Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Stoved Boat

Two days from now, home cooks across the nation will fire up their ovens and stoves to prepare a Thanksgiving feast.  The ease with which we now boil, roast, braise, fry, sear, and grill our dinners would have seemed nothing short of miraculous to our forebears.  With the push of a button or the turn of a dial, we can conjure instantaneous, even heat that remains steady for as long as we need it to.  We forget how far kitchen technology has advanced in the course of a few short generations.  Even a century ago, though iron cooking ranges had become commonplace, home cooks prepared meals using methods that had changed little in generations. In a way, they had more in common with cavemen than with today’s chefs, surrounded by the latest stainless steel wizardry.

Though it seems incongruous, sailors of the War of 1812 benefited from the latest in cooking technology. To our eyes, the iron stoves with which a navy ship’s cook and his mates prepared daily meals for 450 men seem hopelessly primitive, and yet the sea-going fire hearths of the early 19th century represented an important technological improvement over their predecessors. Until about the middle of the 18th century, most ships’ cooking facilities consisted of ponderous brick structures and copper kettles placed either in the hold or forward on the main deck.  As the ship’s structure moved, or “worked” at sea, the bricks inevitably loosened, allowing smoke and even sparks to escape.  In addition, the great weight of the bricks put huge strain on a ship’s timbers. 

The Industrial Revolution changed all that.  By the 1750s, the British Royal Navy began to install iron fire hearths in its ship.  The rectangular wrought iron boxes featured kettles for boiling, and open hearths with grates and spits for roasting and grilling.  They weighed far less than their brick predecessors and consumed less fuel- an important consideration for a long voyage. [1]

When the US War Department began to outfit the nation’s new frigates in the 1790s, they naturally ordered the galley stoves from England.[2]  We don’t have any good description of what Constitution’s first stove looked like, but it may have been similar to the one carried by USS Maryland between 1799 and 1801: “It is made of wrought iron bars each about 3 ½ inches wide, with 2 copper boilers, divided only by a Copper partition.”  The boilers, like today’s high end copper pots, were tinned on the inside. [3]  One on board Constellation in December 1800 came complete with a “smoke jack” and two chains “for spitts.” [4]  As the hot air rose, a turbine-like device in the stove’s chimney spun, driving a shaft attached by chains to a roasting spit.

In August 1803, as Constitution fitted out for a cruise against the Barbary corsairs, Boston merchant John Bryant provided "one Iron Camboose 27 Inches with Furniture complete delivered on board the Constitution frigate $100." [5]  Apart from the height, we know little about the form of this stove.  It might have had inferior “coppers” like the one provided to Lt. Richard Somer’s schooner Nautilus:

This day I receiv’d the Camboose on board, & am much pleased with the plan- but do not approve of the Coppers being Cast Iron- They are very ruff – and if not able to stand the fire, or by accident get split, can never be repair’d.  I have experienc’d the loss of one on board the United States Commodore Barry, for six Months – It being of Cast Iron would not beare the force of the fire.  Commd had them made of wrought Iron- wich las’d untill laid up. [6]

Officer’s frequently complained of the poor quality and unsuitability of cast iron camboose “coppers”.  The two provided to the Portsmouth and the Merrimack in 1798 were condemned after a short time in service.  According to Boston Navy Agent Stephen Higginson, “the Boilers and the Hearths were both with what are called fire cracks, which by use have so much opened as to become incapable of use.” [7]

The Constitution camboose of 1803 seems far too small to have provided cooking space for the entire crew, however.  A drawing of a stove in store at the Boston Navy Yard in March 1827 gives the measurements as 6 feet 3 inches wide and 3 feet 8 inches tall.  In addition, a local manufacturer proposed to make one for a frigate for $2,300- a far cry from the mere $100 spent in 1803! [8]

An 1827 plan of a frigate's stove at the Boston Navy Yard.  National Archives

By the War of 1812, the Navy seemed to have been able to produce stoves for its own use, though judging from a number of plaintive letters to the Secretary of the Navy from various officers, the supply could not meet the demand.  After the war, domestic production increased.  In 1820the Washington Navy Yard employed 34 chain cable and camboose smiths led by the eccentric blacksmith Benjamin King.

Of course the camboose was only one part of the galley equipage.  In Sept 1813, Boston coppersmith Nathaniel Alley brought down to the harbor from his shop on Union St. the following items for Constitution’s galley: “2 Coppr & 1 Iron Covers for Galley,” “a 16 qrt Coppr Teakettle,” “3 Coppr Saus [sic] Pans with Covers,” “a large Iron ladle & tormentor [a large fork],” and “a large Coppr Cistern for the funnel from the Galley to pass through [an important item that, when filled with water, would prevent the hot funnel from setting the deck on fire].”  Apart from a few assorted iron skillets or pans purchased from various merchants, these were the only tools at the cook’s disposal.  And yet, considering the level of culinary finesse required to boil beef, pork, peas, and rice, they were wholly adequate to the task.

