By Patrick McSherry
Charles Vernon Gridley was born on Nov. 24, 1844 in Logansport Indiana. When thelad was but three months old, his father moved the family to Hillsdale, Michigan.
At the age of sixteen, young Gridley received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Storm clouds loomed on the nation’s horizon, for within a year, the American Civil War had erupted. The Naval Academy found itself in peril. Many of its students went south to join their brothers in the fight for states’ rights. Those that remained including the young man who had somehow acquired the nickname of “Steve” Gridley would throw their lot with those fighting to preserve the Union. The Academy was deep within the state of Maryland, a border state whose allegiance to the Union was not guaranteed. For the preservation of the Academy, it was temporarily relocated to Newport, Rhode Island.
“Steve” Gridley graduated in 1864, in the bottom half of his class. Some of his classmates would also go on to be well-known in the Spanish American War, such as Robley Evans who commanded the USS IOWA at the battle of Santiago, and Charles Sigsbee who was in command of the USS MAINE at the time of her loss, and who commanded the USS ST. PAUL during the war itself.
Gridley’s first assignment was to the USS ONIEDA, which was part of Admiral David Farragut’s southern blockading squadron. It was at the Battle of Mobile Bay where Acting Ensign Gridley got his baptism of fire. He would not experience a large action again for another thirty-four years - at Manila Bay.
During the battle, Gridley was placed all of the way forward on the
ONEIDA, where he could watch the channel, watch for mines and give
steering instructions to Cmdr. J. R. M. Mullany. During the action, the
ONEIDA had eight men killed and thirty wounded. Though a shell hit the
vessel close to Gridley, he was unscathed. His commanding
“The conduct of Acting Ensign C. V. Gridley is beyond all praise. He had charge of the master’s division and assisted in conning the ship from the topgallant forecastle.”Following the war, Gridley was detailed to transport a group of Confederate prisoners to Texas who had accepted the option of going into exile in Mexico. On arriving, it was found that the former Confederates would have no way of continuing south, as the bridges across the Rio Grande had been destroyed. In spite of their being his former enemies, Gridley did not abandon his passengers. He took it upon himself to transport them across to Mexico.
In October of 1865, Gridley was transferred to the USS BROOKLYN, the flagship of the South Atlantic squadron. The end of the war brought about a spate of promotions, as the navy converted to a peacetime stance, and many officers left the service. Gridley rose rapidly, being promoted to master on November 10, 1866, to lieutenanton February 21, 1867 and lieutenant commander on March 12, 1868. By this time,the navy had entered into the beginning of a very long period of decline. The number of ships decreased, new state-of-the-art ships were not built, and the need for officers declined. Promotion of officers of lower rank depended on the retirement or demise of officers in the higher ranks. As was common with this stagnation, “Steve” Gridley would not get his next promotion until 1882!
By 1868, Gridley found himself aboard the famous USS KEARSARGE, cruising in the South Pacific. Three years later, after the South Pacific cruise, Lt. Cmdr. Gridley was serving aboard an unusual vessel, the USS MICHIGAN. At this time, the MICHIGAN, operating out of Erie, Pennsylvania, was the only U.S. navy vessel serving on the Great Lakes.
Being stationed in Erie, gave “Steve” Gridley the opportunity to do something that his constant travel and wartime duties had not permitted - the chance to socialize with the fairer sex in one area for a period of time. During the long winters, the MICHIGAN was confined to the dock in Erie by ice. The gallant, young lieutenant commander soon met Ellie Vincent, the daughter of Judge John P. Vincent. The two were married onMay 10, 1872. Thenceforth, Gridley would always consider Erie his home. It was here that his family, which by 1880 included two daughters and a son, would continue to live.
By 1875, Lt. Cmdr. Gridley found himself with orders to report to his alma mater to begin teaching seamanship, naval tactics and naval construction. Throughout his career, Gridley was to experience an ever-growing reputation for his abilities and knowledge in sail shiphandling and navigation Now, the man renowned for his shiphandling and sailing abilities was training the academy’s young men aboard the MONONGAHELA and the venerable CONSTELLATION.
