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Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf: First Commandant of the Coast Guard


When young Ellsworth P. Bertholf was court-martialed and dismissed from the Naval Academy for a hazing incident in 1883, no one could have predicted his future greatness. Undaunted by the experience, Bertholf pursued a career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, earning a special gold medal from Congress in 1902 for his role in a dramatic relief expedition in Alaska to rescue trapped whalers. By 1915 he had bypassed twenty-two officers senior to him to become the first commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and went ...
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When young Ellsworth P. Bertholf was court-martialed and dismissed from the Naval Academy for a hazing incident in 1883, no one could have predicted his future greatness. Undaunted by the experience, Bertholf pursued a career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, earning a special gold medal from Congress in 1902 for his role in a dramatic relief expedition in Alaska to rescue trapped whalers. By 1915 he had bypassed twenty-two officers senior to him to become the first commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and went on to successfully steer his fledgling service through the trials of World War I. This biography of the man known as "the savior of the Coast Guard" offers a revealing portrait not only of Bertholf but also of the last years of the Revenue Cutter and Life-Saving services and the formative years of the Coast Guard.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557504746
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Series: Library of Naval Biography
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf

FIRST Commandant OF THE Coast Guard
By C. Douglas Kroll

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2002 C. Douglas Kroll
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1557504741

Chapter One


The thirst for adventure that characterized the life of Ellsworth Price Bertholf was a function of both his heritage and his upbringing. Perhaps he got his adventuresome spirit from his father, John J. Bertholf, who in 1849, at the age of eighteen, left his home and family in New York City and with thousands of other young men traveled to California to seek his fortune in the gold rush. Like most of his fellow adventurers, John Bertholf discovered that the gold was not easy to obtain. When prospecting for gold failed to pan out, he secured a position as the assistant customs collector of the port of San Francisco and gained knowledge of accounting that he would later use to support his family.

After a few years he returned to New York City and obtained an appointment in the New York Custom House. John Bertholf married Mary Jane Williamson on 28 December 1853 and within a few years had two daughters: Frances Lavinia, born in September 1854, and Mary Eugene, born in April 1857. Tragedy struck less than a year after the birth of their second daughter when Mary Jane died on 17 February 1858. For three years John was a widower with two young daughters. On 17 October 1861,at age twenty-nine, John married twenty-four-year-old Annie Frances Price.

The Civil War was then raging, but, probably because of his age and family status, John Bertholf did not volunteer for military service. The war dragged on, however, and the Union needed more troops. By 1863 the Lincoln administration had approved the organization of black regiments to fight in the war. During February and March of that year, Brig. Gen. Daniel Ullman recruited enough white officers in New York City to lead a brigade of black troops then being organized in Louisiana. John Bertholf was among those officers.

In May 1863 Bertholf accompanied Ullman to Louisiana. Because of his business background, John was commissioned a first lieutenant and made the adjutant of Company K of the 7th Infantry Regiment, Corps d'Afrique. Ullman's brigade saw combat action during the siege of Port Hudson from 23 May to 8 July 1863. In April 1864 the 7th Infantry Regiment, Corps d'Afrique, was redesignated the 79th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. In August the 79th was transferred to Morganza, Louisiana, for garrison duty. The regiment remained there until October 1864, when the 79th was broken up and its enlisted men sent to replenish other regiments. Many of the regiment's white officers, including John Bertholf, were mustered out of the service.

John Bertholf returned to his wife and two daughters in New York City, arriving there in time to celebrate their third wedding anniversary and the birth of their first child, Edward Oscar, born 23 October 1864. John, now the proud father of a son, returned to his accounting position. Less than two years later, on 7 April 1866, Annie gave birth to their second son, Ellsworth Price, who was named for a relative on his mother's side of the family. John and Annie had no way of knowing that their baby boy would grow up to be a national hero fêted by the president and Congress of the United States.

Young Ellsworth spent the first few years of his life in New York City. When he was four, a baby brother, John Winthrop, joined the family on 2 April 1870. Shortly after this birth the family moved across the Hudson River from New York City into the bustling New Jersey village of Hackensack. By this time Ellsworth had received the nickname "Todd," by which he would be known throughout his childhood. It was probably much easier for his younger sibling to pronounce than "Ellsworth."

