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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

All That Glitters: The US Navy Uniform Regulations of 1802

For all the branches of the military in the 19th century, pride of profession was outwardly manifested by a splendid uniform.  Officers reinforced their place in the service’s hierarchy by wearing clothing that suited their status as leaders and gentlemen.

American naval officers were always anxious about their appearance.  Their frequent interactions with foreign dignitaries and military officers made them realize that although they represented a republican government, they needed at least some of the trappings of monarchy in their uniforms if they were to garner respect and cooperation in far off ports.

The first US Navy uniforms authorized in 1794 and again in 1797 were austere and plain.  As Secretary of War Henry Knox explained in a letter to President Washington, “an Idea was held out for embroidery; but I have suggested the impropriety of that additional and expensive ornament for a Republican Navy- It has therefore been left out.”  Coats of blue and buff cloth, with gilt buttons, were thought sufficiently elaborate for the very small officer corps.

By the turn of the 19th century, however, naval officers began to agitate for something more elaborate and navy-like.  In 1801 the Jefferson administration sent a squadron to the Mediterranean, and for the first time American naval officers came into close and frequent contact with both their British and French counterparts.  These nations had long naval traditions and the officers of both services wore expensive, and in the case of the French, dazzling uniforms of blue, white, and gold.

In August 1802, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith revised the Navy’s uniform regulations.  The new uniforms included a profusion of gold “lace,” or gilt metallic wire braid, gilt buttons, and the coveted blue and white color scheme.  While the cut and details shifted slightly with changes in civilian fashion over the next decade, this was the uniform worn at the beginning of the War of 1812.

Many senior officers had their portraits painted wearing their best dress uniforms, but perhaps the best record of what these looked like comes from the hand of French √©migr√© artist Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Memin.  Using an optical device called a “physiognotrace” he created some of the most accurate and delightful portraits of the period.  His portrait portfolios are a veritable who’s who of the early Republic.  Included among the many merchants, politicians, bankers, and assorted rich men and women, we find the profiles of a good number of naval officers.




The compilation of images above (all, except where noted, from the collections of the Smithsonian), shows the uniforms of all the different grades of officers in the US Navy between 1802 and 1814.  Starting from the left, we have Captain John Dent, wearing a captain’s uniform with fully laced collar and lapels and two epaulets.  Oddly, the 1802 regulations say nothing about the uniform of a master commandant, but from descriptions and subsequent uniform regulations, we know that Master Commandant John Cassin is wearing the proper uniform for his rank.  Virtually the same as a captain’s uniform, the only difference is his epaulet; instead of wearing one on each shoulder, he only wears one on the right.  Next comes James Lawrence, dressed in the uniform of a lieutenant commandant- that is, a lieutenant in command of his own vessel.  Like the master commandant, he wears a single epaulet on the right shoulder.  Lieutenant Ralph Izard sports a single epaulet on the left shoulder, signaling that he is a subordinate lieutenant on board a larger vessel (St. Memin always depicted his sitter from the side with the epaulet!).  Dr. John Bullus wears a surgeon’s uniform with its complex embroidery around the buttons holes.  Purser John H. Carr also sports embroidery on his collar, in this case an oak leaf and acorn motif.  The final portrait is not by St. Memin, but by an unknown miniaturist.[2]  It depicts Midshipman Samuel Elbert in his dress uniform. 

Early navy aficionados will see that we are missing both a surgeon’s mate and a sailing master to round out this collection.  Unfortunately, no image of either of these officers in an 1802 regulation uniform has yet come to light.

As this glittering assemblage makes clear, a sailor needed to have an intimate acquaintance with different button, lace, and epaulet configurations (and good eyesight!) to discern a particular officer’s rank.  To make matters even more confusing, most officers wore an “undress” uniform at sea, a plain, stripped down version of the dress uniform.  Gold lace and epaulets cost a small fortune, and no frugal sea officer would dare spoil them with salt spray and sunshine.


