Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Victorious September

The second week of September 1814 was an ominous time for the United States.  The public buildings at Washington, including the Capitol, White House, Treasury, and Navy Yard lay in ashes, and the British had set their sights on the commercial city of Baltimore.  According to British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who commanded the British fleet in the Chesapeake, Americans “like Spaniels … must be treated with great severity before you ever make them tractable.”  And so he wished to destroy Baltimore, “the most democratic town &I believe the richest in the Country.”

No longer in doubt as to the capabilities of the British Army and Navy, the citizens of Baltimore, state militia, and US Navy sailors worked day and night to fortify the approaches to the city.  By the 12th of September, they’d made the town a tough nut to crack.  A star-shaped bastion called Fort McHenry, strategically placed at the entrance to the northwest branch of the Patapsco River and the inner harbor, formed the centerpiece of a string of forts and batteries designed to turn back even the most determined attack.

"A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry," a 1905 reprint of an 1819 print depicting the British attack on Baltimore.  Library of Congress.
As we know, despite a land attack from the east and a naval bombardment, during which they hurled almost 2000 bomb shells and 800 rockets at Fort McHenry, the British failed to breech the defenses and retired down the bay without taking the town. According to American Lt. Henry Newcomb, who commanded a contingent of US Navy sailors at one of the batteries west of Fort McHenry, “the seamen were extremely indignant that the enemy fought no longer.”

Meanwhile, 500 miles to the north, American seamen faced another onslaught from a combined British army and navy attack.  In the late summer, a British force of 10,000 under the command of General Sir George Prevost moved down the Champlain Valley, intent on invading the United States.  A British fleet had been assembled in the upper reaches of the lake, and its commander George Downie, was tasked with gaining control of Lake Champlain and protecting the army’s flank and supply lines. 

Facing this large force was Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, with 3,000 American soldiers at Plattsburgh, NY.  On Lake Champlain, Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough had a sloop-of-war, a schooner, two brigs and 12 gunboats at his command.  The ships arrived at Plattsburgh on September 3.

On September 11 Downie’s fleet, delayed by outfitting the frigate Confiance, finally caught up with Prevost’s army, then near Plattsburgh.  MacDonough had cleverly moored his ships bow to stern across the entrance to Plattsburgh (or Cumberland) Bay.  The crews ran “springs” or heavy cables from the ships’ sterns to the anchors forward.  By hauling in on these spring lines, the men could turn the ships’ broadsides in a wide arc. 

About 9 AM the British came round Cumberland Head and anchored opposite the American line.  A little before 10 AM the battle began in earnest.   The fierce battle proved destructive to both ships and men.  Early in the action, an American cannonball struck the muzzle of a gun on the Confiance, knocking it from its carriage and against Downie’s groin.  A later account described the condition of his body: "His skin was not broken, a black mark about the size of a small plate was the only visible injury. His watch was found flattened, with its hands pointing to the very second at which he received the fatal blow."

A contemporary print of the Battle of Plattsburgh.  In the foreground, the American Army turns back the British attach, while the background, MacDonough's fleet battles Downie's.
MacDonough’s report to the Secretary of the Navy gives testimony to the fierceness of the action:  “[T]here was not a Mast in either squadron that could stand to make sail on; the lower rigging, being nearly all shot away, hung down as though it had been just placed over the mastheads…. The Saratoga had Fifty five round Shot in her Hull- the Confiance One hundred & five. – The Enemy’s shot passed principally just over our heads, as there were not 20 whole hammocks in the nettings at the close of the action.”

A Midshipman Lee of the Confiance described the conditions on the British ships: "The havoc on both sides is dreadful. I don't think there are more than five of our men out of three hundred but what are killed or wounded. Never was a shower of hail so thick as the shot whistling about our ears. Were you to see my jacket, waistcoat and trousers, you would be astonished how I escaped as I did, for they are literally torn all to rags with shot and splinters; the upper part of my hat was also shot away. There is one of our marines who was in the Trafalgar action with Lord Nelson who says it was a mere flea-bite in comparison with this."

With their crews decimated and sails and rigging shot away, the British vessels surrendered one by one.  A number of the gunboats pulled away from the battle and escaped, but in the end it was a decisive victory for the Americans.  In imitation of Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous “We have met the enemy” message after the Battle of Lake Erie, MacDonough wrote a short message to the Secretary of the Navy announcing his victory:

“The Almighty has been pleased to Grant us a signal victory on Lake Champlain in the capture of one Frigate, one Brig, and two sloops of war of the enemy.”

The victories at Baltimore and Plattsburgh not only secured the safety of the respective regions, but they denied the British a bargaining chip in the ongoing peace negotiations at Ghent.  British territorial gains were minimized, and therefore could not be used to gain concessions from American negotiators.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Another Old Ironsides

Today marks the anniversary of the Constitution’s victory over the British frigate Guerriere on the ever-memorable 19th of August 1812.  As naval history aficionados everywhere know, during the battle, sailors witnessed British cannon balls rebounding from Constitution’s thick oaken sides.  With a shout  - “Huzza, her sides are made of iron!” - an enduring nickname was born.  And while the sobriquet “Old Ironsides” will always be connected to our frigate, it turns out the name was not a particularly original one.

