Monday, August 10, 2009

Admiral Farragut: Legends of a Hastings Hero

Part II: I Sailed With Farragut

Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (for more information about any photograph, click the image)

Last week’s post included several stories about David Glasgow Farragut’s early days in Hastings in 1861. But the reminiscences of Civil War times that were printed in the local papers in the 1920s and ‘30s also contained more personal memories of Farragut. William McConnell must have been a great storyteller in those days, because many of his childhood memories found their way into print -- memories of swimming in the Saw Mill River and of being chastised by the master of the local “little red schoolhouse”. In the 1930s, the Hastings News carried a story of his acquaintance with Admiral Farragut’s family.

“For a year or more the lad had been carrying two pails of drinking water a day to the cottage on Washington Avenue. The spring at the northwest corner of Washington and Broadway provided drinking water for the neighborhood. Young Willie McConnell received a quarter a week pocket money for the carrying of a heavy pail each morning and each evening to the Farragut door. He still remembers the southern mammy who presided in the kitchen and who took the pail from the boy’s hands.”

But of all the stories told in Hastings about Farragut, the most exciting must be the one about James Hitchcock. In 1933, a Hastings News reporter got the story from James’s younger brother William, who was seventy-seven at the time.

“Young Jim Hitchcock, reckoned the village’s boldest blood, who was reputed to be able to spit tobacco farther than anyone in Hastings, was a close neighbor of the Farraguts. Perhaps it was during the inactive summer of 1861 that the Captain first took an interest in the boy. Probably the lad worshipped the old Captain and listened by the hour to tales of the sea. At any rate, when Captain Farragut was sent to the Gulf Squadron, Jim Hitchcock went with him. The captain had promised the sexton [Jim’s father] and his wife to find a berth for the lad that would not take him into direct action.

Hastings' Admiral Farragut Post of the American Legion posing with a model of the "Hartford" presented to President Roosevelt ca. 1938.

‘Jim was many years older than me. …I wasn’t born when Jim went off to the Spanish waters with the Captain,’ Mr. William Hitchcock told the representative of the Hastings News who called upon him the other day. ‘Yes, that’s what we called those parts at the time – the Spanish waters. I’ve heard my father and mother tell about it often, how Jim went with the captain, and how the captain made him a sailor...’

‘Yes,’ Mr. Hitchcock went on, ‘Jim was on the Hartford with the Admiral, and Jim fought at Mobile Bay. I’ve heard him tell the tale many a time of how three men at the wheel were killed by a shot that went clean over his head because he happened to be stooping down at the moment. The Admiral’s promise to my father and mother? It wasn’t his fault he didn’t keep it! It was Jim’s. The Admiral told my father when he came back that he had tried to put Jim on another ship, but Jim had coaxed for the Hartford. ‘You’ll get your damned head shot off you then, Hitchcock,’ said the Admiral to Jim, ‘and it won’t be my fault either.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ said Jim and he stayed with the Admiral. I’ve heard him tell that story many times.’ ”

And where was Jim Hitchcock in 1933? Nobody knew. “He came back to see us every few years,” William told the Hastings News. “Every few years until thirty-five years ago, and then Jim never came again. I went down to Snug Harbor a few years ago looking for him, but his name wasn’t on their lists of old sailors. Jim must be dead by now.” The Sailors’ Snug Harbor on Staten Island was the first home for retired sailors in the United States. It opened in 1833 and lasted into the 1960s. That property is now the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.

The USS Hartford, on which Jim sailed, was one of the last wooden warships and had been commissioned in 1858. She was set on fire during a battle in 1862, but was saved by Farragut and his crew and continued to be Farragut’s flagship for all his major naval victories. The news of their neighbor’s exploits no doubt thrilled the villagers of Hastings. But they had no opportunity to show their tremendous pride and admiration for their local hero until the Admiral’s return to Hastings in the winter of 1865. That spectacular homecoming is the subject of next week’s post.

Decorative stamp showing the "Hartford" organized by local residents for Hastings' 1936 Farragut Day, celebrating the 135th anniversary of Farragut's birth

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