Admiral Russell's Orders
Edward Russell (1653-1727) joined the Royal Navy at a very young age and had a spectacular career, attaining a captaincy by the time he was 19. He saw active service in the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) and on several lengthy expeditions (1676-1682), but in 1683 he fell out of favor with the Crown. In 1688 Russell played an important role in the “Glorious Revolution,” ousting James II and helping to install the latter’s daughter Mary Stuart and her husband William of Orange on the throne.
This earned him a promotion to Admiral of the Fleet and command of the Royal Navy during the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697).
In 1692, Russell was in command of the ships that were to oppose the fleet France was concentrating under the Count de Tourville for an invasion of England in order to restore James II. Now according to tradition, there was great sympathy in the Admiralty for James, who had been an excellent naval officer. And so, as Russell was preparing to put to sea with an Anglo-Dutch fleet numbering perhaps 120 vessels, including over 80 ships-of-the-line, he was handed sealed orders from the Admiralty with instructions to open them when he had reached a certain latitude. Russell, however, had apparently been informed of the contents of the orders, which instructed him to avoid action with the French. Moreover, he had actually been approached in secret with an offer of huge bribe if he avoided action or, if forced to fight, threw the match. So even as his fleet was about to sail, the good admiral made a secret journey from Portsmouth to London, and had a private audience with King William III.
Russell explained to the king the absurdity of these secret instructions (what, for example, was he to do if he encountered the French before opening the orders to avoid them?) Mentioning the offer of a bribe, he suggested that treachery was afoot. He concluded by asking the king to either issue fresh orders permitting him to take on the enemy, or accept his resignation. William told him to take the bribe, and then, with his own hand, wrote orders that Russell was to take, sink, burn, or otherwise destroy as many of the enemy as he should meet, and dated the document so that it superseded any orders issued by the Admiralty.
With his new orders in hand, Russell returned to Portsmouth, put to sea, and between May 29th and June 4th inflicted a stunning series of defeats on the French in raids on the ports of Barfleur, Cherbourg, and La Hogue, a feat, oddly, witnessed and greatly admired by the deposed James II.
Returning to England in triumph, Russell was summoned to the Admiralty to explain why he had disobeyed orders. With a flourish, he produced the king’s instructions.
FootNote: The “Nine Years’ War” has a surprising number of alternative names, such as the War of the League of Augsburg, the War of the English Succession, the War of the Grand Alliance, and, in America, King William’s War, among others.
The Arduous Life of a West Point Cadet in 1842
Life at the Military Academy in earlier times is generally regarded as having been arduous and dreary, with no luxuries compared to the easier regime that prevails today.
Perhaps. But on October 29, 1842, Cadet George Stoneman (1822-1895) wrote his friend John Griffith and told him something of life in the academy.
Stoneman noted that routine was the governing principal of the Academy. Orders had to be followed promptly and with zeal, and discipline was rigidly enforced through a system of demerits that could be awarded for even trivial infractions, such as hesitation during classroom recitation. Daily activity was extraordinarily routine, each day being much like every other save that on Sundays cadets had the afternoon to themselves, within limits. Cadets’ arms and uniforms had to be meticulously correct, each morning bedding had to neatly folded, and so forth.
But then Stoneman added an interesting tidbit,
There are about a hundred laborers on the Point who are constantly employed making repairs. Our boots and shoes are taken from our rooms and blacked, rooms swept out and slop tubs emptied daily and rooms washed out once a week and our fires are made whenever it is required that they should be. Our washermen come and get our clothes and bring them back to us twice a week.
Stoneman graduated 33rd out of 59 in the West Point class of 1846, as noted above one of the most distinguished in the history of the academy. He was commissioned in the 1st Dragoons (now the 1st Cavalry), and served variously on the frontier against Indians and bandits, while rising to captain. In 1861 he was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers, and shortly named Chief of Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. Not the best trooper in the war, Stoneman had a mixed record, and was eventually side-lined. Nevertheless, partially by tooting his own horn to good effect, stealing other’s glory, as it were, and writing creative reports, by war’s end had risen to major general of volunteers with a brevet as major general in the Regular Army. He retired as a Regular Army colonel in 1871.
It hardly seems necessary to point out that modern cadets would certainly find some aspects of the “Spartan” regime of the ante bellum academy rather on the luxurious side.