enough to fully grok his point, but in essence he correctly called that true source of value coming from information as users like you and me were persuaded to part with our personal details in exchange for some free value.
Dries Buytaert, who invented the open source CMS, Drupal, also called it a couple years ago when he said there was no way for a content brand like the New York Times to beat the power of the Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft profile given the immense amount of data they were accumulated on their users’ activities.
“Traditional retailers like RadioShack and Barnes & Noble were great “content platforms”; they have millions of products on shelves across thousands of physical stores. Amazon disrupted them by moving online, and Amazon was able to build an even better content platform with many more products. In addition, the internet enabled the creation of “user platforms”. Amazon is a great user platform as it knows the interests of the 250 million customers it has on file; it uses that customer information to recommend products to buy. Amazon built a great content and user platform.”
To read this morning, with a mouthful of bagel , that a Cambridge Analytica researcher was able to weasel Facebook into handing over the intimate details of 50 million people by fibbing and claiming the data was for an academic study would be jaw dropping were it not for Facebook’s unbroken record of ham-fisted actions and policies regarding its users’ data, the same reason I avoid it like the network despite its ubiquity.
“Get over it, you have no privacy” may be the cynical creed of this brave new world, but I have to imagine, given the throbbing tenor of the headlines (today’s Times story checks off all the good keywords of the current news cycle including “Robert Mueller” “Donald Trump” “Julian Assange” “Steve Bannion” and of course the world’s foremost kleptocratic state:, “Russia“) and on the back of Equifax screwing the pooch last summer by forgetting to patch its Apache code, that we’re getting closer to the big pullback in Internet confidence by the consumers of the world that was predicted by the World Economic Forum and the McKinsey Global Institute over five years ago.
It’s shaping up to be a banner year for a privacy revolt. Cambridge Analytica is heading to the mattresses just the EU’s new consumer privacy regulations — GDPR — is going into effect. The EU has a record of passing the most stringent consumer privacy regulations and any company with global reach is going to have to snap to and toe the line or face a lot of flights to Strasbourg or The Hague to face the music. After all, half of Europe lived in a snoop state with the Stasi listening into everything, so when their government tells Google an individual has a right to be forgotten, you can bet that person is going to be forgotten or Google isn’t going to sell many ads in Germany or France.
I’ll make some far fetched and wishful predictions that a few things could happen:
- Digital marketers are going to think long and hard before asking for a prospect or customer to share personal information. Database marketing is going to get some serious scrutiny from their general counsel and Chief Risk Officer. The entire martech stack is getting a full colonoscopy right now before GDPR kicks in less than six weeks from today.
- Companies in the martech and data analytics space are going to fall all over themselves to sell those same marketers some sort of “put the consumer in control” tools so data pigs with their first, second and third party data can begin to look like white hats. I can write the taglines now: “Earn Customer Trust By Putting Them Control of Their Data.”
- Forget Big Data, the next market is going to be for tools that let consumers own and manage their info, so they can be in control of their data. The only people to do so will be tin foil hat-types like my step father who used to call Microsoft tech support because he thought they were responsible for scam spam from the Prince of Cameroon who needed his banking details to save his country’s treasury.
- Say hello to the beginnings of the “Big Reverse.” You know — “when banks compete for your business you win?” The dream of killing advertising and marketing and turning the tables so when I need a new car I can somehow let all the dealers know I’m looking for a really sick SUV with 5 mpg and get bids back like Buddy Cianci with snowplowing contracts in Providence.
- Digital and Tivo killed interruption-based/ shotgun marketing. Digital came along and the best the marketing world could come up with were ignorant retargeting ads that chase us around to buy the shoes we bought the time they planted a tracking cookie under our bumpers to follow us around like total creeps. If that’s the best they can do with my shoe size, credit card number, my time zone, gender, and penchant for pictures of squirrels eating pizza, then they are cavemen with stone axes claiming to be “data-driven” marketers.
- The ineptitude of the hundreds of corporations and governments who have had to issues contrite “oops, we lost your social security number, here’s a free credit report” statements are going to have to face up to a new world where hoovering up birthdays and zipcodes and astrological signs isn’t permitted, and the Cluetrain-driven vision of Doc Searls and Project VRM is going to become the new normal very very soon.
