A Bear named Bess, and her Brief Enlistment on USS Wabash

John Hartwell

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Egotistigraphy is the title of an unpublished autobiography written by John Sanford Barnes. It was passed down through the family, and it was not until 2012, 101 years after his death, that his grand-daughter, Susan B. Hay prepared a transcription, and published it online: https://sites.google.com/site/johnsanfordbarnes/home.

An 1854 graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, he found himself in the fall of 1861, a junior officer aboard USS Wabash. During operations in the vicinity of Jacksonville, Florida, he recounts the capture of the steamer Darlington, “filled with a shrieking, hysterical lot of women, old men and children whom we had difficulty in pacifying.” He goes on:


“The ‘Darlington. was loaded to its capacity with household goods, amongst them a large black bear, which later was shipped on the ‘Wabash,’ and became a funny and grotesque pet of the crew, until she came to a tragic end. Evans, in his ‘Sailors Log,’ tells some stiff yarns about poor ‘Bess’ who was the heroine of many an escapade, and made lots of fun, but became so mischievous - but never vicious - that Corbin determined to send her ashore and let her roam at will on the deserted islands at Port Royal.

“She was induced by Foley, the boatswain's mate and her particular friend and chum, to enter the launch, and on reaching the shore had to be dragged out of the launch. On sniffing the long-forgotten odor of the soil, she commenced turning somersaults, rolling over and over, until she disappeared from my sight as I watched the landing with my glass from the ship, the launch's crew following her. Foley reported almost in tears on his return that poor ‘Bess’ rolled until she died. I could fill a page with accounts of her amusing tricks and cunning.”


We all wish he had done so!
 
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John Hartwell

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USS Wabash
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Bess
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Bess' sad end, however, was occasioned by her own indulgence in the navy's notorious rum-ration. The “Sailor’s Log” Barnes refers to is future Admiral Robley D. Evans’ 1901 memoir sub-titled “Recollections of Forty Years of Naval Life”. He recalls of his brief visit to the Wabash:

“I shall always remember an incident of my visit to this ship. As we went over the side, a large black bear stood on his hind legs at the gangway, among the side boys, hat in hand, and saluting each officer as he went on board. I saw him as I came up the side, and not proposing to give him a chance at me, jumped for the main chains and went over that way, much to the amusement of the officers. A short time after this his bearship came to grief, and had to be sent on shore. He was very fond of alcohol, and, having filled up and become ugly, turned into the bunk of one of the lieutenants, who, finding his bed occupied, turned in somewhere else until his time came for duty. The quartermaster being sent down during the night to call the lieutenant, and getting no answer, undertook to awake him by shaking him, which so enraged the bear, in his half-drunken condition, that he bit the quartermaster so badly that he lost one of his legs.” (p.48)
 
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John Hartwell

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Aug 27, 2011
Location
Central Massachusetts
From an April 11, 1863 letter in the Newark Daily Advetiser, describing "A Visit to Port Royal":
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According to Dennis Ringle's Life in Mr. Lincoln's Navy, the 'timberclad' gunboat USS Tyler also had a bear mascot. They had to watch him because he tended to lash out at the crew's pet dogs.
 
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Mrs. V

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May 5, 2017
Wow. Cannot imagine a drunken bear. Or a sober one..even the legendary Winnie was turned over to the zoo, after his person realized he could not take him to his deployment. (WW1)...by that time the bear was very well socialized, and was quite popular.
 
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