In fact, there was an “Old Ironsides” before Constitution, and she was British.

The Battle of Trafalgar (Oct. 21, 1805), was a massive engagement between a Royal Navy fleet under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson and the combined Spanish and French fleets under Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. In an 1806 account of the battle we read about HMS Britannia’s role in the fight:

The Britannia (Old Ironsides, as our brave sailors call her) certainly did no discredit to the name she bears…[1]

A slightly later account of the battle repeats the name:

The Earl of Northesk, who was third in command, greatly distinguished himself on this memorable day.  His ship, the Britannia, (which was facetiously called by the sailors Old Ironsides,) broke through the enemy's line, a-stern of the fourteenth ship.[2]

This Britannia was the third ship of the name to serve in the Royal Navy.  A first-rate ship-of-the-line mounting 100 guns, she was launched at Portsmouth, England in 1762.  She sailed to the relief of Gibraltar (when besieged by the Spanish) in 1782.  She fought at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797.  Placed back in commission in 1803, she served as the flagship of William Carnegie, 7th Earl of Northesk at Trafalgar.[3]


Sheer plan and half-breadth of HMS Britannia (1762)- the first "Old Ironsides."  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

We don't know if there was a pivitol moment in the heat of some battle during which Britannia became "Old Ironsides."  She was a massively strong and heavily-built ship, and quite aged by 1805. These traits alone could have made her into "Ironsides."

According to the ship’s muster rolls, there were eighteen Americans serving in Britannia’s crew in October 1805.[4] And according to Guerriere’s Lt. Bartholomew Kent, at least seventeen of Constitution’s gun captains had served in the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.[5]  Could one of these men have served on HMS Britannia, and applied his former ship’s nickname to his new one?  If so, it is fitting he did so on the very day when Britannia no longer (entirely) ruled the waves.

[1] Archibald Duncan, The British Trident; or, Register of Naval Actions, Vol. V (London: James Cundee, 1806), 43.
[2] John James M’Gregor, History of the French Revolution, and of the Wars Resulting from that Memorable Event, Vol. VIII (London:  G.B. Whittaker, 1828), 93-94.
[3] Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, Vol XXI, No. 113 (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1905), 210.
[4] Edward Fraser, Champions of the Fleet, Captains and Men-of-War and Days that Helped to Make the Empire (London: John Lane, 1908), 283.
[5] “Record of the Court Martial of Captain James Richard Dacres, Jr., Late Commander of HMS Guerriere,” Public Records Office, ADM 1/5431.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Live Oaking In Eight Easy Steps

Congratulations, the United States government has accepted your proposal to supply the Navy with live oak for the frames of its new ships for $.75 per cubic foot.  Each ship requires about 30,000 cubic feet of timber, so in theory this should be a profitable venture for you.  The live oak the Navy requires grows principally along the coast of the southern states.  Hopefully, you own an island or two on the coast of Georgia- or have made friends with those who do.  Thanks to Mr. Eli Whitney’s new cotton gin, cotton cultivation and slave labor are more profitable than ever before.  All those stately live oak trees stand in the way of cotton fields.  As your friend has said, “The crops of cotton are so abundant this year, and the price so high, that in two years from this, there will not be a Forest of Live Oak standing in Georgia- except what is bought up by the Government.”[1]  Sounds like you’ve started this venture at just the right moment!

You will no doubt encounter “many various and extensive difficulties,” which you cannot possibly foresee at the time you enter into this contract with the government.[2] Yet, by following these eight easy steps, you’ll have a shot at success.

1. Send your agent to Boston, New London, or some other New England seaport to hire scores of workmen (carpenters, axe men, moulders, and hewers).  Advertise in the newspapers- Yankees love to read. Procure oxen and provisions (rum, pork, beef, bread, rice, butter, cheese, and molasses). As for the rum, buy “the cheapest kind…with which [they] will satisfied.”[3] 

An advertisement for axe men and ship carpenters to cut live oak, from the Connecticut Gazette, 26 June 1794.
2. New Englanders won’t work in the south during the summer.  You must ensure that they arrive in the fall or early winter so they can cut timber the longest period before the real heat sets in.  If you must augment your cutting gangs in the hot days of summer, you might hire slaves from the local plantations.  Thomas Spalding and John Couper have been obliging in the past.

3. Beg, cajole, or threaten the naval constructor in Philadelphia to finish and send on the wooden moulds, or patterns, by which your men will cut each piece of timber.  Without the moulds, it is impossible to know what size and shape each piece should be.  If you must cut timber without the moulds, be prepared for the inevitable waste.

4. Supply each head carpenter with a book containing a “descriptive list of the Timber to be cut by the Gang of workmen under his direction.”[4]  The carpenter will “enter each stick of Timber” as it is cut, and when they return from the woods make a proper entry in your books of the quantity.

5. It would be nice if all the timber you need could be found within a circle of fifty miles, but most likely you’ll have to send cutting gangs to Florida, and all along the coast of Georgia, and far into South Carolina.  You’ll have to pile the timber at fifty or sixty different landing places, and at each of these places you must make camps for the workmen, cut new roads, and transport all the moulds, provisions, oxen, and wheels for hauling timber.[5]

A timber wain for hauling logs, by William Pyne, ca. 1800.
6.  Be aware that your axe men will need a great deal of time and energy to fell a massive live oak.  Here is the labor intensive process:  “[T]wo [axe men] have stationed themselves on the opposite sides of the trunk of a noble and venerable live-oak. Their keen-edged and well-tempered axes seem to make no impression on it, so small are the chips that drop at each blow around the mossy and wide-spreading roots. There, one is ascending the stem of another, of which, in its fall, the arms have stuck among the tangled tops of the neighboring trees. See how cautiously he proceeds, barefooted, and with a handkerchief around his head. Now he has climbed to the height of about forty feet from the ground; he stops, and squaring himself with the trunk on which he so boldly stands, he wields with sinewy arms his trusty blade, the repeated blows of which, although the tree be as tough as it is large, will soon sever it in two. He has changed sides, and his back is turned to you. The trunk now remains connected only by a thin strip of wood. He places his feet on the part which is lodged, and shakes it with all his might. Now swings the huge log under his leaps, now it suddenly gives way, and as it strikes upon the ground its echoes are repeated through the hummock, and every Wild Turkey within hearing utters his gobble of recognition. The wood-cutter however, remains collected and composed; but the next moment, he throws his axe to the ground, and, assisted by the nearest grapevine, slides down and reaches the earth in an instant.
    Several men approach and examine the prostrate trunk. They cut at both its extremities, and sound the whole of its bark, to enable them to judge if the tree has been attacked by the white rot. If such has unfortunately been the case, there, for a century or more, this huge log will remain until it gradually crumbles; but if not, and if it is free of injury or "wind-shakes," while there is no appearance of the sap having already ascended, and its pores are altogether sound, they proceed to take its measurement. Its shape ascertained, and the timber that is fit for use laid out by the aid of models, which, like fragments of the skeleton of a ship, show the forms and sizes required, the ‘hewers’ commence their labors.” [6]

The mighty live oak, Quercus virginiana.
 7. Get the government inspector to inspect all the cut timber at the landings as soon as possible.  By no means let it sit out all season exposed to the rain and sun, or else you will end up with great cracks and fissures that will render even the largest pieces useless.

8.  Submit your accounts and wait many months or years before you finally get paid what you are due for the unrelenting labor and huge amounts of your own cash you have expended to fulfill your contract. In the end, if you are lucky, you might have made some money!


[1] Ebenezer Jackson to Benjamin Stoddert, 5 December 1799, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[2] “Interrogatories to Ebenezer Jackson, Esquire former Navy Agent for the State of Georgia,…” 1 Feb. 1805, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[3] Ibid.  See also Virginia Steele Wood, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981), 26.
[4] Interrogatories to Ray Sands, 25 January 1805, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[5] Ebenezer Jackson to Benjamin Stoddert, 7 April 1801 , in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[6] Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals, vol. 2 (London: John C. Nimmo, 1898), 328-329.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rehearsal Aboard Old Ironsides



 This week, Log Lines is pleased to feature a guest post by Mary Isbell.  Mary is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of First-Year Writing at the University of New Haven. She planned a theatrical production aboard USS Constitution this past year during her appointment as a Postdoctoral Associate in Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale University. She has directed one other shipboard performance, a 2012 production of John Till Allingham's farce, The Weathercock, aboard US Brig Niagara, a replica of the 1813 square-rigged sailing warship that fought at the Battle of Lake Erie.
Think not, you play-goers and lovers of the drama, although a wide waste of waters separates us from those shores where histrionic representations are cherished and admired as they ought to be by all classes, that the inmates of our gallant ship are debarred the pleasures derived from witnessing the heroes of the sock and buskin “tread the boards;” no such a thing. Be it known to you, gentle reader, that amongst our jolly lads we have several who in by-gone days have “strutted their brief hour,” and who, to gratify their three years’ associates, voluntarily came forward to lend their humble aid towards dispelling the dull monotony by which we are surrounded; and the quarter-deck of our trim old frigate, can in a few short hours, as if by the wand of an enchanter, be transformed into a little theatre, which would not be looked on slightingly even by those who are wont to gaze upon the gorgeous decorations of the Bowery or Park. 
                                                          --Henry James Mercier, Life in a Man-of-War
The Playbill
One of many firsthand accounts of theatricals aboard nineteenth-century ships, Life in a Man-of-War recounts a series of performances given by sailors aboard USS Constitution while harbored in Callao, Peru. I learned about this firsthand narrative while researching Herman Melville’s account of a shipboard theatrical in White-Jacket (1850), which--it turns out--is a fictionalized version of Mercier’s account (Huntress 73). In Melville’s telling, the commanding officer of the Neversink, Captain Claret, begrudgingly allows the performance of an original play to celebrate the Fourth of July as the ship approaches the dangerous waters off Cape Horn, only after scanning the play for anything “calculated to breed disaffection against lawful authority” (NN WJ 93). Although the dramatic text passes Claret’s censorship, the performance conjures a “terrific commotion” from the audience that made “all discipline” seem “gone forever” (94). As I argue elsewhere, Melville offers a thrilling fiction that associates performance with danger by appropriating Mercier’s account of performances mounted aboard USS Constitution.

