Levy, Uriah Phillips, 1792-1862

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1792-04-22
Death 1862-03-26

Biographical notes:

Naval officer.

From the description of Court martial proceedings and defense of Uriah Phillips Levy, 1842-1857. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71014841

Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862)

On April 22, 1792, Uriah Phillips Levy was born in Philadelphia, the third child of Michael and Rachel Levy. From a young age, Levy was known to be quick-tempered and proud, traits that would follow him his whole life. Throughout his childhood, Levy was heavily influenced by his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, an ardent patriot, a soldier in the American Revolution and president of the Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia. Levy was also a staunch admirer of President Thomas Jefferson, another hero of his grandfather’s. Levy remained fiercely patriotic, proud of his work and his religion throughout his entire life.

Although Levy came from a long line of merchants, he had always been drawn to the sea. In 1802, at the age of ten, Levy ran away in the middle of the night to join the “New Jerusalem” as a cabin boy. After returning to Philadelphia for his Bar Mitzvah, Levy was apprenticed for four years to a family friend, John Coulter, a leading Philadelphia ship owner. In 1806 Levy became a seaman on the schooner “Rittenhouse” where he was known for his egotism. In 1809, after spending two years in navigation school, Levy set sail on two Coulter ships, the “Polly and Betsy,” as second mate, and then on the “Five Sisters.” At the end of his apprenticeship, secure in his vast knowledge of ships and sailing, Levy became one-third owner and captain of a schooner called the “George Washington” in 1811.

When the War of 1812 broke out Levy joined the crew of the “Argus” as a volunteer and was quickly appointed acting lieutenant. The “Argus” was captured by the British and Levy and the crew were detained first in Dartmoor Prison in England until after the close of the War of 1812.

Levy was assigned as sailing master aboard the “Franklin” in 1816 where he first encountered anti-Semitism. Levy, insulted by a drunken officer, retaliated, provoking the officer to challenge him to a duel. After initially refusing, Levy fought and killed his opponent. He was indicted by a grand jury and subsequently found not guilty.

Despite this incident, Levy’s application for the commission of lieutenant was granted. In 1819, while serving as third lieutenant aboard the “United States,” Levy got into another fight with the ship’s lieutenant and was court-martialed and dismissed from the Navy. Almost two years after his conviction and dismissal, Levy received word that President Monroe, whose approval was needed in order to make Levy’s removal official, had reversed the sentence of the court on the advice of Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson. In 1821 Levy was given his first command of a ship, Gunboat No. 158, called the “Revenge.”

In March of 1825 Levy joined the “Cyane” as the second lieutenant. While on the “Cyane,” Levy became very popular after saving the life of an American who had been impressed into the Brazilian Navy. The Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, was struck by Levy’s courageous act and ordered that no U.S. citizen ever again be impressed into the Brazilian Navy. Pedro then offered him the rank of captain in the Imperial Brazilian Navy. Levy declined, exhibiting his patriotism by stating, “I would rather serve as a cabin boy in the United States Navy than hold the rank of Admiral in any other service in the world.”

Levy’s next assignment was a shore assignment in the Philadelphia yard. The wave of popularity Levy enjoyed on the “Cyane” did not carry over to his next assignment, and Levy’s reputation kept him from receiving another ship assignment. John Coulter, with whom Levy still corresponded, urged Levy to leave the Navy. Instead, Levy decided to settle in New York City to await his next assignment. Levy withdrew his savings from Coulter’s firm and went into the real estate business just as New York City experienced a population explosion. Levy’s business acumen and property made him very wealthy.

Levy journeyed to Paris for two years and during his stay there, commissioned a statue of his hero Thomas Jefferson by the celebrated French sculptor, Pierre Jean David d’Angers. Levy donated the statue to the people of the United States in 1834, although Congress did not formally accept it until 1874.

In the early 1830s Levy made a pilgrimage to Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson. Levy found Monticello in extreme disrepair, the property overgrown and neglected. Upon learning that the present owner had decided to sell, Levy decided to buy, restore and preserve Monticello himself.

Throughout his leave, Levy had continually written to the Navy Department requesting duty, and in 1837 Levy was promoted to Commander in the Navy after almost twenty years as a lieutenant. In 1838 Levy received orders to take command of the U.S.S. “Vandalia.” Levy saw his command as an opportunity to do away with the lash and established new rules and regulations for sailor conduct and discipline.

Levy’s reforms were not well-received by all, and he was court-martialed in 1842. Judges dismissed Levy from the Navy, leaving Levy certain that he was a victim of prejudice yet again. President Tyler, who had to sign the official order, decided that the ruling against Levy had not been made for the good of the service, and, sixteen days later, reversed the court’s verdict. Shortly after, to Levy’s amazement, he received a promotion to captain upon the recommendation of President Tyler.

While repeatedly petitioning the Navy for an active duty assignment, Levy began writing articles and pamphlets and speaking out against the practice of flogging. John Hale, a senator from New Hampshire, took up Levy’s cause. Despite much opposition, in 1850 Hale attached an anti-flogging rider to the Naval Appropriations Bill limiting the use of the lash. Flogging was finally outlawed in 1862.

