Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Constitution’s Last Fight

On February 17, 1815, President James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent, officially putting an end to the War of 1812.  But for Constitution, at sea three thousand miles away, the war was not over yet. This Friday marks the 200th anniversary of her last victory of the war.  In fact, apart from a few shots fired in anger in later years, this was the last time the frigate engaged in active combat during her long career.

Having escaped from British blockaders off Boston on December 18, 1814, the ship and her veteran crew had spent the last two months cruising Atlantic sea lanes in search of prizes.  While they’d made a few captures, they still had yet to fall in with a real prize- a British convoy bound to or from the West Indies and the Mediterranean.  

Steering southwest from Portugal, by February 20 they were about 60 leagues (180 nautical miles) east northeast of the island of Madeira.  The light northeast breeze failed to dissipate the slight haze hanging over the water, but at 1 PM the masthead lookout distinguished a large ship sailing to the southwest.  A half an hour later he spotted another further to the westward.  Anxious to discover their true character and to prevent their joining company, Constitution’s crew raced aloft to set every sail, and the chase was on.

Captain Charles Stewart as he appeared at the time of the battle, from an engraving in the Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle, 1816.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

 Although the Americans did not know it yet, the two ships were HMS Levant, a 21-gun sloop-of-war under the command of the Honorable George Douglas, and HMS Cyane, a 34-gun frigate commanded by Gordon Falcon.  The British knew Constitution might intercept a convoy that had just sailed from Gibraltar, and they were determined to capture or disable the American ship to prevent that from happening.

The Honorable George Douglas strikes a romantic pose in the waist of his ship.  The drawing from which this print was made was drawn by Lady Caroline Lucy Scott, his sister and the wife of Adm. Sir George Scott. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.
By 5 PM the ships had closed, and Stewart ordered two guns fired to try the range.  The shot fell short.  The British vessels attempted to work to windward of the Americans, and thereby claim the coveted “weather gauge.”  Constitution’s superior sailing foiled them, however, and they started the action to leeward of their opponent.  At about 6 PM, the British shorted sail and formed a line astern with Levant leading, about half a cable’s length (360 feet) apart.  At 6, all the ships hoisted their ensigns (the British ships both wore red ensigns) and five minutes later Stewart ordered a single shot fired between the two ships as an invitation to commence the battle.  Almost instantly, the broadsides of the three ships erupted in a torrent of smoke and fire. [1]

Captain Stewart sat astride the hammock nettings directing the action, seemingly immune to British shot.[2]   Constitution’s forward guns played upon the Levant, while the after most guns took aim at Cyane.  In an attempt to close the range (to maximize the hitting power of his carronades), Cyane's Captain Falcon spilled the wind from his maintopsail, and allowed Constitution to forge ahead.  He put the helm down and tried to edge up onto the American’s lee quarter.  Perceiving the danger, Stewart fired a broadside into Levant, ordered Constitution’s mizzen topsail backed, and “closed with the sternmost ship under the cover of the smoke”- a demonstration of supremely fine ship handing![3]

In this contemporary oil-on-panel painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray, Constitution has just backed down to engage Cyane more closely.  USS Constitution Museum collection.
As the sun sank in the west, the American’s fire began to strike home. On board Levant, Constitution’s heavy 24 pound balls crashed through her comparatively frail timbers on one side and exited on the other, leaving a trail of deadly splinters in their wake. [4]  Nearly all of Cyane’s running rigging was shot way, and her fire slackened as American shot damaged her guns and wounded her men.  Levant turned down wind to sail out of range, hoping the Americans would delay the pursuit long enough to give the British seamen time to stop shot holes and reeve new rigging.  Captain Falcon saw Levant veer out of line, and attempted to tack his ship to provide covering fire for his consort’s maneuver.  Unfortunately, he found most of his running rigging, including the all-important braces used to turn the yards to the wind, had been completely shot away.  Cyane came into the wind and stopped all aback, unable to move.  She now lay at the American’s mercy.  Stewart placed his ship 50 yards off her larboard quarter, where none of the British guns could bear.  Knowing further resistance would only be a useless loss of life, Captain Falcon surrendered his ship.
It took little more than an hour to send a prize crew on board the Cyane and secure the prisoners.  At 8 PM, Constitution made sail for the Levant, still in sight to leeward.  Gallantly, the British turned to face their opponents.  Just before 9 o’clock the two ships passed broadside to broadside on opposite tacks, like knights at a joust.  Stewart immediately tacked Constitution across Levant’s stern and delivered a decisive broadside.  Captain Douglas knew his only chance of survival was to set all the sail the masts could bear and try to escape from her overpowering enemy.  Although the British had a slight lead, Constitution’s sails were in far better condition, and by 10 PM the Americans closed on the wounded ship.  Captain Douglas struck his colors with reluctance. [5]
Constitution received little damaged in the engagement, and by 1 AM, the ship was ready to fight another battle.  Cyane and Levant, however, suffered considerably.  According to American Midshipman Pardon Mawney Whipple, “the decks of both vessels were literally covered with dead & wounded.”  As part of the prize crew, he spent the next three days on board the Levant:

[T]his being the first action I was ever in, you can imagine to yourself what were my feelings to hear the horrid groans of the wounded & dying, & the scene that presented itself the next morning at daylight … the quarter deck seemed to have the appearance of a slaughter house, the wheel having been carried away by a shot – killed & wounded all around it, the mizenmast for several feet was covered with brains & blood; pieces of bones, fingers, & large pieces of flesh were picked up from off the deck [.] T’was a long time before I could familiarize myself to these & if possible more horrible scenes that I witnessed. [6]

Despite the two to one advantage of the British, it had hardly been a fair fight.  Constitution’s heavier guns and heavy timbers were able to both deal out and absorb more punishment than her opponents.  Still, it was a fine accomplishment, and both the Navy and the American press were quick to sing the praises of ship and crew.  Constitution’s adventures were not over yet, however, so stay tuned!

[1] Charles Stewart to the Secretary of the Navy, 15 May 1815, Captain’s Letters to the Secretary of the Navy, RG 45, Microfilm 125, Reel 44, NARA.
[2] Henry B. Joslin, “Naval Asylum Biographies,” Navy Library, Washington, DC.
[3] USS Constitution Log, 21 Feb. 1815, 24, Microfilm 1030, NARA.
[4] Joslin, “Naval Asylum.”
[5] George Douglas to First Secretary of the Admiralty, 22 Feb. 1815, ADM 1/170, National Archives,UK.
[6] The Letterbook of Pardon Mawney Whipple, 1813-1821, USS Constitution Museum collection.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

We get your drift

The cultural memory of TV meteorologists is short.  The snow had hardly begun to fall on Monday before they proclaimed that this blizzard would be “historic” and “unprecedented.”  Oh really?  The National Weather Service’s records for Boston may only go back to 1885, but New Englanders have been suffering through extreme snowfalls for centuries. 

Take for example the snow storm of January 18-19, 1857.   So much snow fell, and the wind blew so fiercely, that drifts eight to twelve feet deep blanketed the northern side of Salem’s Essex Street.  In Boston, it took three days before anyone could move in the streets.

The “Great Snow Storm” of February 1802 was even worse.  On the 21st it began to snow, and didn’t stop for a week.  At the end of the storm, the snow turned to sleet, and created a thick, hard crust on the surface of the snow.  This allowed farmers to drive their teams and sleighs across the fields and right over the tops of fences, but for those without such conveyances, travel became impossible.  On Cape Cod, at the height of the storm, three deeply laden East-Indiamen from Salem were driven ashore, and completely lost.

The winter of 1747-1748 brought thirty storms in a row.  By the end, the snow was five feet deep “on a level,” and drifted much higher.  Worst of all was the wind.  On Salem Neck, a man was smothered to death by wind-borne snow.

But the title of “worst of all” must go to the winter of 1716-1717.  In December, the snow was already five feet deep.   In January, it continued to snow, and by February 6, the drifts were in some places twenty-five feet deep.  On February 18 it began to snow again.  This time, it came down for six days and nights.  When it finally stopped, an additional ten to fifteen feet of snow had fallen!  Just outside of Charlestown, on the road to Medford, a widow and her children lived in a one-story house.  The house was completely enveloped in the snow, and her neighbors couldn’t even find it for several days.  At last, smoke began to rise from a snow bank and neighbors with shovels finally exposed one of the house’s windows.   The occupants had used up all of their firewood and had resorted to burning the furniture to keep from freezing to death.

Next time we moan and groan about digging our cars out of their parking spots, let us be glad we don’t have to torch our dining room chairs to keep death at bay.

Constitution has ridden out her fair share of snowstorms, both at sea and in port.  The frigate in the snow has long been a favorite subjects for photographers.  Tuesday’s storm left us with some more great photographs.

Constitution's snow-covered broadside, sometime before 1925.  Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Constitution in the snow, Feb. 20, 1931.  Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.
Constitution in the snow, Jan. 27, 2015.  U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild/Released

Shoveling the spar deck, Jan. 27, 2015.  U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild/Released

Friday, January 23, 2015

A bolt out of the blue

Paul Revere, your name is magic.  A piece of silver, an engraving, a midnight ride- they’ve all been burnished by your hand and the tongues of your acolytes.  You may have helped to start a revolution, but your foundries were nothing short of revolutionary.  Your industrial pursuits, one part patriotism, one part profiteering, are the stuff of legend.  And one legend often begets another. 