The purser, or rather the purser’s steward, was also provided with a range of tools to issue out the provisions to the crew.  Andrew Green supplied several sets of scales, iron and tin weights, a set of tin gill measures, a “flour shovell,” and a copper hand pump for pumping spirits (or water) from a cask. [9]

Incidentally, the stove on Constitution today may be the oldest piece of ship’s furniture visible to visitors.  It might date to the 1870s, or as late as the 1890s.  It appears in photos of the gun deck from 1907, 1914, and 1925.  During the 1927-1931 restoration, this stove was turned 180 degrees and fitted with a modern “Shipmate” stove manufactured by the Stamford Foundry Company of Stamford, Connecticut.  On this coal-fired range, the ship’s cook prepared meals during the National Cruise.





A 1914 photo of the ship's current stove.  The open hearth now faces the stern, rather than the bow.

[1] For more on early fire hearths, see Brian Lavery, The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 195-199.  Contemporaries used the terms fire hearth, camboose, or stove interchangeably to describe these items.
[2] Circular to Navy Agents, 5 Jul 1794 M74,  Tench Coxe Letters Concerning Military and Naval Procurement, 1794 1796.
[3] John Davis of Abel to Thomas Tingey, 8 Feb. 1814,  Captain’s Letters to the Secretary of the Navy, RG 45, Vol. 1, NARA.  We are indebted to Margherita Desy for sharing this letter.
[4] Alexander Murray accounts, 4th Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 127, Box 1914, NARA.]
[5] Navy Agent Samuel Brown Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[6] To Secretary of the Navy from Lieutenant Richard Somers, U S Navy,Baltimore, June 2nd 1803, in Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers vol. II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1940), 433.
[7] Extract of a letter from Stephen Higginson, 3 Jan. 1799, in Miscellaneous Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Navy, M209, Roll 1, 474, NARA.
[8]W. Whall and Son to Board of Navy Commissioners, 5 Mar. 1827, RG 45 E-327 Reports, Returns, and Estimates Received from Navy Agents, Sept 1814- Apr. 1834, NARA.
[9] Voucher to Andrew Green, Dec. 11, 1813, Amos Binney Settled Accounts, 4th Auditor of the Treasury Alphabetical Series, RG 217, box 38, NARA.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Frock On!

It is definitely sweater weather in New England.  When the mercury drops, we rummage our closets and cedar chests for all the knitted woolens stowed away since last winter.  Assuming the moths haven’t made a meal of them, sweaters form a fine base layer for keeping out the cold.

Two hundred years ago, when the winds turned chilly sailors donned garments similar to our modern sweaters.  They called their knitted garments Guernsey frocks.  Named for the small island in the English Channel, where home knitters have been crafting exquisite woolens for ages, these hard-wearing garments were just the thing for keeping the chest and arms warm at sea.

While their existence can be traced to the 1790s, they seem to have become commonplace in the Royal Navy around 1804.  In November of that year, none other than Admiral Horatio Nelson wrote a letter to the Commissioners of the Navy asking them to modify a new garment: 

Victory, at Sea 20th November, 1804

 Gentlemen,
To further answer to your Letter of the 25th June last, relative to my opinion of the Guernsey jackets of a new manufacture, therein-mentioned, (which were issued to the seaman on the 14th October,) and what further supply of them may be necessary for the Squadron under my command, I must beg leave to observe the quality of the said Guernsey jackets is most excellent, but that they are considerably too narrow and short to be tucked into the Men's trowsers. It is, therefore, my opinion that they ought to be at least three inches wider, and six longer. Indeed, if they were ten inches or a foot, it would be so much better, as they shrink very considerably in washing; and when the Seaman are on the yards, reefing or furling sails, the jacket rubs out of their trowsers and exposes them to great danger of taking cold in their loins; so that, with this alteration, which is particularly necessary, they certainly would be the best and most valuable slops that ever were introduced into the Service, and be the mean of saving many a good Seaman's life. With respect to the quantity required, it would not be too many to send out one for every Seaman in the Fleet. Perhaps the Guernsey jacket, in its present state might answer the largest of the boys.

I am , Gentlemen &c.
 Nelson and Bronte [1]

The garments were so new, in fact, that Nelson didn’t even know what to call them.  His reference to Guernsey “jackets” rather than “frocks” harkens back to an older 18th century usage of the term jacket.  Rather than referring to an outer garment as we do today, jacket was often used to describe a vest or waistcoat with sleeves.  In Nelson’s mind, these new woolen items were meant to be worn beneath the sailor’s outer jacket and over a shirt- just like a waistcoat.

