Friday, August 14, 2015

Beat to Quarters!

So many of the details of life in the early US Navy remain elusive.  As we dig ever deeper into long-neglected archival sources, we begin to gain a better understanding of the minutiae of life at sea in the period.  And yet some details of that world were so commonplace to the men who lived them every day that no one bothered to record them for posterity.

We recently received an inquiry wondering about the tune used to call the crew to their “quarters” or battle stations.  Most early nineteenth century accounts of battle simply mentioned that a ship “beat to quarters.”  This, of course, implies that a drum was used- other instruments don’t “beat,” after all.

Several sources provide confirmation.  In the wake of the USS Chesapeake’s ignominious encounter with HMS Leopard in 1807, the American ship’s officers appeared as witnesses at the court martial of Commodore James Barron, whose indecision resulted in the British forcibly removing several seamen from the American ship.  Part of the proceedings focused on Barron’s failure to call his men to their battle stations. The court addressed Lt John Orde Creighton, Chesapeake’s fourth lieutenant at the time of the incident, with the following question: "What was the usual mode of getting the crew to quarters in this ship before this period? And what has been the manner generally practiced [sic] in the American navy, as far as you have observed in it?"

Creighton answered: "The usual way on board this ship and all others where I have been, has been to beat to quarters. If they have no drum however, or the drummer is incapable of doing his duty, the boatswain pipes all hands to quarters." [1]
As late as 1852, the US Navy’s manual for preparing ships for battle agreed: “A ship's company may be called to quarters by beat of drum, or by call of the Boatswain and his Mates; but the first mode is to be always used when practicable.” [2]
A modern artist's reconstruction of a new contingent of Marines drilling on board ship.  They haven't yet developed their sea legs!  Note the drummer on the right.  Marine musicians wore uniforms the reverse of the privates- red with blue cuffs and collars. USS Constitution Museum, © copyright 2010 Stephen Biesty.

Nearly every period source agrees: a drummer beat his drum to call the men to quarters.  But what did this sound like?  Everything in the Navy operated under some sort of system, so surely the drummer didn’t play his drum as he pleased.

In the British Royal Navy, the tune played by the drummer when beating to quarters was “Heart of Oak,” the famous song written by William Boyce and David Garrick in 1759.  Generally, the American Navy slavishly copied British protocol, but in this instance, that does not seem to be true.  Why, after all, would the US Navy use a tune that celebrated mid-eighteenth century British naval victories?

Luckily, the answer comes in the form of a book by US Marine Drum Major Charles Stewart Ashworth.
We don’t know much about Ashworth’s life, but he was evidently a skilled musician and instructor. In January1812 he published a book called A New, Useful, and Complete System of Drum Beating… intended particularly for the United States Army and Navy.  Since the musicians on board ship were in fact Marines, it stands to reason that the call he notated in his book was the one in current use.

A page from Ashworth's book, showing the notation for "To Arms."
 Music historian James Krause has recorded what this would have sounded like when accompanied by a fife- and all the American frigates carried a Marine drummer and fifer.

[1] Navy Department, Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron (James Gideon, 1822), 70.
[2] Navy Department, Instructions in Relation to the Preparation of Vessels of War for Battle (Washington: C. Alexander, 1852), 32.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Her reputation precedes her

As Constitution’s War of 1812 victories mounted, the ship began to acquire a well-deserved reputation for indestructibility.  Her record spoke for itself, but it was helped along by the popular press. The American newspapers quickly circulated anecdotes of incidents that allegedly happened on board in the midst of the battles.  The news editors were likely repeating tales told by the ship’s own crew when they returned home.

If American seamen had good reason to be proud of their ship's reputation, we can be sure that British seamen looked on her with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. We can only imagine the sort of forecastle yarns they wove about the seemingly invincible American frigate, although occasionally we get a hit of what some of these must have sounded like.

Constitution's terrifying broadside...

Years after the Treaty of Ghent, Boston-born Josiah Cobb published an account of his wartime experiences.  He had been captured by the British frigate Leander, and as soon as he came on board he learned of that ship’s obsession with Constitution:

As a stimulant for the men to keep a sharp look-out, on the mainmast of the frigate was a placard, which I noticed when first mounting the deck, offering a “reward of £100 to the man who shall first descry the American frigate Constitution, provided she can be brought-to,” with a smaller reward should they not be enabled to come up with her. Every one was eager in his inquiries about this far-famed frigate, and most of the men appeared anxious to fall in with her; she being a constant theme of conversation, speculation, and curiosity. There were, however, two seamen and a marine (one of whom had had his shin sadly shattered from one of her grape-shot,) who were in the Java frigate when she was captured; these I have often heard to say, in return to their shipmates' boastings, “if you had seen as much of the Constitution as we have, you would give her a wide berth, for she throws her shot almighty careless, fires quick, aims low, and is altogether an ugly customer.”[1]

Niles’ Weekly Register, the Democratic-Republican newspaper, frequently published stories plumping the American naval reputation.  Whether or not the stories were true was beside the point: they made for some great copy!