Enter the frigate Constitution and an order from the Treasury Department.  In late 1794, the Treasury ordered a large number of drawn copper bolts from England for the new Federal frigates abuilding.  Because copper bolts would not corrode like iron, these were essential for fastening timbers that might come into contact with seawater.   They were also important for ships whose hulls were sheathed in copper.  Iron bolts would have degraded even faster because of galvanic action, a chemical reaction brought on by the close proximity of the copper sheathing and the iron.  The government had to order them from England because no one in America knew the secret of making tough, yet malleable copper bolts.

Today we blame our computers for our mistakes.  In the 18th century they blamed their clerks.  In a letter to Captain James Sever in Portsmouth, Secretary of War Henry Knox explained there had been a mistake in the bolt order: “Unfortunately, a mistake in copying the directions for the bolts at the Office of the Commissioners of the revenue last year, has occasioned the sending out the largest bolts of 1 7/8ths inches diameter instead of 1 & 3/8ths.  Experiments have been made to reduce them.  It is under consideration whether to reduce them or not. The bolts which have arrived here are of pure copper.” [1]

Welcome Paul Revere.  He’d been running a furnace for seven years, casting bells for three years, and cannons for one year when Boston Navy agent Henry Jackson asked if he could reduce the oversized copper bolts received from England.  According to Revere, “I then found out that it was necessary that bolts and spikes for ship building should be made out of malleable copper.  After discoursing with a number of old coppersmiths, they one and all agreed that they could not melt copper and make it malleable as to hammer it hot.  I farther found that it was a secret in Europe that lay in but a very few breasts” [2]

Undeterred, Revere began a series of “trials” to discover the secret.  Melting and casting copper in molds made the finished product brittle.  Cold working, the process of striking cold copper with a hammer to shape it, also produced a hard but brittle bolt.  Heating the metal, a process called annealing, rearranged the metal's atomic structure to make it more ductile and tough. At last he combined these processes and discovered the secret of the European smiths: “Skilled coppersmiths fabricated malleable copper by a combination of hot- and cold-working processes, alternately heating, cooling, and hammering the copper until producing the desired blend of qualities.  In this manner, copper could become both hard and tough, or in other words, simultaneously resistant to penetration, resistant to breaking, and non-brittle.”[3] These properties were essential for copper bolts that had to be driven through many feet of hard live oak.

The actual process of drawing down the ship’s bolts was not recorded, but in a 1796 letter, Revere provided a clue to the technique.  It appears the bolts were reduced by being beaten with a trip hammer into a swage, a sort of die used to shape metal in traditional blacksmithing.  He must have done this several times, once while the metal was hot and again when it was cold. [4]

Revere finished resizing 15 tons of copper bolts in October 1795 and submitted a bill for $2,756 [5 ].  Three months later, Secretary of War Timothy Pickering sent an emphatic letter to Henry Jackson: “If this work is still going on, pray let it be immediately stopped. There is danger of spoiling the temper of the bolts.  It is monstrously expensive, and not necessary.  I shall write you more particularly about the manner in which the large bolts are to the be used: in the meantime I repeat let no more be reduced.” [6]

Pickering had no idea Revere had discovered the secret of making malleable copper bolts, so his alarm is understandable.  In fact, Joshua Humphreys himself had declared “there was no person in America that could make copper malleable so that it could be drawn into bolts and spikes.” [7] Humphreys later admitted his mistake, and became Revere’s warm friend.

This brings us back to Constitution’s bolts.  Now that the over sized bolts had been reduced, Naval Constructor George Claghorn had questions about how to use them.  The War Department wrote back (or rather, they transmitted Joshua Humphrey’s ideas about the matter) with the answer: 

As the Copper bolts have been reduced to 1 3/8 Inch diameter you are hereby directed to secure the Floor timbers with two of the 1 3/8 bolts in each Floor timber, one of which must be drove through the lower Keelson, and the other through the upper Keelson, both bolts are to go through the deadwood and Keel.  The Cross Chocks are to be bolted with one bolt in each of 1 3/8 diameter which is to be drove through the lower Keelson, one of the lower Futtock heels and Keel.  All the bolts are to be well clinched on rings let up into the Keel. [8]

For those of us not well versed in the lingo of the shipwright, the following diagram might help to make these instructions a bit clearer.

A detailed cutaway of the complex structure holdinga wooden warship together.  From James Dodds and James Moore's Building the Wooden Fighting Ship (New York: Facts on File, 1984).

It just so happens that the Navy drew out a number of the 1 3/8 inch bolts from deep in Constitution’s hull during the 1990s restoration.  They wanted to determine if the bolts were still sound, or if years of exposed to seawater and hull movement had degraded them.  What they found when they examined them was that the combination of English copper and Revere’s reworking held up very well indeed.    The Navy loaned one example to the Museum.  It was cut in half lengthwise so scientists at MIT could perform tests on it.  Its composition is almost pure copper, and it measures almost exactly 1 3/8 inch in diameter.  The joints between the various pieces of timber may be clearly seen where the copper has wasted more than in other places.

