Thursday, April 17, 2014

Get the Lead Out

As noted frequently in these pages, the early American Navy fondly embraced innovations that gave it a measure of superiority over its opponents.  From stoutly constructed frames and bracing members to patent lighting devices and repeating swivel guns, the US Navy’s ships were filled with new inventions calculated to burnish Yankee reputations. 

And yet, for years the Navy has been given credit for one innovation that seems to have never been employed in actual service: the lead foil cartridge.

The business about the Americans using lead foil or sheet cartridges during the War of 1812 appears to have originated with British lawyer and author William James. In his Naval History of Great Britain he writes:

We have before remarked upon the great care and expense bestowed by the Americans in equipping their few ships of war. As one important instance may be adduced, the substitution of fine sheet-lead for cartridges, instead of flannel or paper. This gives a decided advantage in action, an advantage almost equal to one gun in three; for, as a sheet-lead cartridge will hardly ever leave a particle of itself behind, there is no necessity to spunge the gun, and very seldom any to worm it: operations that, with paper or flannel cartridges, must be attended to every time the gun is fired. The advantage of quick firing, no one can dispute; any more than, from the explanation just given, the facility with which it can be practised by means of the sheet-lead cartridge. The principal objection against the use of this kind of cartridge in the british navy is its expense: another may be, that it causes the powder to get damp. The last objection is obviated by filling no more cartridges than will serve for present use; and, should more be wanted, the Americans have always spare hands enough to fill them.[1]

It is easy to see how something so simple could give a ship a decided advantage in battle.  Removing the need to sponge and worm a gun significantly sped up the loading time.   The problem with James’s account, however, is that all the contemporary American purchasing receipts for the Navy that we’ve seen refer only to flannel cartridges.  A perusal of over 800 original receipts for supplies purchased for the Boston Navy Yard and the ships outfitting there during the War of 1812 reveals the Navy bought hundreds of yards of wool flannel for cartridges (or cylinders, as they were typically called in the period).  These were cut to a standard pattern and sewn up either at the Navy Yard or on board ship by the gunner and his mates.  In fact, Gunner George Marshall's Practical Marine Gunnery (1822) gives a pattern and discusses how the cylinders should be made.  In addition, all the ordnance manuals for the US Navy right up through the Civil War specify flannel cartridges.

A plan of a double cylinder former, from Marshall's Practical Marine Gunnery.  The former was made of 1/2 inch white pine or poplar plank.  To former's length was three times the diameter of the gun's bore, while the width was the same dimension minus 3/4 of an inch.  The loaders placed the rounded end in the muzzle first, with the seam downwards.
Receipts for "gunner's Department" stores taken on board Constitution in October 1812 mention "2 Rolls Sheet Lead,” but it is likely the gunner used this to make vent covers (to keep water out of the cannon vent)  and not powder cylinders.

Despite the lack of evidence for their use, there is evidence that Americans had contemplated the idea.  In 1811, none other than future Secretary of the Navy William Jones wrote a long letter to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia extolling the benefits of lead foil cartridges. According to Jones,

[I]n the year 1805, when at Canton in China, I caused to be made one hundred cartridges of thin sheet lead, with a portion of tin, to give it more tenacity.—One half were of six, and the other of four, pounder calibre; I have yet remaining between 80 and 90.— The whole cost five dollars; but if the order had been for a considerable quantity, the price would doubtless have been much reduced.
     On my passage that year in the ship Ploughboy, from Canton to Philadelphia, I took an opportunity to make a fair experiment, and fired six rounds from a four pounder in quick succession, by instantly inserting the charge without spunging; and then upon cleaning out the gun, I found only a small portion of lead, nearly of the size and form of mustard seed shot, and in quantity only sufficient to cover a surface of an inch square.
    The lead cartridge may be perforated with as much ease as paper; and as it is not necessary to ram home the charge, or prime the gun, until intended to be used, it may remain at all times in the gun, ready for service, without injury from wet or damp.[2]

In light of Jones’s interest in the subject, it would seem reasonable that he might have ordered the new cartridges into service, at least experimentally, after he took the reins of the Navy Department in 1813.  And yet, as noted before, we can find no evidence of their manufacture or use.

It is interesting to note that in the post war reports of British officers visiting the United States to review the state of the American Navy, not one of them mentioned lead cartridges.  They were quite enamored of new gun locks, dispart sights, boarding caps, improved rudder heads, and Chamber's repeating muskets and swivels, but not a one of them said anything of the use of lead cartridges.