- Say goodbye to lead gen and the interrupted afternoons when “Business Development Representatives” will cold call you because you were naive enough to share your actual name and phone number in exchange for a white paper on “Harnessing Machine Learning to Drive Customer Digital Experience Delight“
Winter is coming for the data-pigs of the world. The conspiracy theorists and preppers are going to take Cambridge Analytica, the Illuminati, Rootin’ Tootin Putin and the Barnum & Trump White House look like The Rapture. Breach a few more Equifaxes, Targets, and Ashley Madisons and people, even the “sheeple” are going to get wise to the fact that it’s not just their browser history that could embarrass them into pulling the plug.
The naming of winter storms by The Weather Channel is a clever marketing trick. Having just endured “Riley” I continue to wonder why nature’s worst storms can’t be given really menacing names like “Hurricane Adolph” or “Nor’easter Manson.”
The lights in Cotuit started flickering around 4 pm on Friday. Every hiccup killed the wifi and rebooted my home office computer, so I packed it in and started hunting for candles and a flashlight and began moving perishables into the freezer and plugging in devices and backup batteries to top them off. By 6 pm things were getting hairy outside — that’s when the airport in Hyannis reported a peak gust of 90 mph which is more than enough to bring all civilization to end on Cape Cod — but still the lights hung in there.
I went to bed with power but woke to a dead house on Saturday. The coffee maker was useless but the gas range still worked and I boiled up some water to brew some lapsang souchong (the tea that smells like marline, my favorite nautical smell of all time. I had a ton to do on the computer over the weekend — writing, etc. — but blackout called for a quick change of plans so I started cleaning out the boat shop, sharpened the chainsaw, did a dump run and generally stayed outdoors in the daylight while it lasted.
Obsessive checking of Eversource’s outage map did nothing to give me hope of a fast restoration. Barnstable was marked deep purple which meant most of the town was blacked out, but Scituate and other towns on the south shore were 100% dead. Still I checked and checked and when the sun set around 5:30 I settled in on the couch and squandered a couple hours of precious Thinkpad juice on a downloaded movie by candlelight.
In bed by 9 and at first light on Sunday woke up, rolled over and nope, no power. So Sunday was spent sawing the downed black cherry tree into manageable segments, running to the dump one more time, and finishing the clean up of the shop. I took a stroll down Main Street to check out the damage, snapped some pictures of more downed trees and came home wanting a shower having not had one since Friday morning. I turned on the shower, ready to do some cold water screaming because there was no way I could go to work looking and smelling like a castaway, but lo and behold there was enough hot water to get a quick and comfortable shower.
Again the light started to fail, so I turned to YouTube to listen to Dylan Thomas recite “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” which thoroughly bummed me out and made me feel old and mortal.
I managed to cook a hot dinner, pour a scotch, and get settled in on the couch as darkness covered Cotuit. Utility trucks convoyed past on Main Street, yellow lights flashing, and lo, the street lights on School Street flickered on. But not for me. Outside the drone of generators spoiled the total silence of the house. Nothing beeped or whirred. The icemaker was quiet. The dryer wasn’t bouncing my loose pocket change around. It was just me and a snoring dog, the hum of the neighbors’ generators and me, staring at the outage map and getting no satisfaction.
So I went to bed in the dark for the third night in a row.
A cold, grey October morning in 1977, standing in the breakdown lane of 195 on the bridge between Fairhaven and New Bedford, flapping my arms and sneaking sips from a pint of blackberry brandy stashed in my duffel bag. I was thumbing to New Haven, my cardboard sign said as much. Hitchhiking was still a thing in the mid-70s and I enjoyed the random characters I got to meet. But that morning, as the cars and trucks whizzed past me, I started to sing: “Black Throated Wind”
“Bringing me down
I’m running aground
Blind in the light of the interstate cars
Passing me by
The buses and semis
Plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars
“But I’m here by the road
Bound to the load
That I picked up in ten thousand cafes and bars
Alone with the rush of the drivers who won’t pick me up
The highway, the moon, the clouds, and the stars”
I was 19. I was full of self-pity and romantic sadness. My home was broken, my parents were in the process of divorcing, I had just dodged expulsion for an act of drunken mayhem, and I was hitchhiking to save the cash it would have cost to ride the bus back to a college I couldn’t afford to attend.
