Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Parting Shot

On June 30, 1815, Constitution swung lazily at anchor in the Charles River, her crew paid off and dispersed to other ships or to their homes. While they regaled friends, family, and new shipmates with tales of Constitution’s conquests, on the other side of the world some of their fellow American seaman fired the War of 1812’s last shots.

In the waning days of the war, the US Navy had dispatched a squadron of ships to the Indian Ocean to disrupt the valuable British commerce in that part of the globe.  The frigate President, under Stephen Decatur, was to be the squadron’s flagship, but she unfortunately fell into the hands of a British squadron soon after leaving New York.  Unaware of the President’s capture, the remaining American ships, consisting of the sloops Peacock and Hornet, and the supply ship Tom Bowline, slipped through the British blockade and made it to sea.

After a series of rousing adventures, the three vessels became separated.  The Peacock alone continued the mission and sailed on into the eastern Indian Ocean.  The 22-gun sloop-of-war was commanded by 33 year old Master Commandant Lewis Warrington.  He was impetuous, courageous, dashing, and the illegitimate son of a French nobleman who fought for the American cause during the Revolution.  Warrington made a name for himself the year before by capturing the British man-of-war brig Epervier, and fourteen other prizes.  Not content to rest on his laurels, Warrington knew he could score some rich prizes in the waters between India and Indonesia.

Master Commandant Lewis Warrington, engraved for the Analectic Magazine in 1815.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

On the last day of June, 1815, Peacock came abreast of the coast of Anjier (modern Anyer), Java, in the Sunda Straits, and hoisted British colors.  In the distance, and closing rapidly, was a brig flying the flag of the British East India Company. This brig, called the Nautilus, was on a passage from Java to Bengal, and having just received official confirmation that hostilities had ceased between the United States and Great Britain had no reason to suspect that a strange vessel flying British colors presented a threat.  Nautilus’ captain Lt. Charles Boyce sent his master on board with the news, but as he watched the boat come alongside the strange vessel, he saw the crew immediately called onto deck and the boat taken in tow. At the same time, a boat from the shore had joined the stranger, and her crew met with the same treatment.

Sensing danger, Boyce prepared his ship for action.  On the Peacock, Warrington seemed unsure of how to proceed.  He had prepared his ship for battle, too, but the news of peace between the two nations caused him to waver.  The British taken prisoner from the boats claimed to have proof of the peace treaty, in no less a form than President Madison’s own proclamation.  Still, Warrington was determined to “have a little brush” with the British, and his subsequent actions were calculated to cause a fight.  As the two ships neared each other, Warrington hailed the Nautilus, and ordered her to haul down her colors immediately.  Boyce refused, and immediately the Peacock opened fire on her much smaller opponent.

Both sides fired in quick succession, but the Nautilus received the worst of it.  Peacock’s first broadside killed two men and severely wounded Lt. Boyce (a grape shot round passed through his body above his hip).  The next broadside killed and wounded more men.  A 32 lb ball smashed Boyce’s right knee cap and gravely wounded his second in command.  With all of the British officers incapacitated, the Nautilus surrendered.

Warrington evidently immediately regretted his decision to open fire, but continued to act petulantly toward the British he had so thoroughly vanquished.  He gave the Nautilus back the next day, but continued to insist that he had been in the right.  An American court of inquiry later agreed, and cleared him of all wrongdoing.
 
Warrington went on to a long career in the US Navy, and eventually died in 1851 after fifty years of service.  Poor Charles Boyce had his leg amputated above the knee, and had to retire from the East India Company’s service in 1817.  Nevertheless, he was awarded a pension by the East India Company and lived to collect it until 1878!



Wednesday, June 24, 2015

This Splendid Work of Art

We live in an age of engineering marvels.  In the last half century, we’ve built bridges that span miles of open sea, tunnels that carry trains deep underground, and buildings that touch the clouds.  But for most of us, we barely notice these wonders as we quickly pass by.  Lumped under the soporific label “infrastructure,” we lose sight of the ingenuity required to craft these structures.