[1] William James, The Naval History of Great Britain, vol. 6 (London: Harding, Lepard and Co., 1826), 148-149.
[2] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: A. Small, 1818), 137-145.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Marblehead Escape

Throughout the War of 1812, fortune smiled on Constitution. She handily bested her foes in battle, but she was also incredibly adroit at evading capture by superior forces.  At the very beginning of the war, her crew prevented the ship from falling victim to a large British squadron off New York.  Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of her second miraculous escape.  This time she was fortunate to have the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts under her lee.

After a thorough refit in Boston, Constitution slipped out to sea on the last day of December 1813 and headed for the West Indies.  Between the middle of January and the end of March, the ship captured only four vessels, including a 13-gun Royal Navy schooner. 

Before leaving Boston, Captain Charles Stewart installed some experimental iron provision tanks, but these had started to leak, spoiling much of the ship’s supply of beef.  In addition, the ship’s stem sprung a leak, making about 30 inches of water in 10 hours.  While chasing a Spanish schooner near Bermuda on March 19, the ship made a number of heavy pitches into steep seas and cracked the mainmast nearly its whole length.  Added to the ship’s problems, some of the crew developed scurvy.  In light of these issues, Stewart decided to return to the United States as soon as possible.

Constitution stayed well out to sea to avoid the British blockading squadron in Massachusetts Bay, and finally made landfall off Cape Ann on the evening of April 2, 1814.  The crew ran aloft to shorten sail, and the ship hovered off the coast until daylight on April 3.  Stewart first intended to sail for Portsmouth, NH, but the wind shifted to the north east, making Boston a better choice.  At 8 AM, the wind shifted round again to the north northwest and nearly died away.  At about the same time, the masthead lookouts spied two square-rigged vessels standing toward Constitution with a fresh breeze from the east- a breeze that had not yet reached the Americans.  Soon, the lookouts could tell that the ships were frigates, and the only frigates cruising in company in those waters had to be British.

In fact, they were HMS Tenedos and HMS Junon, two frigates rated to carry 38 guns, but actually armed with 46.  Together, they were more than a match for Constitution

Constitution’s unusual paint job initially perplexed the British crews.  Junon's Captain Clotworthy Upton afterwards wrote to Admiral Griffiths in Halifax, saying, “She was painted with a single Yellow Streak, black Stern, and her entire line so perfectly straight, that when her hull first rose above the Horizon, I could scarcely persuade myself she was more than a Corvette.”  As they drew closer, however, he could see she was one of the large American frigates:  “I know of no other Ship which would answer the description,” he wrote, “except President; that she is an American I have no doubt.”

The breeze no longer favored reaching Portsmouth, and if Constitution couldn’t weather Cape Ann and Thatcher Island, they’d be trapped in Ipswich Bay, with no safe haven under their lee.

At 9:15, with a light breeze, Stewart ordered all sail set and steered to the south.  The British ships continued to close quickly, still riding the easterly breeze toward shore.  As they got closer, Constitution’s seamen began to lighten the ship.  First they “started” the water by breaking down the water casks and pumping it overboard.  The broken staves and barrel hoops went in after. Spare yards stowed amidships were next, followed by some beef and pork.   With the ship settling too much by the stern, Stewart ordered 1500 gallons of rum pumped over the side- a true tragedy for the crew!

Jettisoning  the stores worked, because by 10:30 the officers could tell they were drawing away from the British.  The wind that carried the enemy inshore finally reached Constitution, and she slowly drew away from her pursuers.

A plate from Horace Kimball’s The Naval Battles of the United States in the Different Wars with Foreign Nations, 1857. The artist got the name of the second British ship wrong, and probably had never laid eyes on Marblehead.
Stewart and his crew now faced another dilemma.  Where there more British ships off the approaches to Boston Harbor?  If so, they’d be caught between the Tenedos and Junon and whatever waited for them to the south.  So, instead of risking a southerly course, Stewart headed for Salem, where he knew he could anchor in safety near the batteries protecting the town.

Unfortunately no one on board Constitution knew how to pilot a large ship into Salem Harbor.  Sailing a fishing smack among the rocks and ledges was one thing, but bringing in a 1900-ton warship was something else altogether.  Captain Stewart knew he had a large number of Marblehead seamen on board, and the battery at the mouth of Marblehead Harbor would probably deter the British from following him in.  He first asked Quartermaster Samuel Anderton to pilot the ship through the rocky channel, but Anderton thought Quartermaster Samuel Harris Green, who had sailed as a ship’s master out of the port, would be a more suitable choice.  Green, laid up from a leg injury suffered weeks earlier, hobbled on deck and directed the helmsmen.

