True Tales from Canton’s Past: A Noble Example

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As a boy, Armand Didot looked out of his small home in the far northern French city of Dunkirk less than 10 miles from the newly created border between Belgium. Dunkirk was part of the French Flemish north and Catholicism was the religion of the region. Didot was part of a long line of aristocratic nobility that dated back to Count Jean Didot, who had been conferred with the title by the Duke of Bar and Lorraine in 1122.

The U.S.S. Ohio, the first U.S. Navy ship that Didot served on, shown here in Boston Harbor

The U.S.S. Ohio, the first U.S. Navy ship that Didot served on, shown here in Boston Harbor

Growing up in a fishing village on the flooded coastal marsh area of the English Channel would have provided the young boy with a view of the world through the eyes of sailors and mariners with roots that extended well back into the time of the Vikings. It is no surprise that Didot’s life would be forever entwined with the sea. At age 11, Didot boarded a ship and began a voyage that would be spectacular, heroic, and forever part of our military history. What’s more, Didot was one of Canton’s most remarkable citizens.

It is not known how Didot came to America, but by his own account, he left France in 1846. He sailed to many countries, and at some point found himself in the United States on the brink of the Civil War. On June 14, 1861, under the alias of Thomas A. Harrison, Didot enlisted in Boston in the U.S. Navy. He would sign enlistment papers on two additional occasions, in 1864 and 1867. Again, little is known as to why he used the alias, but government records show that the young seaman was more than worthy for the positions to which he was assigned.

While the battles of the war raged on land, there was naval superiority under Lincoln’s navy. The role of the northern navy was to enforce the blockades of the southern cities and cut off all trade — including the sale of cotton as a source of income for the war efforts. The mission was daunting, as the southern coastline was over 2,500 miles and the Union had about 40 ships to place into service. Didot was part of the early naval efforts, and sailing from the Port of Boston, he began his first tour of duty aboard the U.S.S. Ohio. The Ohio was a receiving ship and Didot was subsequently transferred to the U.S.S. Vincennes followed by the Powhattan, the Brazillera, the Princeton, and the Vermont.

While Didot was assigned across a broad spectrum of ships, he was promoted to captain of the foretop on the U.S.S. Gemsbrook — a navy gunboat that had been part of the southern blockades. He was also coxswain of three ships: the U.S.S. South Carolina, the Memphis, and the North Carolina. To say that he had numerous assignments in the navy during the Civil War would be an understatement. Didot participated in the bombardment at Fort Pickens, the second attack on Fort Sumter, the night attack on Fort Wagner, as well as battles at Port Royal and Folly Island.

There is no question that Didot had a front row seat to some of the most spectacular and bloody battles along the southern coast. The battle at Fort Wagner was perhaps a defining moment in the war. After an earlier attack on July 11, 1863 failed, Major General Quincy Gillmore reinforced his beachhead on Morris Island. At dusk on July 18, Gillmore launched an attack spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry — one of the first official African American units in the U.S. armed forces. The unit’s colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, was killed. Members of the brigade scaled the parapet, but after brutal hand-to-hand combat were driven out with heavy casualties. It was a bloodbath, and Didot was there just off the shore in an ironclad monitor as the battle raged onshore. It was there off the coast of South Carolina, in the blistering heat of that July battle, that Armand Didot fell severely wounded.

The wounds received were bad enough to cause Didot to return to Boston, and in that same year, he married Bridget Gorman. At some point thereafter the couple adopted a girl by the name of Nora Ages Kenney and changed her name to Ida Addonia Didot. The child’s middle name was given in honor of Armand Didot’s mother. The war continued and Didot returned to service until he was honorably discharged at the end of his final enlistment period in May 1867.

The family moved to Canton in that same year and Didot became a foreman at the Revere Copper Rolling Mill. It would appear that Didot spent the rest of his career in the employ of the Revere Copper Company. Interestingly, this man who had spent his whole life at sea and in military service, now found himself pursuing many other worthwhile ventures. By April 1888, Bridget Didot died of cancer at age 50, leaving Armand and 17-year-old Ida to fend for themselves. Within six months Armand had captured the heart of yet another beautiful Irish woman 12 years his junior. Ida soon moved to live with relatives in Lexington and Armand and his wife moved to a house at 30 Sherman Street. Didot became a citizen of the United States in 1871.

By 1900, now 65 years old and likely retired from work at the mill, Didot turned his mind to inventing. There are two patents attributed to Armand Didot, the second is a strange little milk pail with strainers that was designed to prevent the spilling of the contents should it be kicked over. The first invention, however, is more practical and had wider application with seafaring.

In the late 1890s Didot had begun work on designing a new lifeboat. By June 1899 he had perfected his invention and applied for a patent. On June 15, 1900, Armand Didot received U.S. Patent No. 652512. Didot described the problem, “It is well known that while the life-boats used on board ships are useful when they have been once launched properly and loaded with provisions and passengers there is always difficulty in launching them without upsetting them and under these circumstances that it being so packed as not to be lost or saturated with water in case the boat should be upset when thrown overboard.” Didot set his invention on making sure that the lifeboats would not capsize and that there was storage for provisions within the design of the craft.

In essence what Didot invented was a self-righting, self-baling craft with space for provisions and canopy protection for the occupants. Didot made sure that the covers were watertight and that rainwater could be collected to augment fresh water stores. In using this boat it was intended that the compartments be filled with food and water so that the boat would be ready at any time for instant use.

“In case of accident the boat is thrown overboard, and by reason of the buoyancy caused by the packing it will not sink,” he explained. “The boat will be properly ballasted by the tank and compartments, even if empty, as well as by its general construction, to right itself.”

Didot used cork to pack the interior of the hull. “A boat so packed with cork or the like cannot be punctured or destroyed by coming in contact with the ship’s side or with a rock, as is often the case in a heavy sea or among wreckage.”

Today’s modern lifeboats employ many of the ideas that Didot had incorporated in his design at the turn of the last century. There is little doubt that a life at sea and a home in Canton brought tremendous insight into the mind of Armand Ferdinand Didot.

On Sunday, July 23, 1916, Didot died at his home on Sherman Street at age 81 after more than 40 years living in Canton. The boy from France had seen the world, had fought in the Civil War, and had brought valor in his every deed. His obituary read, “A true friend and a constant comrade. By his death the Town of Canton has lost a faithful and efficient citizen and the Republic one of her most valiant defenders.”

Didot and his wives are buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery.

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