Inspired by this research, I requested permission to stage, with students enrolled in a course at Yale called “Theater and the Sea,” a production inspired by the performances documented in Mercier’s narrative. I was delighted when the commanding officer of the Constitution, CDR Sean D. Kearns, responded with enthusiasm to the idea. The seminar introduced students to the history of nautical drama (including Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, Eugene O’Neill’s sea plays, Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno, and Moby-Dick, the opera). We also spent considerable time studying the history of plays performed by sailors at sea. Students prepared production histories on plays that sailors performed, and their research informed the play we wrote together.

We considered many possibilities for our production over the course of the semester. We thought of staging one of the plays, reconstructing how sails and the ship’s rigging might have been used to construct a makeshift theater on the quarterdeck. While this is still a very tempting idea (and a larger production in the future might provide such an opportunity) we decided that we were most interested in imagining what it would have been like for sailors to rehearse in various places around the vessel. We drew inspiration from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play Our Country’s Good (1988), a theatrical adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker (1987). The play and novel imagine a 1789 performance of George Farquar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) in the early days of the Sydney Cove penal colony. Requested by the Governor, the performance was directed by the second lieutenant of the convict ship and the performers were convicts. My students and I were most struck by the way the convicts discussed particular lines from The Recruiting Officer during rehearsals, and we began exploring how lines in the plays performed aboard the Constitution (a farce, tragedy, and melodrama) might have resonated with the sailors performing them.

Instead of rehearsal building toward the performance of one play, then, we imagined preparations for three different plays, representing very different genres popular in the nineteenth century. The plays Mercier mentions are all British plays that had been performed in American theaters in the 1830s. The bill for the ship’s first production included John Banim’s 1821 tragedy, Damon and Pythias, and David Garrick’s 1841 farce, The Lying Valet. Just one week after the debut, the dramatic club offered the 1819 melodrama, The Ruffian Boy, “by particular request of the officers,” and repeated the Lying Valet. Significantly, Mercier emphasizes that officers requested the play, which would have given it a vote of confidence from a class above the common sailor. “So taken were our old sea-dogs with the theatrical mania,” he explains, “that they again set a subscription on foot, and replenished the funds with two or three hundred dollars more” (122). The author of the prologues in turn repaid this kindness with two original pieces, “entitled, Life in Peru and Old Ironsides paid off,” which were “met with a warm and hearty reception from our tars, the language and incidents coming so home to their bosoms” (122). No description is offered of Old Ironsides Paid Off, but the title suggests it was a self-referential play about the Constitution returning home. The second play, Life in Peru, seemingly depicted events that occurred during shore leave. Mercier makes no direct mention of female roles, though The Lying Valet would not be The Lying Valet without love-struck Melissa and her comic maid, Kitty Pry. In our rehearsal play, we imagine several situations that might have emerged as male sailors prepared to perform the female roles.

My primary goal with the culminating performance of the course was to give students an opportunity to experience the unique features of shipboard theatricals by actually performing aboard a ship. As I anticipated, it was thrilling to perform aboard the same vessel that served as a venue for shipboard theatricals in the nineteenth century.

Freddy and Logan memorize lines from Damon and Pythias in their hammocks
Freddy and Logan rehearse, under David's management

The prologues Mercier includes in his account took on new significance after we had embarked on our own production aboard Old Ironsides. I now suspect that Mercier (or a close acquaintance of his) wrote the prologues, which I include in full below:
February 14, 1840
What cheer, my hearties! Shipmates how d’ye do?
I’ve come to spin a twister unto you;
And tho’ my lingo should, d’ye see, be rough,
I not being graced with grammar or such stuff,
I’ll in my humble style get under way
Knowing you’ll list to what I’m going to say:
Since we from famed Columbia’s shores set sail
Our gallant ship has weathered many a gale,
And buffeting each tempest that we’ve met
She’s proved herself the same trim sea-boat yet
That she was wont to be in days long past,
When she withstood the battle and the blast!
Safe and unharmed the stormy Cape we’ve braved,
Although its gales with fierceness o’er us raved;
And spite of its terrors, which make thousands fear,
We now, thank Heaven, are safely anchored here.--
No doubt you think it is a novel sight
To see Jack Tar strut forth with all his might,
Doffing tarpaulin, and with lightsome heart,
Enact the tragic or the comic part;
But Shakspeare says that ‘all the world’s a stage;’
Why should not we on shipboard catch the rage
as well as those upon the dull tame shore? [gesture at audience]
We strive to please, the best can do no more.
Although our pond’rous guns now passive lay,
Our “spangled banner” spread to grace our play,
Yet should our country but require again
Our services upon the azure main,
I’ll venture that ‘Old Ironsides’ once more
(Her present captain, crew and commodore,)
Would prove herself, as o’er the deep she’d glide,
Columbia’s armament, Columbia’s pride!
There’s now tranquility from shore to shore
And the dread voice of war is heard no more;
Our country’s smiling in the lap of peace,
Her navy and commerce every year increase
And we the sons of war have laid us by
The exercising our artillery;
And armed with pointless swords we now are here
Awaiting your approbation to appear: --
Which should we gain, our efforts will not cease,
But strive with something new each night to please;
For, believe me, the purport of each farce or play
Is but to while the tedious hours away,
To cause a gladsome twinkle in your eye,
And try to dispel the dull monotony
That oft on board of ship doth intervene
And serves to sadden many a joyous scene.
So while we move in our dramatic sphere
Let not your criticisms be too severe;
And should some trivial errors meet your eye,
Mariner like I know you’ll pass them by.
So, shipmates, I’ve told you all I’m going to tell,
For hark! I surely hear the prompter’s bell;
And when my other maties do appear
I hope they’ll meet a kind reception here.

