Guide to the Letterbook of the U.S.S. Saginaw, 1869-1871
A collection in the
Special Collections & Archives Department,
United States Naval Academy
589 McNair Road
Annapolis, MD 21402-5029
Prepared by: David D'Onofrio
Special Collections & Archives Department
United States Naval Academy
The U.S.S. Saginaw, a side-wheel steamer named for the Saginaw River, was launched at the Mare Island Navy Yard on March 3, 1859, and commissioned on January 5, 1860. Shortly after her commissioning, Saginaw was attached to the East India Squadron, tasked with protecting American interests along the Chinese coast.
On January 3, 1862, Saginaw was decommissioned and returned to Mare Island for repairs. On March 23, 1863, she was recommissioned and attached to the Pacific Squadron. As part of the Pacific Squadron during the American Civil War, Saginaw patrolled the west coast in order to prevent Confederate naval activity. In 1864, Saginaw's duty area shifted south, as she patrolled various Mexican and Central American ports as a deterent to Confederate raiding.
After the war, Saginaw returned to Mare Island, before sailing to Puget Sound in support of northwest settlers in August 1866. While in northern waters, she also assisted Western Union in laying telegraph cable, before returning to Mare Island in December 1866. In April 1868, Saginaw was redeployed to norther waters, where she spent the next year surveying the coast of Alaska. Saginaw was next sent into Mexican waters, serving off the west coast of Mexico.
Following repairs at Mare Island that lasted through January 1870, Saginaw was assigned to Midway Island in support of dredging operations. Saginaw's crew finished its dredging and blasting tasks at Midway in late October 1870, after which Saginaw sailed for San Francisco via Ocean Island. On October 29, 1870, while approaching Ocean Island in search of possible shipwrecked sailors, Saginaw struck the outlying reefs and was battered apart by the surf, but not before the crew managed to abandon ship and take refuge on the island. Subsequently, Saginaw's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Sicard, tasked Lieutenant John G. Talbot with with leading a party of five men aboard the ship's gig to Hawaii for the purpose of securing a rescue ship. On December 19, 1870, the Saginaw's gig sank amidst breakers at Kalihi Kai, killing four of the five members of the party. The sole survivor, coxswain William Halford succeeded in securing the services of the Hawaiian Steamer Kilanea, which successfully rescued the remaining crew of the Saginaw in early January 1871.
Scope and Content Note
The Letterbook of the U.S.S. Saginaw spans from June 1869 until February 1871. Consisting of copies of letters sent by Saginaw's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Sicard, the letterbook documents the Saginaw's survey work off Alaska and the west coast of Mexico; dredging operations at Midway Island; and the ship's break-up on the reef outlying Ocean Island. The letterbook also includes entries pertaining to monthly and quarterly reports, payment of officers, crew movements, coal consumption, and contractor bills.
The entries of the letterbook are arranged chronologically, with letters dating from June 1869 to November 1870 located primarily on odd numbered pages, and letters dating from December 1870 to February 1871 located primarily on even numbered pages. Letters spanning June and July 1869, sent from Mare Island and San Francisco, discuss Saginaw's survey work in Alaska (June 1869; odd pages 1-3) and the submission of various reports. Letters spanning from August 15 until November 4, 1869 are the product of Saginaw's survey work off the west coast of Mexico. The letters during this period pertain to subjects such as the coaling station at Pichilingue (August 17, 1869; odd pages 25-29), the enclosure of soundings and plans of Saginaw's course off Mexico, and the nature of the waters off Cape Corrientes, Mexico (November 4, 1869; odd pages 51-59)). After putting in at Mare Island, California, Sicard wrote additional letters about Saginaw's work off Mexico, inlcuding the capture of a French smuggling ship (November 10, 1869; page 65), and survey work off Cape Corrientes (November 20, 1869; odd pages 73-79). Numerous other letters sent from Mare Island, spanning from December 1869 to early February 1870, relate to repairs made to Saginaw.
The letters spanning from March 31 through September 30, 1870 are the product of Saginaw's dredging duties at Midway Island. Within three of the letters are lengthy reports of the dredging operations, numbered two through four (beginning on pages 143, 183, and 223, respectively). The reports include details on the survey of the bar at Midway, blasting procedures, and the nature of the coral surrounding Midway. Also from the same time period are two sets of instructions to First Assistant Engineer Blye on how to proceed with dredging in Sicard's absence (May 14; pages 135-141 and July 4, 1870; pages 175-182). Additional letters from this time period pertain to the discharge and payment of carpenter Frank Rawlings (May 25, 1870; page 163), and the shipment of 250 kegs of blasting powder to San Francisco (September 30; pages 246-248).
Most of the remainder of the letters concern the sinking of Saginaw and subsequent rescue and salvage efforts. From November 15, 1870 until January 11, 1871, the letters are addressed from Ocean Island, and pertain to the description of events leading up to the grounding of the ship and her break-up (November 15, 1870; pages 253-257); instructions to Lieutenant John Talbot for taking the ship's gig to Honolulu to secure rescue (November 16, 1870; pages 259-261); remains of Saginaw's hull and machinery (December 1870; page 6); and the rescue of the Saginaw's crew by Hawaiian Steamer Kilanea and the marooning of some of Saginaw's equipment (January 4, 1871; even pages 16-18). Letters from the latter half of January 1871 were sent from Honolulu, and concern: the condition of materials salvaged from Saginaw, and recommendation against salvaging anything still on the reef (January 21, 1871; page 44 and January 27, 1871; page 86); the deaths of Lieutenant John Talbot, Peter Francis, John Andrews, and James [Muir] at Kalihi Kai on Dec. 19, 1870 when the Saginaw's gig sank, and the deposition of the gig's lone survivor, William Halford (January 19, 1871; even pages 62-82); and Lieutenant Commander Sicard's address thanking the King Kamehameha V of Hawaii for his assistance in rescuing the crew of Saginaw (even pages 58-60). The final letters, spanning February 1871, were sent from San Francisco, and pertain to Sicard's recommendation of William Halford for the Medal of Honor (February 13, 1871; page 102) and a disability claim for seaman Harry Edwards for a hernia (February 22, 1871; even pages 108-116). Also included in this final section is a letter to James Muir's widow (even pages 96-98) and a multi-page report (inserted after page 99) spanning November 15, 1870 to Feb 9 1871. The report discusses efforts to build/salvage boats from the Saginaw's wreckage, hunting seals and birds for food, and rescue by the steamer Kilanea, as well as lists of Saginaw's articles brought onboard Kilanea and those left on Ocean Island.
Additional material pertaining to the U.S.S. Saginaw and Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Sicard can be found in the Floyd Family Papers at Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, and in the Montgomery Sicard Papers at the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress.