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

 Gentlemen,
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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Desk of a Marine

Today marks the 239th anniversary of the United States Marine Corps.  Raised for Continental service at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia in 1775, the Corps performed important services during the Revolution.  Although disbanded in 1783, the Marine Corps was reestablished by an Act of Congress on July 11, 1798.  Since then, the Marines have, to quote their well-loved Hymn, fought their country’s battles in the air, on land and sea. 

In honor of the Marine Corp birthday, the museum hosts its annual Bush Breakfast, a tribute to First Lieutenant William Sharp Bush, who died in combat on Constitution’s quarterdeck during the ship’s battle with HMS Guerriere.

Born in July 1786 in Wilmington, Delaware, Bush came from a family devoted to national service. His father and three uncles fought in the American Revolution. He inherited their legacy of ambition, courage, and love of country. In 1808 he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Although he attempted to resigned his commission in 1810, his fellow officer pleaded for him to rethink his decision “in Language, truly flattering to…[his] Character & Feelings.” He joined the crew of “Old Ironsides” on June 11, 1812, taking command of the ship’s Marine guard. Just a week later, the United States declared war on Great Britain. On August 19, 1812 Constitution engaged HMS Guerriere about 200 miles east of Halifax. At the height of the battle, while Bush prepared to lead his men onto the deck of the enemy frigate, a British musket ball struck him in the cheek. He was the first US Marine Corps officer to die in combat during the War of 1812.

First Lieutenant William Sharp Bush.  National Museum of the Marine Corps collection.
  
For years, Lt. Bush seemed a slightly enigmatic figure.  His portrait, probably painted in 1811 by Jacob Eichholtz, reveals nothing.  Standing stiffly at attention, hair neatly powdered, uniform immaculate, the young Marine looks every bit the officer and the gentleman.  But who was the man in the portrait, the one who inspired so much affection while he lived, and so much regret when he died?

Thanks to the generous donation by Annette and William Doolittle of a pair of letters in Lt. Bush’s own hand, we now gain a deeper insight into the officer’s character.

Written in 1810 and 1811 to his friend Capt. Jabez Caldwell, the letters overflow with his personality.  He is generous and modest, friendly and humorous.  He speaks of his wish to resign his commission, but that he was “warmly solicited to return again to the Corps” and so bowed to the “persuasion of Friends.”  When he returned to his command, “every Countenance (especially those of my Men) beam’d on me a Smile of Joy.”  Nevertheless, he pines for a return to his Maryland home, because in all the places he has travelled, he has “not yet found the same Hospitality & Friendly intercourse which I have been accustom’d to.”

The second letter encourages Capt. Caldwell to visit him at his new quarters in Philadelphia. As an enticement, he describes the delightful situation of the Navy Yard, with its fresh breezes and shady balconies.  If Caldwell and his friends come up, “we’ll Drink, Sing & drive dull care away.”  And then there are the ladies.  Single and 25 years old, he still searches for a suitable wife.  Though he has not yet met any of the “Virtuous fair” in the vicinity, he confides that he has his eye on both a “richly Laden Frigate” and an inscrutable “little Island Creek Girl” of their mutual acquaintance.

Bush's signature from one of the letters.
The letters remind us that even though two centuries separate us, human values and desires have hardly changed.  A portrait is both symbolic and representational; it shows the sitter as he was seen and wished to be seen.  A letter to a friend is personal, and reveals that duty, friendship, honor, and hope coexist in us all, even in a man who died in combat in August of 1812.










Friday, October 31, 2014

Love's Labors Lost

We don’t frequently encounter stories of murder and mayhem in the course of researching Constitution’s 1812 crew, but when dealing with nearly 1,200 men of all different dispositions, it was bound to happen. 