February 22, 1840
Shipmates, I’ve come again before your sight:
For after your plaudits of last Friday night
‘Twould be ungenerous of our Thespian crew
Did we not give our heartfelt thanks to you;
Accept them then on their behalf from me,
Although uncouth and rude those thanks should be;
But the reception of our first efforts met
Believe me, my friends, we never will forget.
Our little corps had enemies enough,
But spite of each frown and spite of each rebuff
We’ve catered once more to please your appetite,
And stand prepared this glorious festal night
To try our luck again; --with you it lays
Either to damn us or to give us praise.
Think to yourself with what a beating heart
We first stepped forth to play our humble part,
Fearful that every criticizing eye
Would in each word or action something spy
To censure and condemn for little cause;
But no, you gave us undeserved applause.
For which we thank you; and our humble band
Are here again waiting for your command
To come before you, and to prove to all,
We’re ever ready to obey your call;
Aye, from this duty we will never flinch--
You’ll find we’ve not relaxed a single inch;
For though our time was short, we’ve something new
I hope will prove acceptable to you;
And if our humble efforts but succeed,
We will feel doubly satisfied indeed.
This is a night to every freeman dear;
And I am sure there’s scarce a bosom here
That does not throb with pleasure and delght,
And hail with rapture, Washington’s birth-night.
This twenty-second, gave that mortal birth
Whose brilliant actions echoed round the earth;
Who, with the flag of liberty unfurled,
Became the pride and wonder of the world;--
In all his deeds, heroic virtue shone;
His friendship, kings and potentates did own;
And he performed so virtuous, his career,
His foes by turns did wonder and revere.
My warmth of feeling, who there will blame,
When eulogising Washington’s great name?
For Britain’s naval sons are too possessed
Of that which fills each guileless, noble breast,
To censure me for my expressions here
When on the subject which we all hold dear.
Grim war now rears his fitful head no more,
But smiling peace extends along our shore;
And as it is the gem with which we’ve dress’d
Columbia’s fruitful, palpitating breast,
May him who’d wish to wrest this gem away,
Become to his impolitic views a prey.
Yes, Heaven, grant this peace may far extend,
And rival nations in sweet union blend;
May Britain and Columbia still go hand in hand,
And show to the world how close their friendship stand;
And strongly cemented by this friendly tie,
They might without fear the very globe defy:
What nations, then, combined in all their might,
Dare stop the lion’s roar--the eagle’s flight?”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Some Notes on Navy Biscuit


Every American seaman received 14oz. of “bread” per day during the War of 1812.  This was not a nice crusty baguette, fit for sopping up the remains of one’s stew.  No, what the purser’s steward flung into a sailor’s mess kid was a round, wheaten biscuit of obdurate hardness, the size of a man’s fist and as edible as flint.  What it lacked in digestibility it made up for with longevity:  biscuit kept dry and clear of pests could last for years.  Indeed, several museums in Britain and America possess specimens reportedly baked in the early-nineteenth century. [1] 

As with all its victuals, the Navy made every attempt to find bakers who could produce wholesome, high-quality biscuits. The oft-repeated tales of biscuits crawling with weevils or made with pea-flour and bone dust are mostly the concoctions of civilian authors writing from the comfort of their land-locked desks.[2]


A biscuit reportedly baked in 1854 and served as a ration on board USS Constitution in 1861.  Mariner's Museum loan, photo by David Bohl.
An 1818 contract for “Navy Bread” stipulates that the “bread shall have no rye flour or any other than Wheaton flour in it - & after being baked shall be thoroughly kiln dried & prepared in all respects for shipment.”[3]  Surviving pieces of British-made biscuit confirm that they were in fact made of whole-wheat flour.[4]  To ensure that the biscuit’s interior dried properly, bakers punched a series of perforations in each one.   Original specimens are usually about a half-inch thick, measure from 4 ¾ to 5 ¾ inches wide, and weigh about four ounces each.  Assuming American-made biscuit conformed to these dimensions, each man received between three and four whole pieces per day.[5]  Constitution carried 84,456 pounds of this bread for a six-month cruise, or a total of about 337,824 individual biscuits.  In 1816, the Navy Department estimated the average 44-gun frigate required 143,550 pounds of biscuit annually at a cost of $.06 per pound.[6]  How did a navy agent ever find enough bread to outfit a single ship, let alone an entire squadron?