A bolt drawn by Paul Revere, removed from Constitution in the 1990s.  USS Constitution Museum, US Navy loan.

[1] Sec. Henry Knox to James Sever 14 May 1795, (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/docimage.php?id=13954&docColID=15229)
[2] Revere to Harrison Gray Otis, 11, March 1800, quoted in Robert Martello, Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010), 191.
[3] Ibid., 193.
[4] Ibid., 194.
[5] Martello 197.
[6] Timothy Pickering to Henry Jackson 27 Jan 1796, (http://wardepartmentpapers.org/docimage.php?id=16520&docColID=17933)
[7] Revere to Harrison Gray Otis, 11, March 1800.
[ 8] James McHenry to George Claghorne, 15 March 1796, http://wardepartmentpapers.org/docimage.php?id=16954&docColID=18401

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Another worthy Wadsworth

A new year, a new acquisition.   Once again, we’ve been able to put a face to a historical name.  And in this case, it is a name with quite a pedigree.  Last year the museum acquired from descendents of the sitters two wonderful portraits of Alexander Scammel Wadsworth and his wife Louisa Denison.

Born Portland, Maine in 1790, Alexander was the ninth child of Revolutionary War General and Congressman Peleg Wadsworth and his wife Elizabeth Bartlett.  Old Peleg named young Alexander for Alexander Scammel, an officer of the Continental army, killed by the British in 1781.  He had been Peleg’s close associate in Plymouth before the war and both were members of the Old Colony Club. 

At the age of only fourteen, Alexander received his midshipman’s appointment in the US Navy.  He joined his brother Henry (five years his elder) as part of the fighting force sent to the Mediterranean to rein in the attacks of the Barbary States of North Africa. Poor Henry, “ardent for some desperate glory,” volunteered to accompany Master Commandant Richard Somers on an ill-fated mission to blow up targets in Tripoli Harbor.  Sadly, something went wrong, the “infernal” exploded prematurely, and the entire crew died a fiery death.

Incidentally,  Alexander’s sister Zilpah married a Mr. Stephan Longfellow in 1804.  Their son Henry was born in 1807 and named for the naval hero. The boy grew up into Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the far-famed poet, and nephew of Alexander.

The untimely death of his brother did little to cool Alexander’s ardor, and he continued to serve in the Navy.  He was promoted to lieutenant in April 1810 and by August 1812 he had become Constitution’s second lieutenant.  Arriving back in Boston after his ship’s defeat of HMS Guerriere, he wrote in a letter to his sister’s husband that  they’d “destroyed H.B.M. Ship Guerriere, a famous fellow who has been bragging and making a great noise on the coast for two or three years and who has been a very great annoyance to our trade…”

His adventures didn’t stop there.  Serving as First Lieutenant under Charles Morris on board the sloop of war Adams, he sailed twice across the Atlantic, leaving a trail of captured British ships in his wake.  At last, the Adams was cornered in the Penobscot River in Maine by a British squadron.  With escape impossible, the ship’s crew set her ablaze and escaped overland.

The end of the war hardly brought peace.  Alexander was soon off again to the Mediterranean where he commanded the brig Prometheus during the Second Barbary War, followed by two cruises to the West Indies to help suppress piracy in those waters.

In 1824 the dashing and experienced naval officer married the talented and beautiful Louisa J. Denison in Washington, DC.  Louisa was the sister-in-law to Commodore John Rodgers (the sister of his wife Minerva), who was one of the most senior and influential officers in the service. She was six years his junior, and had spent her youth on her family's estate in Maryland.

Alexander finally secured his coveted promotion to captain in March 1825, and he soon sailed for the Mediterranean again, this time in command of the frigate Constellation.  A stint as commodore of the Pacific Squadron followed, and then came a succession of desk jobs, first as a member of the Navy Board and then Inspector of Ordnance.

Besides his talents as a fighter and a diplomat, Alexander was a talented cartographer.  Among other jobs, he surveyed Narragansett Bay with a certain LT Charles Wilkes in 1832.  Wilkes later went on the command the famous US Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, the so-called “Wilkes’ Expedition.”

Alexander died on April 5, 1851 and was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.  Louisa outlived him by only six years.

Judging by what we know of his service history, as well as their clothing, the portraits were probably painted sometime between March 1825, when he received his promotion to captain, and 1829, when he left on a Mediterranean cruise (in command of USS Constellation).  Neither work features the signature of the artist, although Alexander’s portrait appears to bear the name “Charlotte Brown” (or Braun) on the back of the panel.  Interestingly, the Maine Historical Society has a coat in its collection that may be the same one he wore in the portrait, as well as a number of swords, a sword belt, and his hat.