Twenty years later I sat at a table at Farley’s, a coffee shop on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, across from the poet who wrote those words and told him about that grey morning. I told him the song was one of my favorites and he approved.
He was John Perry Barlow. He smiled through his beard, cowboy’s crowfeet making his eyes gleam like stars, and wryly said, “Sounds like your moment of satori.”
Yesterday I learned he was dead.
John Perry Barlow was a gleeful paradox of hippy enlightenment, Wyoming GOP libertarianism, and digerati celebrity. We met online at the W.E.L.L. in the late 80s when I was covering tech for Forbes and still going to lots of Grateful Dead shows. The W.E.L.L. felt like a small community of great minds and Barlow was one of its most enthusiastic voices, maintaining a certain humility but mensch-like sang froid in an ethereal world he dubbed “cyberspace.” His zeal for the online realm of words and thought carried through to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he pulled no punches in declaring the online world to be free from the sovereign censorship of governments or corporations.
I laughed at him backstage at a Grateful Dead show at Stanford’s idyllic Frost Amphitheater one May in 1988 as he tried to hit on my wife Daphne who was oblivious to his leering glances. He wore a flamboyant cowboy hat with some sort of added feather-like flair and I repeated the old line about cowboy hats and hemorrhoids to him (sooner or later every asshole gets one) when I has a chance to introduce him to Daphne. I gave him a sober-up pep talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland before he went on stage at a Forbes CIO conference and told a baffled audience of corporate nerds in a rambling disquisition that they were a clueless pack of assholes determined to turn his beloved cyberspace into a cesspool of censorship. I begged off his offer to join the staff of the EFF but stayed in touch, seeking him out for some face time whenever I was in San Francisco or he was in NYC. As his health declined in a recent years we lost touch, but this morning, on the train to Boston, I took great comfort listening to playlist of his songs that will always live on.
Not being an especially wealthy man, I’ve always wondered about my lack of ancestral fortunes. Ask my late father how much money he made and he always replied, “A dollar ninety-eight.” His father was alleged to have passed on partnering with Howard Johnson and the guy who invented the reclining arm chair. There have always been many “woulda-coulda-shoulda” regrets expressed during cocktail hour on the back porch.
But Captain Thomas Chatfield, my great-great grandfather, did pretty well by the standards of 19th century Cape Cod by doing his part to make the Right Whale a very endangered species and by assisting in the capture of a British prize ship during the Civil War.. All of which combined managed to afford a really nice old house in the center of the village.
Chatfield couldn’t have made too much money from his whaling years because he was captain for only one voyage of the whaling ship Massachusetts, the same ship he went to the Pacific three times before in his teens and early twenties. In 1858, when he was 27 years old, he was given command of the ship on the recommendation of his wife’s grandfather, Seth Nickerson. Chatfield sailed from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to the northern Pacific for his one and only voyage as captain, his last aboard the Massachusetts.
I couldn’t figure out how he managed to support himself into his 90s from a single voyage that took place in his late 20s. Whaling captains were very well paid on a share system that saw them get the biggest portion of the profit after the owners, with the remainder divided among the officers, boatsteerers (harpooners) and the ordinary seamen. So there was upside to be earned, but a whaler’s wages never seemed to me to be the kind of pay day that would keep the wolf from the door for six more decades.
Chatfield lived 12 years in row aboard the Massachusetts beginning when he was 17 and first shipped out as a cabin boy. In 1859, after rescuing his brother-in-law Bethuel Handy from a shipwreck in the ice of the Okhotsk Sea, Chatfield docked the Massachusetts in San Francisco, shipped her cargo of oil and bone east on a clipper ship, then sold the old Mattapoissett whaler to a local San Francisco merchant, put Bethuel in command and because he missed his wife and daughters, he shipped himself back to Cape Cod via the Panama isthmus.