[1] Henry Knox to George Washington, 25 July 1794, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799; Series 4. General Correspondence, 1697-1799.  This austerity harkens back to a resolution of Congress in February 1781: “Resolved, That after the first day of January next, no officer whatsoever in the service of the United States shall in any of them wear on his clothes any gold or silver lace, embroidery or vellum other than as Congress or the commander-in-chief of the army or navy shall direct for the uniform of the corps, and badges to distinguish officers.” Secret Journals of Congress, vol. I, p. 184.

[2] From the Navy Art Collection.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Victorious September

The second week of September 1814 was an ominous time for the United States.  The public buildings at Washington, including the Capitol, White House, Treasury, and Navy Yard lay in ashes, and the British had set their sights on the commercial city of Baltimore.  According to British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who commanded the British fleet in the Chesapeake, Americans “like Spaniels … must be treated with great severity before you ever make them tractable.”  And so he wished to destroy Baltimore, “the most democratic town &I believe the richest in the Country.”

No longer in doubt as to the capabilities of the British Army and Navy, the citizens of Baltimore, state militia, and US Navy sailors worked day and night to fortify the approaches to the city.  By the 12th of September, they’d made the town a tough nut to crack.  A star-shaped bastion called Fort McHenry, strategically placed at the entrance to the northwest branch of the Patapsco River and the inner harbor, formed the centerpiece of a string of forts and batteries designed to turn back even the most determined attack.

"A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry," a 1905 reprint of an 1819 print depicting the British attack on Baltimore.  Library of Congress.
As we know, despite a land attack from the east and a naval bombardment, during which they hurled almost 2000 bomb shells and 800 rockets at Fort McHenry, the British failed to breech the defenses and retired down the bay without taking the town. According to American Lt. Henry Newcomb, who commanded a contingent of US Navy sailors at one of the batteries west of Fort McHenry, “the seamen were extremely indignant that the enemy fought no longer.”

Meanwhile, 500 miles to the north, American seamen faced another onslaught from a combined British army and navy attack.  In the late summer, a British force of 10,000 under the command of General Sir George Prevost moved down the Champlain Valley, intent on invading the United States.  A British fleet had been assembled in the upper reaches of the lake, and its commander George Downie, was tasked with gaining control of Lake Champlain and protecting the army’s flank and supply lines. 

Facing this large force was Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, with 3,000 American soldiers at Plattsburgh, NY.  On Lake Champlain, Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough had a sloop-of-war, a schooner, two brigs and 12 gunboats at his command.  The ships arrived at Plattsburgh on September 3.

On September 11 Downie’s fleet, delayed by outfitting the frigate Confiance, finally caught up with Prevost’s army, then near Plattsburgh.  MacDonough had cleverly moored his ships bow to stern across the entrance to Plattsburgh (or Cumberland) Bay.  The crews ran “springs” or heavy cables from the ships’ sterns to the anchors forward.  By hauling in on these spring lines, the men could turn the ships’ broadsides in a wide arc. 

About 9 AM the British came round Cumberland Head and anchored opposite the American line.  A little before 10 AM the battle began in earnest.   The fierce battle proved destructive to both ships and men.  Early in the action, an American cannonball struck the muzzle of a gun on the Confiance, knocking it from its carriage and against Downie’s groin.  A later account described the condition of his body: "His skin was not broken, a black mark about the size of a small plate was the only visible injury. His watch was found flattened, with its hands pointing to the very second at which he received the fatal blow."

A contemporary print of the Battle of Plattsburgh.  In the foreground, the American Army turns back the British attach, while the background, MacDonough's fleet battles Downie's.
MacDonough’s report to the Secretary of the Navy gives testimony to the fierceness of the action:  “[T]here was not a Mast in either squadron that could stand to make sail on; the lower rigging, being nearly all shot away, hung down as though it had been just placed over the mastheads…. The Saratoga had Fifty five round Shot in her Hull- the Confiance One hundred & five. – The Enemy’s shot passed principally just over our heads, as there were not 20 whole hammocks in the nettings at the close of the action.”

