The old field desk intrigued me the moment my great Aunt mentioned its existence and wondered if I might like to have it. It belonged, she said, to one of our Revolutionary War ancestors, though she wasn't precisely certain which. In any case, it was packed away either in the depths of her rent controlled apartment in New York or down at the Jersey Shore where she spent her summers and unavailable for examination. We were neither of us in any great hurry to track it down, and twenty years would pass before I finally saw the object in question.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, military field desks were used by officers on campaign to store their writing materials, provide a writing surface and keep their regimental records. Such desks were little more than hinged boxes, often made of mahogany with metal reinforced edges and recessed handles to facilitate storage. Some had inner compartments and unfolded to create more "desktop". This one has all of these features, but held another surprise as well.
My great Aunt had thought that this field desk had belonged to one of two people. One possibility was Matthias Ogden, Colonel of the 1st New Jersey Continentals and the brother of my direct ancestor Aaron Ogden, a captain in the same regiment and also brigade major. The other was that it had belonged to Francis Barber, their good friend and brother-in-law who was Lt. Colonel of the 3rd New Jersey and a divisional staff officer under Sullivan. Francis Barber was killed at the very end of the war by a falling tree as he rode toward Washington's New Windsor Headquarters on the Hudson. Both of these field-grade officers undoubtedly had their own field desks, but it was not clear to me why our branch of the family should have one for them until I saw the nameplate on the top of the desk and my Aunt's uncharacteristic confusion as to its ownership suddenly made sense.
Francis Barber Ogden (1783-1857) was the son of Matthias and Hannah Dayton Ogden, born the same year that his father's comrade-in-arms Francis Barber was killed. His name is clearly readable on the brass plate recessed and screwed into the cracked mahogany of the field desk cover, though I would need an expert to tell me whether it is original or perhaps replaced an earlier one belonging to his father. Though finely made, the piece shows the wear and tear of two centuries but its historical value even in its current condition makes any thought of restoration firmly out of the question.
Francis Barber Ogden had a distinguished diplomatic career as US Consul to Liverpool (1829-1840) and Bristol (1840-1857) and was a pioneer in nautical steam engines:
"Mr. Ogden devoted attention to mechanical science, and is credited with having first applied the important principles of the expansive power of steam and the employment of right angular cranks in marine engines. In 1813 he receded a patent for low-pressure condensing engines with two cylinders, the steam working expansively and the cranks being adjusted at right angles, and in 1817 the first engine ever constructed on this principle was built by him in Leeds, Yorkshire. He submitted his plan at Soho to James Watt, who declared at once that it would make "a beautiful engine" and that the combination was certainly original. The first screw propeller that was introduced into practical use and carried into successful operation was brought out by John Ericsson on Thames river in May, 1837, and was called the "Francis B. Ogden." The first propeller in the waters of the United States was the "Robert F. Stockton," an iron boat, which was built at Liverpool under the superintendence of Mr. Ogden."
Ericsson, you will recall, was the inventor who designed the USS Monitor.
Princeton University has in its collections a letter from Sam Houston dated 1843 appointing Francis Barber Ogden consul for the Republic of Texas in Liverpool.
With all his engineering experiments and diplomatic responsibilities, he seems to have had little occasion to use a military field desk. In fact, his only military service was during the War of 1812, but it was of singularly significance nonetheless. For Francis Barber Ogden was among General Andrew Jackson's aides-de-camp at the Battle of New Orleans. In all probability, this is the desk he used during that battle.
As for how the desk came back to our family, I can only speculate. I do know that Francis Barber Ogden was not the only one in our family with a deep interest in steam-powered vessels. His uncle and my ancestor Aaron Ogden was deeply engaged in an early steam ferry service between New Jersey and New York. The US Supreme Court decision that upheld the federal government's ability to regulate interstate commerce, Gibbons v Ogden, ended the monopoly that Aaron had been assigned by steamboat tycoons Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton and cost him his fortune.
In our family papers I find an indenture for the sale of land, dated October 30, 1815, signed by Aaron Ogden and witnessed by his nephew Francis Barber Ogden. Perhaps it was then, fresh from victory in Louisiana and before setting out for England, that he gave his uncle the desk. His own father had died of yellow fever at 36 in 1791, so the relationship between them may have been more like father and son. However it came about, Francis Barber Ogden's field desk is an extraordinary piece of American history and a treasured part of our family's past.