We’ve just had the two portraits cleaned, and what was once dingy and dark, is now luminous. Alexander’s epaulets, buttons, and sword hilt sparkle, and Louisa is justifiably proud of her fine “Turkey red” shawl. 

Alexander's frame (not pictured) was made of wood from Constitution.  Interestingly, in 1833, just as Constitution entered drydock for a major refit, the Navy Board of Commissioners in Washington requested that "some pieces of the original frame" from the ship be sent to the department.  This timber would be used to make picture frames for pictures in the Commissioner's office.  Wadsworth served as a Navy Commissioner in 1837.  Could his frame have come from the same batch of wood? [1]

[1] Thanks to Margherita Desy for this reference.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Should her ways have better laid

George Claghorn had a problem.  For three years the Naval Constructor, charged with overseeing the building of one of the United States’ new frigates, had overcome every obstacle.  First, the copper bolts ordered from England had been too large. There had been timber shortages, and interminable delays delivering live oak from the coast of Georgia.  And then Congress threatened to suspend the building program altogether.  Nevertheless, in the words of the one newspaper editor, the ship he completed was “a perfect model of elegance, strength and durability.”

But now, on September 20, 1797, Claghorn had to move this huge and heavy ship from dry land into Boston Harbor.  In the words of David Steel (in his monumental Elements and Practice of Naval Architecture  of 1805), “the launch of a ship, or machinery by which she is safely conveyed into the water, after she is completely built, is a grand piece of mechanism, and requires every consideration.”  In fact, plans for launching a ship had to be well thought out before shipwrights even cut the first timber.

When the government chose Edmund Hartt’s shipyard for building the ship, workers had to first prepare the ground.  No one had built a ship this large in Boston, and the slipway where Claghorn and his crew would lay the keel had to be lengthened.  Joseph Green delivered 76 tons of stone to elongate the wharf, and Samuel Green and James Fenno brought 145 tons of stone to make secure footings for the launching ways.  Over this firm footing, shipyard works began to construct the “groundways.”

They laid the first layer, probably composed of oak beams, flush with the surface of the slip and secured them with stakes.  After filling the gaps with packed earth, the workers began to stack squared pine timbers alternately lengthwise and crosswise.  Claghorn believed that the optimal angle for the launching ways would be provided by a declivity of 5/8 of an inch to the foot.  Because the keel was about 145 feet long, the ways had to be stacked more than 7 ½ feet tall at the bow.  Once the pine timbers had been carefully leveled, workers fastened two rows of oak “sliding planks” on both sides.  These formed the ramp down which the ship would slide.  To keep the ship from slipping off during launch, parallel ribbands or stops were fastened to the outside edge of the sliding planks.

Next, workers placed “splitting blocks” the length of the ways, making sure to observe the same declivity.  The keel would be laid on these blocks.  Made of clear-grained pine, the blocks could be split and removed from under the keel when it was time to launch the vessel.

As the ship took form, shipwrights erected a series of shores and braces to prevent her from toppling over. By June 1797 the bottom of the ship had been fully planked and squared off.  In July, workers began nailing the copper sheathing to the bottom, and by August she was nearly ready for launching.  Shipwrights now constructed a launching cradle that would move the ship into the water.

The cradle functioned like a giant sled.  Two long skids or “bilgeways” were laid on top of the sliding planks, parallel with the keel.  From the bilgeways rose a series of planks and uprights called “poppets” that formed a structure not unlike a modern boat trailer.  Once the keel blocks were split away, the full, immense weight of the ship rested on the cradle. 

This magnificent model of a British 74-gun ship of about 1815 shows her ready for launching.  The groundways, sliding planks, bilgeways and cradle are clearly visible under the hull.  The timber shores projecting sideways from the sliding planks reflect British practice and were meant to keep the ship from moving sideways off the sliding planks. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

As the tide began to rise, workers smeared a thick coating of oil and tallow on the sliding planks (they had already applied the same to the underside of the bilgeways).  At the appointed time, a few brave and nimble-footed souls knocked out the remaining shores and blocks, the ropes securing the cradle to the head of the slip were cut with an axe, and the ship was free to slide into the water.

On September 20 the yard workers performed all these steps to perfection, but nothing happened.  Using a set of screw jacks provided by one Samuel Adams (not the brewer/son of Liberty/governor, but a lighterman living on Elliot St), the ship began to move, but came to a stop after traveling only 27 feet.  With the tide ebbing fast, a perplexed Claghorn ordered shores and blocks replaced and began to investigate what had happened.  “I found that the part of the ways which had not before received any of the weight, had settled about half an inch, which added to some other cause of no great importance in itself, had occasioned the obstruction.”  The other cause “of no great importance” proved to be a 4 by 6 inch stone on one of the sliding planks.  “The weight of the ship had pressed it completely into the timber.”