Guernsey frocks begin to appear in artwork about the same time.  Philip DeLoutherbourg painted his remarkable portrait of Robert Williams, boatswain's mate on the HMS Venerable in about 1805.  You can see the frock’s wide neck and his check shirt underneath.

Boatswain's Mate Robert Williams, by DeLoutherbourg.  British Museum.

Some knitting historians have speculated that these frocks were knit by hand.  They certainly could have been, but the late 18th century witnessed the proliferation of knitting frames in England.  These machines could produce fine knitted goods like stockings, pantaloons, and frocks quickly and uniformly- just the sort of thing a Royal Navy clothing contractor would like.  Captain Basil Hall, RN, enumerated the numbers and sorts of garments a sailor should have in the 1820s, and included in his list, “two Guernsey frocks, made of a sort of worsted stocking-work, without any opening in front.” [2]
A detail from Sir Charles Eastlake's 1815 portrait of Napoleon on the Bellerophon.  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

In America, Guernseys were often marketed by hosiery merchants with business connections in London.[3]  As with many other aspects of American culture, the frocks were imported wholesale from England.  The US Navy adopted them early on.  In 1799, Boston shopkeeper John Hoffman supplied USS Congress with 250 “gurnsy Frocks” and promised the Essex another 150. [4] In 1813, merchants William and Joseph Duvall supplied 200 Guernsey frocks at $2.00 each. [5]

Perhaps the best depiction of one of these frocks in an American context is found in the monumental portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry by John Wesley Jarvis.  Now hanging in New York City Hall, the painting depicts a flag-draped Perry leaving his ravaged flagship Lawrence during the Battle of Lake Erie.  To the left stands an American seaman, one of his crew, wearing a pair of blue trousers, a glazed hat, and a striped Guernsey frock.

Jarvis's portrait of O.H. Perry- and a Guernsey frock.
The unassuming frock lived on well past the War of 1812.  Clothiers continued to advertise them by name into the 1870s.  Worn by fisherman and sportsmen, it remained an informal garment designed to provide comfort and mobility.

A tennis-playing, frock-wearing Mr. Laine, in an 1843 calotype photograph by Scottish photographers Adamson and Hill.  National Galleries Scotland.

In 1917, fashion icon Coco Chanel adapted a similar garment familiar from the Breton region of France.  Paired with trousers, it ushered in a new casualness to women’s fashion.  Despite these “haute-bourgeois” associations, the striped sweater never quite shook its bad-boy, working-class image.  James Dean wore one in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, and even Frank Sadilek, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels, made the striped shirt or sweater part of his signature look.


[1] Nicolas Harris Nicolas, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, vol. 6 (London: Henry Colburn, 1846), 275-276.
[2] Basil Hall, Fragments of Voyages and Travels, Second series, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, Robert Cadell, 1832), 93.
[3] For example, see William Gibson’s hosiery store advertisement in the Mercantile Advertiser (NY), 8 Oct 1806.
[4] Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, The Frigate Essex Papers: Building the Salem Frigate 1798-1799 (Salem: Peabody Museum, 1974), 174-175.
[5] Voucher to William and Joseph Duvall, January 1813, in Fourth Auditor Settled Accounts, Alphabetical Series, RG 217, Box 2880, NARA.

Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Desk of a Marine

Today marks the 239th anniversary of the United States Marine Corps.  Raised for Continental service at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia in 1775, the Corps performed important services during the Revolution.  Although disbanded in 1783, the Marine Corps was reestablished by an Act of Congress on July 11, 1798.  Since then, the Marines have, to quote their well-loved Hymn, fought their country’s battles in the air, on land and sea. 

In honor of the Marine Corp birthday, the museum hosts its annual Bush Breakfast, a tribute to First Lieutenant William Sharp Bush, who died in combat on Constitution’s quarterdeck during the ship’s battle with HMS Guerriere.

Born in July 1786 in Wilmington, Delaware, Bush came from a family devoted to national service. His father and three uncles fought in the American Revolution. He inherited their legacy of ambition, courage, and love of country. In 1808 he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Although he attempted to resigned his commission in 1810, his fellow officer pleaded for him to rethink his decision “in Language, truly flattering to…[his] Character & Feelings.” He joined the crew of “Old Ironsides” on June 11, 1812, taking command of the ship’s Marine guard. Just a week later, the United States declared war on Great Britain. On August 19, 1812 Constitution engaged HMS Guerriere about 200 miles east of Halifax. At the height of the battle, while Bush prepared to lead his men onto the deck of the enemy frigate, a British musket ball struck him in the cheek. He was the first US Marine Corps officer to die in combat during the War of 1812.

First Lieutenant William Sharp Bush.  National Museum of the Marine Corps collection.
  