A Midshipman Lee of the Confiance described the conditions on the British ships: "The havoc on both sides is dreadful. I don't think there are more than five of our men out of three hundred but what are killed or wounded. Never was a shower of hail so thick as the shot whistling about our ears. Were you to see my jacket, waistcoat and trousers, you would be astonished how I escaped as I did, for they are literally torn all to rags with shot and splinters; the upper part of my hat was also shot away. There is one of our marines who was in the Trafalgar action with Lord Nelson who says it was a mere flea-bite in comparison with this."

With their crews decimated and sails and rigging shot away, the British vessels surrendered one by one.  A number of the gunboats pulled away from the battle and escaped, but in the end it was a decisive victory for the Americans.  In imitation of Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous “We have met the enemy” message after the Battle of Lake Erie, MacDonough wrote a short message to the Secretary of the Navy announcing his victory:

“The Almighty has been pleased to Grant us a signal victory on Lake Champlain in the capture of one Frigate, one Brig, and two sloops of war of the enemy.”

The victories at Baltimore and Plattsburgh not only secured the safety of the respective regions, but they denied the British a bargaining chip in the ongoing peace negotiations at Ghent.  British territorial gains were minimized, and therefore could not be used to gain concessions from American negotiators.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Another Old Ironsides

Today marks the anniversary of the Constitution’s victory over the British frigate Guerriere on the ever-memorable 19th of August 1812.  As naval history aficionados everywhere know, during the battle, sailors witnessed British cannon balls rebounding from Constitution’s thick oaken sides.  With a shout  - “Huzza, her sides are made of iron!” - an enduring nickname was born.  And while the sobriquet “Old Ironsides” will always be connected to our frigate, it turns out the name was not a particularly original one.

In fact, there was an “Old Ironsides” before Constitution, and she was British.

The Battle of Trafalgar (Oct. 21, 1805), was a massive engagement between a Royal Navy fleet under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson and the combined Spanish and French fleets under Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. In an 1806 account of the battle we read about HMS Britannia’s role in the fight:

The Britannia (Old Ironsides, as our brave sailors call her) certainly did no discredit to the name she bears…[1]

A slightly later account of the battle repeats the name:

The Earl of Northesk, who was third in command, greatly distinguished himself on this memorable day.  His ship, the Britannia, (which was facetiously called by the sailors Old Ironsides,) broke through the enemy's line, a-stern of the fourteenth ship.[2]

This Britannia was the third ship of the name to serve in the Royal Navy.  A first-rate ship-of-the-line mounting 100 guns, she was launched at Portsmouth, England in 1762.  She sailed to the relief of Gibraltar (when besieged by the Spanish) in 1782.  She fought at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797.  Placed back in commission in 1803, she served as the flagship of William Carnegie, 7th Earl of Northesk at Trafalgar.[3]


Sheer plan and half-breadth of HMS Britannia (1762)- the first "Old Ironsides."  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

We don't know if there was a pivitol moment in the heat of some battle during which Britannia became "Old Ironsides."  She was a massively strong and heavily-built ship, and quite aged by 1805. These traits alone could have made her into "Ironsides."

According to the ship’s muster rolls, there were eighteen Americans serving in Britannia’s crew in October 1805.[4] And according to Guerriere’s Lt. Bartholomew Kent, at least seventeen of Constitution’s gun captains had served in the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.[5]  Could one of these men have served on HMS Britannia, and applied his former ship’s nickname to his new one?  If so, it is fitting he did so on the very day when Britannia no longer (entirely) ruled the waves.

[1] Archibald Duncan, The British Trident; or, Register of Naval Actions, Vol. V (London: James Cundee, 1806), 43.
[2] John James M’Gregor, History of the French Revolution, and of the Wars Resulting from that Memorable Event, Vol. VIII (London:  G.B. Whittaker, 1828), 93-94.
[3] Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, Vol XXI, No. 113 (Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1905), 210.
[4] Edward Fraser, Champions of the Fleet, Captains and Men-of-War and Days that Helped to Make the Empire (London: John Lane, 1908), 283.
[5] “Record of the Court Martial of Captain James Richard Dacres, Jr., Late Commander of HMS Guerriere,” Public Records Office, ADM 1/5431.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Live Oaking In Eight Easy Steps