Still awaiting a sea assignment, in 1853 Levy married his eighteen-year-old niece, his sister’s daughter, Virginia Lopez. Her father had died shortly before leaving Virginia and her mother in tight circumstances so Levy married her, this act considered almost a duty by Jewish law.

In 1855, after appealing for years for a commission, Levy received a shocking letter telling him of his removal from the Navy by the Board of Naval Officers. Convinced that he was a victim of intolerance, an enraged Levy hired Benjamin Butler as his lawyer and wrote a memorial to petition Congress to restore his captaincy. Congress convened a Court of Inquiry and in 1858 Levy was restored to active duty. Four months after the Court of Inquiry, Levy received orders to take command of the sloop of war “Macedonian” and join the Mediterranean squadron. On February 21, 1860, Levy became its Flag Officer. As was the custom of Captains commanding squadrons in the navy, Levy was now referred to as a Commodore. In 1862, Congress officially established the rank of “Commodore.”

Shortly after, Levy returned to America, and, with the start of the Civil War, Levy offered his military services as well as his entire fortune to save the Union. Instead, Lincoln installed him on the Court-Martial Board in Washington, despite his six courts-martial. Levy also completed and published his “Rules and Regulations.”

Levy died on March 26, 1862 at his home in New York. Levy received full military honors as well as a traditional Jewish ceremony. He was posthumously honored by the Navy. Named for him, the U.S.S. “Levy” hosted the surrender ceremonies of the Japanese Navy in World War II and in 1959 the Jewish chapel at the United States Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia was dedicated to him.

References

Cameron, Joshua. “Commodore Levy: He Changed the Navy.” Destination: Philadelphia . Port of Philadelphia Day 1975: 11-27.

Fitzpatrick, Donovan and Saphire, Saul. Navy Maverick: Uriah Phillips Levy . New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963.

Sternlicht, Lieutenant Sanford V., Uriah Phillips Levy: The Blue Star Commodore . Ed. Malcolm H. Stern. Norfolk, Virginia: Norfolk Jewish Community Council, 1961.

  • April 22, 1792: Born in Philadelphia
  • 1802: Runs away from home to become a seaman
  • 1804: Returns home for bar mitzvah
  • 1805: Assigned to first ship, the “Rittenhouse”
  • 1807: Attends school for studies in navigation and seamanship
  • 1808 (?): Promoted to second lieutenant and sails in the brig, “Polly and Betsey”
  • 1811: Buys share in small schooner, the “George Washington”
  • 1812: “George Washington” stolen by crew; promoted to Sailing Master
  • 1813: Assigned to the ship “Argus”; imprisoned in Dartmoor
  • 1816: Assigned as sailing master for the “Franklin”; challenged to duel; first court-martial
  • 1817: Granted commission as lieutenant
  • 1818: Assigned to the frigate “United States”; second court martial; dismissed from service and travels to France; sentence reversed by President Monroe
  • 1819: Third court martial
  • 1821: Returns to active duty; assigned to the brig “Spark”; fourth court-martial
  • 1825: Acts as second lieutenant on the frigate “Cyane”; declines offer to join Brazilian navy
  • 1827: Fifth court-martial
  • circa 1834: Buys and restores President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
  • 1837: Appointed master commander by President Jackson
  • 1838: Takes command of USS “Vandalia”; authors new set of punishment regulations to replace flogging
  • 1842: Sixth court martial
  • 1844: Appointed captain by President Tyler
  • 1853: Marries niece Virginia Lopez
  • 1855: Dismissed by Navy
  • 1858: Restored to active duty; ordered to command U.S.S. "Macedonian"
  • 1860: Commands of Mediterranean Squandron, "Macedonian" as a Flag Officer; recognized as a Commodore
  • 1861: Sits on Court Martial Board in Washington; completes “Manual of Internal Rules and Regulations for Men of War”
  • March 26, 1862: Dies; buried in Beth Olom Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY; flogging abolished in Navy
  • 1943: United States destroyer named the USS “Levy”
  • 1959: The Jewish chapel of the United States Naval Station in Norfolk, VA named “The Commodore Levy Chapel.”

From the guide to the Uriah P. Levy Collection, undated, 1787-1948, 1959, 1961, 1985, 2005, (American Jewish Historical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Military officers
  • Hijacking of ships
  • Estates (law)
  • Dwellings Virginia
  • Naval discipline
  • United States.Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Va
  • Armed ForcesOfficers
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783
  • Jews in public life
  • Residential real estate
  • Flagellation (Flogging)
  • Croton Aqueduct (N.Y.)
  • ShtarHalitza
  • United States--History--War of 1812
  • Courts-martial and courts of inquiry
  • Jewish soldiers
  • United States. Navy--Officers
  • Acquisition of property
  • Dartmoor Prison
  • Discrimination
  • Deeds
  • United States. Navy
  • UnitedStates. Navy Biography
  • United States. Navy Dept
  • Naval law
  • Antisemitism
  • Navaloffenses United States
  • United States. Navy Handbooks, manuals,etc
  • U.S.S.Levy
  • Corporal punishment
  • Historic buildings Conservation and restoration

Occupations:

  • Naval officers

Places:

  • Monticello (Va.) (as recorded)
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Newport News (Va.) (as recorded)
  • Norfolk (Va.) (as recorded)
  • New York (N.Y.) (as recorded)