By Patrick McSherry
Seaman Gilbert H. Purdy was a fixture in the U. S. Navy. He served in the navy before the Civil War, left the service only to fight in the artillery at the Civil War battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He rejoined the navy in time to be manning the guns of the KEARSARGE against the Confederate cruiser ALABAMA. He again left the service, only to return to serve aboard OLYMPIA at the Battle of Manila Bay.
Gilbert Harrison Purdy was born in Union Vale, near Poughkeepsie, New York on January 29th, 1828. At an early age he took an interest in becoming a sailor, and, at age seventeen, under a ruse of going to visit friends in New York City, signed up for a career at sea.
Purdy's first years at sea were not spent in the navy, but aboard whalers. His first assignment was to travel to New Bedford, the famous whaling center, and ship out aboard the whaler MARENGO, under Captain Theodore Cole. Of course, being a country boy with no sea training, the following days were quite a challenge. Purdy didn't know his ropes or the basics of his job. He tried to help, but mainly got in the way, soon succumbing to seasickness. He survived and was soon on his way to the Cape Verde Islands and thence to the waters off South America.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1846, the MARENGO's crew killed its first whale of the trip, sperm whale which yielded 95 gallons of valuable whale oil. The kill was not without incident, however. Purdy was serving an oar in the Captain's whaleboat on this occasion. The Captain was the first to harpoon the whale, but he got his boat a bit too close and the whale stove in the small boat. It managed to stay afloat, however, and the first mate managed to finish the whale off.
Next, the vessel "rounded the Horn" of South American and entered the waters of the Pacific. Here Purdy found himself in such diverse places as Juan Fernandez Island (which was Robinson Crusoe's fictional home), the Galapagos Islands (where the crew harvested the huge terrapins for which the islands are famous), and the Sandwich or Hawaiian Islands.
The year 1847 found the vessel still in the Pacific. Summer was spent in the Bering Sea, with a stop in Russia. While in the Bering Sea, Purdy took part in a bear hunt. The outcome of the hunt is not known, however.
Apparently, by 1858, Purdy was serving in the U.S. Navy. Though it has not been conclusively shown, it would appear that he was serving on the WABASH, along with a young midshipman named George Dewey . The two would meet again later in their lives.
For some reason, Purdy eventually left the sea, and returned to life on land. When the American Civil War had broken out, Purdy enlisted in the Union cause, joining the Battery K of the 4th U.S. artillery. With this unit, Purdy saw action at Chancellorsville and also Gettysburg. In the report of 2nd Lt. Robert James of Battery K for the action at Gettysburg, he gives his "especial thanks…to First Sergt. Gilbert H. Purdy…[who] commanded a section and for the manner in which [he] performed [his] most arduous duties."
Soon, Purdy must have seen enough service on land. Joining the navy, he shipped out on the KEARSARGE. He was "manning the guns" aboard the KEARSARGE the day she met the ALABAMA in the famous Civil War naval battle. Purdy may have been the only man to serve both at Gettysburg and in the famous naval battle. Following the battle, twenty of the KEARSARGE's crewmen vowed never to leave the navy, and to seal the vow, each had a blue star tattooed on their forehead . Gilbert Purdy was among them, and it was a mark and a vow that Purdy would carry for the rest of his life.
Following the war, by 1870, Purdy was living at Union Vale, New York. In 1881, Purdy married Maria Draper of Duchess County, New York and the couple made their home in Poughkeepsie. Gilbert worked on a boat operated by W. H. Austin on the Hudson River. Purdy apparently re-enlisted in the navy in 1885, and did not see his wife again before her death nine years later. He was in communication with her, with a letter from Purdy arriving three days before her death. the couple had no children.