We weren’t always so jaded by innovation.  In the nineteenth century, Americans and foreign visitors alike gaped at the new bridges, aqueducts, and steam engines transforming the nation’s landscape.  These projects symbolized the prosperity and forward-thinking nature of the new world, a place where technology and Yankee pluck combined to provide citizens with a happy present and a glorious future.

And yet, even as these works progressed, a candid observer would have found antebellum America a place still rural and underdeveloped, at least by European standards (the measure of all progress for many during the period).  A small population and an enormous landmass meant that much of the United States remained forested, and even many of the settled places had a rawness to them.

Of all the national institutions, the United States Navy was perhaps the most ready to innovate and create a lasting foundation for future success.  Having proved its capability during the War of 1812, the Navy entered the “Era of Good Feelings” poised to prosper.  In 1825 an English tourist wrote, “the navy is the national establishment which the Americans foster with the greatest care, and view with the most affection; and they may well do so, for they have received infinite benefits from its services, and have reason to be proud of the discipline and perfection which their maritime force at present displays.”

Despite the accolades, the Navy had once great Achilles heel: it lacked the facilities to properly service and maintain the fleet. Congress had allowed for the establishment of navy yards up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but these were more storage facilities than proper dockyards.

Most significant of all was the lack of dry docks.  These basins allowed a large vessel to float in on the tide.  A gate at the seaward end closed, and as the water was pumped out, the ship settled gently onto blocks and shores.  Without a dry dock, careening was the only way to clean or repair a ship’s bottom.  This remained a dangerous and time-consuming operation and seemed hardly dignified for a fleet that had taught the British a thing or two at sea (and who, by the way, had built and used dry docks for centuries).

So in 1824 Congress allowed Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard to study the feasibility of building dry docks at the US Navy’s yards.  Southard in turn asked Woburn, Massachusetts-born engineer Loammi Baldwin to perform surveys and prepare reports on the possibilities for dry docks.

Baldwin was a natural choice. Son of Loammi Baldwin, Sr., he’d helped his father with the survey and construction of the Middlesex Canal, an artificial waterway connecting the Merrimac River to Boston Harbor.  Loammi Jr. studied law at Harvard, but soon abandoned that profession in favor of mechanics and engineering.  During the War of 1812 he supervised the construction of fortifications, and by the 1820s he had many public works projects under his belt.

Baldwin finished his report in 1826 and Southard presented it to Congress in 1827.  With money appropriated (the dock would cost as much as two new frigates), he began work on docks at Boston and Norfolk, Virginia.  Both were impressive structures, made more so when we remember that the laborers who toiled to excavate a hole 340 feet long and 100 feet wide did so with picks and shovels.  The quarrymen and stone masons who dressed the great Quincy granite blocks, “worked with as much neatness and elegance as if the several stones were prepared for the front of a dwelling house,” did it all with hammers and chisels and muscle and sinew.  To support the massive weight of the masonry structure, they drove some 4,000 timber pilings into the soft ground below the dock.  At the dock’s head rose a three story granite engine house, designed by Alexander Parris, to shelter the “Great Steam Engine for draining the Dock.”  Today it houses this museum.

A model of Baldwin's proposed drydock, probably from the late 1820s.  It is still owned by his descendents and is on loan to the USS Constitution Museum.
A period model of Baldwin's "floating gate," or caisson, used to close the seaward end of the dry dock.  When combined with a pair of swinging gates, the dry dock entrance became watertight.  On loan to the USS Constitution Museum.

