Military law at the time said a notice of dismissal could not take effect until it is delivered in person. According to parish records at All Hallows' Episcopal Church in Davidsonville, as well as an article that ran in The Baltimore Sun May 24, 1861. Mayo died May 18, the date the notice was to take effect.

The Sun article didn't mention how he died, but Bailliere and others had long guessed Mayo had killed himself upon getting his bad news.

The more Bailliere and others investigated, though, the clearer it was that the records were inconsistent. Years after the fact, Mayo's wife, Sarah Bland Mayo, got a memorial for her husband built in the Naval Academy cemetery; the obelisk lists his date of death as May 10. Further, May 18 was a Saturday, making it unlikely a courier would have delivered it that day, let alone gotten it from Washington to Gresham.

In 2002, family friend Ben Lucas, a former legislative liaison officer of the Maryland National Guard, wrote a legal memo to the secretary of the Navy. Lee sent copies of "Naval Warrior." And in July 2003, the family received the letter they'd been waiting for. One hundred and forty-two years after the fact, the Navy ruled Mayo had resigned in good stead, not been dismissed.

"After all that time, it felt great," says Bailliere, who still owns a portrait of the man he calls "a pretty cool cat" as well as his sea chest.

That leaves, of course, the question of what happened. Having found no evidence of suicide, Lee leaves the matter open.

Others guess Mayo did take his own life.

"We know he was in great agony over the direction of the country," Bailliere says. "People in this day and age might find it hard to understand someone with such definitive values, but he really was that way."

Lucas and others guess he might have pulled the trigger May 10 — after getting advance word of his fate through friends but before the Navy could serve notice.

"'I'm the captain, and you're not going to do this to me,'" Daly imagines him saying. "That would fit — an act of defiance to preserve honor. But I've come up with a hundred other possibilities. It's all conjecture."

Everywhere and nowhere

Union and South. Land and sea. Brash yet unknown. The legacy of Isaac Mayo, like the fatal dilemma he faced 150 years ago, is fraught with paradox.

On the Mayo Peninsula, he seems everywhere — and nowhere.

Start at Muddy Creek Road, turn south on Mayo Road, and drive toward Beverly or Shoreham beach, and you'll pass the place where he lived and died. The house known as Gresham, now a fully restored private home on the National Register of Historic Places, stands on five acres, not 1,400. Traffic rushes past.

Residents like Jim Ziepolt remember when, years ago, Mayo's story was taught in the local schools. Today, he says, few know much about the man for whom so much of their neck of the woods is named.

"I'd say the average person here knows almost nothing," says Ziepolt, an ex-president of the Commodore Mayo Kiwanis Club who has read Lee's book. "Here's a man who fought for his country around the world and never lost. To me, he's a hero."

Up the road in Glen Burnie, the historian who once knew little about him sees Mayo as an important local figure.

"His career was uniquely colorful, and he illustrates the North-South frictions that prevailed here in Maryland at the beginning of the Civil War," says Schatz of the Ann Arrundell Historical Society, which recently announced it will do a new, 50-copy print run of Lee's book. "He was a fervent patriot, but he was definitely pro-Southern. He led a significant life, but he certainly got caught in a dilemma."

As for Lee, he acknowledges that "Naval Warrior" probably played a part in getting his subject exonerated, but he tries to keep his role in perspective. The book was a small project, after all, that did well enough to make $5,000 for the historical society.

Still, he hasn't given up on Commodore Mayo-size dreams.

"I hadn't even realized it was a 150th anniversary," he said in a phone interview May 9. "Maybe someone will read this [article] and make it into a movie. Now that would be a happy ending."

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