Thursday, April 30, 2015

Carronades for the Tops: A New Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Thursday, April 23, 2015

Handsomer than she ever was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mourning Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Frolics, Larks, and Playing Tricks


Dia dos bobos,  Ngày Cá tháng Tư, Balandžio pirmoji, April Fools’ Day.  Call it what you want, the first of April has long been a day for tricks, jokes, and hijinks.

While most sailors’ memoirs and narratives are silent about the observance of April 1st, most of them include some mention of the pranks perpetrated on unsuspecting or gullible shipmates.  Sailors generally enjoyed a reputation as being a light-hearted, merry set of men.  Nevertheless, many of their jokes could be quite malicious.  Slicing the tails from the coat of a newly-enlisted landsman, or cutting down a man’s hammock in the night, while endlessly amusing for the perpetrators, surely gave the victim some sore knocks.

A classic prank- painting on your shipmate's face while he sleeps.  This detail of an 1821 print show some of the goings-on in a British midshipmen's berth. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

What is perhaps more surprising, on board a man-of-war the officers frequently encouraged or turned a blind eye to the sailors’ antics.  Thomas Byron, who served as Constitution’s Marine fifer during the War of 1812, recounts one such instance: 

[The crew] were all ways merry and lively and the officers liked to see them so, the officers would pipe all hands to mischief when we had a leisure afternoon, this was to encourage them.  At one time in Boston harbor we were at this sport when a green looking countryman came alongside the ship in a shore boat to look at the ship and having the whip on the main yard to whip in water [casks] one of the larks went down in the boat and commenced talking with the man while another slipped the rope under his arms no sooner done than up he went crying ‘a Turkey a Turkey,’ this was sport for the officers.  They lowered him down on deck and showed him the Ship he was a man over six foot high with broad brim hat, a long surtout [an overcoat] and cane and cut a great figure in the air.

Chaplain George Jones, who penned some evocative descriptions of life on Constitution during her Mediterranean cruise in the 1820s, thought such tricks to be a necessary part of naval life, a sort of safety valve that let sailors blow off some steam before they created more serious mischief:

Our progress was slow, till this evening, when. the wind became fair, at last: this, with a bright moon and milder air, has brought a fiddler or two to the forecastle, where the sailors form many a merry group; but their ball room is a singular one: the floor is dancing too, and sometimes kicks up the heels of all, or sends them, head foremost, among the spars. Some are making strange noises or playing tricks, and all are in a frolicksome mood. Full license is given to it from the quarter deck, as is often done when the ship is under easy sail; and I have heard of some of our ships, where they even pipe all hands to mischief. The scene of wild riot, and rude joke, and antic merriment, is described as very amusing. But it is not often done, and is inconsistent with the sober and stern character of the service.



As a final aside, this is the 100th post for Log Lines.  We want to thank you, our readers, for your continued support and for your insightful comments.  We look forward to continuing this historical odyssey for many weeks to come. And that’s no joke!



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.