Project Gutenberg's Real Soldiers of Fortune, by Richard Harding Davis



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vessels of Japan which lately swept those of Russia from the sea, was

commanded by a young graduate of the American Naval Academy. This young

man, who, at the time of the battle of the Yalu, was thirty-three years

old, was Captain Philo Norton McGiffin. So it appears that five years

before our fleet sailed to victory in Manila Bay another graduate of

Annapolis, and one twenty years younger than in 1898 was Admiral Dewey,

had commanded in action a modern battleship, which, in tonnage, in

armament, and in the number of the ships' company, far outclassed

Dewey's _Olympia_.
McGiffin, who was born on December 13, 1860, came of fighting stock.

Back in Scotland the family is descended from the Clan MacGregor and the

Clan MacAlpine.
"These are Clan-Alpine's warriors true, And, Saxon--I am Roderick Dhu."
McGiffin's great-grandfather, born in Scotland, emigrated to this

country and settled in "Little Washington," near Pittsburg, Pa. In the

Revolutionary War he was a soldier. Other relatives fought in the War of

1812, one of them holding a commission as major. McGiffin's own father

was Colonel Norton McGiffin, who served in the Mexican War, and in

the Civil War was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania

Volunteers. So McGiffin inherited his love for arms.
In Washington he went to the high school and at the Washington Jefferson

College had passed through his freshman year. But the honors that might

accrue to him if he continued to live on in the quiet and pretty old

town of Washington did not tempt him. To escape into the world he

wrote his Congressman, begging him to obtain for him an appointment to

Annapolis. The Congressman liked the letter, and wrote Colonel McGiffin

to ask if the application of his son had his approval. Colonel McGiffin

was willing, and in 1877 his son received his commission as cadet

midshipman. I knew McGiffin only as a boy with whom in vacation time I

went coon hunting in the woods outside of Washington. For his age he was

a very tall boy, and in his midshipman undress uniform, to my youthful

eyes, appeared a most bold and adventurous spirit.


At Annapolis his record seems to show he was pretty much like other

boys. According to his classmates, with all of whom I find he was very

popular, he stood high in the practical studies, such as seamanship,

gunnery, navigation, and steam engineering, but in all else he was near

the foot of the class, and in whatever escapade was risky and reckless

he was always one of the leaders. To him discipline was extremely

irksome. He could maintain it among others, but when it applied to

himself it bored him. On the floor of the Academy building on which was

his room there was a pyramid of cannon balls--relics of the War of 1812.

They stood at the head of the stairs, and one warm night, when he could

not sleep, he decided that no one else should do so, and, one by one,

rolled the cannon balls down the stairs. They tore away the banisters

and bumped through the wooden steps and leaped off into the lower halls.

For any one who might think of ascending to discover the motive power

back of the bombardment they were extremely dangerous. But an officer

approached McGiffin in the rear, and, having been caught in the act, he

was sent to the prison ship. There he made good friends with his jailer,

an old man-of-warsman named "Mike." He will be remembered by many naval

officers who as midshipmen served on the _Santee_. McGiffin so won

over Mike that when he left the ship he carried with him six charges of

gunpowder. These he loaded into the six big guns captured in the Mexican

War, which lay on the grass in the centre of the Academy grounds, and at

midnight on the eve of July 1st he fired a salute. It aroused the entire

garrison, and for a week the empty window frames kept the glaziers busy.


About 1878 or 1879 there was a famine in Ireland. The people of New York

City contributed provisions for the sufferers, and to carry the supplies

to Ireland the Government authorized the use of the old _Constellation_.

At the time the voyage was to begin each cadet was instructed to

consider himself as having been placed in command of the _Constellation_

and to write a report on the preparations made for the voyage, on the

loading of the vessel, and on the distribution of the stores. This

exercise was intended for the instruction of the cadets; first in the

matter of seamanship and navigation, and second in making official

reports. At that time it was a very difficult operation to get a gun out

of the port of a vessel where the gun was on a covered deck. To do this

the necessary tackles had to be rigged from the yard-arm and the yard

and mast properly braced and stayed, and then the lower block of the

tackle carried in through the gun port, which, of course, gave the fall

a very bad reeve. The first part of McGiffin's report dealt with a new

method of dismounting the guns and carrying them through the gun ports,

and so admirable was his plan, so simple and ingenious, that it was

used whenever it became necessary to dismount a gun from one of the

old sailing ships. Having, however, offered this piece of good work,

McGiffin's report proceeded to tell of the division of the ship into

compartments that were filled with a miscellaneous assortment of stores,

which included the old "fifteen puzzles," at that particular time very

popular. The report terminated with a description of the joy of the

famished Irish as they received the puzzle-boxes. At another time the

cadets were required to write a report telling of the suppression of the

insurrection on the Isthmus of Panama. McGiffin won great praise for

the military arrangements and disposition of his men, but, in the same

report, he went on to describe how he armed them with a new gun known as

Baines's Rhetoric and told of the havoc he wrought in the enemy's

ranks when he fired these guns loaded with similes and metaphors and

hyperboles.
Of course, after each exhibition of this sort he was sent to the

_Santee_ and given an opportunity to meditate.


