Wednesday, March 25, 2015

First Photo



 In January 1839, Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced that he’d discovered the secret of capturing permanent images of the world.  Using the light sensitive properties of silver iodide, and working out a way to both develop and fix the image on a thin sheet of metal, the resulting “daguerreotype” process transformed his contemporaries’ ways of looking at the world around them, and our way of looking at history. 


By September of the same year, the secrets of the process had been transmitted to the United States, and an intrepid band of Yankee tinkerers began to experiment for themselves.  In October, Philadelphia lamp merchant Robert Cornelius took what has been acknowledged as the first surviving photograph in America- and the world’s first selfie!

While the daguerreotype process created a highly detailed and beautiful image, each photo was unique because there was no way to make multiple reproductions of the original plate.  By the 1850s, photographers had embraced the wet collodion process, a technique that captured an image on a glass plate negative.  Photographers then developed the negative into a positive print using light-sensitive paper.  Initially, this paper was treated with a weak solution of sodium chloride (salt) and then a strong solution of silver nitrate.  Later, the paper was treated with a mixture of egg whites and the other chlorides, producing what is known as an albumen print.

Constitution had long been a favorite subject of American artists, but the earliest known photographic image of the ship dates to 1858.  For much of the preceeding 20 years, when photographers began capturing the world around them, the ship had been sailing in far-off places where no photographers could be found.  In 1855 she returned to the United States and was laid up at the Portsmouth Navy Yard.  In July 1857 Navy Yard workers began to outfit her as a school ship for the US Naval Academy.

It was in this location that Portsmouth photographer Albert Gregory captured her for posterity in May 1858.  Gregory excelled at making daguerreotypes.  In fact, he won an award at the New Hampshire State Fair in 1854 for a “stereoscopic daguerreotype”- a device that enhanced a viewer’s sense of depth when looking at an image.  By the middle of the 1850s, he began to shoot his subjects using glass plate negatives that allowed him to make multiple positive prints on salt paper.
 
Albert Gregory's photo of the ship, taken at the Portsmouth (NH) Navy Yard on May 27, 1858.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

A detail of an 1856 map of the Portsmouth Navy Yard.  The red dot is in the approximate location of Constitution's bow, and the green dot represents the photographer's location.

Gregory’s wonderful portrait of the ship captures a moment in time.  We can tell it is late May, because the small tree just behind the ship’s bow is heavy with new leaves.  The ship has been hauled out of the water on the yard’s floating drydock railway. The small steam engine positioned just before the bow provided the power to haul the ship’s bulk from the dock.  And what a bulk it is.  The men standing jauntily about the yard are dwarfed by her hull.  We can see all the changes wrought by the dockyard during the previous year.  The waist amidships has been enclosed, and the bulwarks raised by boarding up the hammock nettings.  The bow structure and quarter galleries have likewise been enclosed.  Naval architecture had changed since the late 18th century, and the Navy now imposed new ideas on its old ship.  But beneath the waterline, the hand of Joshua Humphreys is still evident.  Even though the yard workers haven’t finished coppering the hull, we still can see that fine entry and great depth of hold that gave the ship her famous speed under sail.
 
A detail of the bow, with a number of nattily dressed dockyard workers posing for the picture.  Notice the second Andrew Jackson figurehead installed on the bow, the cathead, and the remnants of the filigree carving on the trailboard, now obscured by black and white paint.
A detail of the left side of the photo, showing the Yard's boat house and a hand-pumped fire engine- a prudent thing to have close at hand.

While this might have been the first time Constitution posed for the camera, it certainly was not the last.  It seems fitting Albert Gregory captured her in a moment of transition, as she moved from one phase of existence as an integral part of the fleet, to one of lighter duties leading to eventual retirement.  In a way, the picture embodies photography’s greatest gift, by capturing those fleeting moments so that they might live on forever.






Monday, March 16, 2015

When Irish Eyes are Sailing

Mingle the sons of Columbia with the sons of Erin and you might create a volatile mixture.  On the other hand, you might create one of the most skilled and brave naval crews to ever sail the seas.  The early US Navy certainly thought that was the case, and USS Constitution’s War of 1812 crew proved the point.

