USS Baron DeKalb: The Masonic Ironclad?

written by Michael Halleran, M.M.
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 September 1862.

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 ship.

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 her stacks?

•When was the photograph taken?

• Do any contemporary accounts describe the emblem?

•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 explained.

Endnotes
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,”
http://www.wideopenwest.com/~jenkins/ironclads/unionriver.htm (accessed 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.

 

 

 

         

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