On another occasion, when one of the instructors lectured to the cadets,

he required them to submit a written statement embodying all that they

could recall of what had been said at the lecture. One of the rules

concerning this report provided that there should be no erasures or

interlineations, but that when mistakes were made the objectionable or

incorrect expressions should be included within parentheses; and that

the matter so enclosed within parentheses would not be considered a part

of the report. McGiffin wrote an excellent _resume_ of the lecture,

but he interspersed through it in parentheses such words as "applause,"

"cheers," "cat-calls," and "groans," and as these words were enclosed

within parentheses he insisted that they did not count, and made a very

fair plea that he ought not to be punished for words which slipped in

by mistake, and which he had officially obliterated by what he called

oblivion marks.


He was not always on mischief bent. On one occasion, when the house of a

professor caught fire, McGiffin ran into the flames and carried out two

children, for which act he was commended by the Secretary of the Navy.
It was an act of Congress that determined that the career of McGiffin

should be that of a soldier of fortune. This was a most unjust act,

which provided that only as many midshipmen should receive commissions

as on the warships there were actual vacancies. In those days, in 1884,

our navy was very small. To-day there is hardly a ship having her full

complement of officers, and the difficulty is not to get rid of those we

have educated, but to get officers to educate. To the many boys who, on

the promise that they would be officers of the navy, had worked for

four years at the Academy and served two years at sea, the act was most

unfair. Out of a class of about ninety, only the first twelve were given

commissions and the remaining eighty turned adrift upon the uncertain

seas of civil life. As a sop, each was given one thousand dollars.


McGiffin was not one of the chosen twelve. In the final examinations on

the list he was well toward the tail. But without having studied

many things, and without remembering the greater part of them, no

one graduates from Annapolis, even last on the list; and with his one

thousand dollars in cash, McGiffin had also this six years of education

at what was then the best naval college in the world. This was his only

asset--his education--and as in his own country it was impossible to

dispose of it, for possible purchasers he looked abroad.


At that time the Tong King war was on between France and China, and he

decided, before it grew rusty, to offer his knowledge to the followers

of the Yellow Dragon. In those days that was a hazard of new fortunes

that meant much more than it does now. To-day the East is as near as San

Francisco; the Japanese-Russian War, our occupation of the Philippines,

the part played by our troops in the Boxer trouble, have made the

affairs of China part of the daily reading of every one. Now, one can

step into a brass bed at Forty-second Street and in four days at the

Coast get into another brass bed, and in twelve more be spinning down

the Bund of Yokohama in a rickshaw. People go to Japan for the winter

months as they used to go to Cairo.
But in 1885 it was no such light undertaking, certainly not for a young

man who had been brought up in the quiet atmosphere of an inland

town, where generations of his family and other families had lived and

intermarried, content with their surroundings.


With very few of his thousand dollars left him, McGiffin arrived in

February, 1885, in San Francisco. From there his letters to his family

give one the picture of a healthy, warm-hearted youth, chiefly anxious

lest his mother and sister should "worry." In our country nearly every

family knows that domestic tragedy when the son and heir "breaks home

ties," and starts out to earn a living; and if all the world loves a

lover, it at least sympathizes with the boy who is "looking for a job."

The boy who is looking for the job may not think so, but each of those

who has passed through the same hard place gives him, if nothing else,

his good wishes. McGiffin's letters at this period gain for him from

those who have had the privilege to read them the warmest good feeling.
They are filled with the same cheery optimism, the same slurring over

of his troubles, the same homely jokes, the same assurances that he is

feeling "bully," and that it all will come out right, that every boy,

when he starts out in the world, sends back to his mother.


"I am in first-rate health and spirits, so I don't want you to fuss

about me. I am big enough and ugly enough to scratch along somehow, and

I will not starve."
To his mother he proudly sends his name written in Chinese characters,

as he had been taught to write it by the Chinese Consul-General in San

Francisco, and a pen-picture of two elephants. "I am going to bring you

home _two_ of these," he writes, not knowing that in the strange and

wonderful country to which he is going elephants are as infrequent as

they are in Pittsburg.


