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News Maryland Anne Arundel County

Commodore Mayo: A man of adventure and tragedy

He was a famed seaman — a prodigy who won a congressional medal at 18, fought in three wars and ended up commanding the 44-gun USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," as it tracked slave ships off the coast of Africa.

The reputation of Commodore Isaac Mayo was unassailable, and so were his credentials as a local gentleman as he settled in on the family plantation in southern Anne Arundel at age 67.

But if Mayo expected to spend his latter days in comfort, he misread the volatility of his times. A hundred and fifty years ago this week, the military hero for whom the community of Mayo is named ran afoul of none other than President Abraham Lincoln, saw his career end in shame, and ended up dead, probably by gunshot, before the end of May.

Few of the roughly 3,300 people who now live in Mayo, an unincorporated area southeast of Edgewater, know the full story of the man whose name appears on the front of their post office — his glory, disgrace and death, and of the eventual clearing of his name.

Even his biographer, Byron A. Lee, a man who spent three years researching Mayo, couldn't answer two key questions with authority: on what day, exactly, did he die; and was it by his own hand?

"He was a naval hero and a patriot, but parts of his life just weren't documented," says Lee, 83, now retired and living in Annapolis. "They may be lost to posterity."

If at least some of the story is fated to remain a mystery, one theme is clear: In the Anne Arundel of 1861, as elsewhere, people had to make hard choices as the Civil War began. Few had to make a starker one than the man from the plantation on the South River.

From Annapolis to Africa

As recently as 15 years ago, few in this area seemed to know much about Isaac Mayo — not even those you'd think might be familiar with such a colorful character.

"I realized [the community of] Mayo was named after him, that he was a prominent figure down there, and that he'd been in the Navy," says Mark Schatz of the Ann Arrundell Historical Society in Glen Burnie. "Beyond that, I have to say, I was hazy on the details."

Schatz, then president of the organization, decided to seek an author who could take on a Mayo biography. He approached Lee, a retired Navy engineer who had written a book about Parkhurst, a historic home in Harwood, in 1998.

Lee, too, started out less than familiar with Mayo. That soon changed. As he scoured letters and public records from Harwood to Washington, D.C., the man he saw coming into view qualified as larger-than-life long before his tragic end.

Mayo, he found, was born in Anne Arundel, probably in 1794, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier and a nephew of six more. He won appointment a midshipman at 16. Three years later, he made such a mark in battle during the War of 1812 that Congress gave him its Medal of Valor, his native state a dress sword with a hilt of solid gold. It was just the beginning.

The man whose name now graces everything from Mayo Road (the local name for Route 214) to the Commodore Mayo Kiwanis Club in Edgewater, served in the Pacific, battled pirates in the Caribbean and commanded a squadron of gunboats in the Florida Everglades during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), where he personally carried out the capture of a feared chief, Mad Tiger.

As Mayo plied the seas, his exploits grew more spectacular. While protecting a schooner returning freed slaves to a new settlement in Africa, he suffered musket burns when he came face-to-face with King Crako, the chief of a local tribe. Later, during the Mexican War, he moved his ships' guns onto land, using them to topple the walls surrounding Veracruz before the 1847 battle that took the port town.

He buried cannonballs from the engagement at Gresham, the family estate. "He wasn't shy about taking credit for that one," Lee says, laughing.

Unlike many Navy career men, Mayo never lost sight of life on land. He inherited 250 acres between the South and Rhodes rivers as a young man and spent the rest of his days expanding the place. By 1860, the Gresham Plantation numbered 1,400 acres, a significant portion of what is now called (what else?) the Mayo Peninsula.

In 1845, he even called in favors to help bring the brand-new U.S. Naval Academy to Annapolis.

"As an Anne Arundel County native, he considered Annapolis the center of the universe," Lee wrote in "Naval Warrior: The Life of Commodore Isaac Mayo," which appeared in 2002.

Schatz says that might have been his most lasting mark on the county.

There was little hint that the commodore would one day personify the divide between North and South — not even during the 1850s, when he was tasked with using the USS Constitution to suppress the slave trade near Africa.

If the mission posed a conflict for Mayo, who owned 15 slaves himself, he didn't let such a contradiction bother him — not yet, anyway.

"He made it clear in his letters: If he was asked to capture slave ships, that's what he'd do," Lee says. "He believed duty to country mattered above all."

'War against brethren'

In times of deep division, of course, one man's loyalty is another man's treason. A century and a half ago, as the Civil War loomed, the Anne Arundel native changed his tune.

Even today, when relations between right and left can seem strikingly bitter, it's hard to imagine the kind of events unfolding in early 1861.

Seven Southern states had seceded, taking federal military installations and their arsenals into their possession. Four other states were threatening to follow. In Maryland, Lincoln shut down newspapers he considered disloyal, jailed officeholders he thought might vote for secession and placed Annapolis and Baltimore under martial law.

Mayo — like virtually all his neighbors in Anne Arundel — was a Southern sympathizer who saw the president "as little more than a would-be dictator," Lee wrote in "Naval Warrior." In early May, he became one of about 300 Navy officers who "went South" that year — that is, he formally refused to take up arms on behalf of the Union.

He was the oldest, and perhaps the most prominent, to do so, and the letter he sent the president that May was very likely the harshest one Lincoln got.

"For more than half a century it has been the pride of my life to hold office under the Government of the United States," Mayo wrote. "For twenty-five years I have been engaged in active service and have never seen my flag dishonored or the American arms disgraced by defeat. It was the hope of my old age that I might die, as I had lived, an officer in the Navy of a free government. This hope has been taken from me.

"In adopting the policy of coercion, you have denied to millions of freemen the rights of the Constitution. In its stead you have placed the will of a sectional party … As one of the oldest soldiers of America, I protest — in the name of humanity — against this 'war against brethren' … You will, therefore, oblige me by accepting my resignation."

Lincoln granted that favor to more than 100 officers making the same request that year. In Mayo's case, he did no such thing.

The White House returned Mayo's letter with a simple notation on the back: "Dismiss by order of the President," followed by the words "Done May 18, 1861." With the stroke of a pen, the administration had given the 52-year veteran the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, effective on that date.

What motivated him? Some guess it was the Mayo's vitriolic tone. "Ship's captains have to be very egotistical. When they're good, they can be very good; when they're bad, they can be awful," says Owen Daly of Baltimore, a Mayo descendant by marriage and a Navy veteran himself. "I think he just shot his mouth off." Others guess the administration feared Mayo's influence.

No one knows what day he got the notice or whether he got it at all. Mayo never wrote about it. What is known is that by May 18, he was dead — by gunshot, according to a Navy memorandum Lee turned up in his research.

Exoneration

At first, the means and timing of Mayo's demise mattered little to Thomas Bailliere.

It was 1976, and Bailliere, Mayo's great-great-grandson and a Baltimore stockbroker, had concluded Lincoln had acted arbitrarily against a patriot. He petitioned the Board for Correction of Naval Records to change Mayo's record from "dismissed" to "received an honorable discharge by reason of personal resignation."

The board recommended approval, Bailliere says, but further up the chain, the naval historian's office objected. And so began a bureaucratic chess match between Mayo's family and the Navy that lasted for years and in which, it finally became clear, the family had to come at the problem from another angle.

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."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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