The Stephen Mallory You May Not Have Known

Little did I know that when I took the job as a park ranger at Everglades National Park I would come into contact, via research, with a name more familiar and associated with Civil War history than the history of the Everglades.But there is a link.

That connection was Stephen Russell Mallory who is best known as the only Confederate States of America’s Secretary of the Navy during the American Civil War.

Stephen Russell Mallory (1812 – November 9, 1873) (courtesy of Florida Irish Heritage Center)

Mallory would serve in the cabinet of President Jefferson Davis until the end of the war, finally resigning as secretary on May 2, 1865 in La Grange, Georgia. During his time in office, Mallory would literally develop, build, and outfit a navy from scratch. His four-point strategy, outlined in a Mallory biographer, for the Confederate navy was;

First, to send out commerce raiders to destroy the enemy’s mercantile marine, build ironclad vessels in Southern shipyards for the purpose of defense, obtain or construct armored vessels that could menace the North on the high seas, and implement and test new weapons and techniques in naval warfare.

The debate on how successful Mallory was in this strategy is outside the scope of this particular post. However, what is not debatable was that Mallory was used to tall tasks.

Born in 1812 on the Caribbean Island of Trindad while his father, a construction engineer, who had originally come to the small British-controlled island for work. There he met his future wife, Ellen, and would have two sons, including Stephen.

Eight years later, in 1820, the family relocated to Key West in the Florida Keys. Stephen would initially head off to school in Alabama but when his father and older brother both died shortly apart, the surviving Mallory son returned home. As his widowed mother ran a boardinghouse for seamen, Stephen went off to school at a Moravian academy in Pennsylvania. In 1829, Stephen returned home, at the age of 17, when his mother could not foot the tuition, and that is where his formal education ended.

Ellen Mallory Boarding House
Ellen Mallory Boarding House in Key West, Florida (courtesy of Florida Irish Heritage Center)

Mallory began climbing in importance in Key West, first serving as a town marshal in 1832, then as Inspector of Customs, and the Collector of Customs. These posts were interrupted with his service in the Second Seminole War from 1835-1837. This is where he would come into contact with the expansive Everglades. Mallory was familiar with this unique multi-ecosystem environment, having “ate of its fish, drank of its waters, smelt of its snakes and alligators…”

During his time in service of the United States military, Mallory “waded through its mud up to my middle for weeks.”

After his military service and now back as Collector of Customs in Key West, Mallory was contacted by Buckingham Smith, who was among a plethora of other jobs, a surveyor whose work in the Everglades led to what was considered the first official publication on the area and went on to recommend that if man could lower the water level the area could become a mecca of farming.

However, one of the people that Smith consulted about surveying the Everglades was Mallory, who scoffed at the idea. One author of a seminal work on the Everglades, quoted Mallory as saying “that he might as well have surveyed the moon.”

In a prescient notion, Mallory told Smith;

“My own impression is that large tracts of the Glades are fully as low as the adjoining sea, and can never be drained; that some lands around the margins may be reclaimed by drainage or by diking, but that it will be found wholly out of the question to drain all the Ever Glades.”

key west
Key West, 1838 (courtesy of the State Archives of Florida)

Yet, all was not doom and gloom from Mallory’s responses that made its way into Smith’s report. The Key West scion did agree that fruit would grow in the Everglades hammocks (tree islands where hardwood trees grow on a natural rise of only a few inches in elevation) and that small farms could survive on the fringes of the vast swamp’s periphery.

Mallory would leave the South Florida landscape behind in 1850 when he took over from incumbent Senator David Yulee. Eleven years later and a place on the Committee of Naval Affairs followed. On January 21, 1861, Mallory would give his resignation speech and head south to the eventual position of Secretary of the Navy.

The Everglades seemed insurmountable to Mallory and maybe that gave him some perspective on the issues he would face as he created a navy and the accompanying department from scratch in the Confederate government. We may never know that answer for sure, but, I do know two things from this interesting research tangent.

One, that even in South Florida, in the middle of the Everglades, a connection to the Civil War can creep in.

Secondly, a trip to Key West is now in order!


1 Response to The Stephen Mallory You May Not Have Known

  1. Thanks for introducing this important cog in the machinery of Southern Independence, Stephen R. Mallory. And you are correct: Mallory was “all over the State of Florida,” tutored in International Maritime Law in Key West; served during the Second Seminole War; and following that war, “settled” in Pensacola, where he met the daughter of the wealthy, influential Moreno Family, Angela, and married her in 1838. The ambitious, restless Stephen Mallory considered Pensacola home; but continued to commute to Key West and work as Judge and Collector of Customs. Angela (and at least five children) mainly stayed in Pensacola, including when Mallory was elected to the U.S. Senate, serving from 1851 through January 1861. It is likely during service in Washington that he first became familiar, and friendly, with Jefferson Davis. (Senator Mallory was early installed on “The U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs,” soon rising to Chairman of that committee, and his increasing expert knowledge of all things nautical made him invaluable to the future Confederate States of America.)
    In January 1861, Stephen Mallory resigned from the U.S. Senate, following his State of Florida out of the Union. His last act, accomplished as he was in process of departing from Washington, was to meet with James Buchanan and convince that Lame Duck President of “the prodigious loss of life and expenditure of treasure that would follow on arrival of USS Brooklyn, then on its way – supposedly in secret – to Pensacola.” Once there, the Brooklyn and her cargo of trained artillerists under Army Captain Israel Vogdes was tasked with reinforcing Fort Pickens, and Mallory claimed that “reinforcement would lead to retaliation from the thousands of Rebel soldiers in vicinity; Pickens would fall; and War would be on Buchanan’s head.” In response, President Buchanan agreed to The Pickens Truce, whereby “No Rebel attack would occur as long as USS Brooklyn did not land her reinforcements.” USS Brooklyn remained, sailing in circles in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of Fort Pickens, until the war erupted at Fort Sumter.
    “The Diary and Reminiscences of Stephen R. Mallory, 1861 – 1872” help explain and detail Secretary of the Navy Mallory’s role in furthering the cause of the Confederate States of America.

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