Commander of USS Enterprise court-martialed in 1890 – Liberty Head Nickel Coin

Today, the Liberty Head Nickel Coin remembers the board of inquiry begun at the Brooklyn shipyard on March 11, 1890.

From the Harper’s Weekly magazine from March 1890:


Perhaps no naval event of recent years has excited such wide-spread comment as the meeting of the naval court of inquiry ordered by the Secretary to investigate Commander Bowman H. McCalla’s administration of affairs on board the United States sloop-of-war Enterprise.

The charges submitted to the court, which opened with novel ceremonies on the 11th inst., are preferred by eleven complainants, two of them officers, and they relate to alleged acts of cruelty and undue severity in the enforcement of discipline on board the Enterprise during her last European cruise.

The function of a naval court of inquiry is to investigate all complaints made against an officer, with a view to ascertaining whether they are of sufficient importance to form the basis of formal charges and specifications to be presented before a regular court martial.

At the present stage of the proceedings, which are merely tentative, comment of any sort would be manifestly unfair.

The court meets daily in a room on the third floor of Building No. 7 at the Navy-yard— a modern and commodious structure, whose pleasant piney odor harmonizes well with the sailor-clad figures which for several hours of each day can now be seen quietly flitting about its passages.

One is struck at once with the quiet, serious looks of the witnesses as they enter or leave the court-room, as if they, and not their commander, were under investigation.

The court-room has a decidedly martial appearance, the walls being completely covered with flags of different nations, while long pennants of red, white, and blue are hung in graceful folds from the four corners of the ceiling to its centre.

At a table near the eastern end of the room sit the members of the court — Rear-Admiral Louis A. Kimberly, Commodore W. P. McCann, and Captain Oscar F. Stanton, with Lieutenant Perry Garst as Judge-Advocate — while a table to the left is occupied by Commander McCalla and his counsel, Joseph H. Choate, of New York, and Gustavus Menzies, of Indiana.

All the officers are in undress uniform and carry swords, except Commander McCalla and the Judge- Advocate, who are without their swords.

As a rule, stenographers are not furnished by the department either to courts of inquiry or courts-martial, unless upon special request, but in this case there were two official stenographers sworn in, whose presence is taken as an earnest that the court intends to do its work thoroughly.

Of the officers composing the court, the president, Admiral Kimberly, is too well known to need detailed notice, his gallantry at Mobile Bay and in other naval engagements being a part of history.

He now holds the position of chair man of the Board of Inspection of the navy.

Commodore McCann has also a brilliant record, having especially distinguished himself when in command of the steamer Hunchback at the battle of Newberne.

He is now commandant of the Boston Navy-yard. His recent services as head of the naval committee which proposed the pending extensive additions to our navy are doubtless fresh in the recollections of readers interested in the progress of our navy.

Captain Stanton has also had a creditable career. He was present at several engagements during the war, and he was Captain of the United States steam-ship Tennessee when Admiral Jouett took the North Atlantic fleet to Colon in 1885, at the outbreak of the rebellion on the Isthmus.

He is now at the head of the list of officers of his rank in the navy. Judge- Advocate Garst is connected with the office of the Judge-Advocate-General at Washington.

All are mature-looking men with gray hair, and two of them are slightly bald.

Commander McCalla, whose conduct of the cruise is the subject of investigation, has the reputation of being one of the most skilful navigators and capable officers in the navy.

He was born in New Jersey, and received his first appointment in November, 1861. He was attached to the Naval Academy from 1861 to 1864, after which he was appointed to the steam-sloop Susquehanna, of the Brazil squadron, serving on her for a year.

After serving for another year on the steam-sloop Brooklyn, the flag-ship of the South Atlantic squadron, he was promoted to master, December, 1866.

He served on the steam-sloop Kearsarge, of the South Pacific squadron, 1867-8, and was commissioned as lieutenant March 12, 1868.

He was attached to the steam-sloop Tuscarora, of the same squadron, during 1868-71, and on December 18, 1808, received his commission as lieutenant-commander, being appointed to the Wabash, the flag-ship of the European fleet.

He was executive officer of the Wachusett, a third-rater, of the same fleet, during 1873. From 1875 to 1878 he was attached to the Naval Academy as instructor.

Before his appointment to the Enterprise as commander, three years ago, he served as assistant to the present Rear-Admiral Walker — now commanding the Squadron of Evolution in European waters — while Walker held the appointment of Chief of the Bureau of Navigation at Washington.

The inquiry is conducted with open doors, and will cover the whole period from October 4, 1887, when the Enterprise went into commission, up to the present time; and it will proceed, unless otherwise ordered, until April 15th.

Under the system of examination adopted, the officers have been examined by the court first, then the petty officers, and finally the men.

On the side of the defendant, Mr. Joseph H. Choate, the commander’s senior counsel, caused a sensation during the session of the 13th instant, by conveying the impression that Commander McCalla was the victim of a plot, in which the officers of the Navy Department were aided by officers and men on the Enterprise to defame their commander.

The main effort of the defense, however, has been to show that the stringent measures used at times on board the Enterprise were necessary to inspire proper respect for the officers, and that even the acts of admitted cruelty were justified by extraordinary circumstances.


Bowman Hendry McCalla asserted “not guilty,” however a court martial relieved him of duty for three years.

The Navy did re-instate him, and he gained additional success and subsequent recognition for his efforts.

Part of that recognition came later in the form of namesakes: McCalla Field, McCalla Hill and two ships named USS McCalla.

The Liberty Head Nickel Coin shows with an image of the board of inquiry for McCalla.

Liberty Head Nickel Coin