From Virginia to the Dead Sea: Lieutenant William Francis Lynch and the 21st Century

In preparation for ACOR’s 50th Anniversary and twenty-five years after I first ‘discovered’ Lieutenant Lynch, I finally visited him. Commodore Lynch rests, posthumously, in Baltimore’s famous Greenmount Cemetery, less than ten miles from my home in Baltimore. His gravestone attests to his command of the Dead Sea Expedition of 1848, bears the name of his second wife, Eliza, and memorializes his last promotion, from Captain to Commodore.

W.F. Lynch’s grave in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore. Photos by Robert Rook.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia on April 1, 1801, Lynch’s career spanned antebellum America’s decades-long march toward sectional crisis and civil war. Indeed, Lynch’s non-involvement in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) helped propel him toward the Jordan River and Dead Sea in much the same way as it set the United States toward the Civil War. As a Virginian, Lynch chose loyalty to his birthplace and service in the Confederate Navy over continued duty with the U.S. Navy. At the end of the war, after receiving a federal pardon, Lynch resided in Baltimore until his death several months later on October 17, 1865, at age 64.

Standing at Lynch’s graveside reminded me yet again that he, and ACOR, literally launched my career as an academic. Twenty years after ACOR’s publication of the 150th Anniversary of the United States Expedition to the Dead Sea and the River Jordan (1998), Lynch continues to offer important insights into both his era and the contemporary world. As a part of ACOR’s 50th Anniversary celebration, this out-of-print commemorative volume is now available online.

Robert Rook at the celebration of The 150th Anniversary of the United States Expedition to the Explore the Dead Sea and the River Jordan, Amman, Jordan, April 1998.

The 150th Anniversary of the United States Expedition to the Explore the Dead Sea and the River Jordan – published by ACOR and now available online (click on image)

In a contemporary era in which space exploration is increasingly a commercial venture and America’s historic space accomplishments of the 1960s and 1970s linger primarily in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Lynch’s exploration and survey mission to the Jordan River and Dead Sea between March and June 1848 registers somewhere between ancient myth and antiquarian novelty.

Yet, it is all too easy not to remember that many parts of the 19th century world remained unknown, or at least unexplored. Literary, historic, and mythic vistas remained unmapped, existing out of scale and apart from any tangible context. Lynch’s mission was originally designed as equal parts strategic, scientific, and promotional. Tasked with mapping a potential route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Jordan River and Dead Sea, Lynch also continued in a then still-emerging tradition of naval scientific exploration, neatly paralleled by a biblically energized interest in locating not only trade routes but fixing the location of Bible narratives well-known to many antebellum Americans.

In short, the context for Lynch’s mission was multifaceted and could be refracted through any number of antebellum cultural lenses. This context became more tangible and real when Lynch returned to the United States in December 1848. He returned without fanfare but with maps, charts, drawings, notes, artifacts, and other detailed evidence that provided a scientific, more concrete context of a land known by most Americans as largely distant and certainly biblical.

Caravan of the expedition (reproduced from Rook 1998, p.15, after Lynch 1849)
Wadi Mujib (reproduced from Rook 1998, p.20, after Lynch 1849)

Lynch’s accomplishment was indeed historic and noteworthy, both because of his actual scientific accomplishments and the fact that he survived. Several earlier adventurers seeking to accomplish Lynch’s task perished. Lynch’s mission was equal parts scientific, promotional, popular, and strategic. And, as a naval officer, an adventurer, and eager to the point of desperate for command, Lynch was in that 1848 moment the right man for the task.

I first encountered Lynch in 1993 during the initial research for my doctoral dissertation on American influences on water resource development in the Jordan River Valley. An ACOR pre-doctoral fellowship helped fund that research. Indeed, I first saw a picture of Lynch hanging in the ACOR library in 1995. While my interest in the Middle East focused primarily on the 20th century, I knew then instantly that Lynch, an agent from the mid-19th century, represented many of the foundations and challenges that the United States faced as a nation embarking on a global journey toward world power and national crisis.

Since 1998 there have been two major works detailing Lynch and his 1848 expedition. Both are far more detailed and extensive in scope than the 150th Anniversary volume. Andrew C. A. Jampoler’s and David Haward Bain’s works are invaluable resources to understanding Lynch and the rigors of his mission.[1]

Bain’s work is particularly significant in that it develops more extensively Lynch’s relationship with fellow naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, an aspect that is all the more important for understanding the geopolitical and commercial worlds both Lynch and the United States navigated during the late antebellum period.

What fascinated me initially and continues to anchor at least a part of my career in Lynch’s life is the enduring relevance of his institutional and circumstantial realities. In many ways the United States, the U.S. Navy, and the world they confronted in the mid-19th century affords interesting parallels to contemporary circumstances, something no doubt Lynch likely would have appreciated.

One illuminating aspect of Lynch and his friendship with Matthew Maury was a shared vision of the United States as a more global enterprise rather than a merely continental nation. In the latter sense the journalist John O’Sullivan’s now famous phrase, “Manifest Destiny,” a term that emerged three years prior to Lynch’s departure for Haifa, had already been eclipsed in the minds of many more commercially oriented Americans decades earlier. America’s ultimate destiny lay beyond California’s shores.

Visions of the “China Market” dominated the mental landscape of many antebellum American manufacturers and commercial agents.  An economic pathway to China, via the Pacific and, potentially, via the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean, helped chart the course of Lynch’s expedition.  The expedition’s discovery that the Great Rift Valley afforded no such pathway finally eliminated one option and indirectly reinforced the eventual drive for another route, namely the Suez Canal.

Map showing route of the expedition, April 10 and May 2 1848, with campsites marked (Rook 1998, p.16; after Lynch 1852).

