WALTER S. FRENCH, MASTER, USN

From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall

Walter French '71

Date of birth: December 19, 1852

Date of death: November 24, 1877

Age: 25

Naval Academy Register

Walter Seba French was admitted to the Naval Academy from Bangor, Maine on July 27, 1866 at age 14 years 7 months.

Loss

Walter was lost on November 24, 1877 when USS Huron (1875) went aground and then wrecked in heavy weather off Nags Head, North Carolina. Ninety-seven other officers and men were also lost.

Obituary

From “Class of ’71,” a book published in 1902:

WALTER SEBA FRENCH was born in Dexter, Maine, on December 19, 1852. His parents were Augustus S. French and Caroline Whitney. Augustus S. French was a prominent Mason and Knight Templar, and was for twenty years one of the municipal officers of Dexter, serving as Postmaster, County Commissioner and Clerk of the Supreme Court of Penobscot County. He was a descendant of the Barons de Freygne of Normandy of the tenth century, and also a descendant of Richard Meade of England of the sixteenth century. Caroline Whitney was a daughter of Captain John Whitney of Lancaster, Massachusetts.

The earliest expression of his desire to enter the Navy—as early as his sixth or seventh year—may be easily traced to the inheritance from the Meades and from the English Frenches; Lieutenant Francis French, Royal Navy, etc. Three of his ancestors left Harvard and Yale Colleges to fight in the War of Independence in this country. He came naturally enough by his love of study, for professors, judges, ministers and physicians are recorded for the last two hundred years among the French family in New England.

He was educated at home and appointed to the Naval Academy in his fourteenth year by the Hon. John H. Rice, and, entering the Academy in 1867, graduated with his class on June 6, 1871. His first orders were to the U. S. S. Wachusett, European Station, where he served as Midshipman, and later was transferred to the U. S. S. Wabash, the flagship of that station. He served successively on the Hartford, Swatara and Marion, and in 1874 he was ordered to the U. S. S. Plymouth, and reported for duty on October 1, 1874. On March 8, 1876, he was detached from the Plymouth and ordered to the Monitor Catskill, and soon after for examination for promotion to Master. Was promoted to Master October 24, 1876.

His next duty was on board the U. S. S. Huron, to which vessel he was ordered on October 26, 1876, where he served as Watch and Division Officer. In November, 1877, this vessel, while on her way south, to assist in determining the latitude and longitude of certain rocks and islands in the West Indies, ran ashore off Nag’s Head, North Carolina, and was totally lost. As Officer of the Deck on that fearful night of storm and confusion, French remained at his post of duty, doing his utmost to save others, and refusing to leave the ship until every man had left. This fact is substantiated in the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry held at this time to investigate the loss of the Huron.

The Huron was lost on the night of the 24th of November. From 1.30 A.M. of the next morning until 7.30 A.M., with the waves breaking over the ship, he remained on deck; then, with four sailors, the last of the ship’s company, he sprang overboard, they to be saved, and his body never to reach the shore. Although of splendid physique he was too exhausted to struggle against the waves.

His mother and sister survive him and reside in Washington, D.C.

From Army & Navy Journal on December 15, 1877:

Among the lost on the ill-fated Huron, whose bodies have never been recovered, is Master Walter S. French, of Bangor, Maine, aged 25 years, appointed by the Hon. J.H. Rice, June 27, 1866, and graduated 1871. This young and gallant officer was among the very last to leave the vessel. Not until utterly exhausted in his efforts to save others could he be induced to foresake his post of duty. Although of strong frame and a good swimmer, he had clung too long to the wreck, and, when exhausted the waves received him, he sank to rise no more. One of his superior officers speaks of the deceased as "a loving, generous, noble fellow, kind and gentlemanly, a thorough officer—such as no better could be found in service—beloved and respected by all." A classmate alludes to him "as self-sacrificing to the last, noted for his manly qualities, and a character which gave high promise of a brilliant career as officer." Add to all this, filial attachment to his parents, such as makes his loss far more deeply felt in the family circle than words can express; for no matter how endeared and respected among his comrades and superiors, the crown Walter S. French's estimable qualities culminated in the dutiful son and devoted brother.

His birthdate was located by Kathy Franz.

Career

From the Naval History and Heritage Command:

Midshipman, 27 July, 1866. Graduated 6 June, 1871. Ensign, 14 July, 1872. Master, 22 August, 1876. Lost on board Huron, 24 November, 1877.

Related Articles

George Ryan '61, Sydney Simons '67, Lambert Palmer '68, James Wight '71, Frederick Danner '74, and Edmund Loomis '75 were also lost when Huron was wrecked.

Navy Directories & Officer Registers

The "Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps" was published annually from 1815 through at least the 1970s; it provided rank, command or station, and occasionally billet until the beginning of World War II when command/station was no longer included. Scanned copies were reviewed and data entered from the mid-1840s through 1922, when more-frequent Navy Directories were available.

The Navy Directory was a publication that provided information on the command, billet, and rank of every active and retired naval officer. Single editions have been found online from January 1915 and March 1918, and then from three to six editions per year from 1923 through 1940; the final edition is from April 1941.

The entries in both series of documents are sometimes cryptic and confusing. They are often inconsistent, even within an edition, with the name of commands; this is especially true for aviation squadrons in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Alumni listed at the same command may or may not have had significant interactions; they could have shared a stateroom or workspace, stood many hours of watch together… or, especially at the larger commands, they might not have known each other at all. The information provides the opportunity to draw connections that are otherwise invisible, though, and gives a fuller view of the professional experiences of these alumni in Memorial Hall.

July 1870

First Class Midshipman, Naval Academy


Others at this command:

January 1871

Cadet Midshipman, First Class, Naval Academy


Others at this command:

January 1872

Midshipman, Wachusett

January 1873

Midshipman, Wachusett

January 1874

Midshipman, Wabash

January 1875

Ensign, Plymouth

January 1876

Ensign, Plymouth

July 1877

Master, Huron


Others at this command:


Class of 1871

Walter is one of 3 members of the Class of 1871 on Virtual Memorial Hall.

The "category" links below lead to lists of related Honorees; use them to explore further the service and sacrifice of the alumni in Memorial Hall.