The Norfolk dock went into operation on June 17, 1833.  The Boston dock followed on June 24.  Constitution had the honor of being the first ship to enter the Boston dock, a gesture that linked her past fame to future glories.  To further solidify the notion in the minds of onlookers, the ship was temporarily under the command of a gray haired Isaac Hull.  The newspapers carried the excitement of the day in their next issues:
Commodore Hull took the command on deck, assisted by Col. Loammi Baldwin, the chief engineer of this splendid work of art.   The vessel was moved into the dock in twenty-five minutes, precisely as a canal boat goes into a lock, and the gates were closed.  Rapid salutes were fired from the 74 Columbus, which was housed at the end of the wharf, and also from the Battery… The pumping commenced from the powerful engine of one hundred horse power, used for the purpose, and though but half the pumps were put in motion, a torrent of water was delivered from the drain which entered the river, that would have carried all the Factories in Lowell.  It is said that the pumps can deliver 120,000 gallons per minute.  The dock may be pumped out in two hours, but the engine was employed from half past 6 until half past 12 before the Dock was dry.  The frigate had been shored up, laterally and perpendicularly, as the water fell, and was cradled quietly on blocks placed to receive her keel.  Her hull had a venerable appearance, from the moss and bearded grass and muscles with which it was covered.  Many of these last were gathered as relics, to be laid up in cabinets.  The whole scene was imposing, and was witnessed by several hundreds.  The Commodore’s clear voice was repeatedly heard ringing from the quarterdeck of his former glory.
Unlike most of the bridges, monuments, waterworks, and buildings of the early republic, this masterpiece of art and science is still with us.  Enlarged in the second part of the nineteenth century and again in the twentieth, the dock evolved to keep pace with the Navy’s ever-changing technology.  But through all the alterations, wars, and national emergencies, the Navy was careful to preserve the inscription cut into the hard grey Quincy granite at the dock’s head:
Commenced 10th July 1827
John Q. Adams President of the United States
Samuel L. Southard Secretary of the Navy
Authorized by the 19th Congress

Opened 24th June 1833
Andrew Jackson President of the United States
Levi Woodbury Secretary of the Navy
Loammi Baldwin Engineer

All the classical monuments of history bear the inscriptions of the rulers who ordered them built.  In the new United States, the rulers shared the glory with the man from whose mind the structure sprung.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Beginnings and Endings

Isn’t it funny how momentous events tend to cluster around certain dates?  June 18th is one of those days.  On that date in 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain, setting the stage for three years of American triumphs and defeats, and giving Constitution and her crew the opportunity to make themselves famous.

On this same day in 1815, empires collided in Belgium farm fields.  Since Napoleon Bonaparte’s abdication and exile to Elba in April 1814, he’d been plotting his return.  He slipped back into France in early March 1815, and quickly rallied his old comrades to his side.  With an army of more than 70,000, Napoleon marched into southern Belgium (then part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) in a bid to strike a decisive blow against gathering coalition forces bent on his destruction.  Facing the French was a combined army of soldiers from Britain, the Netherlands, and the German states of Hanover, Brunswick, and Nassau.  A large contingent of Prussians would soon arrive on the field.

After several brutal engagements culminating at a village called Waterloo, the allies sent the French army into full retreat.  The two sides left some 70,000 casualties on the field.  Out of the destruction rose a new commitment to peace and set the stage for a modern Europe.

"The Field of Waterloo, as it appeared the morning after the memorable battle of the 15th of June 1815," by John Heaviside Clark and Edward Orme, Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.
In America, reaction to the battle was mixed.  Some despised the British victory and feared their next move.  Some thought Bonaparte should come to America (and indeed, it seems Bonaparte himself considered crossing the Atlantic).  In the end, the British forced the former emperor to while away his days on the bleak and remote island of St. Helena.  His small house on a plain high above the sea became a place of curiosity and pilgrimage for sailors who stopped to replenish stores in the years after his death.  How many of them thought about the man and his ambitions, and how the wars he spawned drew the United States into its own war with Britain in 1812?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Miniature Middy

Of all American naval officer portraits, those of midshipmen are perhaps the rarest.  In the early 19th century, these young officers made only $19 per month, and most of that quickly flowed into the hands of the mess caterer, the laundress, and the haberdasher (one had to keep up appearances, after all). Unless they hailed from a prosperous family, there would have been little money to pay a miniature painter for a likeness to send home to friends and family.

The Museum recently acquired a lovely portrait of a midshipman who seems to have scraped together the funds to hire a proficient artist.  We don’t know his name, or the name of the artist who painted him, but he represents for us the hundreds of “young gentlemen” who sailed on Constitution in the early nineteenth century.

