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Frederick Crocker was born in 1821 in Brockton, Massachusetts, the youngest son of a well-to-do farmer and manufacturer. His father sent him to work in nearby New Bedford, MA, then a booming whaling town, when he was 16 years old. Attracted by the adventure of a life at sea, he left the family business to join the most important whaling company in New Bedford, at 17. Although the youngest on board, he became the leader of a harpooning party. In his free time he studied books that taught him his trade. At 24, he was captain of a whaling vessel. He hunted whales in the most remote waters of the globe during 13 years. Starting in 1851, he joined the American merchant marine serving as captain of clipper ships, carrying cargo and passengers to the Far East and San Francisco.
At 34, he married the daughter of a wealthy Vineyard whaler in Liverpool, England. With the arrival of two sons and a daughter in 1856-1860, he remained closer to the family home in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard. By 1860, he had become captain and part owner of a passenger and cargo steamer, the R.R. Cuyler, which sailed along the East Coast of North America between New York City and Savannah, Georgia and was reputed for its speed.
The Civil War radically changed the pleasanter direction his life had taken. At age 40, he volunteered for service in the first weeks of the conflict. As a Union Navy gunboat skipper, he displayed great courage and ability in many successful naval engagements. He served on the Mississippi and along the US coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and distinguished himself in battles and incidents at Apalachicola Bay, Sabine Pass, Calcasieu River, Camp Bisland and Butte-à-la-Rose, among others.
His most dramatic exploit was his six-day, 80-mile dash through rebel-controlled Louisiana in October 1862. He and his party captured the senior Confederate officer in the Calcasieu area, gained possession of eight enemy vessels (one of them single-handedly), defeated rebel infantry and burned their encampment, fought off a cavalry attack, destroyed a bridge and stores, returning safely, without a single casualty. He also picked up refugees and took hostages, reportedly destroying a considerable amount of private property and capturing a large number of cotton bales. In recognition of his initiative, Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut recommended him enthusiastically for promotion.
Frederick Crocker is nonetheless better known as the Union Navy commander who suffered an unexpected defeat at Sabine Pass, Texas, on September 8, 1863. With a squadron of four gunboats carrying hundreds of sharpshooters and sailors, he attacked Fort Griffin head-on. While over five thousand Union troops on twenty transport ships stood by, he was defeated and captured along with 300 men by a far inferior rebel force. His gunboat became an easy target when its wheel rope was shot away, and its hull stuck fast on a mud bank. His gunboat’s boiler took a direct hit. The main invasion force had taken all launches. His men could not disembark, and dozens drowned. Frederick Crocker and his crew were brave and determined, but the commanding Union General, an intelligent and brave officer who believed the entire expedition unwise, froze at the critical moment and then withdrew. The book Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae by Edward T. Cotham (2004)makes numerous references to Frederick Crocker for his actions during the naval blockade by the Union Navy.
Despite the frantic efforts of his superiors to obtain his release, Captain Crocker had to endure almost seventeen wretched months as a prisoner of war, mainly at Camp Ford, in Tyler, Texas. Hundreds of prisoners died from exposure, illness and malnutrition, but to a man the sailors under his leadership remained loyal to the Union. As soon as he was freed, he attempted to obtain the release of all African American servicemen still held prisoners at Camp Ford.
Frederick Crocker ultimately rose to the rank of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Commander and was cited on three different accounts—gallantry, and meritorious and faithful services—making him the only US Navy officer to win these three distinctions in the Civil War. He was awarded at least two Confederate flags (at Sabine Pass and Butte-à-la-Rose). The honours he earned are all the more impressive because he was not an easy subordinate, having little patience with inept regular navy officers or corrupt politicians. At one point he resigned from the navy in disgust only to be lured back by Farragut. He formally denounced Major-General Benjamin F. Butler, then the supreme Union military commander at New Orleans, for corruption. Later in his career, he lost his diplomatic post after refusing to contribute to the presidential campaign of the allegedly corrupt James G. Blaine, a Governor of Maine and Secretary of State.
After the Civil War, he resigned from the Navy. Business took him for a short spell to Chicago. At 47 years of age and in weakened health from his many months in prison camp, he decided to leave the United States with his young family and two brothers-in-law. He started up a new life in far-off Uruguay, a small and politically unstable South American country. Its very agreeable climate and favourable business prospects were especially attractive to him.
While in Uruguay, he was first involved in the ice trade. For over two years (1875–77) he served as US Consul at Montevideo under the Grant administration. He continued to serve ably as Vice Consul until 1886. For twenty years he was the marine insurance surveyor for both Lloyds of London and Bureau Veritas (an American insurance company) in Montevideo. He was also a journalist for a British periodical and a political pundit in the Montevideo and Buenos Aires English language newspapers.
From different sources, we know that Frederick Crocker impressed his friends as well cultured, dignified and spiritual. He read widely and incessantly and had a keen understanding of world events. His optimism, compassion and tolerance were quite conspicuous. He was a man of firm loyalties and was proud of his service to his country. He held the sincere religious convictions of a Swedenborgian, and over the years became ardently opposed to slavery. The considerable information available also shows him to have been an ambitious man, very adept at dealing with harsh challenges
Frederick Crocker died in Montevideo at 89 years of age. His long life required courage, energy, and self-confidence beyond the ordinary. The bravery and initiative he displayed as a volunteer gunboat commander during the Civil War are recorded in many history books, articles and even in fiction. To his family, he remains an indomitable spirit, a towering example of intrepidness and faith.