“Who was Vice Admiral Niblack?” by S.M. O’Connor

Anyone who studies the history of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at The Art Institute of Chicago learns Mrs. James Ward Thorne (1882-1966), born Narcissa Niblack, had an uncle, Rear Admiral Niblack, who stimulated her interest in collecting small objects when she was a little girl.  He sent her things on his travels.  This makes Rear Admiral Niblack a figure of romance, but who was he?  Rear Admiral Albert Parker Niblack (1859-1929) was a naval officer, a scholar, a spy, an explorer, and a technocrat who retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Vice Admiral and finished his career as the head of an international governmental body headquartered in Monaco.

Born in Vincennes, Indiana, on July 25, 1859, Albert Parker Niblack enrolled as a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1876, graduated in 1880, received an assignment aboard the Lackawanna in 1880, became a Midshipman in October of 1882, and received a promotion to Ensign in 1884.[1]  He and Narcissa’s father, William Niblack, descended from Mayflower passengers who settled in Salem, Massachusetts.[2]  They were two of the six children born to Judge William Ellis Niblack (1822-1893), who was a widower, and his second wife, Elizabeth Ann Sherman.[3]  To Vice Admiral William S. Sims, at least, Niblack was known by the nickname “Nibs” and to Niblack Sims was known by the nickname “Simsadus.”[4]

Between 1884 and 1887, he explored and surveyed Alaska, which the U.S. Government had only purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867.[5]  During this period, he worked for the Smithsonian Institution.[6]

On November 24, 1904, he wed Mary Augusta Harrington (1869-1949).[7]  They had a daughter, Sarah (“Sade”) Niblack.[8]

According to Sally Sexton Kalmbach, “Narcissa started collecting miniatures as a child and was encouraged by her uncle, Rear Admiral Albert Niblack.  He brought Narcissa souvenirs of tiny furniture, vases, silver, and tea sets from his U.S. Navy tours abroad.”[9]

Mrs. Thorne recalled in an interview, “When I was a small girl, I had a tall, jolly uncle who loved teenie-weenie things.  He traveled all over the world and when he came back from these exciting adventures, he always brought me the most interesting presents.  These lovely little gifts were the inspiration for my collection of miniature things.  I kept everything tucked away in boxes.  Then one Christmas, my mother gave me a mahogany cabinet, which looked as though it had been taken from the house of the seven dwarfs, for it was only three feet high and had four shelves and glass doors which locked with a small brass key.  And I proudly transferred my collection there.”[10]

In August of 1892, Niblack received a promotion to Lieutenant, Junior Grade.[11]  He received an assignment with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in February of 1893 aboard the Patterson.[12]  As the year went along, he received assignments with the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Bureau of Navigation. [13]  In March of 1894, he served aboard the U.S.S. Dolphin.[14]  There followed appointments as the naval attaché at the American embassies in Berlin, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire, and Rome, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, as well as the American legation in Vienna, which was the capital of the Austrian Empire.[15]    He went overseas to fill these positions in 1896.[16]  Niblack received a promotion to Lieutenant in 1897.[17]

Lieutenant Niblack served aboard the U.S.S. Topeka in the North Cuban blockading squadron during the Spanish-American War and fought in the Battle of Fort Nipe.[18]  Briefly, he commanded the U.S.T.B. (U.S. Torpedo Boat) Winslow.[19]   In October of 1898, he went to the Philippine capital city of Manila, where he served aboard the U.S.S. Olympia, U.S.S. Concord, and the U.S.S. Oregon.[20]   He fought in the Philippine-American War in Manila and Iloilo.[21]   In 1900, he received an assignment to select a site for a naval base in the Philippines.[22]

From February to October of 1900, he served in the Manchurian Empire to help put down the Boxer Rebellion by Han Chinese who chafed under (a) the rule of the Manchurians and (b) the domination in the 19th Century of the Manchurians by European and Japanese governments and merchants.[23]  After assignments aboard the Castine, Brooklyn, and Culgoa, in 1901 he went to New York to serve on the Olongapo Naval Station Board.[24]  In June of 1902, he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.[25]