An unknown US Navy midshipman, 1830-1841.  His pose, while frequently associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, was in fact a genteel affectation adopted by many gentlemen in their portraits.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

This particular fellow was painted between 1830 and 1841, because he wears the full dress uniform a midshipman as prescribed by Navy regulations during those years.  His single-breasted blue coat, with nine buttons, follows the fashion of the period.  A thick layer of wadding in the breast gives his coat the pigeon-breasted look so sought after by fashionable young men in the 1830s.  The breadth of the shoulders are exaggerated by the gathers in the sleeve cap.  Wide shoulders and a padded chest give the appearance of a narrow waist.

The decorative embroidery on the collar reveals his rank.  Along the top of the collar, the tailor embroidered a “live oak leaf, with acorns,” and below that a “foul anchor.”  This anchor twined round with a cable is still the insignia of a midshipman, worn now on the front of the cap as well as the coat collar.

While his coat follows uniform regulations to the letter, his sword belt varies widely from what he should have been wearing.  The regulations called for white webbing belts with full dress, and blue webbing for undress.  Yet our midshipman wears a beautifully embroidered belt, probably made of leather.  The style of it suggests it was an older belt, perhaps retained from the 1820s, when belts like this had been worn extensively by military officers.

The reverse of the image.  The hair appears to have been affixed with red sealing wax.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

The case in which this image resides features a chased border and a beaded bezel typical of the 1830s.  The reverse holds one further surprise.  Encased within another beaded bezel is a plaited lock of hair.  It is a lustrous brown, and presumably came from the sitter’s head.  For whoever received this personal symbol of devotion it must have helped sooth the loneliness when the sailor was away at sea.







Thursday, April 30, 2015

Carronades for the Tops: A New Interpretation

When Constitution sailed on her first cruise, her tops, those platforms at the upper end of each of her lower masts, carried a powerful armament designed to rain down terror onto her enemies’ decks.   In July 1798, the ship’s log records that “our carpenters are mounting the carronades in the tops,” and there exists a receipt from Timothy Hall to Navy Agent Henry Jackson for “eight hundred Cannisters for the Carranads [sic] of the Tops of the United States Frigate Constitution.”  

A “carronade” was a short, relatively light piece of ordnance capable of throwing a heavy ball at short ranges.  When loaded with grape or canister rounds, they made deadly effective anti-personnel weapons.

But the carronade was a relatively new weapon, devised by the British in the 1770s. [1]  Constitution would not be armed with large-caliber carronades on her spar deck until 1804, and it took another four years before she received a full complement of twenty 32-pounder carronades. What then, were these “carronades for the tops”?  Since they were mounted high in the rigging, they had to be a fairly small, light weapons.

A letter from Secretary of War James McHenry to Captain Samuel Nicholson in April 1798 reveals who made these pieces, and at the same time leads us down the path to figuring out what they looked like:
I have no objection to the Canonades [sic] being cast for your Ship on the Plan proposed.  Mr. Revere will accordingly prepare them with all convenient Dispatch.
        It should be understood that the Canonades must undergo the usual Proof and Examinations, and will not be received if their Defects should be greater than usually tolerated.[2]
Paul Revere had already successfully completed a US government contract for ten 8-inch howitzers, four of which were intended to be mounted on Constitution’s quarterdeck.  These howitzers were large guns capable of throwing a heavy explosive shell at a fairly flat trajectory, or a large amount of canister or grape shot, thereby bridging the gap between traditional broadside-mounted cannon and mortars.  Unfortunately, because they had such short muzzles, both Nicholson and the gun carriage maker decided that they could not be safely mounted on the ship’s quarterdeck without cutting the gunports larger, an expensive and impracticable proposition.

But these new pieces were something entirely different.  So far, several writers have speculated that these top guns were simply smaller versions of the large howitzers Revere had already cast.  The confusion is compounded by the fact that the very term “carronade” was unfamiliar to many correspondents of the period, and they reverted to the familiar “howitzer” to describe the stubby guns.