The Royal Navy equipped its dockyards to produce bread on an industrial scale.  At Deptford alone the King’s bakers could manufacture enough biscuit in a day to feed more than 24,000 men.  American bakers made navy bread on nearly as large a scale.  Stephen Harris of Norfolk, Virginia used three brick ovens to bake 21 barrels of flour into biscuit per day.[7]  Baker William McKenny promised to deliver 2000 barrels containing 160,000 pounds of bread, or 640,000 individual biscuits.[8]

Unless graced with strong teeth and powerful jaws, sailors could not bite into the bread, but they had several ways to overcome its obdurate hardness.  Wrapping a biscuit in a cloth and smashing it with something hard (such as a knife handle) would succeed in breaking it into bite-sized bits.  If one were truly desperate, one could suck on these pieces, allowing the natural moisture of the saliva to break down the biscuit.  Alternately, the biscuit might be soaked in whatever liquid was at hand.

Numerous shipboard recipes called for a quantity of biscuit.  For breakfast, a sailor might warm his innards with a can of “Scotch [i.e. cheap or synthetic] coffee,” burnt bread boiled with water and sweetened with molasses or sugar.[9]  Similarly, a mess with a desire for a sweet dish might make “dandy funk,” or “dunderfunk.”  According to Melville, “Dunderfunk is made of hard biscuit, hashed and pounded, mixed with beef fat, molasses, and water, and baked brown in a pan. And to those who are beyond all reach of shore delicacies, this dunderfunk, in the feeling language of the Down Easter, is certainly ‘a cruel nice dish.’”[10]  Biscuit also figured in other concoctions such as lobscouse and possibly duff.  In 1813, however, David Porter “gave the strictist orders to the cook, not to permit any person to use the slush from the cask, for the purpose of frying their bread, &c., as this practice is very common among seaman:” he was afraid that the habit caused scurvy, “that dreadful scourge.”[11]

Biscuit (when not fried in beef slush from the cask) was certainly wholesome (it provided 1727 calories per day), and probably not vile-tasting.[12]  For years, however, writers have repeated lurid tales of biscuits swarming with maggots, weevils, and other undesirable creatures.  Unfortunately, when one hears “maggot,” one thinks of fly larvae that tend to breed in rotten meat.  Clearly, such animals never attacked ship’s bread, but it could play host to two other unpleasant insects.  Tobias Smollett, among others, reported that “cockroaches” regularly consumed biscuit and reduced it to dust.  These were probably not real cockroaches, but rather the Cadelle Beetle (Tenebroides mauritanicus).  The beetle’s larvae can grow up to 20mm long, and appear as white, black-headed worms - the sailor’s “maggot.”  Jocularly referred to as “bargemen” because they looked like small oarsmen swarming a boat, the insects did not eat the biscuit themselves, but rather hunted the miniscule Bread Beetle (Stegobium paniceum).  Scarcely 4mm across when mature, the bread beetle’s larvae were the creatures with an appetite for biscuit, and it was they who could reduce a bag to dust.  True weevils (of the family Curculio) might also have been present, since several species feed on grain.  Yet these are also quite small and would be indiscernible in their larval stage.  All three insects breed quickly in warm, damp conditions, and once packed away in the bread room, they could multiply rapidly.[13]  None of these was particularly harmful if ingested, and since many below-decks regions of the ship remained dark even in the middle of a sunny day, it is likely many sailors unwittingly consumed the creatures on a daily basis.  

How did the biscuit become infected in the first place?   The baking facilities available in 1812 were not kept to the same standard we would expect from a bakery today, and it is likely they acted as magnets for any creature that fed on grain.  After removing it from the ovens, the bakers left the biscuit to dry on racks, and it would have been easy for a beetle to lay its eggs among the batches’ many perforations.  Royal Navy bakers piled thier biscuit in 112-pound bags and then packed them in barrels for transport. Although this was the standard method of food transport in the early nineteenth-century, a barrel is not the ideal container for biscuit.  According to one source, the U.S. Navy recognized this and by the War of 1812 regularly packed biscuit in airtight boxes, which kept it “tasty.”[14]  Alas, there were no precautions that could defend against the most persistent pest of all: ship rats.  During the USS Essex’s passage to the Pacific, rats “had found the way into our bread-rooms, and had occasioned a great consumption of that precious article.”[15]

So, you’d like to try your hand at making this 19th century staple?  You could closely follow William Burney’s guide to the process:

The process of biscuit-making for the navy is simple and ingenious, and is nearly as follows. A large lump of dough, consisting merely of flower and water, is mixed up together, and placed exactly in the centre of a raised platform, where a man sits upon a machine, called a horse, and literally rides up and down throughout its whole circular direction, till the dough is equally indented, and this is repeated till the dough is sufficiently kneaded. In this state it is handed over to a second workman, who, with a large knife, puts it in a proper state for the use of those bakers who more immediately attend the oven. They are five in number; and their different departments are well calculated for expedition and exactness. The first man on the farthest side of a large table moulds the dough, till it has the appearance of muffins, and which he does two together, with each hand; and then delivers them over to the man on the other side of the table, who stamps them on both sides with a mark, and throws them on a smaller table, where stands the third workman, whose business is merely to separate the different pieces into two, and place them under the hand of him who supplies the oven, whose work of throwing or chucking the biscuits on the peel must be performed with the greatest exactness and regularity. The fifth arranges them in the oven, and is so expert, that though the different biscuits are thrown to him at the rate of seventy in a minute, the peel is always disengaged in time to receive them separately. So much critical exactness and neat activity occur in the exercise of this labour, that it is difficult to decide whether the palm of excellence is due to the moulder, the maker, the splitter, the chucker, or the depositor; all of them, like the wheels of a machine, seeming to be actuated by the same principle. The business is to deposit in the oven seventy biscuits in a minute; and this is accomplished with the regularity of a clock; the clack of the peel, during its motion in the oven, operating like the pendulum. The biscuits thus baked are kept in repositories, which receive warmth from being placed in drying lofts over the ovens, till they are sufficiently dry to be packed into bags, without danger of getting mouldy; and when in such a state, they are then packed into bags, of an hundred weight each, and removed into store-house for immediate use.[16]
A baker, from the first American edition of The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts, 1807.