When the Civil War broke out Chatfield immediately volunteered and was commissioned an “acting volunteer lieutenant” in the U.S. Navy. A lot of whaling captains shipped out on Union war ships, handling the navigation and seamanship while the career officers and Naval Academy graduates managed the gunnery, tactics, and other war stuff. Chatfield received orders to report to the New York Navy Yard where he was given his commission signed by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, as well as a uniform, saber, and orders to sail to report aboard a freshly built Staten Island steam ferry, the U.S.S. Somerset.
Chatfield described the Somerset in his Reminiscences:
“The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.”
The Somerset was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Earl English, a 33-year old graduate of the Naval Academy who had been severely wounded only a few years before in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton during the Opium Wars of 1856. He had started his career in 1840 as a midshipman aboard the U.S. frigate Constellation, then was assigned to Annapolis, graduating in ‘46 and then assigned to the frigate Independence on the California coast during the Mexican War. Chatfield’s peer in age, but superior by far in naval credentials, English was highly respected by Thomas is his letters home to his wife in Cotuit and later in his reminiscences.
The orders to take a double-ended, flat-bottomed Staten Island ferry out of New York Harbor and into the open Atlantic was cause for concern as the Somerset received orders directly from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to sail to Key West and join the East Gulf Squadron and its blockade of the Florida coastline. The fact that the ferry was steam powered and could out-maneuver any sailing vessel would have made it an invaluable vessel. On April 13, 1862, the Somerset and her sister-ship the U.S.S. Fort Henry sailed south in company, only to have to put in at Hampton Roads, Virginia when the Henry’s machinery made it impossible to go in reverse. There Chatfield was able to tour the ironclad Monitor, fresh from its battle with the Merrimac.
After an uneventful voyage from the Chesapeake to Key West, the Somerset refueled and reprovisioned, let its boilers cool down, and was then ordered to patrol the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. That same spring of ‘62, Admiral David Farragut and the West Gulf Squadron had successfully attacked and captured New Orleans. Welles ordered English and the crew of the Somerset to keep a keen eye for any Confederate blockade runners trying to rush cotton to England’s mills as the ports of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed by the Union Navy.
On her maiden patrol in the Straits of Florida, the Somerset steamed within sight of the coast of Cuba west of Havana. What ensued that Sunday, May 4, 1862 wouldn’t conclude until a Supreme Court decision three years later.
“I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.”
“This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove to) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order: “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five-second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five-second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her.”
The Somerset’s boarding party examined the ship’s papers, learned she was British owned and sailing under British flag and therefore ostensibly a neutral ship. But finding irregularities with the Circassian’s lack of a destination, Commander English declared the ship was a blockade runners and seized her and her cargo as a prizes of war. The British captain argued that the ship was very neutral despite having sailed from New Orleans before Farragut captured it, and now that he had captured it, the blockade of the port was no longer in effect because Farragut lifted it when he occupied the city and took it for the Union. Doubtlessly perturbed by the Captain’s convoluted interpretation of admiralty law, English ignored the protests and had the Circassian taken under tow by the Somerset because his own engineers didn’t know how to start the captured ship’s boilers and her own black gang refused to cooperate.
“We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow..”
A fan of of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad gets the concept of naval prizes. Basically it was a very legal and enriching form of commercialized sailing with large amounts of gunpowder involved. It was the basis of some big British admiralty fortunes and was still in effect during the Civil War for officers and crews in both the Union and Confederate fleets, not to be discontinued for another couple decades.
If an enemy vessel — naval or merchant — was captured, it was then auctioned off by a Naval Prize Court who dispersed the proceeds on a formula not too different from the share system used on New England whalers. The Admiral overseeing the operation, even if not aboard the victorious ship, got a percentage. The commander of the ship got a big share, and then every other officer and sailor got a piece of the action. If the ship was full of gold, then an ordinary seaman could receive as much as five years pay from a single prize. Often the capture got tied up in the courts, which was the story of the Circassian in the decade following the end of the Civil War. If you want to read the Supreme Court opinion, click here. The opinion was penned by Justice Salmon Chase and gives all the details a lawyer or admiralty law geek could ask for. The New York Times published an editorial on the matter which basically said “huzzah” to the court and sneered “…we think that foreign Governments will hesitate before they treat the judgments of that tribunal as so wanting in equity as to justify reprisals.”