Such is the story of one John Love, ordinary seaman. He joined Constitution’s crew  on July 3, 1812 at Annapolis and fought in the battles against HMS Guerriere and HMS Java.  He left the ship sometime after its return to Boston in February 1813.  Like many of his shipmates, Love was not a native born American.  On the contrary, according to one contemporary,  “[h]e was an Englishman and apparently wasn't glad of it.  He had come from Bath after many adventures, having enlisted in the American navy and joined the frigate Constitution.” One acquaintance said, “he was a short man, not five feet ten inches high, and would weigh about one hundred and thirty pounds; and was from twenty to thirty years of age.  I do not know as he was a very singular or odd man, never saw him quarrel, he was a temperate, sober man.”  Like any good sailor, he had an anchor tattoo on one arm.

“On his discharge came to Buffalo to 'traffick' along the lakes with some money he had laid by, for he was shrewd, calculating and a clever student of human foibles."  With the cash he had amassed (some of it prize money from the capture of the Guerriere and Java, no doubt) he began lending to various individuals in Upstate New York.  He lent a considerable sum to Israel, Isaac, and NelsonThayer  of Boston, NY.

By the middle of December 1824, Mr. Love decided it was high time they start paying back the loan.  He made a visit to the Thayers’ farm and that was the last time anyone saw him alive. 

The brothers welcomed Love into their house, seated him before the fire. It was hog butchering time on the farm, and the brothers used this as a pretext for leaving Love alone.  But it wasn’t hogs they were intent on butchering.  As Love warded off the chill, one Thayer brother shot him in the back of the head through the window, and another rushed in and finished him off with an axe.  They then dragged the body outside and behind the house and buried it in a shallow grave beneath a fallen log.




John Love's original wooden grave marker.

The Thayer brothers might have gotten away with it had they been a little more clever.  A few days later Israel was seen riding Love’s horse.  Soon after, the neighbors discovered that Isaac had Love’s papers and was trying to collect debts in Love’s name.  The brothers swore that Love admitted to murdering a man in Pennsylvania and had fled to Canada to avoid the law.  This made the neighbors doubly suspicious, and the authorities moved in to search the Thayer property.  They quickly found Love’s body where he’d been left. The brothers were arrested, tried, found guilty, and hanged in Niagara Square, Buffalo in June 1825. It was a sensational trial and execution covered by papers around the country.  As one pamphlet gleefully announced, it was the only triple hanging ever carried out in New York to that time.


The title page from a popular account of the Thayer's trial.


* Many thanks are due to Sherrie Pluta who kindly provided many of the sources used in this post.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Day of Victories

For Constitution aficionados, October 21 is a day held in high regard.  On this date in 1797, the ship finally, successfully entered her “destined element” and started a career that is still going strong after 217 years.

But students of naval history might be forgiven if they lost track of that fact in the face of a yet more momentous event that happened on this day in 1805:  The Battle of Trafalgar.  Perhaps the most famous of all naval engagements, the battle caused the almost complete destruction of a combined Spanish and French fleet at the hands of the Royal Navy.  The British ships sailed into battle that day under the command of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.  As any English school child can tell you, Nelson died at the hands of a French sharpshooter in the midst of the battle, but not before learning of his victory.  As he breathed his last on HMS Victory’s orlop deck, overall command of the fleet devolved to Vice-Admiral  Cuthbert Collingwood.




Cuthbert Collingwood, by Henry Howard.  The old admiral wears two medals, one for his participation in the Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794, and the other for the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, 1797.

Well known as a deeply devout man, and a friend of seamen everywhere, Collingwood felt deeply moved by both the battle’s successful outcome and the loss of Nelson, his friend. 

