Guide to the George Henry Preble Papers, 1858-1869
A collection in the
Special Collections & Archives Department,
United States Naval Academy
589 McNair Road
Annapolis, MD 21402-5029
Prepared by: Jennifer A. Bryan
Special Collections & Archives Department
United States Naval Academy
George Henry Preble was born in Portland, Maine on February 25, 1816, the son of Enoch and Sally (Cross) Preble. George Preble’s uncle was Commodore Edward Preble (1761-1807). Influenced by his father, a sea captain, and his uncle, George Preble accepted an appointment as a midshipman in 1835. He served in the Mexican War and, from 1853 to 1856, in Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan.
In the first year of the Civil War, Preble served aboard the U.S.S. Narragansett (screw sloop-of-war) and then commanded the U.S.S. Katahdin (gunboat) during the capture of New Orleans. Promoted to commander on July 16, 1862, Preble, on board the U.S.S. Oneida (screw sloop-of-war), took command of the blockading force off Mobile. In September, when the Oneida failed to prevent the Confederate commerce raider Florida (built as the Oreto in England) from reaching the safety of Fort Morgan at the entrance to Mobile Bay, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles dismissed Preble from the service for neglect of duty. At President Abraham Lincoln’s directive, Welles reinstated Preble five months later, but the officer was passed over for promotion to commodore and assigned to the aging U.S.S. St. Louis (sloop-of-war), then at Lisbon. Encountering the Florida a second time at Funchal, Madeira, Preble was once more unable to capture the Confederate raider.
Passed over for promotion again after the Civil War for what had occurred at Mobile, Preble obtained a naval court of inquiry in 1872. The court only partially exonerated him. In 1874, he was promoted to commodore, made retroactive to 1871, and in 1876 he was promoted to rear admiral. He retired with that rank in 1878 and lived in Boston until his death on March 1, 1885.
Scope and Content Note
Almost all the papers in this collection, spanning the dates 1856 to 1869, are letters to William Pitt Fessenden (1806-1869), U.S. Senator from Maine. The early correspondence relates to attempts to increase pay for naval officers. The letters from 1862 to 1869 center on Preble’s dismissal from the Navy for allowing the C.S.S Florida (built in England as the Oreto) to reach safe harbor in Mobile during the blockade in 1862, and Preble’s efforts to be reinstated and cleared of any wrongdoing.
Preble’s first letter to Fessenden on the subject of the Florida, dated November 13, 1862, mentions Preble’s intention to privately publish all the letters and other documents relating to the event and his subsequent dismissal. That pamphlet, The Chase of the Rebel Steamer of War Oreto, is in the Special Collections & Archives Department. Two of the letters ask Fessenden’s assistance in obtaining relief for Preble’s friend Paymaster J.B. Rittenhouse, stationed in Panama, whose safe was robbed of $15,000 in gold. The other documents are copies of petitions and a circular.