The China Market existed largely in the 19th century American mind. In reality, China was more of a conception rather than a country; most Americans had far greater interest in biblical lands than in the Far East, something that fueled interest in and support for Lynch’s mission.

The actual market for American goods in China at that time was at best negligible and remained so for well over a century.[1] Today, China is more than a conception and constitutes a major geo-strategic challenge for the United States. Such a reality loomed large in Lynch’s 19th century world, only under a different flag, something that he attested too with his discovery of British textiles for sale in a market in Kerak during his expedition.  Economic competition, and the United States developing capacity to engage in such competition was, and remains, a central aspect of America’s world.

I sometimes wonder what Lynch and his contemporaries, Maury and Matthew C. Perry, would think of Chinese control of major ports on the eastern AND western approaches of the Panama Canal today.  Decades prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Maury advocated for a trans-Panamanian Isthmus railroad to compliment the U.S. transcontinental railroad; Perry famously ‘opened the door’ to Japan in the early 1850s.

It is also noteworthy that while the China Market loomed large in many American commercial actors minds, the Caribbean was no less a component of Manifest Destiny.  To many southerners the Caribbean was a logical, even providential space for commercial and, if possible, territorial expansion. In this way, the Caribbean constituted an American Mediterranean and, as such, naturally connected the Atlantic and Pacific Basins, and offered myriad possibilities for riches in the southern hemisphere.

Both men knew well that America’s past was firmly tied to the Atlantic Basin and to markets in the Europe and beyond. They also sensed, correctly, that America’s future also depended upon success in Pacific markets. In the 21st century, as America contemplates its trans-Pacific partnerships and economic future in Asia, the emergence of a target market as a global power likely would generate anew conversations that Lynch and Maury had about America’s future.

That American future today clearly has Chinese characters in play, both linguistically and strategically. China’s announced and increasingly visibly articulated global agenda is an inescapably manifest reality for the United States. Chinese President Xi Xinping’s “maritime Silk Road” and “One Belt Road” policies transect the Middle East and Indian Ocean basin en route to European and African markets. Jordan’s Port of Aqaba is one key element in a Chinese commercial and strategic agenda, providing yet another key link to Chinese trade and energy resource security. Aqaba from a Chinese perspective further anchors trade relationships running through the Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Peninsula.  Lynch and his similarly globally and commercially inclined colleagues would have understood this network quite well.

The concerns that Lynch and other naval officers had about the United States strategic future rested at least partially upon an industrial transformation of both the American economy and American society in the 19th century. That transformation began earlier than traditional American history textbooks typically depict. While the American Civil War was a further catalyst for America’s industrial revolution, it was not the first. For example, the ‘age of steam’ afloat began early in the 19th century and by mid-century, shortly after the completion of Lynch’s mission, the age of sail and its dependence on capricious winds was in decline.

Indeed, Lynch encountered at least one early American steam warship, the USS Princeton, en route home from Beirut in 1848.  By the time of that encounter, maritime steam-power was more than 30 years old.  Additionally, in his final years as a naval officer, albeit with the Confederate Navy, Lynch commanded at least two ironclads without much success.

Embedded in this historical reality yet submerged beneath a 20th century dominated by petroleum is the story of America’s first energy revolution and subsequent global search for an important energy resource: coal. In short, much as the 21st century suggests a possible transition to a post-petroleum era, Lynch’s expedition occurred at a time of transition for navies. Mechanical energy, namely coal-fired steam engines and steel warships slowly eclipsed the technologies and traditions of Lynch’s early years as a midshipman. Lynch and his contemporaries were commanders and masters in a truly revolutionary era.[2]

Finally, Lynch’s expedition navigated a global pandemic, literally sailing through regions of cholera outbreaks that raged across the middle decades of the 19th century.[3] Lynch and many of his crew fell ill in Beirut and, as Andrew C.A. Jampoler notes, a second major cholera epidemic arrived on American shores shortly after Lynch’s safe return home.  Although the source of Lynch’s illness and that of his crew remains undetermined, all available evidence indicates that the expedition’s journey indeed at least paralleled, if not possibly intersected, the modern era’s first global pandemic.

Given the speed of oceanic travel in Lynch’s era, the spread of contagion often lagged behind notice, and subsequent fears, of a pandemic. The 19th century internet, telegraphy, kept the west well-informed of cholera’s march from India, across the Middle East and Europe, en route to the Americas. Today, with Delhi a half-day’s air travel from London, and London eight hours from New York, the rapid spread of contagion is assured.  While Lynch certainly would be impressed by the technologies of such a transfer, he would not be surprised by the implications, either biological or commercial.

In this respect, while Lynch lies in Baltimore, the enduring effects of the world he explored remain.  Lynch remains at rest, the world he explored does not.

by Robert E. Rook

Robert E. Rook is an historian and a Professor and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Towson University, Maryland. He earned his in PhD. in History at Kansas State University in 1996 for his dissertation “Blueprints and Prophets: U.S. Water Resource Planning for the Jordan River Valley, 1860-1970,” partly supported by a Fellowship at ACOR in 1995, which led to his 1998 ACOR publication, “The 150th Anniversary of the United States Expedition to Explore the Dead Sea and the River Jordan.” Dr. Rook’s research focuses on the history of the Middle East and Indian Ocean Basin in the 20th century, particularly diplomatic and military history and environmental history.

[1] For a good starting point on this point see Paul A Varg, “The Myth of the China Market, 1890-1914,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Feb., 1968), pp. 742-758

[2] For more on this transition see Peter A Shulman, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and Craig L. Symonds, The U.S. Navy: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[3] “Cholera’s Seven Pandemics,” CBC News, May 9, 2008 accessed March 2, 2018.  See also Charles Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1848, and 1866, 2nd ed.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

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