Congratulations, the United States government has accepted your proposal to supply the Navy with live oak for the frames of its new ships for $.75 per cubic foot.  Each ship requires about 30,000 cubic feet of timber, so in theory this should be a profitable venture for you.  The live oak the Navy requires grows principally along the coast of the southern states.  Hopefully, you own an island or two on the coast of Georgia- or have made friends with those who do.  Thanks to Mr. Eli Whitney’s new cotton gin, cotton cultivation and slave labor are more profitable than ever before.  All those stately live oak trees stand in the way of cotton fields.  As your friend has said, “The crops of cotton are so abundant this year, and the price so high, that in two years from this, there will not be a Forest of Live Oak standing in Georgia- except what is bought up by the Government.”[1]  Sounds like you’ve started this venture at just the right moment!

You will no doubt encounter “many various and extensive difficulties,” which you cannot possibly foresee at the time you enter into this contract with the government.[2] Yet, by following these eight easy steps, you’ll have a shot at success.

1. Send your agent to Boston, New London, or some other New England seaport to hire scores of workmen (carpenters, axe men, moulders, and hewers).  Advertise in the newspapers- Yankees love to read. Procure oxen and provisions (rum, pork, beef, bread, rice, butter, cheese, and molasses). As for the rum, buy “the cheapest kind…with which [they] will satisfied.”[3] 

An advertisement for axe men and ship carpenters to cut live oak, from the Connecticut Gazette, 26 June 1794.
2. New Englanders won’t work in the south during the summer.  You must ensure that they arrive in the fall or early winter so they can cut timber the longest period before the real heat sets in.  If you must augment your cutting gangs in the hot days of summer, you might hire slaves from the local plantations.  Thomas Spalding and John Couper have been obliging in the past.

3. Beg, cajole, or threaten the naval constructor in Philadelphia to finish and send on the wooden moulds, or patterns, by which your men will cut each piece of timber.  Without the moulds, it is impossible to know what size and shape each piece should be.  If you must cut timber without the moulds, be prepared for the inevitable waste.

4. Supply each head carpenter with a book containing a “descriptive list of the Timber to be cut by the Gang of workmen under his direction.”[4]  The carpenter will “enter each stick of Timber” as it is cut, and when they return from the woods make a proper entry in your books of the quantity.

5. It would be nice if all the timber you need could be found within a circle of fifty miles, but most likely you’ll have to send cutting gangs to Florida, and all along the coast of Georgia, and far into South Carolina.  You’ll have to pile the timber at fifty or sixty different landing places, and at each of these places you must make camps for the workmen, cut new roads, and transport all the moulds, provisions, oxen, and wheels for hauling timber.[5]

A timber wain for hauling logs, by William Pyne, ca. 1800.
6.  Be aware that your axe men will need a great deal of time and energy to fell a massive live oak.  Here is the labor intensive process:  “[T]wo [axe men] have stationed themselves on the opposite sides of the trunk of a noble and venerable live-oak. Their keen-edged and well-tempered axes seem to make no impression on it, so small are the chips that drop at each blow around the mossy and wide-spreading roots. There, one is ascending the stem of another, of which, in its fall, the arms have stuck among the tangled tops of the neighboring trees. See how cautiously he proceeds, barefooted, and with a handkerchief around his head. Now he has climbed to the height of about forty feet from the ground; he stops, and squaring himself with the trunk on which he so boldly stands, he wields with sinewy arms his trusty blade, the repeated blows of which, although the tree be as tough as it is large, will soon sever it in two. He has changed sides, and his back is turned to you. The trunk now remains connected only by a thin strip of wood. He places his feet on the part which is lodged, and shakes it with all his might. Now swings the huge log under his leaps, now it suddenly gives way, and as it strikes upon the ground its echoes are repeated through the hummock, and every Wild Turkey within hearing utters his gobble of recognition. The wood-cutter however, remains collected and composed; but the next moment, he throws his axe to the ground, and, assisted by the nearest grapevine, slides down and reaches the earth in an instant.
    Several men approach and examine the prostrate trunk. They cut at both its extremities, and sound the whole of its bark, to enable them to judge if the tree has been attacked by the white rot. If such has unfortunately been the case, there, for a century or more, this huge log will remain until it gradually crumbles; but if not, and if it is free of injury or "wind-shakes," while there is no appearance of the sap having already ascended, and its pores are altogether sound, they proceed to take its measurement. Its shape ascertained, and the timber that is fit for use laid out by the aid of models, which, like fragments of the skeleton of a ship, show the forms and sizes required, the ‘hewers’ commence their labors.” [6]

