M. Patrick Sauer and David A. Ranzan, eds., To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2019. 255 pp.
Review by John M. Jennings
Professor, United States Air Force Academy
In 1852, the US Navy’s East India Squadron, under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, was dispatched on a voyage to Asia that would last for three eventful years. The voyage of Perry’s squadron of steam-driven warships was the first significant manifestation of US military power in the Pacific, to which the US had gained access four years earlier with acquisition of California. Moreover, the main task of Perry’s mission, namely to sail to Japan in order to open trade and diplomatic relations, resulted in the end of nearly two hundred years of isolation from most of the Western world and played a major role in galvanizing the Japanese drive for rapid modernizing reforms, which culminated in the emergence of the island empire as a major power in the Pacific in its own right by the turn of the twentieth century. Consequently, Perry’s watershed voyage has been the subject of numerous scholarly works and accounts by participants, including Perry himself, William Heine, Dr. James Morrow, Edward Yorke McCauley, and William Speiden, Jr. A recent addition to the latter category is To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855, edited by M. Patrick Sauer, a descendant by marriage of Gideon, and David A. Ranzan, who also co-edited Speiden’s papers.
Pennsylvania-born George Gideon (1827-1863) joined the US Navy in 1848 after a brief career with a private company and was commissioned as a third assistant engineer. In 1852, Gideon, who had been promoted to second assistant engineer, was posted to the steam warship Powhatan. The Powhatan was then dispatched in February 1853 to join Perry’s flotilla, which would return to Japan in 1854 for an answer from the Japanese authorities regarding the US demand for trade and diplomatic relations delivered by Perry in the summer of 1853. Consequently, the Powhatan, with Gideon aboard, was present when Perry signed the historic Treaty of Kanagawa with the Japanese on 31 March 1854. After spending almost two more years sailing between China and Japan, the Powhatan was recalled to the US, and in February 1856, almost three years to the day since he set off, Gideon was detached from the Powhatan and granted three months’ leave, thus ending his voyage. The present volume consists of letters that the then recently-married Gideon wrote to his wife Eliza (Lide) during the long voyage.
The historical nature of the Powhatan’s cruise seems to have left Gideon singularly unimpressed. His letters home instead are full of increasingly bitter descriptions of the boredom and isolation of the long voyage, manifested by numerous instances of indiscipline on the part of the officers and crew, petty squabbles among the shipmates that frequently escalated into brawls, frequent bouts of minor but nagging illnesses, rampant drunkenness and sexual excesses during shore leaves (the latter leading to a variety of venereal diseases), and mounting frustration as the squadron’s deployment in Asia was extended seemingly indefinitely. Anxious to finish the cruise and return home as quickly as possible, Gideon was dismissive of Perry’s mission to Japan, referring to it and the resulting treaty as “humbug.” Nor was Gideon impressed by Perry himself, of whom he writes: “He is a mighty big humbug and we are all sick of him.” (p. 88) Indeed, as the Powhatan’s cruise extended into 1855, Gideon had become so disgusted by the whole experience that he contemplated resigning his commission and returning home via passage to California.
The present volume of Gideon’s letters is a handsome production from the University of Alabama Press as part of its Maritime Currents: History and Archaeology series. The editors have effectively transcribed the letters, with a minimum of revisions in order to preserve their original flavor. The notes are impressively-researched, and frequently quite helpful, especially in identifying shipboard personnel mentioned by Gideon. In addition, there are a number of illustrations, including examples of Gideon’s closely-written original letters. The volume, however, would have benefited from the inclusion of a map depicting the voyage of the Powhatan.