There was nothing to do but try again.  The next day, the shipwrights performed the herculean task of raising the entire ship two inches with wedges (a task they accomplished in only 50 minutes).  They removed the bilgeways, straightened the sliding planks, and on September 22 made another attempt to get the ship into the water.  This time, she move 31 feet and then ground to a halt.  The ship had now shifted her weight onto the new wharf built to lengthen the building slip.  Claghorn inspected the ways and found “they have both settled abaft, about  1 5/8th of an inch; which circumstance, as it could not have been foreseen, the descent of the ways was not calculated to overcome, and which solely occasioned her to stop.

Poor Claghorn!  Here, in front of dignitaries and a large portion of the population of Boston and the surrounding towns, he had twice failed to launch the ship.  In a letter to Elias Boudinot, Rachel Bradford observed that Claghorn “actually appeared to have lost flesh in eight and forty hours, from mortification and vexation.”  What was worse, the opponents of the shipbuilding program and the federal government now had an abundance of inspiration for their “impudent speeches….sad predictions and sarcastic remarks.” 

One such production came from the pen of Democratic-Republican poet Philip Freneau.  The last two stanzas of his caustic poem read:

Each anti-federal, with a smile
Observed the yet unfloating pile
            As if he meant to say,
Builder, no doubt, you know your trade,
A constitution you have made
But should her ways have better laid.

Well now to heave the ship afloat,
To move from this unlucky spot,
            Take our advice, and give them soon,
What should have long ago been done,
Amendments – You Know What. 

Despite the criticisms and Claghorn’s considerable chagrin, the ship did at last enter Boston Harbor.  Shipyard workers increased the angle of the ways to overcome the “defect occasioned by the settling of the new wharf,” and at high tide on October 21, 1797, Constitution at last floated in her “destined element.”

A modern artist's interpretation of Constitution's launch.  Painting by Paul Garnett, USS constitution Museum collection.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Stoved Boat

Two days from now, home cooks across the nation will fire up their ovens and stoves to prepare a Thanksgiving feast.  The ease with which we now boil, roast, braise, fry, sear, and grill our dinners would have seemed nothing short of miraculous to our forebears.  With the push of a button or the turn of a dial, we can conjure instantaneous, even heat that remains steady for as long as we need it to.  We forget how far kitchen technology has advanced in the course of a few short generations.  Even a century ago, though iron cooking ranges had become commonplace, home cooks prepared meals using methods that had changed little in generations. In a way, they had more in common with cavemen than with today’s chefs, surrounded by the latest stainless steel wizardry.

Though it seems incongruous, sailors of the War of 1812 benefited from the latest in cooking technology. To our eyes, the iron stoves with which a navy ship’s cook and his mates prepared daily meals for 450 men seem hopelessly primitive, and yet the sea-going fire hearths of the early 19th century represented an important technological improvement over their predecessors. Until about the middle of the 18th century, most ships’ cooking facilities consisted of ponderous brick structures and copper kettles placed either in the hold or forward on the main deck.  As the ship’s structure moved, or “worked” at sea, the bricks inevitably loosened, allowing smoke and even sparks to escape.  In addition, the great weight of the bricks put huge strain on a ship’s timbers. 

The Industrial Revolution changed all that.  By the 1750s, the British Royal Navy began to install iron fire hearths in its ship.  The rectangular wrought iron boxes featured kettles for boiling, and open hearths with grates and spits for roasting and grilling.  They weighed far less than their brick predecessors and consumed less fuel- an important consideration for a long voyage. [1]

When the US War Department began to outfit the nation’s new frigates in the 1790s, they naturally ordered the galley stoves from England.[2]  We don’t have any good description of what Constitution’s first stove looked like, but it may have been similar to the one carried by USS Maryland between 1799 and 1801: “It is made of wrought iron bars each about 3 ½ inches wide, with 2 copper boilers, divided only by a Copper partition.”  The boilers, like today’s high end copper pots, were tinned on the inside. [3]  One on board Constellation in December 1800 came complete with a “smoke jack” and two chains “for spitts.” [4]  As the hot air rose, a turbine-like device in the stove’s chimney spun, driving a shaft attached by chains to a roasting spit.

In August 1803, as Constitution fitted out for a cruise against the Barbary corsairs, Boston merchant John Bryant provided "one Iron Camboose 27 Inches with Furniture complete delivered on board the Constitution frigate $100." [5]  Apart from the height, we know little about the form of this stove.  It might have had inferior “coppers” like the one provided to Lt. Richard Somer’s schooner Nautilus:

This day I receiv’d the Camboose on board, & am much pleased with the plan- but do not approve of the Coppers being Cast Iron- They are very ruff – and if not able to stand the fire, or by accident get split, can never be repair’d.  I have experienc’d the loss of one on board the United States Commodore Barry, for six Months – It being of Cast Iron would not beare the force of the fire.  Commd had them made of wrought Iron- wich las’d untill laid up. [6]

