One of the chief delights of reading volumes published during the 19th century about the American Civil comes in discovering the stories of heroes often overlooked by modern historians. If not for Jeanie Mort Walker’s The Life of Captain Joseph Fry the Cuban Martyr and his murder at the hands of the Spanish government in Cuba on November 7, 1873, this great man’s life would be totally lost to history. I hope by this short article to contribute to the memory of Captain Joseph Fry in order to help fulfill the wish of his biographer (whose work I heartily recommend), which she expresses in the following words: “If a pure life, rich in honor, kindness, gallantry, truth, and faithful services, both in peace and in war, deserves remembrance, Captain Joseph Fry will never be forgotten” (14). The chief purpose of history, as Herodotus tells us, is to relate noble deeds so that they shall never be forgotten. My dear readers will find Joseph Fry’s life replete with them.
This worthy man entered the world on June 14, 1826 in Tampa, Florida. In this place, he would spend a very mischievous youth, which would earn him the nickname “Joseph le Diable” from his Creole neighbors. However, even as a youth, he became remarkable for his good heart and selflessness. At the age of five, he attended the needs of a dying free black woman, who had been abandoned by all until his family discovered Fry’s whereabouts and took over the care of the woman. This was not the last poor woman grateful for Fry’s help. Those who know how stratified Southern society was at the time will appreciate this fact.
If any act of Fry’s life displayed a modicum of self-interest, it lay in Fry’s decision to enter the Naval Academy. Fry had graduated from schooling in the North and had returned home to work in his uncle’s hardware store, which did not suit his energetic temperament in the least. After his elders and their connections failed to obtain an appointment for Fry at the Academy, he himself set out for Washington D. C. at the age of seventeen in order to obtain an audience with President John Tyler! Many at Washington were taken with Fry’s learning, poise, and courage, which gained him the wanted audience. Tyler then invited Fry to a dinner with the cabinet members and their wives, in which Fry’s plight and his poise became the main focus of the conversation. Needless to say, Fry returned home having secured a place among the plebes.