The mighty live oak, Quercus virginiana.
 7. Get the government inspector to inspect all the cut timber at the landings as soon as possible.  By no means let it sit out all season exposed to the rain and sun, or else you will end up with great cracks and fissures that will render even the largest pieces useless.

8.  Submit your accounts and wait many months or years before you finally get paid what you are due for the unrelenting labor and huge amounts of your own cash you have expended to fulfill your contract. In the end, if you are lucky, you might have made some money!


[1] Ebenezer Jackson to Benjamin Stoddert, 5 December 1799, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[2] “Interrogatories to Ebenezer Jackson, Esquire former Navy Agent for the State of Georgia,…” 1 Feb. 1805, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[3] Ibid.  See also Virginia Steele Wood, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981), 26.
[4] Interrogatories to Ray Sands, 25 January 1805, in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[5] Ebenezer Jackson to Benjamin Stoddert, 7 April 1801 , in Phineas Miller’s accounts, RG 217, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, Box 1815, NARA.
[6] Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals, vol. 2 (London: John C. Nimmo, 1898), 328-329.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rehearsal Aboard Old Ironsides



 This week, Log Lines is pleased to feature a guest post by Mary Isbell.  Mary is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of First-Year Writing at the University of New Haven. She planned a theatrical production aboard USS Constitution this past year during her appointment as a Postdoctoral Associate in Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale University. She has directed one other shipboard performance, a 2012 production of John Till Allingham's farce, The Weathercock, aboard US Brig Niagara, a replica of the 1813 square-rigged sailing warship that fought at the Battle of Lake Erie.
Think not, you play-goers and lovers of the drama, although a wide waste of waters separates us from those shores where histrionic representations are cherished and admired as they ought to be by all classes, that the inmates of our gallant ship are debarred the pleasures derived from witnessing the heroes of the sock and buskin “tread the boards;” no such a thing. Be it known to you, gentle reader, that amongst our jolly lads we have several who in by-gone days have “strutted their brief hour,” and who, to gratify their three years’ associates, voluntarily came forward to lend their humble aid towards dispelling the dull monotony by which we are surrounded; and the quarter-deck of our trim old frigate, can in a few short hours, as if by the wand of an enchanter, be transformed into a little theatre, which would not be looked on slightingly even by those who are wont to gaze upon the gorgeous decorations of the Bowery or Park. 
                                                          --Henry James Mercier, Life in a Man-of-War
The Playbill
One of many firsthand accounts of theatricals aboard nineteenth-century ships, Life in a Man-of-War recounts a series of performances given by sailors aboard USS Constitution while harbored in Callao, Peru. I learned about this firsthand narrative while researching Herman Melville’s account of a shipboard theatrical in White-Jacket (1850), which--it turns out--is a fictionalized version of Mercier’s account (Huntress 73). In Melville’s telling, the commanding officer of the Neversink, Captain Claret, begrudgingly allows the performance of an original play to celebrate the Fourth of July as the ship approaches the dangerous waters off Cape Horn, only after scanning the play for anything “calculated to breed disaffection against lawful authority” (NN WJ 93). Although the dramatic text passes Claret’s censorship, the performance conjures a “terrific commotion” from the audience that made “all discipline” seem “gone forever” (94). As I argue elsewhere, Melville offers a thrilling fiction that associates performance with danger by appropriating Mercier’s account of performances mounted aboard USS Constitution.