If perhaps you don’t have access to a Navy bake house, you can still make it at home in your oven.   Here’s what you’ll need:

4 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour (note, do not use white, refined flour for this recipe- it won’t work!)
½ cup water (or so)
DO NOT ADD SALT

Preheat the oven to 175 to 200 degrees

Mix the flour and water until you get a stiff dough.  Roll the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until well mixed.  Cover with a damp cloth and let sit for ten or fifteen minutes.  Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it is about ¾ in thick.  Most surviving biscuit is 4 1/2 to 5 inches in diameter, but remember they'll shrink in both dimensions when baked.   Use a cookie cutter or coffee can to cut out round biscuits.  Take a large nail or medium-sized screw driver and punch 15 to 20 holes in the biscuit in a regular pattern (to let it dry thoroughly).  Don’t use the tines of a fork for this operation.  The holes are too small and produce a wholly inaccurate pattern on the biscuit surface.  Place the biscuits on a lightly-floured cookie sheet and bake for 3 or 4 hours.  Turn off the heat and let the biscuits cool in the oven. 

For a really authentic experience, store your biscuit in a canvas bag on the back porch for three months, break up, and enjoy!  Remember, ship’s biscuit was really a way of efficiently transporting and distributing flour- don’t try to bite it!



[1] Period documents invariably refer to this as “biscuit,” “ship’s biscuit,” “ship’s bread,” or simply “bread.” The term “hardtack,” often used to describe hard military bread, seems to have been an invention of the second quarter of the 19th century, and was only popularized during the Civil War.
[2] For examples of such pervasive myths, see John Masefield, Sea Life in Nelson’s Time (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1905, reprint ed., 1984), 121-122.  Masefield was only 24 when he wrote his book, and though he had been to sea himself, “many of the stories he repeats in this book,” as Janet Macdonald writes, “smack of an ancient mariner getting more and more outrageous as the grog went down, and of course they nicely reinforced the late Victorian sense of superiority over their forebears.” [Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (London: Chatham Publishing, 2004), 12]
[3] William McKenny contract, 1818, Contracts, RG 45, E 336, vol.2, NARA, Washington, D.C.
[4] For examples of biscuit, see James P. McGuane, Heart of Oak, A Sailor’s Life in Nelson’s Navy (New York, W.W. Norton & Co.: 2002), 36.
[5] Dr. Cutbush says that “from three to three and a half biscuits will generally weigh fourteen ounces.” Edward Cutbush, Observations on the Means of Preserving the Health of Soldiers and Sailors, (Philadelphia, Thomas Dobson: 1808), 123.
[6] “Estimate of Pay and Provisions for a 44-Gun Frigate, 1816,” American State Papers, vol. XIV, No. 135.
[7] A. G. Roeber, A New England Woman’s Perspective on Norfolk, Viginia, 1801-1802: Excerpts from the Diary of Ruth Henshaw Bascom (Worcester, Mass, American Antiquarian Society: 1979), 304.
[8] William McKenny contract, 1818, Contracts, RG 45, E 336, vol.2, NARA, Washington, D.C.
[9] William Robinson, Jack Nastyface: Memoirs of a Seaman (Annapolis, Md., Naval Institute Press: 1983), 33.
[10] Melville, White Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995),134.
[11] David Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, reprint edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: The Gregg Press, 1970), 63.
[12] Extracted from the calorific content of British naval rations as summarized by Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 177.  The American ration was 14 oz per day which equals 396 grams.
[13] Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 97-98.
[14] Ibid., 18.  It should be noted that every Navy receipt for bread, in Boston at least, mentions “bags” and “barrels” rather than “boxes.”
[15] Porter, Journal, vol. 1, 75.
[16] William Burney, A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London, T. Cadell & W. Davies: 1815).

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sightings: Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard

Constitution has called the Charlestown Navy Yard home since 1897.  Today, half a million people visit her as she lays comfortably at her berth on Pier 1.  She sticks out like a sore thumb, a black and white relict from an earlier age.

In the early 20th century, however, the ship seemed less out of place.  To be sure, her graceful lines would never blend in with the steel hulls of destroyers and battle cruisers, but those Dreadnought descendants still had a certain jauntiness and elegance to their lines that our modern warships completely lack. 

The museum recently acquired a collection of glass plate negatives created by the skillful and prolific photographer Leslie Jones.  He worked for the Boston Herald-Traveler between 1917 and 1956 and his photograph collection (now mostly housed at the Boston Public Library) provides an incredible look at life in and around Boston during those years.  He seems to have especially adored Constitution, because he snapped hundreds of photos of her over the years.

