Philo Norton McGiffin (December 12/13, 1860-February 11, 1897) was a late 19th-century American naval officer later serving in Chinese service as a naval advisor during the First Sino-Japanese War. Although primarily skilled as an instructor and administrator, he proved a talented tactician during the Battle of the Yalu as well as the first American to command a modern battleship in wartime.
Born to Civil War officer Colonel Norton McGiffin and Sarah Quail in Washington, Pennsylvania, McGiffin attended local Washington and Jefferson College before transferring to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1877. While at Annapolis, he gained a reputation as a practical joker. In 1884, McGiffin qualified as a passed midshipman (or ensign) but was among several classmates who were discharged with one year's pay when there were no available positions in the body of commissioned officers (in those days, several years of sea duty were required before receiving a commission. In an era of limited U.S. naval spending, only a few commissions were available to each graduating class. Unfortunately for McGiffin, when he took the exam in 1884 he did not score highly enough and so did not obtain one of the few commissions available that year).
Service to Imperial China
Arriving in China soon after and seeking employment, McGiffin was able to earn a commission as a lieutenant in the newly modernizing Imperial Chinese Navy under Li Hung-chang in early 1885. In the midst on the Sino-French War, McGiffin was said to have captured a French gunboat in June before the end of the war that same year. A professor at the Chinese Naval College in Tientsin (Tianjin) for the next nine years, McGiffin was also said to have served as naval constructor supervising the construction of four ironclad warships in Great Britain before the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War in August 1895.
Assigned to Admiral Ting Ju ch'ang's Peiyang or Northern Fleet (which would be partially organized and trained by McGiffin), McGiffin would serve as an executive officer aboard the Chinese battleship Chen Yuen during the Battle of Yalu River (1894) and, with effective control and skillful maneuvering, he was able to force the Japanese to withdraw on September 17. Severely wounded during the battle however. McGiffin returned to the United States. Suffering from mental instability due to his wounds, McGiffin was eventually committed to the Post Graduate Hospital in New York City where, after tricking hospital orderlies into giving him a revolver from his trunk, he committed suicide on February 11, 1897.
At the United States Naval Academy, Philo McGiffin is a folk hero akin to Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. In the most commonly told tale, McGiffin could not sleep one evening and decided since he could not sleep, no one else should, so he collected all the cannonballs in the Academy yard, hauled them up to the top floor of the quarters (which probably would have been what was then known as the "New Quarters"), and rolled them down the stairs to the bottom floor. Since the heavy iron balls were wreaking havoc, no one could stop him until the Officer of the Watch shinnied up a drainpipe and apprehended him from behind. Only half mythical, according Richard Harding Davidson's biographical sketch of McGiffin quoted in Real Soldiers of Fortune, the cannonballs were already in a pile on the top floor of the quarters. For this prank he was sent to the Santee (an old hulk of a sailing ship that served as the confinement barracks for Midshipmen being disciplined) where he befriended an old man-o-warsman named Mike. When Philo returned to the Regiment of Midshipmen from the Santee, Mike gave him six charges of powder, which he loaded into six of the Mexican War cannons scattered about the Yard and fired a salute on July first, shattering windows all over the Academy.
Another popular Naval Academy urban legend concerns the most exacting inspection at the Academy, the inspection for the members of the oncoming Watch, traditionally held each evening in the Rotunda of Bancroft Hall. Popular lore has it that McGiffin waited, hidden on the balcony above the Watch Squad, until the very second before the Officer of the Watch left his office to inspect the Squad, at which point he stood up and dumped a bag of flour all over the Watch Squad. This is extremely unlikely as the legends place this action in the Rotunda, which did not exist in Philo's day and there is no indication that there even was a Watch Squad inspection in the late 1870s/early 80s; in fact, given the rather casual attitude toward uniforms prevalent in those days, it was quite unlikely. However, in the late 1960s an event of this nature was rumored to have actually occurred, as well as a bowling ball being rolled down the steps of Memorial Hall and out to the Rotunda where a watch squad inspection was in progress. Similar incidents occurred regularly after then, particularly during the week prior to the Army-Navy football game.
In addition to several works which discuss his actual exploits, McGiffin is memorialized in the comic novel The Return of Philo T. McGiffin, written by Naval Academy graduate David Poyer and published in 1997 by the Naval Institute Press. The book tells of the misadventures of a namesake plebe, Philo T. McGiffin, during his first year at the Academy.
- McHenry, Robert. Webster's American Military Biographies, Springfield, Mass.: G & C. Merriam Co., 1978.
- Davis, Richard Harding. Real Soldiers of Fortune. Scribner's, 1911.
- Sweetman, Jack. American Naval History: An Illustrated Chronology. Annapolis, Md., 1984.
- Bradford, Richard H. "That Prodigal Son: Philo McGiffin and the Chinese Navy." American Neptune, July 1978, v. 38, pages 157-169.
- Yangtze Patrol: American Naval Forces in China – A Selected, Partially-Annotated Bibliography: Magazines / Journals – From the Naval Postgraduate School Library
- McGiffin, Lee. Yankee of the Yalu: Philo Norton McGiffin, American Captain in the Chinese navy, 1885-1895. New York: Dutton, 1968.
- Yangtze Patrol: American Naval Forces in China – A Selected, Partially-Annotated Bibliography: Books / Monographs – From the Naval Postgraduate School Library
- Trygstad, Raymond E. Scuttlebutt: Naval Academy Urban Legends from Homeport: The United States Naval Academy Alumni Online Community.
- History of United States Naval Operations: Korea, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. – Reference to McGiffin's role in the Sino-Japanese War
- Captain Philo Norton McGiffin – Article by famed 19th century U.S. war correspondent Richard Harding Davis; from On Deck!, the Webzine of the Navy and Marine Living History Association
- Philo Norton McGiffin – Photo and brief biographical data from Western Pennsylvania Old Photos
- Philo McGiffin Home Page on David Poyer's Web site.