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.
Thus began Fry’s naval career, which was conspicuous for his devotion to duty. Like many others who would participate in the American Civil War, he fought in the Mexican War and saw action at the shelling of Veracruz. After this war, one of the most difficult times of Fry’s life began: a three year long cruise which separated him from his young wife and his one year old daughter. To console himself, he began writing a diary of the voyage which he addressed to his wife. Reading between the lines, we see a figure oppressed by loneliness and melancholy; yet, he never lost hope that good would come of his temporary separation from his loved ones. Some lines from this diary are quite moving:
I hope, my Dita, for better times, and that, in the enjoyments of our society, we may forget our troubles, and learn to recognize in them trials from God for our own good. How much happier we should be in this world, if we would only cultivate the hope of happiness in the next! How insignificant our cares would seem when viewed in their relation to our eternal interests! May God grant us light, and hope, and strength, and faith, and patience!
The voyage led to him becoming fascinated by the way of life of the people he met in the Orient. So much was this the case that the desire of doing missionary work among the Japanese took hold of him. In this, he displays a quality shared by many Catholic saints and martyrs who held the Faith which Captain Fry loved so dearly. However, he never received enough support for this venture, and the outbreak of the American Civil War occurred two years after his return from this voyage.
His response to hearing about the secession of Louisiana is remarkable. Fry had developed a placid temperament by this point of his life; however, the news that Louisiana left the Union made him anxious to resign his commission from the U. S. Navy. A friend tried to talk him out of it, but nothing could stop Fry’s impetus for doing the right thing:
He was in my office when the gun was fired announcing that our beloved State (Louisiana) had been voted out of the Union. He started from his seat, exclaiming, ‘I must resign! I cannot serve two masters! I am southern born! With the South I must stand or fall!’ I tried to persuade him against too hasty action, as I was of the opinion that a peaceful solution of the question at issue would soon be reached, and that injudicious action on his part would endanger his position in the navy. He replied that, as a true-born American, he could not stop to think of family, friends, or self, when his country’s welfare was at stake. He wrote his resignation on the spot, and forwarded it to Washington at once. I believe he was the first United States officer to resign in Louisiana.
Fry’s service saw him in two significant actions of the war: opposing federal vessels in White River and later in Mobile Bay. The first action almost got him in trouble, as Northern papers accused him of targeting helpless men who had been forced to abandon ship. But, both Union and Confederate officers have exonerated him of any guilt in the casualties which these poor men sustained. In Mobile Bay, his coolness under fire and fierce devotion to duty were marked by an officer of the Confederate marines, who says that he benefited greatly from Fry’s placid demeanor under the withering fire of Union cannon. After a week of opposing the construction of Union batteries in constant engagements, Fry’s ship was effectively disabled by cannon fire, but even then Fry refused to abandon the ship—a gallant decision which won the cheers of his crew.
Between these two battles, Fry worked as a blockade runner for the Confederacy until his ship ran aground due to a misjudgment on the part of its pilot. It is curious that another nation would call upon this same skill of Fry’s just eight years later.
The eight years following the fall of the Confederacy were the second great period of trial in Fry’s life. As mentioned above, his friend feared that his sense of duty to the South would cost Fry his livelihood. Like many other Southern patriots, Fry, his wife, and seven children lived in poverty during the Era of Reconstruction. Fry attempted to ply his scientific knowledge to creating various inventions and also attempted to get into business in order to support his family. However, his longtime career in the navy had not prepared him for civilian pursuits, and acquaintances were struck by his poor business sense.
The next article will cover Joseph Fry’s demise. If death reveals all that a man is, Fry’s death deserves close examination. I hope to quote from some of Fry’s last letters and newspaper accounts of the incident. Until next time, my dear readers!