Speculation would continue, if it weren’t for a helpfully detailed letter that Paul Revere wrote to Captain John Barry in the spring of 1798.  We quote it at length because it is full of revealing information:

I take the liberty to mention to you that when Genl Knox was Secretary of War, when he was in Boston, He imployed me to go on board the French Frigate Concord, to make a drawing of the brass Carronades with their Beds, which were on her quarter deck, which I did, and transmitted to him one of the draughts, which is now in the War office at Philadelphia; they carry a Ball of the size of a 42 pr but are chiefly imployed for Grape Shot & langridge; He was so much pleased with them that he directed Tench Coxe to have 12 of them cast for the Frigate, Tench Coxe wrote me on the matter, but I afterward received a letter from him acquainting me, that Tench Francis was to provide for all Naval matters, & that I must write to him, which I did, but he never answered my letters. 
     Some time since Capt Nicholson wrote to the Secretary to know how his Tops were to be armed. He replied that he should send him some brass Howitzers, which carried a six pound ball; about that time Capt. Nicholson applyed to me for a drawing of a Carronade of the same size, which he sent to the Secretary of War, desiring to have them, in preference to Howitzers, & I have now orders to cast them. 
     If you will give yourself the trouble to examine these draughts & compare them to the Howitzers, you will see how preferable they are, & how much better for real Service. The Howitzers have their Trunions in the Centre of the Bore, which makes them dificult to Elevate or Depress, by reason that the Base, & Muzzel Rings are nearly of the same diameter; The Carronade has its Trunion, or Rather Trunion hole, directly under the Gun, by which means the Carronade is easily elevated or depress the centre of motion being so much lower—You will observe that there are Iron Cheeks to be Bolted to the upper, or Sliding bed, thro which an Iron pin is put, which secures the Carronade to the Bed; this bed is fastened to the lower one, by an Iron Pivot, which slides in a Grove made in the Under bed; which makes it quite easy to Point, either forward, or aft & very handy to load in board. Its other advantages are, it has an elevating screw thro' the Caskable, & a Ring above, to serve (?) the britching thro. Capt Nicholson was likewise directed to make use [of] 4 eight Inch brass Howitzers for his quarter deck, but upon consulting Col Claghorn, & the Carrige maker, he found his quarter deck ports were not wide enough by six or eight Inches. He has now applyed to the Secretary of War, to have four brass Carronades cast for his quarter deck, of the largest size.—Should these Guns be more agreeable to you than the Howitzers I should be happy to furnish you with them, as soon as it is possible after application is made.— my patterns are made from the small ones, & shall begin casting them to-morrow. I shall then prepare for the large ones—The Concord had a bed fitted in the Bow of the Long Boat, which shipt & unshipt at pleasure in fifteen minutes they could mount one of these Carronades in her Bows.
     Six of the 8 Inch Howitzers are sent to Philadelphia, as I suppose for your ship, but as these pieces of Ordinance were never intended for the Sea, but for the land Service, I think you will not approve of them.—They are of my casting, by which you will judge of the Workmanship. [3]

The French frigate La Concorde visited Boston and other American ports between 1793 and 1794.  What Revere saw and drew while on board that ship was undoubtedly the French model 1787 obusier de vaisseau. [4]  Unlike the howitzers, this gun had a loop cast on the underside of the barrel, and could be elevated and depressed with a screw at the breech.  In addition, it had a loop through which the breeching tackle passed.

A French obusier de vaisseau cast at Nantes in 1794.  The elevating screw and cascable ring are just peaking out behind the breech, and the iron cheeks and the pin that secures it to the bed is plainly visible.  This specimen is missing the lower part of its carriage or bed, on which the upper portion could slide in for loading and our for training and firing. Musee National de la Marine, Paris

We find further proof that this was the style of gun made by Revere.  In his “cash and memoranda book” at the Massachusetts Historical Society, there’s an entry for ten carronades he cast in 1798.  These weighed in total 1463 lbs.  That means each piece weighed a manageable 146 lbs, and so were not large caliber guns. In addition, there’s an entry for “10 setts of iron cheek pins and screws for carronades,” suggesting they were mounted and elevated in the French fashion.

These guns remained on board Constitution until February 1800 when then-lieutenant Isaac Hull noted in his journal that they’d “Armd and Mannd the Schooner Amphitheatre and fitted her out for a 30 days cruise, Sent carpenters on board her to mount the Cannonades and Swivels sent out of the Constitution.”[5]

It may be that one of these guns, unmarked and unidentified, is still hiding in a collection somewhere, awaiting rediscovery.


