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Healy, Michael(1983–1904) - Naval officer, Begins Seafaring Career, Chronology, Becomes King of the Arctic and Bering Seas

service command cutter revenue

Adistinguished captain in the U.S. Revenue Service, Michael Healy was the only African American to have command in any service that predates the establishment of the U.S. Coast Guard. He began his career as a seaman at age fifteen without any seafaring experience, and just ten years later, he was ascending through the ranks of the Revenue Service. By the time the service promoted him to the rank of captain in 1883, Healy had already amassed years of experience on cutters that braved the menacing weather conditions of the Arctic and Bering seas to rescue distressed ships and their crews as well as to ensure maritime law and order. While his temper and harsh leadership tactics helped him to maintain the respect of his men, it was also the source of much unrest, and throughout the 1890s he was tried several times for conduct unbecoming an officer.

Born just across the Ocmulgee River near the town of Macon, Georgia on September 22, 1839, Healy was one of nine children born to Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant, and Eliza Clark (also referred to as Mary Eliza Smith), his father’s mulatto slave. Having arrived in Georgia in the second decade of the nineteenth century, the senior Healy was a very wealthy man by mid-century. In addition to farming fifteen hundred acres of land, he owned forty-nine slaves worth $34,000, the equivalent of an estimated $500,000 in the early 2000s. While Georgia law made it impossible for Healy to lawfully marry Clark, the couple lived together in common-law from 1829 until their deaths within months of each other twenty years later.

Because the children of an enslaved mother invariably took the condition of their mother, the Healy children were each sent north as they became school age. Their father’s 1844 chance meeting with John Fitzpatrick, Roman Catholic bishop of Boston, led to the enrollment of the older boys at the newly opened Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Sent to join them at Holy Cross in 1848, young Michael was only nine years old when he ventured north. Uninterested in academia, he quickly grew restless and in 1854 ran away from school to become a cabin boy to the dismay of his older brothers. Together, they managed to bring him back in 1855 and resolved to send him to school in Paris, where brother James, who assumed the role of guardian since their parents’ death five years earlier, was completing seminary.

Begins Seafaring Career

Healy ran away from the French school in the summer of 1855, this time to England. Perhaps frustrated with his determination to be at sea, his brothers decided to let him pursue seafaring. Taking a berth as cabin boy on the American East Indian clipper Jumna , bound for Calcutta from Boston that same year, he spent the next several years roaming the world, from India and Africa to Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, and to the Americas.

Healy weathered several years on the high seas. He was in Australia when the American Civil War broke out. He was back in Boston with much of the rest of his family for its duration. Still, he was anxious to return to his life at sea, and he got his chance in 1863 as a part of the Revenue Cutter Service. As the forerunner to the present-day Coast Guard, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, founded the service in 1790 as an armed maritime law and enforcement service.

In 1864, just one year after his enlistment and at twenty-five years of age, Healy made a formal application for commission and an appointment to the U.S. Revenue Marine. The captains under whom he served attested to his ability and promise. Despite the fact that Healy did not perform well on his written exam, the power his brother James wielded as the de facto leader of Boston’s growing Catholic community strengthened his case. With the benefit of James’s influence and the impressive political endorsements it secured, Healy was commissioned as third lieutenant in January 1865, serving on cutters operating out of Boston. A week later, on January 31, his brother James officiated at his marriage to Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of Irish immigrants to Boston. Five years his senior, Mary Jane would experience eighteen pregnancies, but only a single child named Frederick was born to the couple in 1870.

Promoted to second lieutenant in 1866, Healy saw duty as a junior officer and commander aboard the cutters Reliance, Vigilant, Moccasin , and Active across the East Indies. In 1870, he was promoted to first lieutenant and began his Alaskan tour as the second officer of the cutter Rush in 1874. Two years later, Healy began serving as commanding officer of the cutter Chandler .