At noontime, Constitution rounded Halfway Rock, and stood into Marblehead Harbor. Meanwhile, on shore, the whole countryside followed the chase.  At first, there was great consternation in Marblehead, when citizens saw three frigates under full sail bearing down on the town.  Many thought there were three British ships coming to attack them. Because the light wind came from astern, Constitution’s spanker - the aftermost gaff-rigged sail - blanketed her ensign.  Stewart must have sensed this, because he ordered a sailor to shimmy out to the peak of the gaff to clear the flag.  As soon as the people on shore saw the stars and stripes, they sent up a cheer, and the gunners at Fort Sewall, members of the 40th Regiment, US Infantry under the command of Captain John Bailey, shifted their aim from Constitution to the British ships.

A late 19th-century painting of Constitution's escape - somewhat more accurate.  US Navy Art Collection.

At 1:30 Constitution’s anchor splashed down in Marblehead Harbor.  The two British ships weren’t willing to risk sailing into unknown waters or face shore batteries, so they gave up the chase and stood about six miles offshore, where they hove too, waiting and watching.

Despite the guns of Fort Sewall, Stewart feared Marblehead’s defenses didn’t offer enough protection to his ship.  He thought the British might wait until nightfall to attack, and he wanted to put the ship in a more secure anchorage before they struck.  Luckily, at 4 PM the wind shifted to the south east.  Stewart seized the opportunity to sail around to Salem Harbor, where he’d be protected by the guns at Fort Pickering.  By now, he had a proper Salem pilot on board, Joseph Perkins, and at 5:30 the ship came to an anchor across from Crowninshield Wharf.

The local newspapers were happy to crow about the successful escape of their favorite frigate.  The Salem Gazette recounted the efforts of the local populace, and concluded that in Salem Harbor “she is considered in a state of security… her crew is in fine condition [excluding those with scurvy, presumably], and her safe return is hailed with joy.”  The Salem Register echoed these sentiments, saying, “she now triumphantly rides in safety to the great joy of our citizens, who felt so lively an interest in the welfare of this celebrated ship, and her gallant officers and crew.”  Report of the ship’s arrival in Marblehead reached Boston the same day, and the Boston Gazette claimed that if news of her getting safe into Salem had not reached town by Monday morning, “a force from 10 to 12,000 men with a considerable train of artillery would have been in Marblehead, to defend their favorite Constitution.”

After a week and half, the coast was clear and the ship made a quick passage down to Boston.  It would be another eight months before Constitution went to sea again.  This time, she’d fight and capture two ships at once, and then narrowly escape from yet another British squadron.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad four days

Seafaring was always a dangerous profession.  Open any logbook, and you’ll find a litany of drownings, falls, and other injuries afflicting a crew.  Except in extreme situations like shipwreck or battle, these misfortunes were separated by weeks or months.  But sometimes strange things happen without reason or explanation.  When you throw a set of angry young men with a high sense of personal honor into the mix, things turn deadly quickly.

The following article appeared in the New York Gazette about November 8, 1810, and promptly caught the eye of every newspaper editor north and south. [1]

The following extraordinary succession of calamities took place last month on board the U.S. Frigate Constitution, Capt. Hull, in the short space of four days.

While Capt. Hull was on shore at Sandy Hook, where the Frigate was lying at anchor, six names on paper were handed to the Commanding Officer for permission to go on shore- he marked four names as permitted, saying that all could not go. It so happened that he marked those of Morgan and Rodgers two midshipmen, between whom a duel took place at that time as mentioned in the papers, and their two seconds – the result of the duel it is known was the death of Rodgers, and Morgan wounded – the dead body was the same evening carried on board the Frigate, and the next day with the usual ceremonies buried on shore, while the procession of boats for this purpose were moving towards the shore, a man fell from the mast head of the frigate and was killed, in a quarter of an hour afterwards another fell from the same place and was so hurt that he died the next day; while they were lowering this wounded man into the cockpit another fell backwards into the cockpit and badly fractured his leg – the next day the frigate sailed for the Delaware, and the day after while she was going up the bay at a rate of ten knots an hour, a midshipman fell over board and was drowned, while the boats were lowering away to get to his relief, the stern boat with a pendant and three men in it was capsized and they were all immediately plunged into the water, from which there were with difficulty rescued by the surrounding boats.

By referring to the ship’s logbook and a series of letters between Isaac Hull, John Rodgers, and the Secretary of the Navy, we can confirm some of this unfortunate account.  On October 16, 1810 Lt. Alexander Scammel Wadsworth permitted Midshipmen Richard Rodgers, Charles W. Morgan, and Archibald Hamilton, and Surgeon’s Mate Samuel Gilliland to go ashore near Sandy Hook.  It was not unusual for the “young gentlemen” to stretch their legs, hunt, or explore the countryside.  Only this time, some slight or some irritating character trait had caused an irreparable rift between Rodgers and Morgan, and their only recourse, under the prevailing code of gentlemanly behavior, was to meet on the “field of honor.” Their “seconds,” Hamilton and Gilliland tried their hardest to prevent the meeting, but in the end they could not reconcile the parties.  With loaded pistols, the two midshipmen faced each other at twenty paces.  At the word from their seconds they fired at each other simultaneously.  Rodger’s ball grazed Morgan’s breast, but Morgan’s bullet killed Rodgers on the spot.