Lt. Commander Niblack served on the U.S.S. Iroquois from 1904 to 1906, as part of the Pacific Squadron.[26]  In 1907, Lt. Commander Niblack became Executive Officer (X.O.) of the U.S.S. Chicago.[27]  Subsequently, he commanded the U.S.S. Tacoma.[28]  In 1908, he was promoted to Commander.[29]   Two years later, he became a naval attaché at the American embassy in Petropolis, Republic of Brazil.[30]  Then he served at the American legations in Buenos Aires, Argentine Republic and Santiago, Republic of Chile.[31]  Next, he served again as naval attaché at the American embassy in Berlin again.[32]

In 1911, Commander Niblack was promoted to Captain.[33]   From 1913 to 1915, Captain Niblack commanded the U.S.S. Michigan.[34]   He became involved in the Mexican Civil War (1910-1920) in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson dispatched the Michigan to help resolve the Tamipico Affair, which was caused by soldiers loyal to General Jose Victoriana Huerta Márquez (1850-1916) arrested U.S. Navy personnel at Tampico and Veracruz.[35]  American forces occupied the port-city of Veracruz for six months, which ended when Huerta resigned the presidency of Mexico.

Captain Niblack served on the General Board during their period of time.[36]  In March of 1917, Captain Niblack served as a brigade commander in the second presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.[37]  That August, Captain Niblack received a temporary promotion to Rear Admiral.[38]  When the U.S.A. entered the First Great World War, he commanded Division One, Battleship Force, Atlantic Fleet.[39]   The U.S.S. Alabama was his flagship.[40]

nh 47501Figure 1 Credit: U.S. Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command Caption: This is a 1928 copy of a photograph of Admiral Albert P. Niblack taken during the First Great World War.

Rear Admiral Niblack relieved Rear Admiral Henry W. Wilson as Commander, Patrol Forces Based at Gibraltar.  In November of 1917, he assumed command.  Rear Admiral Wilson transferred to Brest.   In March of 1918, Rear Admiral Niblack’s promotion became permanent.[41]

In January of 1919, Rear Admiral Niblack went to Venice, Italy to assume command of U.S. Naval Forces Operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.[42]    The U.S.S. Olympia was his flagship.[43]

In March of 1919, he became Director of Naval Intelligence.[44]    The next year, he became naval attaché at the American Embassy in the U.K.[45]

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Commerce Department nominated Rear Admiral Niblack to replace Rear Admiral Edward Simpson on the organizing committee for the International Hydrographic Bureau then forming in Monaco.[46]  In June of 1920, he joined the committee.[47]

He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1921, and commanded the U.S.S. Pittsburgh and U.S.S. Utah in European waters.[48]    In 1921, he received Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito (1901-1989), who would later reign as Emperor of Japan from December 25, 1926 until his death on January 7, 1989, and whose posthumous throne name is Shōwa, aboard the U.S.S. Pittsburgh.[49]    Vice Admiral Niblack returned to the U.S.A. to become Commandant of the 6th Naval District and Navy Yard headquartered at Charleston, North Carolina.[50]    During his military career, Vice Admiral Niblack wrote papers, gave lectures at the Naval War College, and wrote a book entitled The Coast Indians of Alaska and Northern British Columbia.[51]  He retired from the U.S. Navy on July 25, 1923.[52]

In 1923, he was elected the Board of Directors of the International Hydrographic Bureau in Monaco. [53]   [In 1970, it changed its name to the International Hydrographic Organization.]  In 1927, Niblack was elected the second President of the International Hydrographic Bureau, a post he held until his death. [54]   Vice Admiral Niblack died in Monte Carlo, Monaco on August 20, 1929.[55]  He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.[56]  His papers are at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis.