For years, Lt. Bush seemed a slightly enigmatic figure.  His portrait, probably painted in 1811 by Jacob Eichholtz, reveals nothing.  Standing stiffly at attention, hair neatly powdered, uniform immaculate, the young Marine looks every bit the officer and the gentleman.  But who was the man in the portrait, the one who inspired so much affection while he lived, and so much regret when he died?

Thanks to the generous donation by Annette and William Doolittle of a pair of letters in Lt. Bush’s own hand, we now gain a deeper insight into the officer’s character.

Written in 1810 and 1811 to his friend Capt. Jabez Caldwell, the letters overflow with his personality.  He is generous and modest, friendly and humorous.  He speaks of his wish to resign his commission, but that he was “warmly solicited to return again to the Corps” and so bowed to the “persuasion of Friends.”  When he returned to his command, “every Countenance (especially those of my Men) beam’d on me a Smile of Joy.”  Nevertheless, he pines for a return to his Maryland home, because in all the places he has travelled, he has “not yet found the same Hospitality & Friendly intercourse which I have been accustom’d to.”

The second letter encourages Capt. Caldwell to visit him at his new quarters in Philadelphia. As an enticement, he describes the delightful situation of the Navy Yard, with its fresh breezes and shady balconies.  If Caldwell and his friends come up, “we’ll Drink, Sing & drive dull care away.”  And then there are the ladies.  Single and 25 years old, he still searches for a suitable wife.  Though he has not yet met any of the “Virtuous fair” in the vicinity, he confides that he has his eye on both a “richly Laden Frigate” and an inscrutable “little Island Creek Girl” of their mutual acquaintance.

Bush's signature from one of the letters.
The letters remind us that even though two centuries separate us, human values and desires have hardly changed.  A portrait is both symbolic and representational; it shows the sitter as he was seen and wished to be seen.  A letter to a friend is personal, and reveals that duty, friendship, honor, and hope coexist in us all, even in a man who died in combat in August of 1812.










Friday, October 31, 2014

Love's Labors Lost

We don’t frequently encounter stories of murder and mayhem in the course of researching Constitution’s 1812 crew, but when dealing with nearly 1,200 men of all different dispositions, it was bound to happen. 

Such is the story of one John Love, ordinary seaman. He joined Constitution’s crew  on July 3, 1812 at Annapolis and fought in the battles against HMS Guerriere and HMS Java.  He left the ship sometime after its return to Boston in February 1813.  Like many of his shipmates, Love was not a native born American.  On the contrary, according to one contemporary,  “[h]e was an Englishman and apparently wasn't glad of it.  He had come from Bath after many adventures, having enlisted in the American navy and joined the frigate Constitution.” One acquaintance said, “he was a short man, not five feet ten inches high, and would weigh about one hundred and thirty pounds; and was from twenty to thirty years of age.  I do not know as he was a very singular or odd man, never saw him quarrel, he was a temperate, sober man.”  Like any good sailor, he had an anchor tattoo on one arm.

“On his discharge came to Buffalo to 'traffick' along the lakes with some money he had laid by, for he was shrewd, calculating and a clever student of human foibles."  With the cash he had amassed (some of it prize money from the capture of the Guerriere and Java, no doubt) he began lending to various individuals in Upstate New York.  He lent a considerable sum to Israel, Isaac, and NelsonThayer  of Boston, NY.

By the middle of December 1824, Mr. Love decided it was high time they start paying back the loan.  He made a visit to the Thayers’ farm and that was the last time anyone saw him alive. 

The brothers welcomed Love into their house, seated him before the fire. It was hog butchering time on the farm, and the brothers used this as a pretext for leaving Love alone.  But it wasn’t hogs they were intent on butchering.  As Love warded off the chill, one Thayer brother shot him in the back of the head through the window, and another rushed in and finished him off with an axe.  They then dragged the body outside and behind the house and buried it in a shallow grave beneath a fallen log.




John Love's original wooden grave marker.

The Thayer brothers might have gotten away with it had they been a little more clever.  A few days later Israel was seen riding Love’s horse.  Soon after, the neighbors discovered that Isaac had Love’s papers and was trying to collect debts in Love’s name.  The brothers swore that Love admitted to murdering a man in Pennsylvania and had fled to Canada to avoid the law.  This made the neighbors doubly suspicious, and the authorities moved in to search the Thayer property.  They quickly found Love’s body where he’d been left. The brothers were arrested, tried, found guilty, and hanged in Niagara Square, Buffalo in June 1825. It was a sensational trial and execution covered by papers around the country.  As one pamphlet gleefully announced, it was the only triple hanging ever carried out in New York to that time.


The title page from a popular account of the Thayer's trial.


* Many thanks are due to Sherrie Pluta who kindly provided many of the sources used in this post.

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.