Because the Navy didn’t keep very good records about the birthplace of its sailors, we don’t know the exact number of Irishmen who served on board the ship between 1812 and 1815.  We’ve discussed the problems of foreign seamen before here, but using other sources we can tease out some of the Irish-born in the crew.  Names themselves can be revealing, if not definitive.  There were at least 24 sailors whose names began with “Mc," and many more whose names suggested Irish origins.

Lieutenant George Campbell Read, though born in Ireland, was fully naturalized by the time he accepted HMS Guerriere’s surrender on August 19, 1812.  During the same battle, Boatswain’s Mate James Campbell, a native of Derry, served as captain of gun no. 13.  Surgeon’s Mate John Armstrong, who had come from Ireland eight years before, tended the wounded after the battle, and later acted in the same capacity for the men injured in the battle with the Java.  When he returned to Boston in 1813, he requested a transfer: “As I am an alien of Gt. Britain I should [be] disagreeably situated should I happen to fall into the hands of the enemy, therefore should be happy to serve the United States in the like capacity on shore…"

In the heat of the engagement with Guerriere, Seaman Daniel Hogan, “a little Irish chap, but brim-full of courage,” scampered aloft to secure a flag that was in danger of being shot away. 

Without a word from anyone, he sprang into the rigging and was aloft in a moment.  He was soon seen, under the fire of the enemy, who saw him too, at the topmast height, clinging on with one hand, and with the other making all fast, so that the flag could never come down unless the mast came with it.  The smoke curled around him as he bent to the work; but those who could see him, kept cheering him through the sulphury clouds.  He was soon down again, and at his station in the fight.
A tiny Daniel Hogan, as depicted by Michele Felice Corne.  This is a detail from one of his four epic canvases of the Guerriere battle.  US Navy art collection.

For this act of heroism, the Secretary of the Navy awarded him an extra month’s pay.  In the battle with the Java, he received a severe wound in both hands, and he died penniless in New York in 1818.

Constitution’s Marine Guard probably had an even higher percentage of Irishmen serving in its ranks.  Of the 109 privates and non-commissioned officers who served during the war, eighteen claimed to have been born in Ireland.  Private Francis Mullen (or Mullins) took a musket ball in the ankle while firing from the mizzen top during the Guerriere battle.  Private William Holmes, a former blacksmith, received a disabling wound in the hand during the battle with the Cyane and Levant in 1815.

Last, but not least, there was Sligo-born, black-haired, black-eyed Private John Kilroy.  Like their GI descendents in the 1940s, Constitution’s crew could truthfully say “Kilroy was here!”

Not quite a pot of gold, but gold nonetheless.  This is the reverse of Isaac Hull's gold Congressional medal, awarded for the victory over HMS Guerriere.  Private collection, on loan to USS Constitution Museum.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Porto Praya Interlude

We last left Constitution in the possession of two British prizes, so handily captured on February 20, 1815.  With shot holes stopped and rigging mended, Captain Charles Stewart had a choice.  He could risk returning directly to the United States, where the likelihood of encountering a British blockading squadron was high, or he could sail to some neutral island, land the prisoners, and wait for news of the peace treaty he knew was coming.  Though everyone on board anxiously wished to return home, Stewart chose the prudent option.  The ship and her prizes steered for the island of Santiago, in the Cape Verde archipelago, and anchored at Porto Praya (modern Praia) on March 11.  The islands were a possession of Portugal, and therefore a neutral port.


Constitution accompanies her prizes to Porto Praya in this engraving from Horace Kimball’s 1837 America Naval Battles. Note the American ensigns hoisted over the British.  USS Constitution Museum collection.

The next day dawned breezy and hazy- so foggy in fact that at noontime Constitution’s lookouts barely spotted a powerful British squadron standing into the harbor.   In twelve minutes, Constitution, Cyane, and Levant had all cut their anchor cables, sheeted home their topsails, and sailed out of the harbor, barely clearing the point at the entrance, but evading the guns of the British squadron.  As the ships picked up speed, they set all their sails, and cut away the boats towing astern.