A cased pair of pistols by Alexander Wilson of London- just the thing for shooting one's fellow officers.  USS Constitution Museum Collection.

Normally, such conduct among officers resulted in a severe reprimand from the Secretary of the Navy, transferal to other stations or ships,  or even dismissal from the service, but in this case the duelists held the trump card.  Midshipman Archibald Hamilton was Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton’s son.  In his report of the incident, Commodore John Rodgers suggested that the three survivors should be returned to duty with only a reprimand.
Rodger’s body was prepared for burial on board Constitution, and on the 17th a party rowed it ashore for burial at Sandy Hook.  Oddly, the ship’s log makes no mention of the sailors who slipped and fell from the masthead, or the one who fell down the hatchway.  Unfortunately, the surgeon’s logs for this period no longer exist, so there is no way to confirm these injuries.
On October 20, as the ship stood into Delaware Bay, Midshipman Thomas S. Sprogle, who’d been aboard for only four months, stumbled off the main chains and fell into the water.  Poor Sprogle couldn’t swim, and even though a life buoy landed only a few feet from him, he sank almost immediately.  The log is again mysteriously silent about the accident with the stern boat, but since no lives or equipment was lost, this is understandable.

Had the newspaper reporters waited a few months, they’d have heard of yet more misfortunes from Constitution’s crew.  While leaving the Delaware at the beginning of December, Seaman Samuel Francis fell out of the mizzen shrouds, hit the mizzen chains, and plunged into the water, where he drowned (if he wasn’t already dead from the blow).  Once the ship cleared the Delaware Capes, and surging ahead at eight knots, Seaman Caleb Martin fell overboard.  He’d been helping to stow the anchor on the bows, and though the life buoys were again pitched to him, the wind carried them away from him faster than he could swim, and he ultimately drowned before he could be picked up by a boat.

Finally, on February 19, 1811, while the ship lay at anchor in New London, four midshipmen went ashore to fight yet another duel.  This time the combatants were Midshipmen Joseph Brailsford and Charles M. Fowle.  William Laughton and John Packet served as their seconds.  This time, the duel was not immediately deadly, but Fowle received a ball in his thigh.  Captain Hull, fed up with this kind of conduct, suspended all four from duty, and had them transferred from the ship.  Sadly, Fowle’s wound turned septic, and he died on March 13.

All in all, it had been a wretched five months on board Constitution.  And yet, in a year and a half, many of these same officers and men would distinguish themselves in battles with the British Navy.  That gave them all other outlets for their ardor.

[1] This version appeared in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Berkshire Reporter on Nov. 14, 1810.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Hot Shot

As the Royal Navy tightened its blockade of the American coast during 1813, US Navy captains searched for innovative ways to give American warships an advantage against superior numbers.  In Boston, Captain Charles Stewart, a life-long tinkerer, conceived of a portable furnace capable of quickly heating cannonballs to between 1200 and 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  The red-hot balls might be fired at a pursuing warship; if they stuck in its timbers, they could quickly ignite dry, tarry, painted wood.

On December 5, 1813 Stewart outlined his concept for the Secretary of the Navy:
I have constructed a portable sheet iron furnace for heating red hot shot of the following dimentions [sic] which would answer as well for land service as sea service    Lenth [sic] 3 feet depth 3 feet width 18 inches, it heated 21 shot 24 lbs. in 22 minutes with a pine wood fire.  The construction of the pipe is such as gives it a great draught.  from its dimentions [sic] you can readily conceive it occupies little room, and is calculated to set to the back part of our Galley where it interferes with nothing    My purpose is only to use it against the enemys [sic] ships of such force as would render our safety precarious, (if we cannot otherwise escape,) by bringing them under our stern battery and firing a few red hot ball in their hull.  They are not very expensive and all our frigates haveing [sic] them, the use of which might facilitate their escape from a superior force by the confusion they would be thrown into, if not the destruction of an enemy that is not disposed to contend with us on fair and equal terms. [1]
According to Stewart, nothing could be more effective at extricating a ship from a tight spot than a few hot shot fired from the ship’s stern chasers.  His idea was not wholly original.   Shore batteries often employed this tactic during the period, but the process was generally considered too dangerous for shipboard use.  The problems of heating and transporting super-heated shot from furnace to gun, and then loading the gun without the powder charge going off prematurely, speak for themselves.   Nevertheless, Secretary Jones seemed intrigued by the idea, and twenty days later (what a Christmas present!) Stewart forwarded a model of his invention to Washington:
Herewith you will receive a model of the furnace for heating red hot shots  The fronts [sic] of tin are to be made of thick sheat [sic] iron riveted together as the dots represent, the grates of strong bar iron which is represented by wood, the pan of tin goes under to received the ashes and coals that fall.  the construction of the drauft [sic] pipe is the most important.
This model is made on a scale of one and a half inches to the foot and represents exactly the one made for the Ship.  The shot is placed on the upper grate and the fire wood on the lower.  they are verry [sic] portable and  would answer for Gunboats.[2] 
By this point, the full-scale prototype had already been installed on board Constitution.  On December 18, Navy Agent Amos Binney paid $294.34 to George Darracott of Boston.  The bill enumerates the items purchased: “1 Furnace for heating Shot 467lbs,” “Grates and Frame,” “1 p[ai]r Shot Tongs,” “1 Shot Ladle,” and “30 lbs Sheet Iron.” [3]