Inspired by this research, I requested permission to stage, with students enrolled in a course at Yale called “Theater and the Sea,” a production inspired by the performances documented in Mercier’s narrative. I was delighted when the commanding officer of the Constitution, CDR Sean D. Kearns, responded with enthusiasm to the idea. The seminar introduced students to the history of nautical drama (including Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, Eugene O’Neill’s sea plays, Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno, and Moby-Dick, the opera). We also spent considerable time studying the history of plays performed by sailors at sea. Students prepared production histories on plays that sailors performed, and their research informed the play we wrote together.

We considered many possibilities for our production over the course of the semester. We thought of staging one of the plays, reconstructing how sails and the ship’s rigging might have been used to construct a makeshift theater on the quarterdeck. While this is still a very tempting idea (and a larger production in the future might provide such an opportunity) we decided that we were most interested in imagining what it would have been like for sailors to rehearse in various places around the vessel. We drew inspiration from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play Our Country’s Good (1988), a theatrical adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker (1987). The play and novel imagine a 1789 performance of George Farquar’s The Recruiting Officer (1706) in the early days of the Sydney Cove penal colony. Requested by the Governor, the performance was directed by the second lieutenant of the convict ship and the performers were convicts. My students and I were most struck by the way the convicts discussed particular lines from The Recruiting Officer during rehearsals, and we began exploring how lines in the plays performed aboard the Constitution (a farce, tragedy, and melodrama) might have resonated with the sailors performing them.

Instead of rehearsal building toward the performance of one play, then, we imagined preparations for three different plays, representing very different genres popular in the nineteenth century. The plays Mercier mentions are all British plays that had been performed in American theaters in the 1830s. The bill for the ship’s first production included John Banim’s 1821 tragedy, Damon and Pythias, and David Garrick’s 1841 farce, The Lying Valet. Just one week after the debut, the dramatic club offered the 1819 melodrama, The Ruffian Boy, “by particular request of the officers,” and repeated the Lying Valet. Significantly, Mercier emphasizes that officers requested the play, which would have given it a vote of confidence from a class above the common sailor. “So taken were our old sea-dogs with the theatrical mania,” he explains, “that they again set a subscription on foot, and replenished the funds with two or three hundred dollars more” (122). The author of the prologues in turn repaid this kindness with two original pieces, “entitled, Life in Peru and Old Ironsides paid off,” which were “met with a warm and hearty reception from our tars, the language and incidents coming so home to their bosoms” (122). No description is offered of Old Ironsides Paid Off, but the title suggests it was a self-referential play about the Constitution returning home. The second play, Life in Peru, seemingly depicted events that occurred during shore leave. Mercier makes no direct mention of female roles, though The Lying Valet would not be The Lying Valet without love-struck Melissa and her comic maid, Kitty Pry. In our rehearsal play, we imagine several situations that might have emerged as male sailors prepared to perform the female roles.

My primary goal with the culminating performance of the course was to give students an opportunity to experience the unique features of shipboard theatricals by actually performing aboard a ship. As I anticipated, it was thrilling to perform aboard the same vessel that served as a venue for shipboard theatricals in the nineteenth century.

Freddy and Logan memorize lines from Damon and Pythias in their hammocks
Freddy and Logan rehearse, under David's management