Mrs. Niblack sponsored the U.S.S. Niblack (DD-424), which was a Gleaves-class destroyer built by the Bath Iron Works Corporation in Bath, Maine.  She – the ship, not Mrs. Niblack – launched on May 18, 1940 and was commissioned on August 1, 1940.  The Niblack has the distinction of having dropped depth charges to drive off a German Navy U-boat after she picked up three boatloads of survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship off the coast of Iceland on April 10, 1941 in the first hostile action between American and German forces of the Second Great World War, before the U.S.A. had technically entered the war.


[1] Kathryn Wilmot, “Admiral Albert P. Niblack Collection, 1843-1929,” Manuscript and Visual Collections Department, William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, August, 2007, p. 2

[2] Sally Sexton Kalmbach, Mrs. Thorne’s World of Miniatures.  Chicago and New Orleans: AMP&RSAND, Inc. (2014), p. 25

[3] Wilmot, p. 2

[4] See the correspondence between the two admirals in the Naval History and Heritage Command.

[5] Wilmot, p. 2

[6] Wilmot, p. 2

[7] Wilmot, p. 3

[8] Wilmot, p. 3

[9] Kalmbach, pages 25 and 26

See also Susen Taras, “Thorne, Narcissa Niblack.” Rima Lunin Scultz and Adele Hast, editors. Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (2001), p. 880

[10] Kalmbach, p. 26

[11] Wilmot, p. 2

[12] Wilmot, p. 2

[13] Wilmot, p. 2

[14] Wilmot, p. 2

[15] Wilmot, p. 2

[16] Wilmot, p. 2

[17] Wilmot, p. 2

[18] Wilmot, p. 3

[19] Wilmot, p. 3

[20] Wilmot, p. 3

[21] Wilmot, p. 3

[22] Wilmot, p. 3

[23] Wilmot, p. 3

[24] Wilmot, p. 3

[25] Wilmot, p. 3

[26] Wilmot, p. 3

[27] Wilmot, p. 3

[28] Wilmot, p. 3

[29] Wilmot, p. 3

[30] Wilmot, p. 3

[31] Wilmot, p. 3

[32] Wilmot, p. 3

[33] Wilmot, p. 3

[34] Wilmot, p. 3

[35] Wilmot, p. 3

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1911) had brought an end to the Porfiriato (1876-1910) – the military dictatorship of General José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori – and resulted in Francisco Ignacio Madero González (1873-1913) becoming the thirty-third President of Mexico in 1911.  Madero had challenged Díaz for the presidency in the election of 1910 and after Díaz declared himself the winner of the presidential election, Madero had called for revolution.  Díaz resigned in May of 1911 and fled to France, which is ironic, because he had helped throw out the Second French Empire, which had established the Second Mexican Empire as a puppet state.  During the Ten Tragic Days, Huerta staged a coup d’état  in which he overthrew and murdered President  Madero; the latter’s brother, Gustavo Adolfo Madero (1875-1913); and Vice President José Maria Pino Suárez (1869-1913).

[36] Wilmot, p. 3

[37] Wilmot, p. 3

[38] Wilmot, p. 3

[39] Wilmot, p. 3

[40] Wilmot, p. 3

[41] Wilmot, p. 3

[42] Wilmot, p. 3

[43] Wilmot, p. 3

[44] Wilmot, p. 3

[45] Wilmot, p. 3

[46] Gary E. Weir, An Ocean in Common: American Naval Officers, Scientists, and the Ocean Environment. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press (2001), pages 10-12

The reason it is headquartered in the Principality of Monaco is Prince Albert I was a marine scientist and he invited the international body to make its home in his polity.

[47] Weir, p. 12

[48] Wilmot, p. 3

[49] Wilmot, p. 3

[50] Wilmot, p. 3

[51] Wilmot, p. 3

[52] Wilmot, p. 3

[53] Weir, p. 12

[54] Weir, p. 12

[55] Wilmot, p. 3

[56] Wilmot, p. 3

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