How did the crew use this apparatus?  Typically a furnace needed at least two men to run it.  One stoked the fire while the other added balls.  They coaxed a red-hot shot out of the furnace with the iron tongs, and used the shot ladle to carry it to a gun.  The men performed this operation in haste, so that the ball did not cool off before it was loaded in the gun.  Yet, loading a red-hot iron ball on top of a powder charge contained in a flannel bag was a delicate operation.  Generally, cartridges were double-bagged to prevent loose powder from straying into the bore during the loading process.  Once the gun crew rammed home the cartridge, they seated a wet wad, consisting of loosely bundled junk (picked-apart rope), on top.  The wad formed a barrier between the cartridge and the ball.  The gun crew rammed down the ball, rammed another wad on top, and in quick succession ran out the gun, pointed, and fired.  With luck, the shot lodged in the timbers of an enemy ship where its crew could not get to it, and set the ship on fire.

So far, we've never found evidence of Constitution or other American ships using the furnaces in combat.   The British were well aware of them, however.  A Dutch informant in New London, Connecticut told Captain Nash of HMS Saturn that it was “generally understood in the United States all the American Ships of War are now fitted with furnaces for heating Shot; and…the same person knows it to be the case with the Frigate Constitution.” [4]

[1] Charles Stewart to SecNav, 5 Dec. 1813, Captains Letters to the Secretary of the Navy, M125, Roll 33.
[2] Charles Stewart to SecNav, 25 Dec. 1813, Captains Letters to the Secretary of the Navy, M125, Roll 33.
[3] George Daracott voucher, 18 Dec. 1813, in Amos Binney Settled Accounts, 4th Auditor of the Treasury Alphabetical Series, RG 217, box 38, NARA.
[4]Henry Hotham to Admiral Cochrane, 14 Nov. 1814, F. I. Cochrane Papers, National Library of Scotland, MS2337, fol. 125.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Gun by Any Other Name

One of the more charming human traits of long standing is our penchant for naming inanimate objects that play important roles in our lives. We name our boats, our cars, and our houses.  Psychologists will have much to say about this, no doubt, but it seems we anthropomorphize things to establish a relationship, transforming a commodity into something almost human.

American sailors of the early nineteenth century evinced the same predilection, only in their case they named the cannons they served in battle.  On board ship, the crew was divided into two different social groups.  Seamen ate together and socialized in messes.  But when the drumbeat called them to battle stations, or “quarters,” they fought as members of a gun crew.  On the large frigates, as many as fourteen men struggled to load, fire, run in, and run out a three-ton behemoth of iron and oak.  Such labor, and the careful attention it took by all involved to prevent deadly accidents, must have created a connection between the men and their particular cannon.

And so they named their guns.  Some names were humorous or playful.  Others celebrated American heroes or political ideals. Still others played up the deadly nature of the gun. 

Folk traditions, commonplace practices or superstitions, are notoriously hard to resurrect.  Frequently they pass away unnoticed, but in this case, the sailor names got memorialized by official Navy documents.