Officer’s frequently complained of the poor quality and unsuitability of cast iron camboose “coppers”.  The two provided to the Portsmouth and the Merrimack in 1798 were condemned after a short time in service.  According to Boston Navy Agent Stephen Higginson, “the Boilers and the Hearths were both with what are called fire cracks, which by use have so much opened as to become incapable of use.” [7]

The Constitution camboose of 1803 seems far too small to have provided cooking space for the entire crew, however.  A drawing of a stove in store at the Boston Navy Yard in March 1827 gives the measurements as 6 feet 3 inches wide and 3 feet 8 inches tall.  In addition, a local manufacturer proposed to make one for a frigate for $2,300- a far cry from the mere $100 spent in 1803! [8]

An 1827 plan of a frigate's stove at the Boston Navy Yard.  National Archives

By the War of 1812, the Navy seemed to have been able to produce stoves for its own use, though judging from a number of plaintive letters to the Secretary of the Navy from various officers, the supply could not meet the demand.  After the war, domestic production increased.  In 1820the Washington Navy Yard employed 34 chain cable and camboose smiths led by the eccentric blacksmith Benjamin King.

Of course the camboose was only one part of the galley equipage.  In Sept 1813, Boston coppersmith Nathaniel Alley brought down to the harbor from his shop on Union St. the following items for Constitution’s galley: “2 Coppr & 1 Iron Covers for Galley,” “a 16 qrt Coppr Teakettle,” “3 Coppr Saus [sic] Pans with Covers,” “a large Iron ladle & tormentor [a large fork],” and “a large Coppr Cistern for the funnel from the Galley to pass through [an important item that, when filled with water, would prevent the hot funnel from setting the deck on fire].”  Apart from a few assorted iron skillets or pans purchased from various merchants, these were the only tools at the cook’s disposal.  And yet, considering the level of culinary finesse required to boil beef, pork, peas, and rice, they were wholly adequate to the task.

The purser, or rather the purser’s steward, was also provided with a range of tools to issue out the provisions to the crew.  Andrew Green supplied several sets of scales, iron and tin weights, a set of tin gill measures, a “flour shovell,” and a copper hand pump for pumping spirits (or water) from a cask. [9]

Incidentally, the stove on Constitution today may be the oldest piece of ship’s furniture visible to visitors.  It might date to the 1870s, or as late as the 1890s.  It appears in photos of the gun deck from 1907, 1914, and 1925.  During the 1927-1931 restoration, this stove was turned 180 degrees and fitted with a modern “Shipmate” stove manufactured by the Stamford Foundry Company of Stamford, Connecticut.  On this coal-fired range, the ship’s cook prepared meals during the National Cruise.

A 1914 photo of the ship's current stove.  The open hearth now faces the stern, rather than the bow.

[1] For more on early fire hearths, see Brian Lavery, The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 195-199.  Contemporaries used the terms fire hearth, camboose, or stove interchangeably to describe these items.
[2] Circular to Navy Agents, 5 Jul 1794 M74,  Tench Coxe Letters Concerning Military and Naval Procurement, 1794 1796.
[3] John Davis of Abel to Thomas Tingey, 8 Feb. 1814,  Captain’s Letters to the Secretary of the Navy, RG 45, Vol. 1, NARA.  We are indebted to Margherita Desy for sharing this letter.
[4] Alexander Murray accounts, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 127, Box 1914, NARA.]
[5] Navy Agent Samuel Brown Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[6] To Secretary of the Navy from Lieutenant Richard Somers, U S Navy,Baltimore, June 2nd 1803, in Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers vol. II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1940), 433.
[7] Extract of a letter from Stephen Higginson, 3 Jan. 1799, in Miscellaneous Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Navy, M209, Roll 1, 474, NARA.
[8]W. Whall and Son to Board of Navy Commissioners, 5 Mar. 1827, RG 45 E-327 Reports, Returns, and Estimates Received from Navy Agents, Sept 1814- Apr. 1834, NARA.
[9] Voucher to Andrew Green, Dec. 11, 1813, Amos Binney Settled Accounts, 4th Auditor of the Treasury Alphabetical Series, RG 217, box 38, NARA.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Frock On!

It is definitely sweater weather in New England.  When the mercury drops, we rummage our closets and cedar chests for all the knitted woolens stowed away since last winter.  Assuming the moths haven’t made a meal of them, sweaters form a fine base layer for keeping out the cold.

Two hundred years ago, when the winds turned chilly sailors donned garments similar to our modern sweaters.  They called their knitted garments Guernsey frocks.  Named for the small island in the English Channel, where home knitters have been crafting exquisite woolens for ages, these hard-wearing garments were just the thing for keeping the chest and arms warm at sea.