Born near Macon, Georgia on September 22


Becomes a cabin boy mate on board the clipper ship Jumna


Commissioned as a third lieutenant in the U.S. Revenue Marine by President Abraham Lincoln on March 4; marries Mary Jane Roach


Promoted to second lieutenant, serving as a junior officer on board the cutters Reliance, Vigilant, Moccasin, and Active


Promoted to first lieutenant


Becomes second officer on the cutter Rush


Obtains his first command on the cutter Chandler


Assumes the second-in-command post on board the Thomas Corwin


Promoted to the rank of captain


Takes command of the ship Bear, designated as the flagship of the Bering Sea Force


Court-martialed for charges of drunkenness and cruelty but acquitted of all charges


Court-martialed a second time and found guilty of seven charges; suspended for a period of four years


Temporarily given the command of the cutter McCulloch


Given command of the cutter Thetis


Retires from the service


Dies in San Francisco on August 30

In 1881, Healy was ordered to assume service as second-in-command of the Thomas Corwin under Captain C. L. Hooper. The cutter cruised up and down the North Pacific, performing rescue operations and facilitating exploratory operations of the Arctic territory later known as Alaska. Documented by renowned naturalist John Muir, the 1917 book The Cruise of the Corwin details the convoy’s search of the Siberian and Arctic Alaskan coasts for the steamer Jeannette and two whalers, Mount Wollaston and Vigilant . Healy made important connections with Siberian communities the following year while searching for distressed ships. His meeting with the Chukchi people, who raised reindeer to sustain themselves, later served as the impetus for Healy’s plan to transplant reindeers in Alaska.

Becomes King of the Arctic and Bering Seas

Promoted to the rank of captain on March 3, 1883, Healy had his wife, son, and brother Patrick accompany him aboard the Corwin to the Arctic. While his family and friends dispute reports that suggested he drank heavily, drunkenness was common among sailors, particularly those who endured the cold, damp weather of the Bering Sea. He continued his service on the Corwin until 1886, publishing reports of its activities both in 1884 and in 1885, in which he expressed the difficulty of cruising two grounds separated by one thousand miles.

Captain Healy was ordered to take command of the sailing vessel Bear in February 6, 1886. Purchased by the navy in 1883, the Bear had rescued Greenly and the survivors of its expedition, successfully returning them to safety. The Bear was designated as the Arctic Ocean cruiser as well as the flagship of the Bering Sea Force, and Healy led its command from 1886 to 1895.

Having been acquired by the United States in 1867, the new territory of Alaska would have been entirely remote and isolate were it not for the U.S. Revenue Service. As a result, Healy and cutter crews often acted as liaisons between the territory and the federal government. Over the course of their service, they developed relationships with Alaska’s 25,000 natives. Consequently, when the decline of whales and seals, their principal food sources, threatened the Eskimo with starvation, Healy began working on a plan to save the Arctic natives. As early as 1890, he and Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian missionary and general agent for education in Alaska, traveled to the Steward Peninsula to arrange for the acquisition of the Chukchis’ domesticated reindeer. Using his own funds, Healy was able to negotiate the purchase and transport of the initial group of reindeer aboard the Bear for resettlement on Alaskan shores in 1891. Continuing to transport about twenty or more at a time throughout his command of the cutter, he helped secure the future of the Eskimo by lobbying for federal funds to acquire more reindeer, ensuring the growth of its population over the course of the next decade.

“Hell-roaring” Mike Faces Prosecution

During his nine-year leadership, Healy was unyielding in his charge, which earned him a reputation as an unswerving defender of the law in Arctic and Bering waters, who crushed any sign of mutiny. Dubbed “Hell-roaring Mike Healy,” he was quick-tempered and authoritarian, an attitude which earned him a legendary reputation in the maritime and Arctic circles. Standing before the mask, he barked orders, calling his tough-minded crew into action in the midst of the harshest weather conditions imaginable. He was also infamous for “tricing” officers, a technically permissible but long abandoned form of nautical punishment. The procedure required that a man be suspended by his hands above his head until his feet were just above the deck’s surface for about five minutes. While the position caused great pain, it was not life-threatening and did not leave any lasting injury.