An 1811 watch and quarter bill for the frigate United States (now at the Library of Congress) gives the names of her guns, including some unwarlike sobriquets: Long Nose Nancy, Brother Jonathan, Jumping Billy, Happy Jack, and Hog and Hommany [sic]. [1]

After HMS Shannon captured USS Chesapeake off Boston Light on June 1, 1813, the British took her to Halifax, where Royal Navy officers came to examine the first of the American frigates taken in the war.  Historian William James, in his 1817 book on the war, had this to say:

The Chesapeake's guns had all names, engraven on small squares of copper-plate. To give some idea of American taste in these matters, here follow the names of her guns upon one broadside: - Main-deck; "Brother Jonathan, True Blue, Yankee Protection, Putnam, Raging Eagle, Viper, General Warren, Mad Anthony, America, Washington, Liberty for Ever, Dreadnought, Defiance, Liberty or Death.” - Forecastle; "United Tars," shifting 18-pounder, "Jumping Billy, Ratler," carronades. Quarter-deck; "Bull-dog, Spitfire, Nancy Dawson, Revenge, Bunker's Hill, Pocohantas, Towser, Wilful Murder," carronades; total 25. [2]

Perhaps the most touching evidence for this practice among American seamen can be found in the USS Constitution Museum’s collection.  In 1813 or 1814, the Bible Society at Princeton University presented the sailors of USS President with a number of bibles.  The sailors took the books, carefully wrapped the covers in duck cloth, and in this case lettered the word “Montgomery” on the front.

The Montgomery Bible from the frigate President. USS Constitution Museum collection, photo by David Bohl.
When we open the cover, we find the flyleaf inscribed with the following:
 “Be it known that this Bible was taken from the Montgomery gun of the President Frigate where it was slung to the carriage of the said gun.  It was taken by William Clark from where it hung after the engagement with the said Frigate, in December 1814 [sic].  He being master at arms and one of those that boarded the said President Frigate and as a further explanation, every gun of the said Frigate was named after some general or patriot of the United States and there was a Bible slung to the carriage of each gun and had the same name marked on the cover.  This Bible was kept by me in remembrance of my brother the said William Clark, who departed this life in January 1819.  Charles Clark.” 

The frigate President, commanded by Stephen Decatur, sailed from New York on the night of January 14, 1815.  The next day, a British squadron composed of four frigates chased and then beat the American ship into submission.   William Clark, Master-at-Arms on board HMS Tenedos or Pomone, was among those who boarded the defeated vessel.  He removed this bible from the gun named for General Richard Montgomery, who fell during the American attack on Quebec in December 1775.  While the book corroborates other evidence that guns on American warships were named by their crews, it also speaks to the religious feeling of seamen.  It has been said that “there are no Sundays off soundings,” meaning at sea, few sailors adhered to the strictures of religious teaching.   Indeed, seamen were notorious for being profanely irreligious.  The Reverend Edward Mangin, chaplain of HMS Gloucester in 1812 wrote that “nothing can possibly be more unsuitably or more awkwardly situated than a clergyman in a ship of war; every object around him is at variance with the sensibilities of a rational and enlightened mind.”  This bible would seem to be at odds with these sentiments.  Tucked into the cheekpiece of the gun’s carriage, we can imagine the gun crew reading from it during the long, tense hours of the chase.  Even if they never cracked the covers, the bible’s presence on the engine of destruction turned the book into a sort of talisman, a charm to ward off evil and a promise of salvation should the worst happen.

If sailors on United States, President, and Chesapeake all named their guns, it is a good bet that Constitution’s seamen did to.  To date, we’ve never found any record of the names they might have given them, besides an example scratched on a powder horn that belonged to the ship's gunner in the 1820s.  The names currently painted on plaques over the ship’s guns seem to have come from those given to the United States’ and Chesapeake’s.

Detail of the horn scrimshawed by Constitution Gunner John Lord, probably between 1824 and 1828. The 24 pounder is named "Big Will."  USS Constitution Museum collection.

[1] Quoted in Ira Dye, The Fatal Cruise of the Argus (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 77.
[2] William James, A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the Late War Between Great Britain and the United States of America (London: T. Egerton, 1817), 232.

Friday, February 28, 2014

All the Comforts of Home

In the early nineteenth century, the terms naval officer and gentleman were synonymous.  Acting like a gentleman was one thing, but he had to also live like one.  Snowy linen shirts, clean trousers, and polished boots were only one part of the equation.  A man’s living quarters had to reflect his status as well.

A document sent to Commodore Edward Preble while outfitting Constitution in 1803 gives us a glimpse of the sort of surroundings a high-ranking naval officer enjoyed while engaged in active service. [1]

We can divide the items in the list into three categories; items for table service, items for food preparation, and furnishings. 

An officer of Preble’s standing expected to entertain his own officers, politicians, and foreign dignitaries with style and hospitality.  An elegant table setting did much to reinforce his own importance and did honor to the flag.  Judging from the number of chairs and place settings supplied, the commodore could expect as many as a dozen guests at a time.

First and foremost, guests had to sit a clean table.  Two pewter wash “basons” and two pitchers encouraged pre-meal hand washing.  Two dozen table cloths and two dozen napkins presented a snowy array of linen to the visitor.  Beneath the cloths were laid rectangles of green baize to protect the tables’ surface.