The following anecdote….was communicated to us by an acquaintance, who was informed of it by an American captain, who was a prisoner at the time in Plymouth. 
The British ship Captain, formerly admiral Nelson’s flag ship, having accidentally taken fire in the port of Plymouth, (Eng.) and her cable having been burnt, she was drifted towards the dock, where it was apprehended she would do great damage to the shipping, naval stores, &c.  The ships of war, and among them three 74’s, were ordered to fire into and sink her.  After a constant fire of 15 minutes, without producing any effect, and the fire ship still drifting, a sailor belonging to one of the 74’s (and who had been captured in the Guerriere or Java) vehemently exclaimed, “by G_d, if the Constitution was here, she would sink her in ten minutes. [2]


[1] Josiah Cobb, A Green Hands First Cruise, Roughed out from the Log-book of Memory, of Twenty-five Year’s Standing (Boston: Otis, Broaders and Co., 1841), 135.
[2] Niles’ Weekly Register, 15 April 1815.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Constitution’s Launch from a Different Perspective

As our research into Constitution’s origins progresses, we continue to unearth interesting tidbits about the ship’s early days.  The circumstances of the ship’s launch are well known, but beyond a number of enthusiastic or derogatory newspaper articles, surprisingly few first-hand accounts of the three launch attempts exist.  I say surprising, because we know that many hundreds of men, women, and children gathered at every favorable vantage point to witness the spectacle of the giant frigate entering her “native element.”

And yet, only a handful of surviving diaries and journals record the thoughts of the multitude.  One of these belongs to an unnamed daughter of Henry Howell Williams. [1] It is a wonderfully chatty tome, full of insights into the activities of late 18th century Boston society.

Williams and his extensive family lived on Noddles Island in Boston Harbor.  By all accounts, Williams was a wonderful host who entertained regularly, and his extensive farm (as well as income from tenants and wide-ranging business interests) allowed his family a happy living.  The island itself was a favorite resort in the summertime, and parties of picnickers and fishermen frequented its shores.

A portrait of Henry Howell Williams from about 1790, attributed to John Johnston.  The portrait was sold by Neal Auctions in 2013.

Williams had no direct role in Constitution’s construction, but he did own a wharf and land adjacent to Edmund Hartt’s shipyard.  The government used it to store timber for the ship and paid Williams $392.56 in rent for the privilege.

Williams’ daughter’s account of the ship’s launch captures the excitement of the day.

Tuesday, 19th September, 1797. — . . . Before sunset the ferry-boat brought Mr. Hill and two daughters, Mrs. Mears, Mrs. Blany and daughter, Mrs. Thayer, cousin Susan and Martha, Sally, and Betsey Avery, to pass the night, to see the frigate launched on the morrow, etc.

Wednesday, 20th. — Wind N. W., pleasant but cold. The company began to assemble early. A large number of our friends came over besides strangers. Papa thinks there were about six hundred on the Island, and one hundred that partook of a eleven o'clock and dined with us. There were Mr. Carey, wife and family; Mr. Avery, wife and family; Mr. Hill and family; Mr. Scott and two daughters; our friends and relations from Boston and Roxbury, too many to enumerate. Some left us after; had about forty to tea. These left us all but those who tarried last night, except Mrs. Blany and daughters; the Mr. Sigourneys went over this morn. Daniel (S.) came over with his mother. Andrew (S.) was to be launched in the frigate, but like ourselves and thousands of others, was disappointed as the vessel did not move more than eight feet before she stopped. The colors were then dropped as a signal she would not go off to-day, etc.

Not to be deterred by the mishap, Naval Constructor George Claghorn tried again two days later.

Friday, 22. — A fine day. Scott erected a tent again on the hill to accommodate those persons that come over to see the ship launched, as they intend to make another attempt to-day. A great number of people came over, but not as many we think, as on Wednesday, and again were disappointed as the vessel stuck, and could not possibly be got off. Several gentlemen called to take some refreshment.
Noddles Island, as surveyed by William Taylor in 1801.  The black rectangle marker "Mansion House" was Williams' home.  Camp Hill was the high prominence from which the guests watched the launch.  Leventhal Map Collection, Boston Public Library.