The Bertholfs' new hometown, located on the Hackensack River, had long been the county seat of Bergen County, New Jersey. Organized as New Barbadoes in 1676 by Dutch settlers, Hackensack was largely a village of pleasant homes with the beginnings of a few industrial and manufacturing activities. For the past one hundred years it had been the center of trade for the area within fifty to seventy-five miles to the northwest. From the commanding heights on its western border young Todd Bertholf could see the river winding through the valley below, with the range of the Palisades beyond and New York City twelve miles away in the distance. There was a great deal of boat traffic on the Hackensack River, especially in the fall and spring, when farm and industrial products were transported by water to Newark and New York. It would later be said of young Todd that "as a boy in New Jersey he found the broad Hackensack River an expanse of unlimited wonders, and knowing that it flowed down to join the Raritan and then through Newark Bay to the sea, he loved it because it typified his own young ambitions-to finally reach the ocean." Bertholf himself would later say that he believed that some men were born to the life of a soldier or sailor and that "the spirit which first takes a boy to sea, follows him straight through life."

The Bertholf family continued to increase during Todd's childhood. From 1872 to 1884 seven more siblings were born: three sisters and four brothers. The Bertholf home, an old colonial house in a residential section of the village near the downtown area, on Huyler Street between Essex and Kansas, was undoubtedly a beehive of activity. To support his growing family John Bertholf set up shop as an accountant and auctioneer near the Bergen County Courthouse at the center of the village. His office, on Main Street between Passaic and Essex Streets, was only a couple of blocks from his home.

Until the age of six or so, Todd, like all young boys of his time, was enmeshed in a domestic world dominated by women: his two older half-sisters and his mother. His half-sisters were more than ten years older than he was and more like adults to him than siblings. Chances to stray from their watchful eyes were probably rare. It was a time when mothers kept an especially close eye on their younger children in accordance with the widely held belief that the basis for good character was laid during this phase of a boy's life.

When he reached the age of six, young Todd entered another world as well-in reality a subculture, a boy culture. For the remainder of his childhood he shuttled constantly between the female-dominated world of his home and the world of his boyhood friends. His experiences with other boys helped prepare him in many ways for adulthood. The boys went sledding and skating in the winter, and hiking, swimming, and exploring during the summer. Boy culture was surprisingly free of adult intervention, and his interactions with his playmates gave him his first exhilarating taste of independence and made a lasting imprint on his character.

Anthony Rotundo, who has described the importance of the boy culture in the lives of boys in late nineteenth-century America, notes that it embraced two sorts of values: the traits and behaviors boys openly respected in one another and the implicit values embedded in the culture's structure. Both sets of values became permanent parts of a boy's character. This was undoubtedly true for young Todd. Rotundo argues that while boys valued loyalty and physical prowess, the trait they consciously held in highest esteem was courage.

There are no records of Bertholf's youth, but his later conduct at the Naval Academy and the Revenue-Cutter Service School of Instruction indicates that he was a boy drawn to rule breaking by the possibility of a clash with authority. Boys often dared each other to perform dangerous acts. Since confrontations with adults held inherent danger, they were considered a way to prove one's courage. Pranks served as skirmishes in the guerrilla warfare that boys waged against adults. Such pranks, much like Bertholf's later pranks as a cadet, were seen as mischief, not wickedness. Boys, and their parents too, for the most part, considered them wholesome fun.

As soon as he was old enough, Todd began school. Annie, like other middle-class mothers of the era, more than likely hoped that school would "civilize" her son, who must sometimes have seemed like a young savage. Todd, for his part, probably looked forward to school as a place free of the constant restrictions of his home. School gave him the opportunity to interact with other boys his age in a structured environment. The boy culture and school culture were constantly at odds. It was not uncommon for nineteenth-century boys to take pleasure in flouting their teacher's authority at school.

Little is known of Bertholf's years in grammar school, though he must have often walked by the town green fronting on Main Street. The green, in the shape of a parallelogram with sides of about 120 feet on Main Street and about 200 feet between Court and Mansion Streets, was shaded by lofty elms and ancient weeping willows. In the center were a tall flagpole, a fountain, and a bandstand. As a boy of eight, Todd probably joined the crowd that gathered on the green to catch a glimpse of Ulysses S. Grant as the president passed through Hackensack on his way to Paterson and the reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).

We may also suppose that Todd grew up with a sense of the history of his colonial village. Certainly he learned that the feet of Washington and Lafayette and the patriotic soldiers of the American Revolution had marched across Hackensack's village green. Here, too, the "forefathers of the hamlet" of Revolutionary days saw their courthouse burned to ashes and the town sacked and plundered by British invaders.

Young Todd probably accompanied his family to services at the old Dutch Reformed church that faced one side of the green, but there is no indication that he found any calling there. Most likely, Todd, like most other boys of his age, left Sunday school after age twelve and never returned.

It was the Bertholf family's good fortune that Hackensack was the home of the prestigious Washington Institute, established in 1779. When the time came for Todd to begin his secondary education, he was enrolled in the institute, which was then located in a two-story brick building on the corner of Main and Warren Streets. The institute's building was designed to accommodate 130 students. By 1876, however, when Bertholf entered, more than 260 students were crowded into the old building with nearly 100 more seeking admission. So great was the Washington Institute's reputation that many parents from the surrounding area who had the means sent their children there. The school's students scored the highest marks in proficiency in Bergen County, and the institute was considered one of the leading schools in the state.

