written by Michael
From the Scottish Rite Journal
Lying nearly forgotten in the
archives at Wichita State University in Kansas are the personal papers of Adm.
John Grimes Walker who began his naval career in the Civil War. He was born in
New Hampshire and relocated as a young man to Iowa—his uncle was governor of the
state—before attending the Naval Academy on the eve of war. Wichita State
purchased his personal papers in the 1970s, and the collection comprises the
correspondence and personal stamp collection of the admiral, who was an avid
philatelist and by all appearances a faithful correspondent.
But Walker was also at the center
of a mystery. During the war, he was the fifth—and last—captain of the USS Baron
DeKalb, known as the “Masonic Ironclad.” At a recent Masonic speaking
engagement, I came upon a photo of a CivilWar ironclad, part of the Union’s
“brown-water navy,” which bore what appeared to be a Masonic emblem between her
stacks. I was not aware of any other ship—or tank, aircraft, or other implement
of war—so decorated, and I decided to investigate.
The USS Baron DeKalb was named in
honor of Baron Johann DeKalb, a German officer who served as a major general in
Washington’s army during the American Revolutionary War. DeKalb is claimed to
be a Mason and usually believed to be a member of Pennsylvania Lodge No. 29
attached to the Maryland Line.1 The ship was laid down in 1861 and was
originally named the USS St. Louis. Upon the discovery that another ship had
already been named St. Louis, she was re-christened USS Baron DeKalb in
DeKalb was the first “City” class
gunboat, a class of ironclads that are sometimes referred to as “Pook turtles”
after their designer, Samuel M. Pook. Six other city class gunboats were built
in addition to the DeKalb, and these 500-ton workhorses were the backbone of the
Federal river fleet. Armed with two 8-inch smooth bore cannon, four 42-pounder
rifles, and seven 32-pounder smooth bores, DeKalb was a formidable foe, but a
slow one. Sporting armor plate in excess of 100 tons, her top speed was a
stately nine miles an hour.
DeKalb saw action on the
Tennessee, Cumberland, Yazoo, and Mississippi rivers during her tour of duty
before she was finally sunk by a rebel mine below Yazoo City on July 13, 1863.
Her sister ship, Cairo, also sunk by a Confederate mine (the first ship to
suffer such a fate), was raised in 1964 and is now on display at Vicksburg
National Military Park.
Although much is known about the
DeKalb, the history of the ship betrays no clue as to why an ostensibly Masonic
device appeared so prominently on her superstructure. The ship’s log, a
transcription of which resides at the Louisiana State University library in
Baton Rouge, makes no mention of Freemasonry at all, and no anecdotal evidence
exists that explains a Masonic connection. Deductive reasoning, however, led me
to investigate her captain, who must surely have approved any such device on his
DeKalb actually had five captains
during her brief, twenty-month career.2 Her first four captains were Lt. Leonard
Paulding (January–April 1862), Lt. Henry Erben (April–June 1862), Lt. Wilson
McGunnegle (June–July 1862), and Capt. John Ancrum Winslow (July– October 1862).
Captain (later Admiral) Winslow, who went on to command the USS Kearsarge during
her famous fight with the CSS Alabama, contracted malaria on the river and was
granted a furlough to return home to recuperate on November 1, 1862.3 The
Masonic affiliations of these four men are not known. Her fifth and final
captain was Lt. Commander (later Admiral) John Grimes Walker (October
1862–August 1863). My preliminary research found no grand lodge records in Iowa,
Maryland, or the District of Columbia that proved Walker was a Freemason. I came
toWichita in the vain hope that his correspondence would include
something—anything—of Masonic significance. After several hours sorting through
stamps, postcards, old letters, and financial records, I had very little to show
for myself. In the ninth box, however, I came upon a folder bearing the notation
“Code book.” Inside the folder was a small notebook about the size of a pack of
playing cards, bound in blue leatherette. It was dated July 15, 1859, and Grimes
had written his name on the inside cover. “That is an old code book,” the
reference assistant told me, “probably a military code.”
I looked through it for a moment
and then contradicted her: “It’s not a military code,” I said, “It is a Masonic
cipher.” And to prove it, I read off a few of the more innocent sentences which
had the effect of a clever parlor trick. The cipher alone does not answer why
the USS Baron DeKalb bore the square and compasses, but it does shed light on
how it could have occurred. The book proves her captain was a member of the
Craft before he took command. However, some questions do remain.
• Is that truly a square and compasses between
•When was the photograph taken?
• Do any contemporary accounts describe the
•Was the emblem to honor Bro. DeKalb, to identify
the captain as a Mason, or to do something else?
• Are there other, yet undiscovered, vessels
decorated with Masonic emblems?
Owing to the dearth of first-person accounts of the Brown Water Navy, it is
possible that the mystery of the “Masonic Ironclad” will never be fully
1. Ronald E. Heaton, Masonic Membership of the Founding Fathers (Silver
Spring, Md: Masonic Service Association, 1974), pp. 84–85.
2. Mark F. Jenkins, “Union Riverine Ironclads,”
Dec. 4, 2007)
3. John M. Ellicott, The Life of John Ancrum Winslow, Rear-Admiral, United
States Navy (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1902), p. 94.
The Scottish Rite Journal (ISSN 1076-8572)
is published bimonthly by the Supreme Council, 33°, Ancient and Accepted
Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction, United States of
America, 1733 Sixteenth St., NW,Washington, DC 20009-3103.
Michael A. Halleran, a freelance writer and a
practicing attorney in the Flint Hills of East- Central Kansas, is Senior
Deacon of Emporia Lodge No. 12, A.F.&A.M. Bro. Halleran received the Mackey
Award for Excellence in Masonic Scholarship for his article in Heredom, vol.
14 (2006), and is the co-author of a regular column for Upland Almanac. His
articles have also appeared in Shooting Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, and FUR
FISH GAME. A devoted husband and father, he is a member of the Quatuor
Coronati Lodge No. 2076 Correspondence Circle and the Scottish Rite Research
Society where he studies Freemasonry in the American Civil War and the
traditions of military lodges worldwide. In his spare time he enjoys hunting
pheasant, quail, prairie chicken, and defense counsel.