While their existence can be traced to the 1790s, they seem to have become commonplace in the Royal Navy around 1804.  In November of that year, none other than Admiral Horatio Nelson wrote a letter to the Commissioners of the Navy asking them to modify a new garment: 

Victory, at Sea 20th November, 1804

To further answer to your Letter of the 25th June last, relative to my opinion of the Guernsey jackets of a new manufacture, therein-mentioned, (which were issued to the seaman on the 14th October,) and what further supply of them may be necessary for the Squadron under my command, I must beg leave to observe the quality of the said Guernsey jackets is most excellent, but that they are considerably too narrow and short to be tucked into the Men's trowsers. It is, therefore, my opinion that they ought to be at least three inches wider, and six longer. Indeed, if they were ten inches or a foot, it would be so much better, as they shrink very considerably in washing; and when the Seaman are on the yards, reefing or furling sails, the jacket rubs out of their trowsers and exposes them to great danger of taking cold in their loins; so that, with this alteration, which is particularly necessary, they certainly would be the best and most valuable slops that ever were introduced into the Service, and be the mean of saving many a good Seaman's life. With respect to the quantity required, it would not be too many to send out one for every Seaman in the Fleet. Perhaps the Guernsey jacket, in its present state might answer the largest of the boys.

I am , Gentlemen &c.
 Nelson and Bronte [1]

The garments were so new, in fact, that Nelson didn’t even know what to call them.  His reference to Guernsey “jackets” rather than “frocks” harkens back to an older 18th century usage of the term jacket.  Rather than referring to an outer garment as we do today, jacket was often used to describe a vest or waistcoat with sleeves.  In Nelson’s mind, these new woolen items were meant to be worn beneath the sailor’s outer jacket and over a shirt- just like a waistcoat.

Guernsey frocks begin to appear in artwork about the same time.  Philip DeLoutherbourg painted his remarkable portrait of Robert Williams, boatswain's mate on the HMS Venerable in about 1805.  You can see the frock’s wide neck and his check shirt underneath.

Boatswain's Mate Robert Williams, by DeLoutherbourg.  British Museum.

Some knitting historians have speculated that these frocks were knit by hand.  They certainly could have been, but the late 18th century witnessed the proliferation of knitting frames in England.  These machines could produce fine knitted goods like stockings, pantaloons, and frocks quickly and uniformly- just the sort of thing a Royal Navy clothing contractor would like.  Captain Basil Hall, RN, enumerated the numbers and sorts of garments a sailor should have in the 1820s, and included in his list, “two Guernsey frocks, made of a sort of worsted stocking-work, without any opening in front.” [2]
A detail from Sir Charles Eastlake's 1815 portrait of Napoleon on the Bellerophon.  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

In America, Guernseys were often marketed by hosiery merchants with business connections in London.[3]  As with many other aspects of American culture, the frocks were imported wholesale from England.  The US Navy adopted them early on.  In 1799, Boston shopkeeper John Hoffman supplied USS Congress with 250 “gurnsy Frocks” and promised the Essex another 150. [4] In 1813, merchants William and Joseph Duvall supplied 200 Guernsey frocks at $2.00 each. [5]

Perhaps the best depiction of one of these frocks in an American context is found in the monumental portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry by John Wesley Jarvis.  Now hanging in New York City Hall, the painting depicts a flag-draped Perry leaving his ravaged flagship Lawrence during the Battle of Lake Erie.  To the left stands an American seaman, one of his crew, wearing a pair of blue trousers, a glazed hat, and a striped Guernsey frock.

Jarvis's portrait of O.H. Perry- and a Guernsey frock.
The unassuming frock lived on well past the War of 1812.  Clothiers continued to advertise them by name into the 1870s.  Worn by fisherman and sportsmen, it remained an informal garment designed to provide comfort and mobility.

A tennis-playing, frock-wearing Mr. Laine, in an 1843 calotype photograph by Scottish photographers Adamson and Hill.  National Galleries Scotland.

In 1917, fashion icon Coco Chanel adapted a similar garment familiar from the Breton region of France.  Paired with trousers, it ushered in a new casualness to women’s fashion.  Despite these “haute-bourgeois” associations, the striped sweater never quite shook its bad-boy, working-class image.  James Dean wore one in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, and even Frank Sadilek, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels, made the striped shirt or sweater part of his signature look.

[1] Nicolas Harris Nicolas, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, vol. 6 (London: Henry Colburn, 1846), 275-276.
[2] Basil Hall, Fragments of Voyages and Travels, Second series, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, Robert Cadell, 1832), 93.
[3] For example, see William Gibson’s hosiery store advertisement in the Mercantile Advertiser (NY), 8 Oct 1806.
[4] Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, The Frigate Essex Papers: Building the Salem Frigate 1798-1799 (Salem: Peabody Museum, 1974), 174-175.
[5] Voucher to William and Joseph Duvall, January 1813, in Fourth Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 217, Box 2880, NARA.