[1] For more on the development and evolution of the carronade, see Spencer Tucker, “The Carronade,” Nautical Research Journal, Mar. 1997.
[2] SecWar James McHenry to Capt. Samuel Nicholson, 21 April 1798, Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1935), 57.
[3] Paul Revere to John Barry, 29 April 1798, quoted in Martin I.J. Griffin, Commodore John Barry (Philadelphia: Martin I. J. Griffin, 1903), 340-341.
[4] In one letter he calls the guns “Charonades,” which sounds very much like how the French might pronounce the English “carronade.”  See Renee Lynn Ernay, “The Revere Furnace, 1787-1800, thesis, University of Delaware, 1989, 34.

[5] Extract from journal of Lieutenant Isaac Hull, U. S. Navy, of U. S. Frigate
Constitution, Captain Silas Talbot, U. S. Navy, commanding, Friday 28 February
1800, Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France, Vol. 5 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937), 256.



Thursday, April 23, 2015

Handsomer than she ever was

As Constitution prepares to enter the dry dock at the Charlestown Navy Yard for yet another period of repair and renewal, let us look back at the ship’s first major rebuild in the 19th century.

The ship had initially needed work between 1801 and 1803 to mend the wear and tear of the Quasi War (1798-1800), and to prepare her for her role as Commodore Edward Preble’s Mediterranean squadron flagship.

After her long Mediterranean cruise, the ship required yet more repairs between 1807 and 1809.  This time the work was performed in New York.

The battles with HMS Guerriere and HMS Java inflicted considerable damage on the ship, and combined with the normal degradation expected of any wooden warship, Constitution spent most of 1813 under repair at Boston.  The ship needed new deck beams and waterways, deck and ceiling planking, knees, and copper sheathing.  The most dramatic change came on the gun deck, which was raised 5 or 6 inches amidships.  This might have done something to improve the crew’s ability to work the guns on that deck, but must have appeared awkward.

At war's end, the ship returned to Boston and was laid up in ordinary- “mothballed” as we might say today.  Surveys performed in 1815 and 1819 determined that the ship required yet more repairs before she could be placed back in active service.  Happily, these surveys have provided us with the earliest surviving plans of the ship’s interior. The Navy Board of Commissioners, the group of senior officers now in charge of building and repairing the Navy’s vessels, asked for Constitution’s plans for their files, but it was determined that her original draft had been taken by Capt. Samuel Nicholson (her first captain) and had since disappeared.  To make up for the deficiency, Sailing Master Charles Waldo (who lost a leg in the battle with HMS Java) drew plans of the ship’s spar deck, gun deck, and orlop deck, showing the location of the beams, knees, hatchways, and storerooms.

The surveys determined that Constitution needed some serious work to put her back into fighting trim.  Remember, she was now 20 years old, at the upper end of the life expectancy for a wooden warship in the period.  Her frame of sturdy live oak remained in good shape, but much of her external and internal planking, decks, beams, and masts all needed replacement.  Isaac Hull, now commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard, oversaw the repairs that lasted into 1821, but when she emerged from the hands of the Navy Yard workers, Hull could truthfully say, she was “a much handsomer Ship than she ever was.”

In 1829, Charles Morris prepared a “Statement of Repairs made upon the Frigate Constitution in 1820 & 1821.”  This outlined all of the work done on the ship:

    Rail, all new
    Strings & Bulwarks all new
                Plank between the ports inside & out, all new
    Channells, all new
                Strakes of plank below ports ten new
    New timbers – most of the Top Timbers & Stantions [sic] new, some of the upper
        futtocks new, Counter Timbers all new
    Beams of Gun & Spar Decks, all new
    Knees for Gun deck, about one half new
       do     “   Spar   do,  all new 
    Deck Plank – Spar & Gun Decks, all new – Birth deck, part new
    Water Way on Gun & Spar decks, all new
    Clamps of Gun & Spar decks, all new
    Galleries, Head, Cutwater, & Carved work on Stern, all new
    Spirketings of Birth & Gun decks, news
    Ceiling in Hold, repaired
               Plank on Stern, new
    Bottom plank, some plank new
    Gun Carriages new, /were made some years previous but had not been used
    Carronade beds & Slides, repaired
    Capstain,[sic] repaired
    Caulking, new throughout
    Copper, new
    Joiners work –     magazines new, Store room on fore & after orlop repaired
            Ward Room & Steerage, about two thirds new, Cabin, & al[l]
            other Joiners work, new
    Mast & Spars – a new Bowsprit, 3 new Topmasts, 3 new Top Gallt masts,
            3 lower, & 3 Topsail yards, new –
    Boats, all repaired
    A propelling machine made – [a man-powered contraption designed to propel the ship with paddlewheels against wind and tide]  
What the list didn’t record was that yard workers discovered two 32lb round shot embedded in the hull- a souvenir of her last battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant.  These were removed with the surrounding timber and sent to Washington, where they were placed on display in the Commissioners’ office.

The ship headed back to the Mediterranean in May 1821, and in 1824 artist Nicolo Camillierei captured her off Malta.  He rendered her with great precision, and we can see some of the changes made during the Boston refit.  The bow and quarter galleries have been altered, with much of her earlier decorative work replaced, and she now has a paint scheme popular in the 1820s and 1830s- the gun stripe is carried up and all the way around the bow.   The sheer or curvature of the hull and decks has been flattened as a result of repositioning the deck beams and gun port timbers.  Whether she was now “much handsomer” is a matter of opinion, but she was now strong and sound enough to face another decade of active service.


Nicolo Camillierei's 1824 portrait of the ship.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mourning Lincoln

The Victorians elevated mourning to an art form.  When England’s Prince Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861, Queen Victoria went into deep mourning for her beloved husband, and plunged the English speaking world into decades of gloominess.  In dress and interior design, and even in manner and outlook, people adopted somber tones.  Across the Atlantic, Americans had their own reasons for adopting mourning dress and trappings.  In April of that same year, the United States had been riven by a bloody Civil War.  This would be no quick conflict.  Both the North and the South dug in their heels and the next four years of fighting resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides.

When General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the North rejoiced.  Though the war was not yet over, the end was in sight.  Five days later President Abraham Lincoln and his wife attended a play at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre.  While the audience laughed at the comedy, John Wilkes Booth shot the president in the back of the head.  He died early the next day.

The assassination shook the nation already exhausted by the war. Thousands, if not millions, turned out for the ensuing funeral processions, first in Washington, DC, and then again in Springfield, Illinois.  All along the procession routes, home and business owners draped black crepe from the windows of their buildings.

Constitution, moored near Goat Island in Newport Harbor, observed the general mourning.  The Secretary of the Navy ordered all the ships of the fleet to lower their ensigns to half-mast on April 18.  The next day at noon, the Macedonian, one of Constitution’s training ship consorts, fired 21 minute guns in honor of the late president.

The museum’s collection contains a poignant reminder of the grief of a nation. In 1975, a hand-sewn 34-star flag was donated to the museum.  A note accompanied it:

A flag made for my birthday in 1861, by sailors on board the old Constitution & sent me by Lieutenant- after Commodore- Edward Phelps Lull- U.S.N. – It floated all through the Civil War from the front of my homes, first on Rollins, then on Chatham Sts.  It was draped for Lincoln- then again in Annapolis for Garfield and then again for McKinley in Newark - Mary J. Graff

Constitution’s sailors crafted Miss Graff’s flag of bunting, and it displays all the charm of a hand-made object.  The stars appear to “dance”- all their points are oriented in different directions.  The black border, perhaps sewn on by Graff herself, is made of some stout twilled woolen.

The flag sewn by Constitution sailors in 1861, and bordered in black for President Lincoln.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

In 1977, a descendent wrote a letter to inform the museum that the flag “was once again displayed in New York when President Kennedy was killed in 1963.”  Thus the flag, crafted and displayed as a patriotic gesture at the beginning of the Civil War, came to symbolize the grief of a nation for a century.