While the cargo was disposed of and the Circassian’s owners lawyered up, the Somerset went on to have an illustrious series of actions along the western coast of Florida, freeing slaves, busting up saltworks and maintaining the blockade. A great and very detailed history (sourced in part from Chatfield’s war letters and accounts) of the ship’s subsequent actions can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.
The New York Times reported on the sale of the Circassian’s cargo. It was a very rich prize:
“A portion of the cargo of the prize steamer Circassian, was sold yesterday at No. 18 Murray-street, by Mr. JONES, auctioneer, by order of JAMES C. CLAPP, Esq., United States Marshal for the District of Florida. There was a large attendance of buyers, and the bidding was very spirited, as the articles offered were, in the main, of a superior description.
The sale opened with a case of porcelain articles embracing vases, fruit dishes, wine coolers, and mantel ornaments, 30 pieces, which were purchased at $140. One case of hardware containing one dozen carpenter’s pencils, one dozen tower nippers, quarter dozen coach wrenches, four dozen C.S. gimlets, assorted: two dozen boxwood rules, half dozen Kent hammers, half dozen saddler’s hammers, half dozen bright garden hammers, half dozen hatchets, half dozen claw hatchets, hail dozen turn-screws, London, was sold at $295.
A case containing miscellaneous articles of French manufacture, glass tubes, leather spectacle cases, and fancy articles in general, was bought by Mr. S. HOUSEMAN at $1,200. There were 107 lots offered in all, which brought prices varying from $25 to $1,200. The proceeds of the sale will amount to about $100,000.
In August last, the first part of the cargo of this steamer was sold for $125,000. The vessel has since been appraised and taken by the Government at $107,000. The brandies she had on board will be sold on Tuesday next, by Mr. HEWLETT SCUDDER, at the store in Park-place, and it is expected they will realize $100,000.”
By war’s end the Circassian stood as one of its richest prizes with a gross value of $352,313.
How much of that went into the ancestral pocket will never be known. Chatfield was a frugal guy who supported a big family of daughters and son-in-laws as well as his own siblings and parents back in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. How he managed to finish his whaling career at the age of 33, spend three years in the Navy, then return home to Cotuit and prosper is probably due in part to some of the Circassian prize money. That windfall and his own thriftiness probably allowed him to own the Joseph Eaton, a coastal schooner he captained until his 50s hauling granite from Maine to Albany for the construction of the State Capitol. He also managed to own two Greek Revival houses across the street from each other in Cotuit’s center, using one for sleeping the other for eating, with a Wampanoag woman cooking in a shed called “Little Mashpee”, and daughters, son-in-laws and grandchildren scattered between two other cottages. In his reminiscences he mentions the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that sparked a two-decade “Long Depression.” He never was wealthy, but by Cape Cod standards any whaling captain was the 19th century equivalent of a hedge fund cowboy. It has been said that Nantucket and New Bedford were the wealthiest cities in the world per capita at the zenith of the whale oil market in the 1820s and some substantial Quaker fortunes live on to this day such as the Howland’s (Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”). At least one of Chatfield’s daughters married a wealthy man, Freeman Hodges, an Osterville native who worked for Henry Flagler as his real estate “front man” — buying up the land that would be the right-of-way for Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that ultimately would terminate in Key West.
In his retirement Chatfield made and mended sails in the sail loft at 854 Main Street, the same loft where he held the first meeting of Cotuit’s Masonic Mariner’s Lodge. His sailmaker’s bench, his leather sailmaker’s palm, massive fids for splicing hawsers, blocks and sheaves: all still hang from the rafters.
The sad end to this story is the wreck of the ill-fated Circassian in the late fall of 1876 on the southern shore of Long Island near Shinnecock Inlet. Despite several very heroic small boat rescues and weatherong two gales and multiple attempts to float her steel hull ship off the beach, the Circassian went down with a skeleton crew of Shinnecock Indians put aboard to salvage her, but who were trapped by a third fatal storm that killed all but four survivors.
A great story published by TheHamptons.com describes the end of the Circassian:
“Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost. “