He reached China in April, and from Nagasaki on his way to Shanghai

the steamer that carried him was chased by two French gunboats. But,

apparently much to his disappointment, she soon ran out of range of

their guns. Though he did not know it then, with the enemy he had

travelled so far to fight this was his first and last hostile meeting;

for already peace was in the air.


Of that and of how, in spite of peace, he obtained the "job" he wanted,

he must tell you himself in a letter home:


TIEN-TSIN, CHINA, April 13, 1885.
"MY DEAR MOTHER--I have not felt much in the humor for writing, for

I did not know what was going to happen. I spent a good deal of money

coming out, and when I got here, I knew, unless something turned up,

I was a gone coon. We got off Taku forts Sunday evening and the next

morning we went inside; the channel is very narrow and sown with

torpedoes. We struck one--an electric one--in coming up, but it didn't

go off. We were until 10.30 P.M. in coming up to Tien-Tsin--thirty miles

in a straight line, but nearly seventy by the river, which is only about

one hundred feet wide--and we grounded ten times.
"Well--at last we moored and went ashore. Brace Girdle, an engineer, and

I went to the hotel, and the first thing we heard was--that _peace was

declared!_ I went back on board ship, and I didn't sleep much--I never

was so blue in my life. I knew if they didn't want me that I might as

well give up the ghost, for I could never get away from China. Well--I

worried around all night without sleep, and in the morning I felt as

if I had been drawn through a knot-hole. I must have lost ten pounds. I

went around about 10 A.M. and gave my letters to Pethick, an American

U. S. Vice-Consul and interpreter to Li Hung Chang. He said he would fix

them for me. Then I went back to the ship, and as our captain was going

up to see Li Hung Chang, I went along out of desperation. We got in,

and after a while were taken in through corridor after corridor of the

Viceroy's palace until we got into the great Li, when we sat down and

had tea and tobacco and talked through an interpreter. When it came

my turn he asked: 'Why did you come to China?' I said: 'To enter the

Chinese service for the war.' 'How do you expect to enter?' 'I expect

_you_ to give me a commission!' 'I have no place to offer you.' 'I think

you have--I have come all the way from America to get it.' 'What would

you like?' 'I would like to get the new torpedo-boat and go down the

Yang-tse-Kiang to the blockading squadron.' 'Will you do that?' 'Of

course.'
"He thought a little and said: 'I will see what can be done. Will you

take $100 a month for a start?' I said: 'That depends.' (Of course

I would take it.) Well, after parley, he said he would put me on the

flagship, and if I did well he would promote me. Then he looked at me

and said: 'How old are you?' When I told him I was twenty-four I thought

he would faint--for in China a man is a _boy_ until he is over thirty.

He said I would _never_ do--I was a child. I could not know anything at

all. I could not convince him, but at last he compromised--I was to pass

an examination at the Arsenal at the Naval College, in all branches,

and if they passed me I would have a show. So we parted. I reported for

examination next day, but was put off--same the next day. But to-day I

was told to come, and sat down to a stock of foolscap, and had a

pretty stiff exam. I am only just through. I had seamanship, gunnery,

navigation, nautical astronomy, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, conic

sections, curve tracing, differential and integral calculus. I had only

three questions out of five to answer in each branch, but in the first

three I answered all five. After that I only had time for three, but

at the end he said I need not finish, he was perfectly satisfied. I had

done remarkably well, and he would report to the Viceroy to-morrow. He

examined my first papers--seamanship--said I was _perfect_ in it, so I

will get _along_, you need not fear. I told the Consul--he was very well

pleased--he is a nice man.


"I feel pretty well now--have had dinner and am smoking a good Manila

cheroot. I wrote hard all day, wrote fifteen sheets of foolscap and made

about a dozen drawings--got pretty tired.
"I have had a hard scramble for the service and only got in by the

skin of my teeth. I guess I will go to bed--I will sleep well

to-night--Thursday.
"I did not hear from the Naval Secretary, Tuesday, so yesterday morning

I went up to the Admiralty and sent in my card. He came out and received

me very well--said I had passed a 'very splendid examination'; had been

recommended very strongly to the Viceroy, who was very much pleased;

that the Director of the Naval College over at the Arsenal had wanted me

and would I go over at once? I _would_. It was about five miles. We (a

friend, who is a great rider here) went on steeplechase ponies--we were

ferried across the Pei Ho in a small scow and then had a long ride.

There _is_ a path--but Pritchard insisted on taking all the ditches,

and as my pony jumped like a cat, it wasn't nice at first, but I didn't

squeal and kept my seat and got the swing of it at last and rather liked

it. I think I will keep a horse here--you can hire one and a servant

together for $7 a month; that is $5.60 of our money, and pony and man

found in everything.


