Sunday, January 11, 2009

General Porter and a Revolutionary War hero

On of the more interesting post-Civil War stories concerns a Revolutionary War naval hero and a Civil War officer who viewed this navy man as his personal hero. General Horace Porter was born in 1837 and during the American Civil War he rose to the rank of brigadier general. He received the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Chickamauga. In the last year of the war, he served on the staff of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, writing a lively memoir of the experience. Porter believed that honoring the dead was very important. When General Grant was buried it was Porter who supervised the construction of his tomb. After the tombs completion in 1897, he served as President McKinley's Ambassador to France and during his stay in Paris he recovered an American heros remains.

This Revolutionary War hero was John Paul Jones. During that time he became the father of the American Navy and he might have said the most famous words in American Naval history. After the war the American government disbanded the American Navy and this left Jones without a job. But Jones was able to find work with the Russian Navy and served unde Catherine the Great from 1788-1789. He eventually moved to France where he considered a position in the French navy but it was during this time that the French Revolution started. The French government was prepared to offer Jones a important position and toasted him as the "coming admiral of France." Jones never served as a French officer because he died in July of 1792, just three days after the fall of the Bastille which sparked the French Revolution. Since Jones was a Protestant he was buried in a cemetery designated for that use: The St. Louis cemetery. This was at the southwest corner of the intersection of Rue Grange-aux-Belles and Rue de Écluses Saint Martin in Paris. It was officially closed in January 1793 and later sold by the government. There Jones rested for over 100 years.

While in Paris, Horace Porter took it upon himself to find the remains of John Paul Jones. Throughout his life he had heard of the legend that location of Jones remains were unknown. After countless hours of research, Porter was able to find the location of the old cemetery which contained the remains of John Paul Jones. However, the cemetery had desecrated and recently built upon. Porter did have one thing working for him. When the French government buried John Paul Jones, they used a lead coffin which would protect Jones remains from the elements. If Porter could located the coffin then the remains might be identifiable. In 1905 Porter began to excavate the old cemetery and by February of 1905 Porters men had built a labyrinth of tunnels. Eventually the group uncovered two lead coffins but both had intact nameplates which clearly identified their contents. Neither of these were John Paul Jones. On March 31, 1905 a third lead coffin was uncovered but no nameplate could be located.

When the coffin was opened it contained remains that were clearly identified as John Paul Jones. Fortunately for Porter a bust had been made during Jones lifetime and the group used its measurements to make sure that the body was John Paul Jones. Several experts were brought in to confirm the findings and one of them stated "Without forgetting that doubt is the first quality of all investigators and that the most extreme circumspection should be observed in such matters, I am obliged to conclude that all the observations which I have been able to make plead in favor of the following opinion: The body examined is that of Admiral John Paul Jones."

Even with the physical measurements of the face and body in hand there were several people who did not believe that Jones had been found. Plans were made to give the body a proper burial in the United States and the government wanted to make sure that the body's identity was correct. Using Jones military records a autoposy was performed on the body and since the corpse had no wounds, had suffered from pneumonia which was clearly a result of his experiences as a member of the Russian navy. Furthermore, the kidneys presented clear evidence of interstitial nephritis, commonly called "Bright’s disease." This agrees completely with the with 1792 diagnosis of dropsy. John Paul Jones died of dropsy.

Now that his remains were clearly identified John Paul Jones recieved a proper burial. His body was transported to the United States in a special oak coffin. The body was stored while plans were made to give an American hero the burial that he never recieved. The 24th of April 1906 was chosen for the formal commemorative exercises in honor of John Paul Jones by President Roosevelt because it was the anniversary of Jones’s famous capture of the British Ship of War, Drake, off Carrickfergus, in 1778. This date occurred during the session of Congress, the academic year of the Naval Academy and the convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Special trains were arranged for the Presidential and Congressional parties and the regular train service was increased from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington to Annapolis.

President Roosevelt, French Ambassador Jusserand, Horace Porter and Governor Warfield of Maryland were the main speakers. Navy Chaplain Clark closed the exercise with a prayer.

The casket was left in charge of the Academy until it was transferred to crypt in the Naval Academy Chapel. Unfortately Jones travels did not end here. Money had to be raised for his burial. It was seven years later that Jones was finally placed in a ornate crypt below the Annapolis chapel. There his body has remeined for nearly one hundred years.

General Porter died in 1921 and unlike General Grant or Admiral Jones he did not recieve a ornate coffin or a special burial. His remains are in the Old First Methodist Church Cemetery, West Long Branch, New Jersey, Section C, Lot 44. A plain headstone marks his grave.


Horace Porter, "The Recovery of the Body of John Paul Jones," The Century Magazine, October 1905.

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