The Journal of San Diego History
April 1963, Volume 9, Number 2
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Edgar Hebert

Muffled up in his bridge-coat, Lt. W. E. Gunn relaxes while sails assist the ailing boilers of the Pinta in getting her to San DiegoFor almost three decades, the local component of the Naval Militia of California was an integral part of the community’s life. It furnished valuable training and wholesome recreation for its members, and it provided no small amount of local color.

Land militia was, from the first, a basis for American defense, and during the Revolution several states had their own navies. During the siege of Boston, Washington employed men from the Marblehead fishing fleet as volunteer sailors.1

Jefferson’s policy for a small and inexpensive Navy was to last for some time. Under it, gunboats would be kept in the various ports, and their small crews augmented in emergencies by the local militia.2 Official recognition of the need for a real navy finally came, but it was not until 1889 that there was real support for trained auxiliary personnel. In his report for that year, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin H. Tracy stated that a movement to establish state naval militias had begun, and urged Congress to help defray a portion of the expense.3 The Naval Appropriations Act passed by Congress on March 2, 1891, set aside $25,000 for states participating in a naval militia program .4

Twenty-nine days later, California legislation established a naval militia and naval battalion, to be attached to the National Guard. No more than four companies would be allowed at that time; the entire group throughout the state was to be headed by a lieutenant commander, and each unit would be officered by a lieutenant, a lieutenant junior grade, and two ensigns.5

Lt. Thomas A. Nerney, N.M.C

When news of the creation of a naval militia reached San Diego, Thomas Alexis Nerney determined to form a local unit. A native of Cincinnati, Nerney had served in the “Lytle Greys” — Company B, First Regiment, Ohio National Guard — and saw action during the Court House Riot of 1884. Coming to San Diego in 1885, he had joined Company B of the California National Guard, and when Capt. Douglas Gunn was made a lieutenant colonel on the staff of Governor Henry H. Markham, Nerney succeeded him. In the early summer of 1891 he announced in the press that his plea for volunteers had been heard. Eighty-four were required to establish a unit, but by the time of the mustering-in ceremony on the evening of Sept. 12, 97 had offered their services. The ceremony took place in the old Armory which stood on the west side of Second Street between D (now Broadway) and E Streets.

In attendance as guests that evening were Congressman W. W. Bowers, Captains J. R. Berry, Henry Sweeney and W. R. Maize, and W. 0. Hay, all Civil War veterans. Lt. Col. Adolf G. Gassen served as recruiting officer, and Nerney was elected lieutenant by acclamation. E. H. Miller was chosen as lieutenant junior grade, and Frank Simpson and N. D. Bloodgood as ensigns. Speech-making and refreshments followed, and the local Naval Militia was launched.6 Ages of the first group ranged from 16 to 50, and their occupations included sailors, laborers, jewelers, editors, real estate brokers, attorneys, mechanics, druggists, grocers, public officials, doctors, firemen, and even one turner of wood.7

When the U.S.S. San Francisco, a small cruiser, arrived here on Dec. 28, 1891, a valuable training opportunity was seen: Capt. W. T. Sampson (of later fame at the Battle of Santiago) offered to drill the men aboard his ship.8 Two days later Nerney, Simpson, Miller, Bloodgood and as many men as could get off work made their way out to the ship in the steam-launch Undine. They were split up into groups of ten each, and spent two hours learning about the ship’s 6-inch primary battery, her secondary battery of rapid-fire guns, and everything else down to her steering-gear and her Lee magazine rifles.

A sufficient number of uniforms having failed to arrive, the local unit decided to stage a home-talent entertainment at Fisher’s Opera House. The San Francisco having made San Diegans Navy-minded by a searchlight display, and by donating her band to the fundraising enterprise, the program on the night of Jan. 21, 1892, proved a social and financial success. In April, Nerney announced that twenty uniforms had been completed by Walter de Groot, a tailor on Fifth between D and E Streets, and that most of the equipment, except the rifles, soon would be on the way from San Francisco.

Business commitments which kept him away from San Diego forced Nerney to resign his command on June 15, and so he missed the unit’s first big civic parade in uniform. This took place on Sept. 28, 1892, the 350th anniversary of Cabrillo’s discovery of San Diego Bay; in the parade up D Street the Naval Militia furnished 46 men under Lieutenant Miller, the acting company commander, and Ensigns Bloodgood and Simpson.9 On Nov. 2, Bloodgood was elected to succeed Nerney. Shortly afterward a Board of Examiners was created, on the advice of San Francisco headquarters. This was done to prevent charges that officers were chosen because they were “society men.” At any rate, nominated men were obliged to show proficiency in seamanship, navigation, naval customs, etc.10

A much-rebuilt Civil War tug, the white-hulled Pinta (right) was dwarfed even by the little passenger-steamer Corona, as they lay at the old Pacific Coast Steamship Co. wharf