However, it was not the captain’s controversial disciplinary methods alone that led to a string of charges against Healy. Beginning with his first court martial in 1890, the allegations leveled against him included the brutality of tricing and the charge of being drunk when he did so. The case may have been trumped up by the temperance advocates (especially those of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU), and Healy was acquitted, at least in the first case.

Healy was less fortunate during his second trial in 1896, although a great deal of its fabricated accusations were an extension of the crusade of junior officers and the WCTU. Healy was charged with spitting in the face of one of his junior officers while in a drunken stupor. This case was well-supported by a host of witnesses. In spite of their sympathy, the panel of Revenue Service officers had no real choice but to find him guilty. He was punished with demotion to the bottom of the captain’s list, permanent removal from his command of the Bear , and a four-year suspension from active service.

The loss was only one of many which Healy soon faced. His health had begun to fail one night prior to the 1896 trial, when an inebriated Healy reportedly walked home after learning of the impending case. After more than four decades of courageous sea-fearing, he had already suffered from a severe case of influenza on his lass cruise aboard the Bear . The walk home caused severe congestion, which degenerated to lung hemorrhages during the following night, but Healy rallied his strength enough to face trial.

In a strange twist of fate, the demotion provided the time he so desperately needed. Supported by his wife Mary and a host of friends, he gradually regained his strength and eventually returned to active duty aboard the McCulloch in 1900. However, his jubilation was short-lived. A series of losses followed. First, Captain Hooper, his oldest and most loyal friend, died. Shortly thereafter, his brother James died as well. Then he was directed to turn over his command to one of the judges in his court martial, only to be reassigned to the Seminole . Removed from the Arctic to which he had dedicated his life, Healy descended into depression, drunkenness, and suicidal behavior.

Restored to Rightful Place

Even so, a 1902 administrative change in Washington prompted a review of his 1896 trial; the trial had been perjured and Healy believed to have been treated too harshly. As a result, he was restored to number three in the captains’ list and was assigned to command of the Thetis . His dignity and self-respect restored, Healy led the cutter through Alaskan cruises in 1902 and 1903. Having reached the mandatory age for retirement, Healy left the Revenue Service on September 22, 1903. Less than a year later, Michael Healy died of a heart attack in San Francisco on August 30, 1904. Buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery there, he was survived by his widow Mary Jane Roach Healy and their son Frederick Healy.

While Michael Healy’s career was as controversial as it was courageous, it does not appear as though his mixed-heritage was ever an issue. He was light-skinned, his siblings held powerful positions in the Catholic Church, and Healy seemed to self-identify as a white person. The fact that the U.S. Revenue Service relegated its black servicemen to menial jobs as stewards, cooks, and seamen was undoubtedly known to Healy, who would have been barred from advancing in the service if his mixed heritage was known. Even so, Michael Healy’s achievements are among the most legendary in American nautical history.

As one of ten children born to the interracial Healys, Michael Healy succeeded differently than his siblings. With “firsts” in their own right, his siblings included Bishop James Healy, who served as the bishop of Maine; the Reverend Father Sherwood Healy, who served as the rector of the Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral; and his brother the Reverend Patrick Healy, who served as the president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. His three sisters Martha, Josephine, and Eliza were all nuns; Eliza was a mother superior.

In 1997, the U.S. Coast Guard Service recognized the achievements of Michael Healy by naming of a new Polar-class icebreaker in his honor. At 420—feet and weighing 16,300 tons, the Healy is part of continued efforts to memorialize Healy’s career. Additionally, a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum funded the production of The Odyssey of Captain Healy , a film of the life and work of Michael Healy.

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