Constitution and Levant sailed well, but the Cyane began to fall behind.  At 1:10 PM, Stewart signaled to Cyane (now under the command of Lt. Beekman Hoffman) to tack to the northwest, hoping to draw some of the pursuers away.  But the British paid no attention, and kept following in the wake of Constitution and her smaller consort.  By 3 pm, Constitution’s superior speed had given her a considerable lead, but the poor Levant began to find herself in danger.  Midshipman Pardon Mawney Whipple narrates what happened next:

[T]he Capt apprehensive that should she be brought to action in company with the Constitution, it might endanger the latter ship, therefore found himself under the necessity of sacrificing the Levant to save her, the signal was made for her to tack, which was promptly obeyed & astonishing as it may appear to every brave man, the enemy squadron tacked in succession after the Levant & abandoned the Constitution, when it was reasonably supposed by all onboard, even the English officers [the prisoners], that had the most tryfling accident happened, she must have inevitably fallen into their hands – they (the Englishmen) raved like mad men when this circumstance took place.

The British squadron commander, Sir George Collier, could never adequately explain why he let Constitution escape.  The decision haunted him, and he eventually committed suicide in 1817.

As Constitution sailed merrily over the horizon, the British turned their attentions to the Levant.  The prize captain, Lt. Henry Ballard, knew he couldn’t outrun them in a long chase, and so decided to return to Porto Praya in hopes that the Portuguese governor would respect the Americans’ right to anchor in a neutral port.  Unfortunately, the Portuguese authorities were unwilling or unable to prevent the British from attacking the American prize.  In fact, the British prisoners who had been previously landed by Constitution’s crew left their place of confinement, went on shore to the fort guarding the harbor, drove the Portuguese soldiers from it, and opened fire on the Levant with the entire battery.

According to Marine Private Henry B. Joslin, part of the prize crew on Levant,

We ran into the Cove to avoid the shot and beached our ship, but it being very bold water, she did not stick, we let go an anchor under foot, and only veered enough [cable] to hold her, so we could not be in sight of the fort. Then the frigates came in one after another and gave us a broadside & stood out.  [A] boat from Leander came alongside (as we had struck before the vessels had entered or fired into us, knowing we were entirely at their mercy) and enquired “what ship is that.” Lt Ballard answered “it is late H.B.M. ship Levant,” and also said, “you are a set of dam rascals for firing into a ship with her flag struck.”

Constitution was still filled with British prisoners, and with provisions and water running low, Capt. Stewart knew he had to offload them before returning to the United States.  Standing across the Atlantic, the ship reached St. Louis de Maranham (São Luís, on Maranhão Island) on the coast of Brazil.  After successfully landing all of the prisoners – a process that took nine days- the ship sailed for home.  They touched briefly at San Juan, Porto Rico in April 28, and here learned the news that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed and ratified.  Midshipman Whipple called it “the most unwelcome news that I ever received,” for gone were his chances of glory and promotion.

The ship and her weary crew at last made it to New York on May 15th.  They found the Cyane waiting for them.  Three days later, the men captured on the Levant arrived.  According to Private Joslin, “as we passed her, we of the old crew gave three cheers for the old Constitution. Then Comr. Stewart hailed, asking what men were those & I want them all.”