For serving tea and coffee, the cabin stewards had two tea kettles, a set of tea china (as well as a dozen “common cups & saucers”), a dozen sterling silver teaspoons and a half dozen silver plated.[2]

Issac Hull's silver teaspoon.
Preble was no teetotaler, and the customs of the day encouraged men to drink heavily.  They poured their wine from three decanters and drank it from four dozen wine glasses.  For beer (and Preble brought 324 gallons with him to sea) there were four dozen glass tumblers.  There were also a dozen “mugs,” but it’s hard to say if Preble and his fellows used them for hot or cold beverages.

A decanter used in Constitution's wardroom, ca, 1825-1835.  The stopper is replaced.  Photo by David Bohl.

The table furnishings, while perfectly acceptable and equal to the task, lacked a certain refinement one might have seen in the best homes on land.  For one, the salvers, bread baskets, and pitcher were only made of japanned tin.  The list of ceramics, while not delineated as such, were probably plain, undecorated creamware.  Liable to breakage in the rough and tumble conditions of a warship, the Navy supplied a super-abundance of dishes: six dozen “flat plates”, three dozen soup plates, 2 ½ dozen small desert plates, and a woefully unspecific “1 ½ doz small Dishes.”  Diners used silver plate soup ladles to slop soups and sauces to their dishes and devoured them using two dozen plated table spoons.

A selection of undecorated creamware from the so-called "Mardi Gras" shipwreck.
They passed condiments around using the half dozen “salts,” butter boats, and the set of castors.

When it came to preparing food for the captain, Cook James Brumade and the cabin steward had a kitchen’s worth of pots, pans and instruments at their disposal. [3]  Two iron pots (with pot hooks), a griddle, and three frying pans let them cook up just about anything the Commodore could desire.  There were 12 stew and sauce pans, and even a “tin kitchen,” a shiny reflector for roasting meat.  An iron ladle, a dozen skewers, a skimmer, and pair of “tormentors,” or large flesh forks, helped with turning and serving the dishes.  A cheese toaster, รก la Patrick O’Brian’s Killick and Jack Aubrey, provided a hot snack.

The cooks could bake a mean pie or cake in the iron Dutch oven.  A dozen tin “patty pans” and two tin pudding pans gave them forms for doing it.  Preble and his guest could never have their cakes or puddings without tea and coffee.  Besides the assorted tin canisters for holding leaves and beans and sugar, the cabin outfit included a coffee mill.  One “filtering Stone,” a porous piece of rock long used to remove impurities from drinking water, removed some of the bad odor from the ship’s water.

A detail of Charles Ware's deck plan of USS United States showing the layout of the cabins.  While no plan of Constitution's cabin has survived, it is likely her's were similar.  Note the curved wall or bulkhead of the after cabin, a popular Federal-era design element.
The captain’s two cabins might have lacked the interior finishes of an expensive house ashore, but at least the furnishings enlivened the Spartan surroundings.  First of all, it was brilliantly lit.  Besides the stern gallery windows that flooded the after cabin with dancing sunlight and the light that came in through the gun ports in the forward cabin, Preble’s space was filled with artificial lighting devices.  Six candlesticks probably graced the dining table, but he could also fire up four “patent lamps” and one “globe lamp”, which very well may have been the new Argand oil lamps capable of producing as much light as nine wax candles each.  Two pairs of snuffers and tongs kept the wicks burning well and made them easy to light by carrying a coal from the cabin stove.

If Preble wanted to block out the sunlight while he retired to his “cott,” he could draw a set of “stern curtains” across the windows.  Visitors might be asked to sit on one of two “setters with squabs,” that is, settees or couches with cushions.[4]  A small carpet gave Preble something to sink his toes into, and if he wanted to check the set of his cravat or the arrangement of his comb over before venturing onto the quarterdeck, he had a looking glass at his disposal.

Some officers must have considered life at sea a hardship, at least as far as creature comforts were concerned.  And yet, as this list of cabin furniture for Constitution demonstrates, they had most of the essential comforts of home at their disposal.  Many a common sailor would have killed for similar quarters.

[1] “List of Cabin furniture allowed the Frigate Constitution,” 5 July 1803, in Letters to Officers of Ships of War, M149, vol. 6, NARA.
[2] The 1818 Rules, Regulations and Instructions for the Naval Service of the United States orders that “no articles of silver plate for the use of the cabin are to be furnished at the expense of the United States.”
[3] We don’t know if Com. Preble had a man designated to cook for the cabin.  The ship’s muster rolls of the period are silent on the matter.
[4]  The terms “setter” and “squab” appear to have been regional and common in the south.  Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, who ordered this list, was from Pennsylvania, but the wording might have been inserted by one of his clerks.  For more on these terms, see:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Freedom by Positive Proof: Two Tales of Sailors in the Old South

Inhumanity often hides behind the law.  It wraps itself in a comforting blanket of bland legal language, and hopes no one will notice it’s there.

