George Henry Preble

Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right...

Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Henry Preble (25 February 1816 – 1 March 1885) was an American naval officer and writer, notable for his history of the flag of the United States and for taking the first photograph of the Fort McHenry flag that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner.

He was born in Portland, Maine into a seafaring family; his father was sea captain Alexander McFadden, whose brother was the noted Commodore Edward Preble. George entered the Navy as a midshipman on 10 December 1835, serving on the United States until 1838.

He was in the Florida war in 1841, and was on the St. Louis for its circumnavigation of the world in 1843-1845, taking ashore the first American force to land in China. In the Mexican–American War, he participated in the capture of Alvarado, Veracruz, and Tuxpan. He became master on 15 July 1847, and lieutenant on 5 February 1848. While serving on the frigate St. Lawrence, he went with Matthew C. Perry to Japan in 1853, during which Preble surveyed various harbors in the Far East.

After a period as lighthouse inspector and at Charlestown Navy Yard, he served on the Narragansett, 1859–1861, then took command of the steam-gunboat Katahdin, serving with David Farragut on the Mississippi River, was promoted to commander on 16 July 1862, and given command of the steam-sloop Oneida blockading Mobile Bay.

When the Confederate cruiser CSS Florida eluded him, Preble was dismissed from the Navy, but was reinstated after the captain of the Florida testified that superior speed alone had saved him.

Additionally, each of the officers on the Oneida testified that Preble had done no wrong. According to their accounts, the Florida appeared at around 5:00 PM on September 4, 1862 bearing the ensign of a ship of the English Navy. Preble was in command of the Oneida and the Winona. Because the other ships were in for repairs, the usual complement of six ships had been reduced to two. The Winona had been dispatched to chase another blockade runner and was returning from that chase when the Florida began her run. One of the Oneida’s iron boilers had been shut down for repairs leaving only one in operation. (One of the officers stated that the Navy’s choice to use cheaper iron rather than steel was the actual cause of the problem.) When the Florida began her run, Preble moved to place the Oneida in front of the Florida. At 6:00 PM, he ordered shots fired across her bow. Believing that the ship was English, two warning shots were fired over her bow and a third shot into her forefoot (The part of a ship at which the prow joins the keel) instead of the customary single warning shot. All three shots were fired within three minutes of her being in range of the Oneida’s guns. When the Florida did not stop, Preble ordered the fourth shot be sent into the enemy ship. This shot missed, at which time the Florida lowered her false ensign, and made directly for Fort Morgan. It was not until this point that Preble could be sure that the ship was a Confederate vessel. With one boiler out of commission, the Oneida was unable to keep pace with the Florida, which escaped into the bay. However, the Oneida kept up fire on the ship for 29 minutes until it was safely under the protection of Fort Morgan. In addition to the speed issue, the reports state that there were some visibility issues that contributed to poor marksmanship of the Oneida’s gun crew.

After being reinstated, Preble commanded the sailing sloop St. Louis, only to have the Florida escape him once again, off Madeira.

After the war, Preble commanded the steamer State of Georgia, and rescued 600 passengers from the wrecked steamer Golden Rule. He was at the Boston Navy Yard from 1865 to 1868, where he was promoted to captain on 16 March 1867, then commanded the screw steamer Pensacola until 1870. He became commodore on 2 November 1871, commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard from 1873 to 1875, became rear admiral on 30 September 1876 and retired in 1878.

Preble died while living near Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 March 1885.
Writing career

Preble was also known as a writer on naval and historical topics, and as a collector of naval documents. His extensive personal library of books and documents related to the sea are located in The George Henry Preble Collection at the Navy Department Library. He was also active in various learned and genealogical societies of the time. In 1868, he published a genealogical history of the Preble family in America, which included his biography and portrait, as well as that of his famous uncle, Edward. The book also set forth a defense of his actions that led to his dismissal from the Navy, as well as the efforts of himself and others that led to his exoneration and reinstatement. In 1872, he published his History of the American Flag, which is still cited as a source. He also took care of the original “Star-Spangled Banner” which had flown over Fort Henry, and had the flag sewn to a piece of sailcloth in order to preserve it.

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