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Crane, William Montgomerylocked

(01 February 1784–18 March 1846)
  • John C. Fredriksen

Crane, William Montgomery (01 February 1784–18 March 1846), naval officer, was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the son of William Crane and Abigail Miller. His father was a revolutionary war colonel distinguished at the siege of Quebec. Crane became a midshipman on 23 May 1799 and spent several years aboard the frigate United States. He sailed under Captain John Barry in the Quasi-War with France and was commissioned a lieutenant on 20 July 1803. Crane assumed command of the schooner Vixen during the Tripolitan War and later directed gunboats during the 7 August 1804 bombardment of Tripoli. He was present aboard the frigate Chesapeake under Captain James Barron during the infamous Leopard affair of 1807, and subsequently he testified against Barron when that officer was court-martialed for failing to prepare the Chesapeake for battle.

The renewal of war with Great Britain in June 1812 found Crane in New York commanding the schooner Nautilus. In this capacity, he enjoyed the dubious honor of losing the first U.S. Navy vessel to the enemy. Crane sailed from New York on 1 July and soon encountered the blockading squadron of Commodore Philip V. Broke. He lightened the Nautilus and threw his lee guns overboard in an attempt to escape but finally surrendered to HMS Shannon after a six-hour pursuit. Crane was taken to Halifax as a prisoner and, following a brief internment, was exchanged and became commanding officer of the Charlestown Navy Yard in November 1812. He remained in Boston until February 1813 when orders arrived directing him to the frigate John Adams in New York. There he received promotion to commander on 4 March 1813.

Crane’s tenure aboard the John Adams proved uneventful, and he was shortly after transferred with his crew to Sackets Harbor, New York, as part of Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s Lake Ontario squadron. He took charge of the sloop Madison and fought in numerous skirmishes throughout the summer and fall of 1813. The following spring he assumed command of the brig General Pike and was promoted to captain on 22 November 1814. Crane remained on Lake Ontario until the advent of peace in January 1815.

Crane’s postwar career was extremely active and varied. In the summer of 1815 he captained the ship-of-the-line Independence, flagship of Commodore William Bainbridge’s squadron, and sailed against Algiers. The following year he transferred his flag to the sloop Erie and made additional demonstrations against the North African coast. Following several years at sea, Crane returned to command the Charlestown Navy Yard from 6 April 1825 to 5 May 1827, when he was succeeded by Commodore John Morris. In June 1827 he hoisted his pennant aboard the battleship Delaware as commander of the Mediterranean Squadron and assisted Consul David Offley in negotiating a commercial treaty with the Ottoman Empire. Crane later commanded the navy yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from 1832 to 1840, and the following year he was appointed to the Board of Navy Commissioners in Washington, D.C.

In 1842 Crane became chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrology. The navy was then experiencing a transition to more modern technology, and he was responsible for the testing of metals and explosives and other matters relating to weapons. When the navies of Britain and France began simplifying shipboard ordnance by standardizing the calibers mounted, Crane dispatched several officers to Europe to study the changes. He lacked authority, however, to prevent individuals like Captain Robert F. Stockton from experimenting with their own pieces. When Stockton had an immense twelve-inch bore cannon cast in England to his own specifications, Crane refused to attend the firing trials. On 28 February 1844 this weapon, the so-called “Peacemaker,” exploded during an exhibition aboard the steam frigate Princeton. Eight people died, including Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer. Though not held responsible for the accident, Crane grew increasingly despondent over it. On 18 March 1846 he locked himself in his Washington, D.C., office and committed suicide by cutting his own throat.

Crane was survived by his wife, Erza King. The date of their marriage and the number of their children, if any, are unknown. Despite an untimely demise, Crane was a fine sailor and administrator who rendered valuable services to the country in several wars. Unlike many contemporaries, he proved himself equally adept on the deck of a ship, at the negotiating table, or behind a bureau desk. Crane’s career personifies the professionalism of the nineteenth-century naval officer corps.


Crane’s official correspondence is in RG 45, Captains’ Letters, National Archives. Other material is in the Smith Naval Collection, Clements Library, University of Michigan, and the New-York Historical Society. His regulation book for the USS Madison is preserved at the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown. Items relating to Crane’s career are in Dudley W. Knox, ed., Naval Documents Related to the Quasi War (7 vols., 1935–1938) and Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (6 vols., 1939–1944); William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812 (2 vols., 1985–1990); J. F. Goodwyn, “Ship’s Orders: 1815,” United States Naval Institute, Proceedings 66 (1940): 78–82; and Edwin V. Bearss, Charlestown Navy Yard (2 vols., 1984). For insight into Crane’s diplomatic ventures see David F. Long, Gold Braid and Foreign Relations (1988). Crane’s role as naval administrator is discussed in Geoffrey S. Smith, “An Uncertain Passage: The Bureaus Run the Navy,” in In Peace and War, ed. Kenneth Hagan (1984), pp. 70–106, and Spencer C. Tucker, Arming the Fleet (1989).