Warship Wednesday, May 16, 2018: Schermerhorn’s contribution to naval history
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, May 16, 2018: Schermerhorn’s contribution to naval history
Here we see the pride of the New York Yacht Club, the steam patrol yacht Free Lance, in her newly-applied gray military scheme on duty off New York City, probably in August 1898. The brand-new pleasure craft would, oddly enough, be called upon not once, but twice, to defend her country.
But first, let us speak of that great knickerbocker, Frederick Augustus Schermerhorn.
As a young man, Schermerhorn came from a prominent Empire State family and, after a string of private schools and tutors, was accepted at what was then Columbia College for the Class of 1865. However, as the Civil War evolved, he promptly dropped out of school at the ripe old age of 20 in 1864 and sought an appointment to West Point, which was denied. Not to be outdone, he applied to a series of New York volunteer units and was enrolled to the roster of the newly-formed 185th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment’s C Company in the fall of 1864 and shipped off to the Petersburg Campaign in Northern Virginia.
By the end of the war, the bloodied and decorated 1st Lt had been breveted a captain and was assigned as the aide-de-camp of MG Charles Griffin, the V Corps commander during its final campaign, and was present in the yard when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. In all, Schermerhorn served less than a year, but it was a hell of a year.
Returning to New York after the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, Schermerhorn went back to school, picking up his mining degree from Columbia in 1868, and continued his service with the famed “Blue-Bloods” of the 7th New York Militia regiment for another several decades. By 1877, he was a Columbia trustee and member in most of the clubs and societies in The City that meant anything including the Riding, Knickerbocker, Metropolitan, and Tuxedo clubs. He rose to become a Director of the N. Y. Life Insurance and Trust Co.
The good Mr. Schermerhorn was duly nominated and confirmed by the membership to the New York Yacht Club on 25 March 1886 and by 1897 was elected to a position as a flag officer with that esteemed organization, a post he held through at least 1903. During his time with the NYYC, he was one of the backers of the 1893 (eighth) America’s Cup contender Colonia but was beaten by Nathanael Greene Herreshoff’s Vanderbilt-backed centerboard sloop Vigilant.
Moving past cutters, Schermerhorn commissioned Mr. Lewis Nixon of Elizabethport, NJ’s Crescent Shipyard to construct him a beautiful screw steam schooner designed by A. Cary Smith for personal use. As noted by the Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers at the time, his new ship, Free Lance, was 108-feet on the waterline and 137 from figurehead to taffrail with a cross-section “different from all other steam yachts” due to its long bow and lapped steel plating. A pair of Almy water tube boilers drove a 600 IHP triple expansion steam engine.
Her 25 September builder’s trials report made the Oct. 12, 1895 issue of Forest and Stream which noted that with a forced draft and 200-pounds of steam she was able to clear 19 miles in 62 minutes. By the turn of the century, she regualry hit 17 knots in civil use and utilized the novel Thorne-patent ash ejector, which gave steady work for her stokers.
However, the Free Lance only got two seasons in before war came with Spain, and Schermerhorn freely volunteered the services of his yacht to the Navy, which were promptly accepted.
The armed yachts of the Spanish-American War are fascinating reading as they were often very handsome sailing ships such as past Warship Weds alum Peter Arrell Brown Widener’s custom-built schooner-rigged Josephine and Massachusetts textile magnate Matthew Chaloner Durfee’s rakish and very well-appointed steam yacht, Sovereign.
At the time the Navy needed to rapidly expand and among the ships acquired for Spanish-American War service were no less than 29 armed and hastily converted yachts, primarily drawn from wealthy Northeast and New York Yankees such as our very own Mr. Schermerhorn. A baker’s dozen of these former pleasure craft were rather large ships, exceeding 400 tons. With relatively good gun-carrying capacity and sea-keeping capabilities, these bigger craft saw service off Cuba where they were used as auxiliary cruisers, scouting vessels, and dispatch ships.
Others, such as our newly commissioned USS Free Lance, were used in what was termed the Auxiliary Naval Force, keeping a weather eye for Spanish raiders just over the horizon of the increasingly undefended U.S Eastern Seaboard.
Her armament: a pair of .65-caliber Royal Navy contract 1870s-vintage Mark I 10-barrel Gatling guns mounted atop the yacht’s pilothouse and on her stern, reportedly picked up through the offices of local NYC military surplus guru Francis Bannerman.
Each Gatling gun weighed 725-pounds, not including the mount and fired a 1,421-grain projectile at 1,427fps. The rate of fire (theoretically) was 1,200 rounds per minute but the gun was limited by the speed that assistant gunners could drop rounds down the beast’s top-mounted Bruce Feed-style chute.
With her unconventional armament and small relative size, she was used as a harbor patrol craft during the conflict, commissioned as USS Free Lance, 12 May 1898.
Her term of service was short, decommissioning on 24 August 1898 after just 14 weeks on active duty.
Returned to her owner, when WWI came the aging Schermerhorn once more contributed his love to the Navy, with the yacht leased for $1 on 19 July 1917 and commissioned as USS Freelance (SP-830) with no space between the two words. This was because from 1905 on, her name was spelled “Freelance.”
Under command of Ensign J. B. Nevins, USNRF, and armed with a pair of recycled 3-pounder guns (Gatling’s were reserved for museums by 1917) she was once more put in service patrolling in the New York area. Her DANFS record is slim.
Freelance was decommissioned on Christmas Eve 1918 and returned to her owner the same day. Schermerhorn passed in March 1919, age 74, during a speech he was giving before the Union Club and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
His epitaph is Psalm 37:37: “Mark the perfect man and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.”
Schermerhorn’s 1915 portrait by August Franzen is in the Smithsonian‘s National Portrait Gallery.
I cannot find what became of his cherished Free Lance, but I would like to think she is still in Gotham somewhere, perhaps on the bottom of the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard, which in a way would be fitting.
Displacement 132 t.
Length 137 feet overall
Beam 20′ 8″
Draft 7′ 6″
Propulsion: One 600ihp steam engine (3cyl, 11,17&29×20 Crescent), one shaft. Two Almy WT boilers
Speed 14 knots in naval service, almost 19 on trials
Complement 18 (military service)
Armament: Two .65-caliber Gatling guns (1898)
Two 3-pounders (1917)
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