Here we see Constitution as just one more Navy ship in a Navy Yard full of them.  Here's a selection of some of the best photos. 

Constitution alongside the pier, in the midst of a destroyer squadron sometime between May 1926 and June 1927.  The four destroyers are of the Clemson-class, and include USS Sturtevant (DD 240) and USS Childs (DD 241).  The receiving ship behind Constitution is USS Southery (IX 26).

Another view of the same scene.  Note the floating crane in the left foreground.

In this particularly artful shot, civilian workers mount one of Constitution's newly-cast 24-pounders on the gundeck in 1930.

Constitution, newly restored and with sails bent to the yards, leaves Boston for her three-year, 22,000-mile "National Cruise" in July 1931.  Her tender, USS Grebe, can be seen peeking out from behind the frigate's bow.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

A New Song for the Fourth of July (1815)

The Analectic Magazine, the country’s premier literary rag published between 1813 and 1820, was fond of printing the finest specimens of American poetry and song.  The magazine’s first editor was none other than Washington Irving, and he used its pages as a platform for enlarging and improving taste in the arts.  He was especially concerned with what he termed “popular poetry.”  Aware that “nautical songs, and other little poetical effusions” appeared only in ephemeral form (in broadsides and newspapers), and consequentially fearful that they might be forever lost to posterity, Irving asked for “a person of discriminating taste” to collect and publish these works.

Such a worthwhile undertaking would take time, so in the meantime, some of the “best specimens of the poetic talent of this country” graced the pages of the Analectic Magazine.  The November 1815 edition reproduced “A new song” “Sung before the Corporation of the City of New York, The Fourth of July, 1815.”  Titled “The Frigate Constitution,” it recounted the glorious career of the famed ship during the late war with Great Britain.  As the preface makes clear, Irving considered this work a fine example of what one should look for in genuine “folk” productions (even though it was written by a New York lawyer).

The following song appears to us to possess much of the rough carelessness, and unstudied simplicity which should characterise the genuine sailor’s song, and we have therefore selected it, as affording an agreeable contrast to the inflated and absurd productions that have been palmed upon the public as naval songs, the writers of which seem to have considered swelling metaphors, sublime conceits, and extravagant bombast, as excellent substitutes for truth, humour, and natural feeling.  The solid glory of our naval victories has been obscured and caricatured, not illustrated by these tawdry decorations; and poetry, instead of decking the brows of our heroes, with wreathes of evergreen, has for the most part, bedizened them out with ill-sorted and fantastic garlands of artificial flowers.
THE FRIGATE CONSTITUTION.
A new song.

Tune- “Moggy Lauder.”

BY FRANCIS ARDEN, ESQ.

Argo of Greece, that brought the fleece
To the Thessalian city,
As we are told, by bards of old,
Was sung in many a ditty;
But Yankees claim a prouder name
To spur their resolution,
Than Greece could boast and do her most –
The frigate Constitution.

When first she press’d the stream’s cool breast,
Hope hail’d her pride of story;
Now she o’erpays hope’s flatt’ring praise,
By matcheless deeds of glory;
Of all that roam, the salt sea’s foam,
None floats to Neptune dearer,
Or fairer shines in fame’s bright lines,
Or more makes Britain fear her.

‘Neath Hull’s command, with a tough band,
And nought beside to back her,
Upon a day, as log-books say,
A fleet bore down to thwack her;
A fleet, you know, is odds or so,
Against a single ship sirs;
So cross the tide, her legs she tried,
And gave the rouges the slip sirs.[1]

But time flies round, and soon she found,
While ploughing ocean’s acres,
An even chance to join the dance,
And turn keel up, poor Dacres;
Dacres, ‘tis clear, despises fear,
Quite full of fun and prank is,
Hoists his ship’s name, in playful game,
Aloft to scare the Yankees.[2]

On Brazil’s coast, she rul’d the roast,
When Bainbridge was her captain;
Neat hammocks gave, made of the wave,
Dead Britons to be wrapp’d in;
For ther, in ire, ‘midst smoke and fire,
Her boys the Java met sirs,
And in the fray, her Yankee play,
Tipp’d Bull a somerset sirs.[3]

Next on her deck, at Fortune’s beck,
The dauntless Stewart landed;
A better tar ne’er shone in war,
Or daring souls commanded;
Old Ironsides, now once more rides,
In search of English cruisers;
And Neptune grins to see her twins,
Got in an hour or two, sirs.[4]

Then raise amain, the joyful strain,
For well she has deserv’d it,
Who brought the foe so often low,
Cheer’d freedom’s heart and nerv’d it;
Long may she ride, our navy’s pride,
And spur to resolution;
And seamen boast, and landsmen toast,
The FRIGATE CONSTITUTUION.


Constitution in all her glory. USS Constitution Museum collection.
 

[1] This stanza refers to Constitution’s narrow escape from a British squadron off Long Island in July 1812.
[2] According to some accounts, Captain James Richard Dacres ordered the words “Not the Little Belt” painted on Guerriere’s foretopsail before the August 19, 1812 action with Constitution.
[3] Constitution defeated HMS Java on December 29, 1812.
[4] On February 20, 1815, under the command of Charles Stewart, Constitution defeated HMS Cyane and HMS Levant.