Fragments cut from the ensigns of HMS Levant and HMS Cyane, probably in the 1850s.  The trophies hang today in Mahan Hall, at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.  USS Constitution Museum collection.
 Reunited at last, the crew made one last passage in Constitution- this time home to Boston.  The crew was somewhat disgruntled by their lackluster reception in New York, but all was forgotten when they reached home.  As Midshipman Whipple remembered,  “those who were mortified must have been highly compensated by the flattering reception which we met with here, firing of guns, when we landed, & colors flying from all the vessels in the harbour, & even across the streets & upon the tops of the houses – the congratulations of a large company of officers who came to meet us upon the wharf was altogether very pleasing”

And so Constitution’s War of 1812 adventures ended.  The crew paid off or transferred to other ships, and the old frigate laid up in ordinary, it would be six years before she raised her anchor for another voyage.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Whitewashing Constitution

We can’t whitewash history, but history sure liked to whitewash. Consisting of thinned hydrated lime, whitewash (or more properly, limewash) was used as a substitute for more expensive paints to brighten utilitarian spaces.  Coating the walls of cellars, kitchens, dairies, and garrets, whitewash gave a room a tidy, hygienic appearance, and was cheap and easy to apply.

The penurious early US Navy loved whitewash too.  The exteriors of the ships were protected and enlivened with several coats of glossy oil-based lead paint, but the spaces deeper in the hull were invariably coated in whitewash.  As early as July 1799, Constitution’s log records the crew whitewashing between decks.  They brushed it on the cable tier, the hold, the forward storerooms, the berthdeck, and the bulkheads on the gundeck. They reapplied the concoction every few months.  In October 1812, the crew whitewashed the cockpit, probably to remove the grisly evidence of battle triage and surgery that had taken place there two months earlier.  In 1826, Chaplain George Jones reported that “The beams above [the berthdeck], are white-washed; and I have frequently seen the captain rub his white glove against, them, and then examine, to see whether it had been soiled or not: parts of the deck are white-washed every morning.”

Constitution's hold, chain locker, and orlop, captured in July 1900.  The beams, stanchions, and bulkheads exhibit the chalky, spotty appearance of poorly-applied whitewash.  US Navy photo.

After thinning the lime to the consistency of milk, sailors applied whitewash with wide, short brushes (purchased by contract for $3.50 per dozen in the 1820s).  It went on almost translucent, and as it dried became brilliantly white.

Part of the reason the Navy so loved whitewash was the perception that it created a healthful living and working environment.  While early naval surgeons probably didn’t know why exactly, they were certainly correct about the healthful benefits of the stuff.  Whitewash was made by slaking (or soaking) quicklime (CaO) in water.  The slaked lime was highly alkaline, with a pH of about 12.4.  Applying this to wood was sufficient to kill most bacteria on the surface.  As whitewash cured, it absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turned into calcium carbonate (CaCO3).  Calcium carbonate is still slightly alkaline, with a pH of about 9.4.  Either way, those concerned with the health of sailors favored whitewash for its antiseptic properties.

Whitewash is also non-flammable.  Period paints, besides containing lead oxide pigments, used turpentine as a solvent.  Scores of ships caught fire over the years because sparks fell on wet paint (perhaps the most spectacular example was burning of L’Orient, the French flagship at the 1798 Battle of the Nile.  Supposedly, the ship had been newly painted the day before the battle, and fire from the guns’ muzzles or a burning wad set the ship ablaze).

 Despite these benefits, whitewash fell out of favor for shipboard use by the middle of the 19th century.  As early as 1826, Constitution’s interiors began to receive coatings of paint.  One reason for this may be the inflexibility of whitewash.  Unlike a paint film, which can flex, whitewash forms a hard coating.  As a ship flexed at sea, it is likely the whitewash cracked and flaked off.  It could be reapplied easily, but for a ship on active duty, it needed constant upkeep.

Whitewash could also become fodder for youthful shenanigans.  One famous but unsubstantiated story, sometimes involving Commodore Charles Stewart, goes like this:

The captain “found great fault one morning, with the precincts of the galley. The midshipman of the deck was following, as is usual, and received a severe hazing for it; which was terminated with an order that every thing should receive a double coat of whitewash. ‘Every thing, sir?’ enquired the middy. ‘Yes sir, every thing.’ Judge the captain's surprise, next morning, when a favorite milch-goat of his, stalked into the cabin, white-washed all over; with not a hair of her jet black coat to be seen. The midshipman was arrested, as he deserved to be, but was soon after restored again.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Constitution’s Last Fight

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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