In 1841 Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. left his job running the printing office for his father’s denominational newspaper, the Christian Freeman, to sign up with the US Navy. Seventeen years of age, he passed himself off as twenty-one, to join the crew of the USS Brandywine on May 31 as a “ship’s guard.” Cobb senior was clearly acquiescent, meeting his son on board two weeks later, with a warm greeting and “all the affection of a proud parent” (Cobb’s diary, qtd. in A Memoir of Sylvanus Cobb, Jr.)
Brandywine, a 44-gun, three-masted, wooden-hulled frigate, previously named Susquehanna, had the honour in 1825 of returning the Marquis de Lafayette, fighter for the American revolution, to France. She was renamed to commemorate the September 1777 Battle of Brandywine, in which Lafayette sustained a gunshot wound to the leg.
In June the Brandywine sailed for the Mediterranean, arriving a month later:
On the morning of the 24th of July we saw the coast of Portugal, and about noon entered the river Tagus, and after passing numerous beautiful villas and vineyards, and ‘Old Bellum Castle’ which is a specimen of the old fortifications of the Spanish and Portugese […] we came to anchor off the city of Lisbon…
Upon our left lies the city of New Lisbon. On our right rises a high, perpendicular precipice, capped by a few old ruins, the only vestige which remains of the ill-fated city of Old Lisbon; and right beneath us, at the depth of about thirty fathoms, lie the ruins of the city, which was destroyed in 1755, by a tremendous earthquake … (qtd. A Memoir…)
After his transfer to the sloop-of-war USS Fairfield in 1842, the young Cobb’s diary entries continue to express his enchantment with Europe.
Ha! ha! What a glorious cruise have we before us! Now in Mahon, from here to Marseilles, Leghorn, Naples, Toulon, Trieste, Venice, Athens, Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, touching at all the intermediate places. Ah! I forgot Corfu and Palermo. Ah! And also Civita Vecchia and Messina.
There are evocative moments, redolent with the imagination and literary facility of the great popular writer he is to become. In the burial catacombs of Palermo’s Capuchin Monastery, with its thousands of corpses and mummies:
The bodies undergo some chemical process which destroys the flesh and makes the skin resemble thin burnt leather. They are ranged along the walls in rows three or four tiers high, and stand upon a narrow board, upright, with nothing to keep them in their place but a cord which runs around their waists and is fastened to the wall.
They are thus thrown into the most grotesque and ludicrous postures imaginable. Their waists being confined to the wall, throws the upper part of the body forward, and their heads incline downward, which, as you are below them, makes them appear as though they were all gazing directly upon you.
They are placed without any distinction of age, for you will behold an old man with his white locks still remaining, placed beside a boy whose bright flaxen ringlets retain their lustre, and flow over that neck and forehead which once, perhaps, were so beautiful, but which now are horrible to look upon. The old man will be looking down upon the child with a most horrid grin, and so it is all along; the under jaws being in all sorts of positions; and the feelings which are generally excited upon the sight of death are wholly destroyed; and were it not for the knowledge that you are in the chamber of death, it would be almost impossible to restrain laughter…
One day the Fairfield was sailing along the Atlantic coast of Africa, when her captain observed Cobb idling on deck, toying with a steel printer’s composing-rule, which he had brought with him from home. Establishing that the young man had worked as a printer before joining up, he made him his personal secretary, preparing and revising clerical materials for printing, such as travel memoranda.
The position afforded Cobb greater liberties and shore-leave, and he spent more time with his diary. He studied “the beauties and characteristics of the countries, and the manners and customs of their various peoples” (A Memoir…).
Cobb continued similar duties under the subsequent chief, including revising the new captain’s own naval memoir. After three years, despite the adventure of a nautical life, he became restless and homesick:
[T]he life that I lead is one of constant excitement; every day brings something new. Today, perhaps calm and pleasant; tomorrow, tossed about in a gale of wind, and wet to the skin; Continually running from one port to the other. One night I behold the golden tints of an Italian sunset among a beautiful and Christian people, and in two or three days, under the hot sun of Africa, and amid a set of Moors and Turks and wild Arabs. I hope I shall soon change such scenes as these for those of ‘Sweet Home’.
In 1842 Cobb’s father petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for a discharge for his son. He was successful a year later, and Cobb returned to his home in Waltham, Massachusetts. He married Mary Jane Mead there in 1845; their union would last until his death in 1887.
Notes and References
- See entry on Cobb’s father “Cobb, Sylvanus: (1798 – 1866)” at Harvard Square Library. Jump to page.
- “Old Bellum Castle”: The Belém Tower (Torre de Belém), a famous Lisbon landmark.
- Civita Vecchia: Civitavecchia in Lazio, Italy.
- Palermo’s Capuchin monastery: Incidentally, the top of a “Capuccino” coffee resembles the colour of the Capuchin friars’ robes, whence the name.
Cobb, Ella Waite. (1891) A Memoir of Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. Boston. Available at Internet Archive. Jump to file.