Training and social activities occupied the time of the company, at this time making its headquarters in a former Y.M.C.A. gymnasium on Eighth St. near H. In February of 1894, Simpson was elected lieutenant, with Thomas M. Shaw as lieutenant (jg), and Francis W. Goodbody and Joseph Crenshaw as ensigns. Simpson’s subsequent resignation brought Shaw to the helm at the election of Nov. 28, 1894. In the 1895 election, Leonard A. Chandler became lieutenant (jg), and Ed Fletcher and James McNair were chosen as ensigns. In the same year, new orders from Sacramento designated Company A as the Third Division.11

When the steamer Excelsior arrived the following year, she had aboard two boats for the local division. One of these was the famous U.S.S. Hartford gig, 36 feet 6 inches long, with an 8-foot beam and a depth of 2 feet 3 inches, and mounting 14 oars. The other was a 10-oared barge from the U.S.S. Monadnock.12 Both were used for drill, for races and for pleasure by the Third Division, for many years. The Hartford’s boat, never defeated in a race, now is aboard the museum-ship Star of India.

Mexican border duty in 1914: Lt. Don Stewart is seated in front of his tent, while behind him stand Ens. Jerome Ryan, Lt. (jg) Bob Baker, and Ens. Scott Haines

Casual visits of naval vessels to San Diego provided unofficial but valuable training. When the cruiser Philadelphia arrived late in January of 1896, Rear Adm. W. T. Beardsley and Capt, Charles Coffin informed the Chamber of Commerce that she was available as a drill area for the Third Division, and twenty of the men were observers at a mass attack staged by Comdr. F. L. Ingersoll on the beach area extending from North Island to the Hotel del Coronado. Later came drills with Philadelphia’s big guns, night signalling with the Ardois and other systems, and the use of searchlights. In the then sparsely settled area of Logan Avenue and Twenty-second Street, 400 sailors from Philadelphia, with the Naval Militia and Company B of the National Guard, engaged in extended order drills.

The first “disaster drill” began at 11 a.m. Nov. 14, 1896, when Lieutenant Shaw received his orders. Two minutes later an alarm was sounded by the whistle on the power-house, and within two hours the Naval Militia and National Guard were ready; at 1:45 p.m. they were ordered to proceed the 11 miles to La Mesa, and encamp there for three days. It was found that no provision had been made for blankets or overcoats, although food and utensils were available.13 A lemon packing-house served as headquarters and bunkhouse, and the rations appear to have been hardtack, sweet potatoes, eggs and coffee. Mexican border duty in 1914: Boatswain's Mate Mike Harvey with the Naval Militiamen's pride and joy, the brass-mounted, 10-barrel Gatling Gun.

In 1897 the local unit, with 78 names on its roster, had the largest enlistment in the state. That summer, the Third Division was taken over to La Playa in the U.S.S. Bennington, where they set up a week’s camp, and engaged in drills which ran all the way from wigwag signalling to actually firing the ship’s guns.14

In 1898 the U.S.S. Marion was assigned to San Francisco as floating headquarters for the entire Naval Militia, and the U.S.S. Pinta was assigned to San Diego. She was an iron, schooner-rigged, screw steamer of 550 tons displacement, and had been built in 1865; she was 137 feet long, about the size of an average tugboat. How they ever got her to Mare Island from the East Coast in the first place was a minor miracle, and as she started for San Diego her boilers broke down, causing a 10-day delay. This was a near-tragedy for Lieutenant Shaw who, resplendent in his new uniform, had gone to San Francisco in the old Santa Rosa, and now found himself stranded, with only $1.25 in his pockets.15 With the help of her sails, however, Pinta finally made it, arriving off Point Loma on March 24, 1898, under command of Lt. W. E. Gunn.

The old Twenty-eighth Street Armory; in front of it lie the famous Hartford gig, the whaleboat, and at the far right, the Navy steam-launch assigned to the local unit.As the Spanish-American War approached, the Native Sons of the Golden West initiated a request that her machinery and guns — two Civil War howitzers, two Hotchkiss guns and a 10-barrel Gatling — be repaired or replaced. The request, despite a personal visit to Mare Island by two leading San Diegans, was denied.” Long-awaited orders from headquarters in San Francisco were at last received by Lieutenant Shaw, who with 21 men left San Diego June 24, 1898. A month later Lt. Addison Morgan and 26 more men proceeded to San Francisco. Both groups served there, aboard the U.S.S. Active and other small vessels.17

Lowering clouds of World War I; North Atlantic convoy duty lay ahead as the San Diego units of the Naval Militia, 156 strong, assembled to board a special train for their port of embarkation

The years around the turn of the century saw the Naval Militia engaged in drills aboard various naval vessels and at the armory, and in assorted social and civic celebrations. In 1902 Santa Fe Hall, otherwise known as the Marsgall Higgins Block, at the southwest corner of Fourth and C, was used for drills, although the Pinta remained headquarters. In 1901 the Naval Militia and National Guard were severed by legislative action, and again Thomas Nerney appeared in the story. This time he was chosen by the governor to be Captain of the Naval Battalion. A major event of 1905 was a practice cruise to Magdalena Bay.

