Potato Famine of 1847:
The US Navy’s Role in Humanitarian Assistance to the Irish and Scots.
Because of a potato blight in Ireland and western Scotland between 1846 and 1849, two million people either died or emigrated. In 1847, in response to appeals from citizens of Boston, Massachusetts, and New York, New York, the Congress of the United States authorized the Secretary of the Navy to place USS Jamestown and USS Macedonian at the disposal of two merchant captains, to carry foodstuffs, donated by Americans, to the relief of the thousands starving in Ireland and western Scotland. Captain Robert B. Forbes, who brought the relief in Jamestown, made a return visit to Ireland twenty years later and met there young men and women named Jamestown and Macedonian in honor of the US Navy ships that had saved their parents from starvation. “To this day,” in the words of historian James Tertius de Kay, the resolution authorizing the use of the ships by private individuals “remains unique in the history of Congress.” The text of the historic resolution follows.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby, authorized to place at the disposal of Captain George C. De Kay, of New Jersey, the United States ship Macedonian, for the purpose of transporting to the famishing poor of Ireland and Scotland such contributions as may be made for their relief; and that the said Secretary be also authorized to place at the disposal of Captain Robert B. Forbes, of Boston, the United States sloop-of-war the Jamestown, for the like purpose; or, if the Secretary shall be of the opinion that the public interest will be better subserved thereby, he is authorized to despatch said vessels upon the service aforesaid as public ships.
APPROVED, March 3, 1847.
Source: Minot, George ed. The Statutes at Large and Treaties of the United States of America from December 1, 1845, to March 3, 1851, Arranged in Chronological Order; With References to the Matter of Each Act and to the Subsequent Acts on the Same Subject. Vol.9 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851): 207.
Secretary of the Navy Report
By a joint resolution of Congress, approved on the 3d of March last, authority was given to the Secretary of the Navy, "to place at the disposal of Captain George C. De Kay, of New Jersey, the United States ship Macedonian, for the purpose of transporting to the famishing poor of Ireland and Scotland, such contributions as may be made for their relief; and to place at the disposal of Captain Robert B. Forbes, of Boston, the United States sloop-of-war Jamestown, for the like purpose." There was superadded an alternative authority "to despatch said vessels upon the service aforesaid as public ships, if in the opinion of the Secretary of the Navy, the public interest would be better subserved."
The two ships were placed at the disposal of the experienced navigators named in the joint resolution, respectively, and each having performed his mission of charity, has been returned in satisfactory condition. The sublime spectacle has been presented to the world, of our people in a spirit of Christian benevolence, relieving the suffering of the subjects of a mighty foreign power, which the vast resources of that great empire could not avert, and of our country, while engaged in a foreign war [Mexican War], furnishing from its surplus products the means of feeding famishing nations abroad.
I was not of opinion that the public interests would be better subserved by sending the Macedonian and the Jamestown on the service required as public ships. The department could not procure the crews necessary for the public service in giving protection to our commerce and in the prosecution of the war. And, I may be permitted to add, that while the voluntary offering of the people of the United States was received with gratitude by the sufferers, and with heartfelt acknowledgements of thanks by high functionaries of the British government; while the relief so gracefully offered and received has contributed to promote affectionate feeling, and strengthen the bonds of friendship which bind the people of the two great countries together, without leaving any painful recollection, such results could not have been expected, if the government of the United States had undertaken thus to minister to the wants of the subjects of Great Britain.
Source: [Annual] Report of the Secretary of the Navy, Navy Department, December 6, 1847. (Washington, DC: np, 1847): 8-9.
de Kay, James Tertius. Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian, 1809-1922. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. [See pages 228-243, "Mission to Ireland."].
Forbes, Henry A. Crosby. Massachusetts Help to Ireland During the Great Famine. Milton, Massachusetts: Captain Robert Bennet Forbes House, 1967.
Forbes, Robert Bennet. The Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy. Boston, Massachusetts: Eastburn Press, 1847.
Woodham-Smith, Cecil Blanche. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Note: The US Navy also provided government relief to victims of famine in Ireland in 1880. While at the New York Navy Yard, the sloop-of-war USS Constellation had her armament and some ballast removed, and carpenters built bins on the orlop deck to carry a cargo of over 2,500 barrels of potatoes and flour. The ship sailed in March, reached Queenstown on 20 April and, after offloading the cargo onto lighters, she took on ballast for the return trip, returning home in June 1880.