"Well--at last we got to the Arsenal--a place about four miles around,

fortified, where all sorts of arms--cartridges, shot and shell, engines,

and _everything_--are made. The Naval College is inside surrounded by

a moat and wall. I thought to myself, if the cadet here is like to the

thing I used to be at the U. S. N. A. _that_ won't keep him in. I went

through a lot of yards till I was ushered into a room finished in black

ebony and was greeted very warmly by the Director. We took seats on a

raised platform--Chinese style and pretty soon an interpreter came, one

of the Chinese professors, who was educated abroad, and we talked and

drank tea. He said I had done well, that he had the authority of the

Viceroy to take me there as 'Professor' of seamanship and gunnery; in

addition I might be required to teach navigation or nautical astronomy,

or drill the cadets in infantry, artillery, and fencing. For this I was

to receive what would be in our money $1,800 per annum, as near as we

can compare it, paid in gold each month. Besides, I will have a house

furnished for my use, and it is their intention, as soon as I _show_

that I _know_ something, to considerably increase my pay. They asked

the Viceroy to give me 130 T per month (about $186) and house, but the

Viceroy said I was _but a boy_; that I had seen no years and had only

come here a week ago with no one to vouch for me, and that I might turn

out an impostor. But he would risk 100 T on me anyhow, and as soon as

I was reported favorably on by the college I would be raised--the

agreement is to be for three years. For a few months I am to command

a training ship--an ironclad that is in dry dock at present, until a

captain in the English Navy comes out, who has been sent for to command

her.
"_So Here I am_--twenty-four years old and captain of a man-of-war--a

better one than any in our own navy--only for a short time, of course,

but I would be a pretty long time before I would command one at home.

Well--I accepted and will enter on my duties in a week, as soon as my

house is put in order. I saw it--it has a long veranda, very broad; with

flower garden, apricot trees, etc., just covered with blossoms; a wide

hall on the front, a room about 18x15, with a 13-foot ceiling; then back

another rather larger, with a cupola skylight in the centre, where I

am going to put a shelf with flowers. The Government is to furnish the

house with bed, tables, chairs, sideboards, lounges, stove for kitchen.

I have grates (American) in the room, but I don't need them. We have

snow, and a good deal of ice in winter, but the thermometer never gets

below zero. I have to supply my own crockery. I will have two servants

and cook; I will only get one and the cook first--they only cost $4

to $5.50 per month, and their board amounts to very little. I can get

along, don't you think so? Now I want you to get Jim to pack up all

my professional works on gunnery, surveying, seamanship, mathematics,

astronomy, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, conic sections, calculus,

mechanics, and _every_ book of that description I own, including those

paperbound 'Naval Institute' papers, and put them in a box, together

with any photos, etc., you think I would like--I have none of you or Pa

or the family (including Carrie)--and send to me.
"I just got in in time--didn't I? Another week would have been too late.

My funds were getting low; I would not have had _anything_ before long.

The U. S. Consul, General Bromley, is much pleased. The interpreter says

it was all in the way I did with the Viceroy in the interview.


"I will have a chance to go to Peking and later to a tiger hunt in

Mongolia, but for the present I am going to study, work, and _stroke_

these mandarins till I get a raise. I am the only instructor in both

seamanship and gunnery, and I must know _everything_, both practically

and theoretically. But it will be good for me and the only thing is,

that if I were put back into the Navy I would be in a dilemma. I think

I will get my 'influence' to work, and I want you people at home to

look out, and in case I _am_--if it were represented to the Sec. that

my position here was giving me an immense lot of practical knowledge

professionally--more than I could get on a ship at sea--I think he would

give me two years' leave on half or quarter pay. Or, I would be willing

to do without pay--only to be kept on the register in my rank.


"I will write more about this. Love to all."

It is characteristic of McGiffin that in the very same letter in which

he announces he has entered foreign service he plans to return to

that of his own country. This hope never left him. You find the same

homesickness for the quarterdeck of an American man-of-war all through

his later letters. At one time a bill to reinstate the midshipmen who

had been cheated of their commissions was introduced into Congress. Of

this McGiffin writes frequently as "our bill." "It may pass," he writes,

"but I am tired hoping. I have hoped so long. And if it should," he adds

anxiously, "there may be a time limit set in which a man must rejoin, or

lose his chance, so do not fail to let me know as quickly as you can."

But the bill did not pass, and McGiffin never returned to the navy that

had cut him adrift. He settled down at Tien-Tsin and taught the young

cadets how to shoot. Almost all of those who in the Chinese-Japanese War

served as officers were his pupils. As the navy grew, he grew with

it, and his position increased in importance. More Mexican dollars per

month, more servants, larger houses, and buttons of various honorable

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