In April, 1906, at the time of the earthquake and fire, the men of the Third Division were rushed to San Francisco by train. Once there, under command of Lt. J. C. Hizar, they set up camp in Golden Gate Park. Later they were moved to what now is the site of the Mark Hopkins Hotel; their main duty was to guard homes from looters.17

In October of that year, construction of the long-awaited National Guard and Naval Militia Armory at Thirteenth and G Streets began, and the building was dedicated on the evening of Dec. 31. The opening address was by Mayor John L. Sehon, and the dedicatory speech by M. L. Ward. Capt. Ed Fletcher, formerly of the Naval Militia but now of the National Guard, spoke for his organization, while Lt. Don M. Stewart, who had steadily risen to prominence in the Naval Militia, spoke for his unit.18 The following year there occurred perhaps the most bizarre event in the organization’s long career, when Lieutenant Stewart and several others provided the armed guard to handle a mutiny aboard the British steamer Maori King. Late in August of 1907, a survey of Pinta found her unfit for service. She was towed north, sold to a private concern, and ended her days as an oil barge on San Francisco Bay.

A separate Naval Militia Armory, at the foot of Twenty-eighth Street, was completed in 1911, at the end of a 500-foot pier. It included a drill hall and rooms for equipment and storage. When the money from the state was not immediately forthcoming, Lieutenant Stewart took the risk of making a personal loan to finance its completion. The 1912 training cruise, in the U.S.S. Marblehead, took the men to Bremerton, and gave them their first chance to use a ship’s big guns at sea.

Mexican border duty, following the Tampico incident of 1914, called out the Naval Militia. Armed with Krag-Jorgensen rifles, two Gatlings and a 1-pounder, they set up camp in the Tijuana area, and also guarded dams and pipe-lines. That same year, they first made use of the famous old U.S.S. Oregon as a training-ship.

When the United States entered World War I, Governor William D. Stevens received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy, calling the Naval Militia into federal service.19 The old Third Division by now had been split into two divisions, the Third and the Tenth, and on April 7, the day after official word from Sacramento, Lieutenant Commander Stewart was able to report 130 men ready for duty. A recruiting office was set up in the U.S. Grant Hotel, and additional volunteers were enlisted. The name of the organization now was changed to the National Naval Volunteers, later supplanted by the United States Naval Reserve. On the morning of April 13, 1917, 156 men left here aboard a special train. San Diego had furnished the largest number of Naval Militiamen of any city in the state.

Most of the men, as National Naval Volunteers, served in the U.S.S. Frederick and U.S.S. Pueblo, first in South American waters and then on North Atlantic convoy duty. Stewart was transferred to the ill-fated U.S.S. San Diego, but left her just before her loss. Later, assigned to the Fourth Naval District at Philadelphia, he helped outfit the U.S.S. Santa Teresa and became her executive officer.

During the war, in which the San Diego contingent served more than a year and a half, the federal government saw the futility of maintaining state Naval Militias and the National Naval Volunteers at the same time. They would provide no more money, and the official status of the Naval Militia was ended.20 Its spirit, however, did not die, and the nucleus of a “Last Man’s Club” was formed. Its annual banquet and reunion has become a tradition, and the parchment scroll of the organization reads:


“It is our will and intention that this muster shall pass from hand to hand until there is only one signature at the annual dinner, when it shall become the property of the last survivor of our group.”

A bill introduced by Senator William Harper and Assemblyman Ed Head was signed by Governor James Rolph in August of 1931. Acknowledging his founding of the San Diego Naval Militia, the first in the state, it gave Thomas A. Nerney the rank of Rear Admiral, N.M.C.21 As if symbolic of complete removal from the scene, the cherished Twenty-eighth Street Armory, by that time a recreation center, was destroyed by a mysterious fire on the night of May 7-8, 1936. The records, the armory, the tangible things of the old days of the Naval Militia are gone, but the spirit persists. The ardor of its members is undiminished by time, and furnishes an impetus to others to maintain the cause for which they worked so long and so well.

H.T. Wiland: The History of the Development of the United States Naval Reserve, 1889-1941, p. 3.

2 Harold and Margaret Sprout: The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776-1918, p. 58.

3 Report of Sec. of Navy, 1890-, p. 25.

4 U. S. Statutes at Large, XXVI, p. 801.

5 The Statutes of Calif. and Amendments to the Codes, 28th Session of the Legislature, pp. 358-359.

6 Daily Sun, Sept. 13, 1891.

7 Log of Company A, Naval Militia, Sept. 12, 1891.

8 Daily Sun, Jan. 5, 1892.

9 Evening Sun, Sept. 28, 1897.

10 Adjutant General Reports, 1893-94, p. 66.

11 San Diegan-Sun, Aug. 21, 1895.

12 Ibid., Dec. 20, 1896.

13 Ibid., Nov. 14,1896.

14 Company Record, 1897-1905, Aug. 4-11,1897.

15 San Diegan-Sun, Mar. 25, 1898.

16 Ibid., Aug. 25, 1898.

17 San Diego Sun, Apr. 19, 1933.

18 San Diegan-Sun, Jan. 1, 1907.

19 Adjutant General Reports, 1914-1920, p. 29.

20 San Diego Sun, Apr. 21,1933.

21 San Diego Union, Aug. 28, 1931.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native San Diegan, Edgar Hebert majored in history at San Diego State, and now is teaching at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School.