The recent resurgence of Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave, fueled by the release of the popular movie of the same name, has brought Americans once again face to face with the insidious qualities of “our peculiar institution.”  Born free in New York, Northup was lured south to Washington, DC, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana.  He eventually regained his freedom after extraordinary measures, but after lengthy legal proceedings, he was unable to bring his kidnappers to account.  A black man could not testify against a white man in Washington, and the New York courts failed to prosecute them.

Perhaps his tale might be easier to bear if it were an isolated incident. And yet, his story is just the tip of a horrifying iceberg.  Thousands of free born men, women and children suffered the same fate in the four score years between the end of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Two former members of Constitution’s crew faced the same ordeal, but their stories had even less satisfactory resolutions.

David Debias was born on the back side of Boston’s Beacon Hill in 1806. This was the town’s most diverse neighborhood in the early nineteenth century, but also the poorest. On December 17, 1814, Debias’s father enlisted him in the Navy and sent him on board Constitution. Scarcely eight years old, David was rated a boy and assigned as a servant to Master’s Mate Nathaniel G. Leighton. He was discharged and paid off in July 1815. His father collected his pay - for seven months service he received $31.98.

With several years of sailing experience under his belt, Debias joined the merchant fleet. In 1821, he enlisted in the Navy again, and once again sailed in Constitution, this time to the Mediterranean Sea. He returned to the U.S. in 1824 and reentered the merchant service. In 1838, he left his ship in Mobile, Alabama.  We don’t know his motivations for leaving the docks.  Surely he must have known the dangers facing a free person of color in the south. 

Detained as a runaway slave in Winchester, Mississippi, Debias’s plight caught the attention of a local lawyer named Thomas Falconer. Convinced by his story that Debias was a free man, Falconer wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, seeking proof of his naval service. The Secretary complied with Falconer’s request and sent an outline of Debias’s service, but because the local courthouse burned later in the nineteenth century we have no record of his fate.

Ordinary Seaman Henry Jackson had a more maddening experience with southern courts.  Born free in Washington, DC about 1812, he was “put under the protection and in the service of lieutenant Delany” by his sister when he was eight or ten years old.  The identity of this Delany is in question, since there was no man by that name in the Navy Register for this period, but it was probably Marine Lt. William Dulaney.  Both Dulaney and Jackson reported for duty on board Constitution at Port Mahon, Minorca on December 3, 1825.  Jackson is listed as an “idler” in the ship’s station bills, meaning he stood no regular watch.  This suggests that he did act as a servant to Dulaney, and he also fulfilled a number of unskilled tasks when the ship got underway, changed tack, or cleared for action.

Jackson was discharged from the ship in July 1828 and returned to Washington.  “Shortly after he was clandestinely, forcibly, and fraudulently sent to New Orleans by the said lieutenant Delany… and sold as a slave.”  Such a duplicitous act hardly seems worthy of a man praised by Congress for his “conspicuous gallantry and untiring energy and devotion,” but such was the reality of the situation.  In a desperate bid to secure his freedom, Jackson sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy in 1835 requesting verification of his naval service.  As in Debias’s case, the Secretary obliged, but the documentation was not sufficient to secure his release. 

In 1838, the case finally came before a New Orleans jury, but predictably they found in favor of the defendant, Henry Dunbar Bridges.  Jackson appealed the decision and the Louisiana Supreme Court heard his case in 1841.  For a man like Jackson, there would be no justice under the law of the land.  The court ruled that he had failed to show he was born free or had been emancipated.  The testimony of shipmates, who considered him free, and of the Secretary of the Navy, who said no slaves were ever “engaged or received on board of vessels belonging to the United States,” were not sufficient evidence.  According to the court’s ruling, their testimony “shows the belief which existed in the minds of these witnesses that the plaintiff was free, but leaves us uninformed as to the evidence or grounds on which this belief rested; nor is it shown that the plaintiff has been in the possession of his freedom during the time, and under the circumstances, required by law to entitle him to it by prescription.  Nothing that we can see in this record makes it our duty to interfere with the verdict of the jury.”

How could a man fight a system where all the cards were stacked against him?  Sold into slavery by the very person he served, denied the dignity of a veteran, and converted into private property by a court system that could only see the color of his skin, Henry Jackson slips out of history after that final ruling.  We like to think he escaped and made his way home, but it is likely he perished in the cane fields of Louisiana.