Saturday, February 6, 2010

Call to Naval Historians: Who Was Captain William Chanler?

One evening in mid-June of 1892, a Georgetown police officer named Sullivan {likely, Thomas Sullivan) passed a forlorn little house on Valley Street—that is, present-day 32nd Street, between R and P. The house was back from the street; unruly trees and bushes nearly obscured it from the view of passersby. Sullivan had passed the house innumerable times on previous rounds, but tonight, he thought it looked more desolate than ever. Something was wrong.

He knocked on the door and called out. He heard a moan from inside, so he forced open the door. In the dim light inside, he found an elderly man sitting unconscious in a chair, where it turned out he had been sitting for two days.

Sullivan carefully lifted the man from the chair and carried him to a crude bed. He found a bottle of liquor and some water in a cupboard, with which he revived the old man.

Sullivan sent for Dr. Abraham Shekell, who lived just around the corner on 32nd Street. They learned the names and addresses of two relatives from Maryland—a Mrs. Franklin of Baltimore and an Edward Ghant (Gannt?) of Annapolis, who the papers reported to be a Maryland State’s Attorney. Chanler’s niece and nephew engaged outside help to look after the man. Finally, they decided that the crumbling house was not livable. So they sent their uncle to Garfield Hospital, a charitable institution erected only a few years before.

Presumably, Chanler lived out the rest of his days there. No records can be found of either his life or his death in Washington, in spite of a plethora of details provided by newspapers at the time:

According to those reports, Chanler was 86 years old and had lived like a hermit for years. At the break of the Civil War, he had been a senior “Captain” in the United States Navy—“outranking” even the famous Naval war hero, David Dixon Porter, and others. His heart was said to lie with the South, but because he couldn’t think of any way of honorably resigning from the Navy, he remained and distinguished himself by capturing “five of the first prizes taken from the Confederacy.”

At some point during the War, Chanler reportedly broke down and went South. He allegedly returned to Washington a broken man.

There are far too many William Chanlers/Chandlers in census and military records to ever be able to pinpoint the exact man found languishing in Georgetown.

Interestingly, a William Chandler served as Secretary of the Navy from 1882 to 1885; there is, however, no chance that our Georgetown hermit was this distinguished gentleman.

©Cecily Hilleary, 2010.

Sketch by Charles Deforest Gedney, courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

1 comment:

Chuck Gallagher said...

Great Blog, just found it and I look forward to keeping up with it!

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