Gridley’s next duty was considered to be one of the epitomes of naval service life. He was assigned duty with the European Squadron aboard the USS TRENTON. Basically, the duty involved sailing from port to port showing the U.S. flag attending ceremonies and dinners. Unfortunately, the United States navy by now was at its lowest ebb, with its vessels considered to be antiques by most nations.
After a wait of fourteen years, “Steve” Gridley finally received his next promotion. On March 10, 1882, he was appointed commander, and was immediately sent Newport, R. I. to study at the torpedo school for three months. Torpedoes were one of the highly-vaunted new weapons of the age, and, though the United States did not yet have a torpedo boat, the advance in technology was noted. After this stint, Gridley was assigned as navigation officer to the Boston Navy Yard, and then to the Cruising Training Squadron. He was the commanding officer of the USTS (United States Training Ship) JAMESTOWN, and the also the USTS PORTSMOUTH. This duty extended from 1884 to 1886.
Beginning in 1887, Commander Gridley began serving as the Inspector of the 10th Lighthouse District, which included 114 miles of the St. Lawrence River as well as Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the Niagara River. He held this post until 1891. This duty brought him close to his family, a luxury for a naval officer. Luckily for the commander, his in-laws had political connections that would allow him to gain this position again later in life.
In 1891 Gridley was detailed to the Washington Navy Yard as Ordnance Instructor. This was not a favorite duty of the commander's. Ordnance was not one of his major areas of interest or expertise. In the spring of 1892, luckily, "Steve" Gridley found himself back at sea. He was detailed to the USS MARION, and ordered to report to Admiral David Harmony, the commander of the Asiatic Squadron. His duties in the Far East lead him to visit Manila Bay in 1893. Knowledge of the harbor gained in that visit would undoubtedly be useful to him in the future.
Gridley almost did not return from the Far East. The MARION was caught in a terrible typhoon as it was beginning its cruise to the American west coast. The force of the storm broke the ship's boilers loose from their saddles. The commander even released those prisoners he had in the brig, believing that they should be given an equal chance to survive if the ship lost its battle with the heavy seas. Luckily, the ship survived and limped back to Yokohoma before making a second, successful trip toMare Island, California.
1894 brought Gridley back to his family as he again served as the Inspector of the 10th Lighthouse District. During his duties, he would have been brought in contact with the senior member of the Lighthouse Board, George Dewey, and the Board's Secretary, Robley Evans.
In March of 1897, "Steve" Gridley was finally promoted to captain. On June 10, he was ordered to take command of the USFS OLYMPIA, relieving J. J. read in Yokohoma, Japan. He embarked on the steamer GAELIC and arrived aboard the OLYMPIA on July 25. He ship’s newspaper noted that he didn’t stay on board long, returning to Yokohoma to visit friends he knew from his cruise on the MARION. The formal transfer of command came four days later. Capt. Read’s voice broke as he read his farewell comments, and he was heartily cheered by the men. Gridley had apparently had some “large shoes to fill.” Apparently he did well. During his brieftenure aboard the OLYMPIA, he appears to have been well-liked and respected bythe ship’s crew. In one instance, at Christmas of 1897, he raised all of the crewmen one class (meaning that he reduced the length of punishment of any crewman on report, and restored "liberty" privileges to many). This was something that had never been done before aboard the OLYMPIA. One crewman recorded that Gridley was "one that loves his fellow-men," an unusual sentiment between a crewmen and his captain.
As the tensions between the United States and Spain increased, the tenuous condition of the ships of the Asiatic Squadron became clear. A major step forward was made when the command of the squadron was turned over to Gridley's old comrade from the Lighthouse Board, Commodore George Dewey. Efforts were soon underway to prepare for war.
On May 1, 1898, the ships of the Asiatic Squadron, with Gridley's OLYMPIA in the lead as the flagship, entered Manila Bay. Within a few hours, the Battle of Manila Bay was over, and the Spanish Fleet was defeated. Gridley was at his station, commanding the OLYMPIA from inside the vessel’s armored conning tower. The Philippine sun was beating on the exterior of the very small armored control center, which, combined with the already high temperatures, must have made the conning tower virtually uninhabitable. From this location, the captain directed the ship's fire and controlled the actions of the vessel. At the conclusion of the battle, however Captain Gridley, was not in a condition to celebrate. He was a very sick man, suffering from dysentery and what appears to have been liver cancer. The heat and stress of the conning tower further weakened him. Dewey actually would have relieved him of command had not Gridley protested. Still, as the days past, it became obvious that Capt. "Steve" Gridley couldnot carry out his duties. He was to be sent home.