In 1877 a meeting of the citizens of the school district considered the steps necessary to build a new and larger schoolhouse. A new site was selected on the northwest corner of Union and Myers Streets, near the center of the population and less than one-fourth of a mile from the courthouse facing the village green. Construction began in the spring of 1878. When it was finished, on 2 December 1878, the school was one of the largest buildings in the village, with four classrooms on each of its four stories, blackboards on all four sides of each classroom, and steam heat warming all the rooms.

Hackensack was very proud of its new school, but even prouder of the school's principal, Nelson Haas. Principal Haas was so well respected that Rutgers College conferred on him the honorary degree of master of arts in 1877. Before the Civil War, Nelson Haas was a teacher in Pennsylvania and Mississippi. During the war Haas served the Union first as a provost marshal in Pennsylvania and then as a first lieutenant of Company B, 9th Union League Regiment. After the war Haas studied law and opened a law practice in Stockton, California, before returning to the East.

Principal of the Washington Institute since 1871, Haas was also its leading teacher. The course of studies at the school embraced geometry, trigonometry (plane and spherical), and differential and integral calculus in addition to the higher branches in the sciences and the Greek and Latin languages. Haas prepared his students well and ingrained in them a love for their country and its traditions, both the Revolutionary War traditions of the community and the Civil War values of freedom and equality for all. Haas also maintained strict discipline at the school. A contemporary observer noted that "the school-house No. 32 is a most beautiful structure, and is surrounded by lawns without wires or guards, but upon which not a scholar ever encroaches. They know the invisible lines and obey."

Nelson Haas had a profound influence on Todd Bertholf. Many years later, when Hackensack was considering naming its new high school after Haas, Bertholf wrote a letter to the Hackensack Republican offering his opinion of his childhood teacher: "As I remember, he was a bit of a disciplinarian ... but it was good for us, and withal we youngsters liked him, although we stood very much in awe. He certainly understood boys, and knew not only how to teach, but how to manage, his pupils, and few teachers can point to greater success along those lines."

Bertholf was not alone in his esteem for Haas. When Haas died in 1906, the Hackensack Republican was unstinting in its praise for the institute's principal.

His commanding presence, sonorous voice, and athletic arm, combined to work a miracle among the refractory youth. If a boy attempted to manifest a desire to become boss, the new teacher took him in hand with a promptness and vigor that cooled the aspiring ardor and left the hero in a condition of dilapidated defeat and humiliation. Corporal punishment had been abolished, but Nelson Haas forgot this fact: When a pupil persisted in disregard of propriety and manifested a determination to be "smart," the new teacher did not hesitate to display his physical prowess in a successful manner....

As all know, the absorbing purpose of Prof. Haas was to implant in his pupils the element of success in life. His ability to read character and detect the capabilities of the boys and girls under his care was marvelous. He never made a mistake in the boys he selected to enter the West Point and Annapolis appointment competitions. Every boy who had his approval was a winner. He knew his lads and impressed them with his own force and determination so thoroughly that they absorbed the intelligence and confidence which carried them to the winner's goal.

Todd Bertholf was among those "lads" who gained Professor Haas's approval, but Bertholf later noted that this fact was a "commentary not so much upon the boys as the man who taught these boys."

Todd Bertholf grew up listening to stories of the Civil War told by its veterans-his father and Professor Haas among them. Both men were members of James B. McPherson Post Number 8 of the GAR. The men who fought in the Civil War were set apart by that experience. They had learned, in Oliver Wendell Holmes's words, "that life is a profound and passionate thing." Members of the next generation, Bertholf's generation, yearned for a way in which they too could prove themselves courageous. Teddy Roosevelt expounded this desire and the lifestyle it engendered in a speech entitled "The Strenuous Life" given before the Hamilton Club in Chicago on 10 April 1899. His opening remarks offer insight into the common values of the time.

In speaking to you, men of the greatest city of the West, men of the State which gave to the country Lincoln and Grant, men who pre-eminently and distinctly embody all that is most American in the American character, I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that the highest form of success ... comes, not to the man who desires easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these winds the splendid ultimate triumph.

The urbanization and industrialization that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, with the sedentary and routine work environments they created, were thought to undermine men's dignity and independence. It was a time when men searched for ways to reassure themselves of their masculinity. Many of Bertholf's generation preferred to be tested by physical struggle rather than looking for success as businessmen. Military service was held in particularly high regard.


Excerpted from Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf by C. Douglas Kroll Copyright © 2002 by C. Douglas Kroll
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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