Disappointed indeed.  This time, because of the tide and the need to adjust the launching ways, the next attempt had to wait a month.  The dreary weather and the quickly fading novelty of the event tempered the spectator turnout and enthusiasm.

Saturday, 21st October. — Wind east and rather cold. Papa and the boys went to Boston. At twelve o'clock we all paraded up the hill to see the ship-launch, as she was to make tryall for the third time. A great number of people collected on the wharf, and a few boats in the harbor; only one boat of people landed at the Island. At half-past twelve she went, and I think that every one that saw her must be gratified, as it was impossible for anything to go better, or look prettier.

As a side note, when the Federal Government looked for a site for a new navy yard in Boston, Noddles Island was a top contender.  In the end, however, landowners in Charlestown had a more effective lobby. Today, Noddles Island lies beneath the streets and avenues of East Boston, its hills long ago cut down as fill during late nineteenth century land-making projects.  But you can still get a great view of the Boston skyline from there.

[1] Excerpts from the journal were transcribed in William H. Sumner’s A History of East Boston (Boston: J.E. Tildon and Co., 1858), 331-339.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Peter Turner’s Likeness

As we’ve mentioned before, we love when we can put a face to a historic name.  The museum recently acquired a number of artifacts related to Lieutenant Peter Turner, including a stunning daguerreotype photograph.

Turner was born in Rhode Island in 1803 into a distinguished naval family.  His father William served as a surgeon during the Quasi War with France.  Peter’s uncle, Benjamin B. Turner, joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1800. Seven years later he was killed in a duel with a fellow officer (a son of the famous Dr. Rush of Philadelphia).  Another uncle was appointed a midshipman, but also died a few years later.

Peter’s most famous uncle, however, was Daniel Turner, who commanded the brig Caledonia at the Battle of Lake Erie, and went on to long and distinguished career in the Navy.

Despite this pedigree, Peter didn’t receive a warrant as a midshipman in the US Navy until he was twenty years old.  Promotion came slowly in the antebellum navy, and he didn’t get his lieutenant’s commission until 1832.  His uncle, now Commodore Daniel Turner, took him along on his flagship when he commanded the Brazil Squadron between 1834 and 1835.  Peter later served on Constitution, again under the command of his uncle, between 1840 and 1841.  In 1844 he visited Rio de Janeiro while serving in the frigate Raritan and there he sat for his portrait.

Lt. Peter Turner in 1844. USS Constitution Museum collection.

We don’t know the name of the photographer who took the image, but it might very well have been one of the several itinerant American daguerreotypists working in the Brazilian capitol.  The image is crystal clear, but Lieutenant Turner seems ill at ease.  He is posed in an unnaturally stiff manner, clutching his sword, and wears his badly-fitting undress uniform coat, with a wide rolling collar that looks ready to swallow his head.  His enormous epaulet, worn on the left shoulder (remember, a daguerreotype image is always reversed), serves as an unmistakable marker of his rank.

This may have been the first photograph he ever sat for.  A 19th century note attached to the photo claims this was “a poor likeness,” but if not flattering, it might at least be revealing.  The dark circles and bags beneath his eyes and the thinning crop of hair hint at the daily stress and long-term disappointment facing the now 41-year-old lieutenant.

When he returned home, he was detached on “special duty” to the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, NH. The only ship he ever commanded was the Southampton, not even a proper warship, but a storeship.  Not until two months into the Civil War was he promoted to commander.  In 1863 he was made a commodore and put in charge of the US Naval Asylum in Philadelphia, one old sailor surrounded by many others.

Perhaps the one great joy in his life was his wife and children.  In 1842 he married Sarah Stafford Jones.  She was twenty-three years his junior, and together the couple had five children.

Sarah Turner, in a daguerreotype dated 1852.  While more than twenty years younger than Peter, she outlived her husband by only four years.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

If the Rio daguerreotype was the first photograph he sat for, we may also have the last.  A carte de visite dated October 12, 1863, shows the now sixty-year-old Turner looking rather more dignified, at ease with the camera and with his position as commandant of the Naval Asylum.  As the New York Herald remembered after his death in February 1871, “he was a popular and gallant officer, and his death takes away another from among the few remaining naval officers of the olden time.”

Turner as a sixty year old commander.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

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 Belgian 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?