Old Ironsides and Pio Nono


(Hattip to The American Catholic commenter Wayward Sailor who first alerted me to this incident.)

1849 was a banner year for Pius IX.  Chased out temporarily from the Papal States that year due to a revolution, he also became the first pope to set foot on US soil.  On June 7, 1849, the USS Constitution under Captain John Gwinn made a port call at Naples.  All of Italy was up in arms, revolutions raging throughout the peninsula and not just in the Papal States.  Throw in the Austrians and the French, and there was a great deal of politics and war for the Americans in the Mediterranean to worry about.  The USS Constitution was in Naples to make the point that American neutrals would be protected.  The commander of the American Mediterranean Squadron, Commodore Charles W. Morgan, arrived at Naples on July 25 in the ultra modern side steam frigate USS Mississippi.  He vetoed a proposal of US diplomats that the Constitution sail to Gaeta for a visit of the ship by the Pope and King Ferdinand II of Naples.  The US wished to stay neutral in the conflict between the Pope and King Ferdinand and the revolutionaries they were facing.  Instead, he ordered the Constitution to sail to Messina, Sardinia and then Northern Italy, to protect US neutrals in these locations.  He then steamed for Tunis.

On July 30, the US Charge John Rowan paid a courtesy call, along with the ship’s surgeon of the Constitution, on King Ferdinand to congratulate him on the birth of a child by his queen.  During the meeting he extended an invitation to the King to visit the Constitution.  It is unclear whether at this time he was aware of Commodore Morgan’s order against such a visit.  Captain Gwinn, apparently deciding to follow the instructions of Rowan rather than the orders of Morgan, sailed for Gaeta with Rowan on board on July 31 and arrived there early on August 1.  Going on to Rome, Rowan extended an invitation to Pius on August 1 to visit the Constitution.

The Pope and King arrived at Old Ironsides at noon on August 1, each receiving 21 gun salutes, as heads of state.  They visited each part of the ship and the Catholics on board lined up to receive the papal blessing.  The Pope got rather sea sick and took a nap in the Captain’s cabin.  The visit took three hours and 21 gun salutes were fired as the Pope and King left the ship.    The Pope sent 150 rosaries for the eighty Catholics in Constitution’s crew, along with a silver medal bearing his image and coat of arms to Captain Gwinn.  Commodore Morgan, unsurprisingly, was outraged at his orders having been violated.  Captain Gwinn did not live long enough to feel the wrath of his superior, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 4, 1849 at Messina.

3 Responses to Old Ironsides and Pio Nono

  • When I was in the Navy we were taught to “obey the last order first” in order to avoid confusion over conflicting orders. If the US foreign diplomat had lawful authority over ship captains visiting Italy, then the Captain acted correctly, though he had an obligation to (and probably did) notify his Naval superior (who would not have had any time at all to counter the order).

  • It was difficult with the means of communication then available for ship captains to deal with conflicting orders, as in this case, and orders that simply were out of date as a situation changed. As a result ship captains had a fair amount of discretion vested in them. With the instant communication we have today the temptation to micromanage is irresistible by too many superiors and too many subordinates are being taught as a result to always wait for instructions which can be a disastrous lesson to absorb.

Recent Comments