USS Congress, off Montevideo (Uruguay),Brazil Station: 1853. Unbound. This four-page letter from Midshipman Washington Totten, dated April 25 1853, was sent while he was assigned to the USS Congress off the coast of Montevideo, Uruguay. It is enclosed in an envelope addressed to [William] Gaston Pearson in care of a naval officer, Lieutenant Joseph C. Walch, stationed in Washington, DC. The envelope received two handstamps (“Ship” and “7”) upon receipt, probably in Washington. They, in turn, were struck-through in pen by Walch, also wrote “Paid” in the upper right corner indicating he had paid the 7 cents due. Walch also partially obliterated the name of the ship by which Totten had sent the letter and readdressed it to Pearson (who was attending Harvard College) at Cambridge, Massachusetts. He affixed a 3-cent Washington stamp (Scott Type A21 with indistinct frame lines) which was canceled with a circular Washington DC postmark. The envelope also bears an indistinct circular Massachusetts receiving stamp in red. Transcript included. Very good. Item #008984
Totten and Pearson, who apparently were old childhood friends, had not corresponded in several years. In this heartfelt letter, Totten humorously admonishes Pearson for not staying in contact, reflects briefly on old times, and commiserates about family deaths. However, he spends far more time providing a marvelously detailed and enchanting explanation of “navy life” to include discussing his Commodore’s authority (“If the department had called him to an account . . . he would have said that the exigencies of the service required that . . . & then the question would have been settled at once”), his promotion (“Promotion is slow . . . those who wish to enlist should do so at thirteen . . . midshipmen stay two years at the school before going to sea. Then make a cruise of three years & then return to the academy for a few years more . . . a probationary term of seven years before they can pass their final examination”), and his facial hair (“an enormous beard . . . As big a beard as any man’s . . . it is a beautiful beard, even though tis I that say it – I wear it all around & [until] a few months ago sported a heavy mustache besides. The new navy uniform rule however, obliges every one with mustaches to cut them off. . . .I will not enter into a description of this famous beard of mine, but you should think me vain. Suffice it to say however that it is of a dark brown and is the admiration of all the other midshipmen.”) Washington was a member of the prominent Totten military family (e.g., Fort Totten, Totten Inland, Totten Key, etc.), and Gaston belonged to a wealthy political family that owned the Brentwood Estate in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the two young men were never able to reconnect; Totten died off the coast of Rio de Janeiro and was buried at sea a year after he wrote this letter.An insightful and detailed letter about antebellum shipboard life and professional concerns of a young navy officer.