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Isaac Mayo’s Private Journal at Sea from 1809 to 1819

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This journal is a narrative account of Isaac Mayo’s service in the U.S. Navy from November 15, 1809 to August 10, 1819. Included are charts of his cruises, detailed descriptions of battles and life at sea, political commentary, and an observation of USS Constitution after its battle with HMS Java.

Mayo’s journal also contains the earliest known reference to “Uncle Sam,” a term used to personify the United States. On March 24, 1810, the 16-year-old midshipman writes, “weighed anchor stood down the harbour, passed Sandy Hook, where there are two light-houses, and put to sea, first and second day out most deadly seasick, oh could I have got on shore in the hight [sic] of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.” This reference dates to more than two years before the start of the War of 1812.

A native of Maryland, Mayo entered service in the U.S. Navy in 1809 as a midshipman on board USS Wasp under the command of Captain James Lawrence. During the War of 1812, he served aboard USS Hornet, again under the command of Captain Lawrence, having been transferred with the captain from Wasp to the Brig Argus and then to Hornet. On February 4, 1815, Mayo was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. In 1850, he was made commander of the Africa Squadron, with Constitution as his flagship, to help suppress the slave trade along the coast of West Africa. Despite having a distinguished naval career, Mayo tendered his resignation on May 1, 1861 as hostilities between the North and South were escalating at the onset of the American Civil War. Mayo, an enslaver and the oldest Navy officer at the time, refused to serve on behalf of the Union. In his resignation letter to the Secretary of the Navy, he wrote:

“For more than half a century it has been the pride of my life to hold office under the Government of the United States. For twenty-five, I have engaged in active sea-service and have never seen my flag dishonored, or the American arms disgraced by defeat. It was the hope of my old age that I might die, as I had lived, an officer in the Navy of a free Government. This hope has been taken from me. In adopting the policy of coercion, you have denied to millions of freemen the rights of the Constitution and in its stead you have placed the will of a sectional Party. As one of the oldest soldiers of America, I protest-in the name of humanity-against this “war against brethren!” I cannot fight against the Constitution while pretending to fight for it. You will therefore oblige me by accepting my resignation.”[1]

President Abraham Lincoln denied his request and dismissed him from the U.S. Navy on May 18, 1861. On that day or just before, Mayo died of a gunshot wound in a possible suicide.

[1] Capt. Isaac Mayo to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, 1 May 1861, Anne Arundel, Maryland, NA, RG45, R&D, P 141. Reverse notation: “Dismiss by order the President.”

Isaac Mayo

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Paper, Ink, Leatherbound

[H]9 3/4 in. [W]7 5/8 in.

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USS Constitution Museum Collection.

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