The prologues Mercier includes in his account took on new significance after we had embarked on our own production aboard Old Ironsides. I now suspect that Mercier (or a close acquaintance of his) wrote the prologues, which I include in full below:
February 14, 1840
What cheer, my hearties! Shipmates how d’ye do?
I’ve come to spin a twister unto you;
And tho’ my lingo should, d’ye see, be rough,
I not being graced with grammar or such stuff,
I’ll in my humble style get under way
Knowing you’ll list to what I’m going to say:
Since we from famed Columbia’s shores set sail
Our gallant ship has weathered many a gale,
And buffeting each tempest that we’ve met
She’s proved herself the same trim sea-boat yet
That she was wont to be in days long past,
When she withstood the battle and the blast!
Safe and unharmed the stormy Cape we’ve braved,
Although its gales with fierceness o’er us raved;
And spite of its terrors, which make thousands fear,
We now, thank Heaven, are safely anchored here.--
No doubt you think it is a novel sight
To see Jack Tar strut forth with all his might,
Doffing tarpaulin, and with lightsome heart,
Enact the tragic or the comic part;
But Shakspeare says that ‘all the world’s a stage;’
Why should not we on shipboard catch the rage
as well as those upon the dull tame shore? [gesture at audience]
We strive to please, the best can do no more.
Although our pond’rous guns now passive lay,
Our “spangled banner” spread to grace our play,
Yet should our country but require again
Our services upon the azure main,
I’ll venture that ‘Old Ironsides’ once more
(Her present captain, crew and commodore,)
Would prove herself, as o’er the deep she’d glide,
Columbia’s armament, Columbia’s pride!
There’s now tranquility from shore to shore
And the dread voice of war is heard no more;
Our country’s smiling in the lap of peace,
Her navy and commerce every year increase
And we the sons of war have laid us by
The exercising our artillery;
And armed with pointless swords we now are here
Awaiting your approbation to appear: --
Which should we gain, our efforts will not cease,
But strive with something new each night to please;
For, believe me, the purport of each farce or play
Is but to while the tedious hours away,
To cause a gladsome twinkle in your eye,
And try to dispel the dull monotony
That oft on board of ship doth intervene
And serves to sadden many a joyous scene.
So while we move in our dramatic sphere
Let not your criticisms be too severe;
And should some trivial errors meet your eye,
Mariner like I know you’ll pass them by.
So, shipmates, I’ve told you all I’m going to tell,
For hark! I surely hear the prompter’s bell;
And when my other maties do appear
I hope they’ll meet a kind reception here.

February 22, 1840
Shipmates, I’ve come again before your sight:
For after your plaudits of last Friday night
‘Twould be ungenerous of our Thespian crew
Did we not give our heartfelt thanks to you;
Accept them then on their behalf from me,
Although uncouth and rude those thanks should be;
But the reception of our first efforts met
Believe me, my friends, we never will forget.
Our little corps had enemies enough,
But spite of each frown and spite of each rebuff
We’ve catered once more to please your appetite,
And stand prepared this glorious festal night
To try our luck again; --with you it lays
Either to damn us or to give us praise.
Think to yourself with what a beating heart
We first stepped forth to play our humble part,
Fearful that every criticizing eye
Would in each word or action something spy
To censure and condemn for little cause;
But no, you gave us undeserved applause.
For which we thank you; and our humble band
Are here again waiting for your command
To come before you, and to prove to all,
We’re ever ready to obey your call;
Aye, from this duty we will never flinch--
You’ll find we’ve not relaxed a single inch;
For though our time was short, we’ve something new
I hope will prove acceptable to you;
And if our humble efforts but succeed,
We will feel doubly satisfied indeed.
This is a night to every freeman dear;
And I am sure there’s scarce a bosom here
That does not throb with pleasure and delght,
And hail with rapture, Washington’s birth-night.
This twenty-second, gave that mortal birth
Whose brilliant actions echoed round the earth;
Who, with the flag of liberty unfurled,
Became the pride and wonder of the world;--
In all his deeds, heroic virtue shone;
His friendship, kings and potentates did own;
And he performed so virtuous, his career,
His foes by turns did wonder and revere.
My warmth of feeling, who there will blame,
When eulogising Washington’s great name?
For Britain’s naval sons are too possessed
Of that which fills each guileless, noble breast,
To censure me for my expressions here
When on the subject which we all hold dear.
Grim war now rears his fitful head no more,
But smiling peace extends along our shore;
And as it is the gem with which we’ve dress’d
Columbia’s fruitful, palpitating breast,
May him who’d wish to wrest this gem away,
Become to his impolitic views a prey.
Yes, Heaven, grant this peace may far extend,
And rival nations in sweet union blend;
May Britain and Columbia still go hand in hand,
And show to the world how close their friendship stand;
And strongly cemented by this friendly tie,
They might without fear the very globe defy:
What nations, then, combined in all their might,
Dare stop the lion’s roar--the eagle’s flight?”