Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Smith-Geisinger Collection, 1849-1855

David P. Harris Collection

Finding aid created by
Cheney J. Schopeiray, June 2008

Summary Information
Title: Smith-Geisinger collection
Creator: Geisinger, David, 1790-1860
Inclusive dates: 1849-1855
Extent: 7 items
The Smith-Geisinger collection is made up of seven letters from Captain Joseph Smith, chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D.C., to Captain David Geisinger, governor of the U.S. Naval Asylum in Philadelphia.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

Donated by David P. Harris, 2006. M-4625.4.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

Smith-Geisinger Collection, David P. Harris Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The Smith-Geisinger collection is housed in a binder along with David P. Harris' transcriptions and notations.


Joseph Smith, the author of these seven letters, was born in 1790 and entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in January 1809. During the War of 1812, he served under Lieutenant (later Master Commandant) Thomas Macdonough. In July 1813, Smith was commissioned as a lieutenant. As first lieutenant of the brig Eagle , he performed heroically in the decisive Battle of Lake Champlain in September 1814.

Joseph Smith later served on the frigate Constellation as part of Commodore Stephen Decatur's squadron during the Second Barbary War, 1815. He married Harriet Bryant of Maine in 1818. They had four children.

The remainder of Smith's duty at sea included service at Navy yards in Boston and Portsmouth; on the frigate Guerrière in the Mediterranean and Pacific; as first in command on Isaac Hull's flagship, Ohio ; and as squadron commander on the frigate Cumberland . During this time, he was promoted to master commandant (1827) and then Captain (1837). In 1846, Joseph Smith became chief of the Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks. He remained chief of the Bureau until 1869, and afterwards served for two years as president of the Navy's retiring board. He died in 1877.

Joseph Smith's friend (and the recipient of these letters), David Geisinger, was born in 1790 in Frederick County, Maryland. After his appointment as midshipman in November 1809, he served for two years on the brig Syren , and when the War of 1812 commenced, on the frigate Constitution . Geisinger joined the sloop-of-war Wasp , which made its first cruise in May 1814, and received praise from Master Commandant Johnston Blakeley (1781-1814) for his conduct during the Wasp 's victory over the HMS Reindeer in June 1814.

David Geisinger became a lieutenant in December 1814, and as first lieutenant of the brig Fire Fly , he traveled to the Mediterranean in May 1815 as part of Commodore Deacatur's squadron during the Second Barbary War. Afterwards, Geisinger served on the frigate Macedonian (1815, North Atlantic and Boston); ship-of-the-line Independence (1816, Boston); corvette John Adams (1818-1820, West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico); and frigate Constitution (1820-1824, Mediterranean). Over the next 10 years, he served at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, commanded the sloop-of-war Peacock for a round-the-world diplomatic cruise, and received a promotion to master commandant (March 1829).

From 1834 to 1850, Geisinger successively commanded a naval rendezvous in Boston, frigates Brandywine and Columbia (in the Mediterranean), and a squadron in East India from the frigate Congress . He received his captaincy in May 1838. In 1850, he took command of the U.S. Naval Asylum in Philadelphia, where he remained until 1855. Geisinger was married to Catherine Russell Pierce of Maryland; they had at least four children. He died in 1860 at the age of 70.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Smith-Geisinger collection is made up of seven letters from Captain Joseph Smith, chief of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D.C., to Captain David Geisinger, governor of the U.S. Naval Asylum in Philadelphia. The letters are filled with a mixture of personal news and navy gossip, the latter including Smith's efforts in 1854-1855 to find a replacement for Geisinger at the Asylum. A notable topic of discussion is the March 1855 "Act to Promote the Efficiency of the Navy," which established an "Efficiency Board" to advise the secretary about officers they believed to be inefficient or incapable of performing their duties. In a letter dated October 16, 1855, Smith criticizes the Board:

"The selection & classification of the retired & decapitated officers is a lottery, & that without 'a fair shake ' - the blow will fall heavier upon the Navy than upon you, or me. - I retain the Bu: by order of the President, this is no great favor to me tho! it is a severe rebuke to the three gallant spirits. Perry, McCawley & Stribling, who marked me for inefficiency … I want to hear what Read says at retiring him & unanimously keeping Morris on the active list , who has always been sick, tho always doing duty & seven years older than I am."

The final two letters contain poignant expressions of Smith's "crushing & deep-rooted bereavement" (October 16, 1855) over the death of Harriet, his wife of some 37 years.

Subject Terms

    • Bereavement.
    • Geisinger, David, 1790-1860.
    • Grief.
    • Smith, Joseph, 1790-1877.
    • United States. Naval Asylum.
    • United States. Navy.
    • United States. Navy--Officers.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Volume   1  
    Smith-Geisinger collection,  1849 January 22-1855 October 29 [series]
    Pages   i-iii  
    Description of the collection and biographies of Joseph Smith and David Geisinger by David P. Harris
    Pages   1-10  
    Annotated transcriptions by David P. Harris
    Pages   11-18  
     1849 January 22
     1852 December 9
     1853 October 10
     1853 October 15
     1854 March 04
     1855 October 16
     1855 October 29
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    David Geisinger papers, 1814-1853, Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, Washington, D.C.

    David Geisinger papers, 1809-1856, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.


    This finding aid draws heavily on original research done by the collection's donor, David P. Harris.

    Partial Subject Index
    An Act to Promote the Efficiency of the Navy.
    • 1855 October 16
    • 1855 October 22
    • 1855 October 16
    • 1855 October 22
    Bullus, Oscar, d. 1871.
    • 1854 March 4
    Dobbin, James C.
    • 1853 October 15
    Foote, Andrew H., 1806-1863.
    • 1854 March 4
    Geisinger, David, 1790-1860.
    • passim
    • 1855 October 16
    • 1855 October 22
    Kennedy, John P.
    • 1852 December 9
    Morris, Charles, 1784-1856.
    • 1855 October 16
    Ohio (Ship)
    • 1849 January 22
    Read, George Campbell, 1788-1862
    • 1855 October 16
    Savannah (Ship)
    • 1849 January 22
    Sailors--Alcohol use.
    • 1854 March 4
    • 1852 December 9
    Smith, Harriet Bryant, d. 1855.
    • 1855 October 16
    Smith, Joseph, 1790-1877.
    • passim
    Stenson, J. Fenwick.
    • 1854 March 4
    United States. Naval Asylum.
    • 1853 October 10
    • 1854 March 4
    United States. Navy.
    • passim
    United States. Navy--Officers.
    • passim
    Voorhees, Philip Falkerson, 1792-1862
    • 1849 January 22