On May 25, Gridley was to begin his journey
home One crewmen recorded the event as follows:
"He came up out of his cabin dressed in civilian clothes and was met by the rear admiral [Dewey] who extended him a most cordial hand. A look of troubled disappointment flitted across the captain's brow, but vanished when he stepped to the head of the gangway and, looking, over saw, not the launch, but a twelve-oared cutter manned entirely by officers of the Olympia. There were men in the boat who has not pulled a stroke for a quarter of a century. Old Glory was at the stern and a captain's silken coach-whip at the bow; and when Captain Gridley, beloved alike by officers and men, entered the boat, it was up oars, and all that, just as though they were common sailors who were to row him over to the Zafiro. When he sat down upon the handsome boat-cloth that was spread for him, he bowed his head, and his hands hid his face as First-Lieutenant Reese, acting coxswain, ordered, 'Shove off; out oars; give away!'Later in the day the lookout on the bridge reported, 'Zafiro under way sir,' and the deck officer passed on the word until a little twitter from Pat Murray's pipe brought all the other bo's'ns around him, and in concert they sang out, 'Stand by to man the rigging!'Not the Olympia alone, but every other ship in the squadron dressed and manned, and the last we ever saw of our dear captain he was sitting on a chair out on the Zafiro's quarter-deck, apparently listening to the [OLYMPIA's] old band play."Physically spent, and finally released from the strain of command, Gridley's health began to sink even faster. May 27, when he was transferred from the ZAFIRO to the commercial steamer COPTIC, he had to be taken aboard in a stretcher. He knew his condition was grave and wrote simply, "I think I am done for it, personally."
Because of his actions at Manila Bay, Commodore Dewey recommended that Gridley be advances ten numbers on the promotion list as a reward for services. The Navy Department advanced him six places, still a strong testament to his ability. The action had little effect on the ailing captain. His next promotion was of an order that mencannot bestow. Aboard the COPTIC on June 5, 1898, Capt. Charles Vernon "Steve" Gridley died, while the vessel was in Kobe, Japan. His body was cremated and sent home. Services were held for the venerable captain in Erie, Pennsylvania's Cathedral of St. Paul. He was buried in Erie's Lakeside Cemetery.
The news of Capt. Gridley’s death was conveyed to the OLYMPIA, and was received with deep regret. The OLYMPIA’s ship’s newspaper, The Bounding Billow ran the following article:
“Captain Charles V. Gridley
It is with indescribable sorrow and regret that we hear of the untimely death of our beloved captain, Charles V. Gridley. He died on board the O. & O. steamer ‘Coptic,’ at Kobe, Japan, June 5th. Owing to a serious illness, he was ordered home on sick-leave, taking with him the sincere respect and esteem of every man in the fleet. He left on the ‘Zafiro,’ escorted to sea by the ‘Concord,’ amid the cheering of the entire fleet. He was taken to the steamer by a boat’s crew of officers with First Lieutenant Reese acting as coxswain. The news of his death came like a thunder-bolt, filling our hearts with grief and pain. We respectfully extend our our sincere sympathy to his relatives and friends.
Bounding Billow (OLYMPIA's ship newspaper), December 30, 1897, June 1898
Schoenfeld, Maxwell P., Charles Vernon Gridley, A Naval Career (Erie: Erie County Historical Society, 1983)
Stewart, Robert C, Historic American Engineering Record: U.S.S. OLYMPIA, HAER No. PA-428, Final Draft Report. 1998.
Tisdale, Lieu G. T., Three Years Behind the Guns. (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, 1908).
Young, Louis Stanley, The Cruise of the U.S. Flagship OLYMPIA From 1895 to 1899 (cruisebook produced for the ship’s crew).