In 1885, Gilbert Purdy served aboard the MOHICAN as Captain of the
Hold. It was while serving aboard her that a photo showing Purdy spinning
yarns with some of his older shipmates was taken. The photo is probably
one of the most famous naval photographs and has been reproduced many times
over, including in the Cruisebook of the USFS OLYMPIA
It is not presently known when Purdy was assigned to OLYMPIA, but he was probably part of her commissioning crew. By this time, he was known for his yarns, for being a profound "cusser ," and for being a relic of Civil War. Aboard OLYMPIA, Purdy served as a seaman , and as "Captain of the Hold." He held the latter position because it was not overly strenuous, but gave him something to do. The tall "giant" now walked with a stoop, and had white hair . He apparently had a good voice, and in the ship's July 4, celebrations in 1896, he regaled the Army and Navy Union with the song "The Many in One" during an official program at Kamakura, near Yokohoma, Japan . He apparently had become acquainted with literature, even suggesting that the crew perform Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
One of Purdy's good friends aboard ship was another relic of the Civil War, Seaman McCue. When, on request at the dog watch, Purdy would sing the nearly forty verses of the ballad of the KEARSAGE and ALBAMA, Seaman McCue would always join in on the chorus. However, once a year, goaded by their shipmates, the friendship was buried. On June 19, the two would come to fisticuffs over the sinking of the ALABAMA, since McCue had served on the ALABAMA which Purdy's KEARSARGE had sunk! By June 20, they were friends again .
In January of 1898, the editor of OLYMPIA's ship newspaper, the Bounding Billow, thought that Seaman Purdy was interesting enough to begin a serialized account of Purdy's life. The first installment concerning the first two years of Purdy's life at sea was included in the January 31, 1898 edition of the newspaper. Future portions of the account were dropped, since major events left no time for such matters. Only fifteen days later, the MAINE exploded in Havana harbor, and the headlong race toward war with Spain had begun.
As the war with Spain approached toward the end of April, 1898, Purdy
began to get concerned. Not that he feared battle - he had seen that on
numerous occasion - but because his sailor's superstition recalled something
of concern - the upcoming 35 anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville.
This was enough of a concern for Purdy that he felt he had to say something.
One author recorded the ensuing events as follows:
"One man named Purdy, a privileged character…was noticed by Commodore Dewey on Saturday to be making a pretense of finding something to do on the port side of the upper deck, where his duties did not call him.Of course, the Battle of Manila Bay occurred on May 1, 1898. It was a victory every bit as tumultuous as the victory over the ALABAMA, and with less loss of life for his shipmates. Dewey was right, Purdy had a new anniversary to celebrate.
As the Commodore was familiar with the ways of old seamen, he saw that Purdy had something on his mind and said:
'Well, Purdy, what is it'
'I hope, sir,' said Purdy, saluting, 'that ye don't intend to fight in the 3d of May'
'And why not, what is it?'
'Ye see, sir,' said the old man, seriously, 'I got licked the last time I fought on the 3d of May.'
Purdy had gone to defeat at Chancellorsville under 'Fighting Joe' Hooker.
'All right, Purdy,' said the Commodore, "we won't fight on the 3d; but when we do fight, you'll have another kind of May anniversary to think about; remember that my man.'"
Purdy was placed on the retired list on February 7, 1900 and by 1903 had moved to 808 Harrison St. in San Diego, California. At the time of his death on December 24, 1912, he was the oldest man on the U.S. Navy's retired list. He was buried at Greenwood Cemetery, San Diego, (Palm Terrace, Lot 160, Grave 4) on December 26, 1912. Greenwood Cemetery still exists, but under a different name - the Greenwood Park and Mortuary.
Gilbert Purdy's shipmate, Lieu Tisdale recorded that Purdy could frequently be seen watching the birds flying around the ship. The old salt followed the common old navy belief that sea birds had the souls of departed sailors within them. Whenever Tisdale saw Purdy watching the birds, he knew that in Purdy's mind he was communing with his departed shipmates , walking the decks of the MARENGO, the MOHICAN or manning the guns of the KEARSARGE. Perhaps, as visitors walk the decks of OLYMPIA today, and sea a gull sweeping low overhead, they will know that Purdy has come back to check on his ship.
Healy, Laura Hall and Luis Kutner, The Admiral (Chicago: Ziff Davis Publishing Co, 1944) 41-43.
Lachance, Larry - family info. in correspondence with author (marriage, death and burial)
Scott, Robert N., ed. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. XXVII, Part I, p. 592.
Stickney, Joseph, Admiral Dewey at Manila and the Complete Story of the Philippines (Philadelphia: Elliott Publishing Co., 1899), p. 48-49.
Tisdale, Lieu, Three Years Behind the Guns (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1908) p 115, 131, 152-156, 160, 206.
Young, Louis Stanley, ed., Cruisebook of the USFS OLYMPIA, 1899, p.28, 118.