The museum’s collection includes a letter donated by the late historian Ira Dye that sheds some light on Collingwood’s feelings the day after the momentous victory:

General Order

The Almighty God, whose Arm alone is strength, having of his great mercy been pleased to crown the exertion of His Majesty’s Fleet with success, in giving them a Comple [sic] Victory over their Enemy’s [sic] on the 21st Inst. – that all praise, and thanksgiving may be offered up to the throne of Grace, for the Great benefits to our Country, and to Mankind.
    I have thought proper that a day should be appointed of general humiliation before God, and thanksgiving for his merciful goodness, imploring forgiveness of Sins, a Continuation of his Divine Mercy, and his constant aid to us in the Defence of our Country’s Liberties and Laws, without which the utmost Efforts of Man are nought, and direct that Thursday the 7th of Novr. next, be appointed for that holy purpose

Given on board the Euryalus
Off Cape Trafalgar 22d Oct 1805
(signed) Cuth. Collingwood

Incidentally, some have given Constitution the honor of precipitating the Battle of Trafalgar.
According to the memoirs of Seaman James Durand, who served on Constitution at the time, the ship entered Cadiz in the middle of October 1805, with the British fleet in close pursuit (they probably thought Constitution was one of the heavy French frigates).  While in Cadiz, where the combined French and Spanish fleet lay, Constitution’s officers visited many of the French vessels, and probably learned something of the fleet’s plans for the coming days.  Constitution left Cadiz on 19 October, and was quickly intercepted by the British fleet.  A British captain came on board Constitution and, according to Durand, “after holding some conversation with Commander Rodgers, sailed directly back to the British Admiral” (p. 30).  The Combined Fleet left Cadiz on the 20th and on the 21st, the battle of Cape Trafalgar commenced, which ended in the total defeat of the allied forces, thus putting an end to Napoleon’s hopes for an invasion of Britain- all thanks to a little timely intelligence from Constitution

This is a good story.  Unfortunately, it is not true.  Judging from Captain John Rodgers’ correspondence (reprinted in Naval Documents of the Barbary Wars, see p. 292 ff.) during the 18th to the 22nd of October, Constitution lay at anchor in Leghorn Roads, very far from Cadiz! 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Face (and Stuff) of John Lord

History is as much a story of stuff as it is a story of people.  Long after a person is no more, the material possessions accumulated over a lifetime linger.  Museum folks typically deal in the detritus of lives long past.   One man’s trash is another’s exhibit.  And yet the further we recede from the present, the fewer and fewer things related to a particular individual survive.

Nevertheless, some objects have a strange afterlife, as the following will prove. 

By some strange confluence of fate, the personal possessions of one man who served on board Constitution 186 years ago have found their way to the museum one by one.

The story begins with a powder horn.  Acquired in 2003 the horn is etched with a scene of Constitution doing battle with a British ship, a gun named “Big Will”, and the name “J. Lord, Gunner.” 

Gunner John Lord first joined the navy during the War of 1812.  Warranted as a gunner in 1817, he served on board “Old Ironsides” during a long Mediterranean cruise between 1824 and 1828.   Sometime during the cruise he contracted an illness, and he succumbed to it in 1829.  He was only 40 years old.

For some years, the powder horn sat on display in the museum, an interesting historical curiosity and fine example of sailor-made art.

And then in 2006, a man in New Hampshire pulled an old-looking French English Dictionary out of his neighbor’s trash.  On the fly leaf was written a name and “U.S Frigate Constitution/ August 27th 1825” and on the end “J. Lord U.S. Navy.”  The man kindly donated the book.

The late J. Welles Henderson, a prolific collector of sailors’ stuff, purchased some of Lord’s possessions (perhaps as early as the 1950s), and when his own collection was auctioned in 2008 the museum acquired these items too.   Two rare clothing bags, a shirt, a leather-bound chest, and a small wooden box inlaid with the name of Lord’s daughter Caroline all allow us to tell Lord’s story in depth.

All the collection now lacked was an image of the man himself.  In the age before photography, portraiture for anyone not rich, famous, or both is extremely rare.  Imagine our excitement and delight, then, when a small watercolor portrait was brought to our attention by a great friend of the museum.  Labeled “J. Lord Gunner on the Constitution” in a period hand, we can finally put a face to a name.  He wears an undress uniform of the 1820s, complete with cap.  His pleasing countenance is  just as we’d expect of man who seems to have made so many friends in his short life.  To those friends and relations we owe the remarkable survival of so many of his things.

John Lord, Gunner USS Constitution, 1824-1828. USS Constitution Museum Collection