Early in April, 1798, the Constellation got under way from her berth in Baltimore. Manned by a few temporary hands, she dropped down the Patapsco to the Chesapeake and, steering easily "like a boat" and outstripping every vessel with her, she sailed down the bay to the mouth of the Patuxent.1 In this out-of‑the‑way anchorage, Captain Truxtun was faced by the months-long task of transforming his new ship, scarcely out of the builder's hands, into an invulnerable man-of‑war.
One of his many responsibilities was to assemble a crew. Since the ease with which men could be persuaded to enlist in a ship depended upon the reputation of her captain, there was little doubt that he could command his share of available seamen in Baltimore, but the large number of men he needed — two hundred and twenty seamen and forty marines — was likely to exceed the supply. The manifest disadvantages of naval service — strict and often harsh discipline, overcrowding, enforced cleanliness in clothing and person — would lose him some men; the period of enlistment, one year "unless sooner discharged by order of the President," would alienate others, because a merchant voyage, the alternative open to most seamen, usually lasted only a few months.2
Some of his commissioned and warrant officers had already been appointed by the War Office. His first lieutenant and second in command was John Rodgers of Baltimore. Twenty-five years of age, Rodgers had for the past five years commanded Baltimore merchant ships, one of which he had lost to a French privateer.3 He was taller p139 than his captain, muscular, with seemingly boundless energy. His shock of coal-black hair, shaggy eyebrows, and dark eyes set in a handsome face, made a striking impression. His firmness and resolution demanded respect. He fitted perfectly into Captain Truxtun's scheme of organization and later adopted it for his own, after leaving the Constellation.4 His devotion to his captain was unalloyed.5
Lieutenant Rodgers' first duty was to recruit as many men as he could find in Baltimore, where Captain Truxtun ordered him to open a rendezvous in Cloney's Tavern at Fell's Point. He could offer able seamen and ordinary seamen ten dollars a month, with an advance of two months' pay if a man could furnish "good and Sufficient Security" against running away before entering the ship. He was allowed one dollar for every man he engaged, to cover the expenses of the rendezvous, "fire, candle, Liquor, house rent, &c &c," in addition to a reasonable allowance for "music to indulge and humour the Johns in a farewell frolic." Whenever he enlisted ten men, he was to send them down to the ship in a pilot boat. He was strictly enjoined to "be at the rendezvous night and day, untill the object of your mission is completed." This he did for five weeks running, enlisting in all about a hundred men.6
When it became evident that Baltimore could not supply all the men needed, the second lieutenant, William Cowper, was sent to open a rendezvous in Norfolk. Lieutenant Cowper, brother of Captain Truxtun's good friend John, a Norfolk merchant, proved to be an imperious and hot‑tempered officer, but he was able to convince another hundred men that they should cast their lot with the Constellation.7
After persuading an Army artillery officer, James Triplett, to act as lieutenant of marines (there was as yet no Marine Corps), and upon learning that some men who had just lost their ship to a French privateer were on their way to Alexandria, Virginia, Captain Truxtun sent him off to open a rendezvous there, thinking that the opportunity to go out in search of Frenchmen might be a strong incentive to enlistment.8 He could offer marines only nine dollars a month for sergeants, eight for corporals, seven for drummers and fifers, and six for privates, with an advance of two dollars upon being sworn in. Nevertheless, Triplett managed to engage nearly forty marines and seventeen seamen besides.9
While stores and provisions for his ship demanded his frequent p140 attention, Captain Truxtun's principal task was the organization and training of his crew, an undertaking that had already occupied his mind for many months.10 He had previously prepared a quarter bill and a list of standing orders, both of which he now posted conspicuously alongside the Articles of War, where all might read and absorb the code by which the ship would be governed.
The quarter bill prescribed the station that each crew member was required to take when the drum beat to quarters and the ship was prepared for an engagement at sea. The standing orders, supplementing the rather unspecific Articles of War, explained in detail the routine to be followed both in port and at sea. Captain Truxtun had them printed, and distributed a copy to each of his officers, one of whom commented that it would take a sea lawyer to learn them all.11
To his first lieutenant he outlined his general policies. He looked for proper subordination from every officer and man aboard. "No Officer," he said, "must attempt to offer an opinion to me on the duty to be performed, without its previously being asked, but on the Contrary, Carry all orders into execution without hesitation or demur." He expected his officers to "be Civil and polite to every one . . . for Civility does not interfere with discipline." He warned against tyrannous practices, remarking that "too great a disposition to punish where we have power is not necessary either to facilitate business, or to keep alive good Subordination." On the other hand, he was convinced that nothing was quite so ruinous to authority and too respect due to officers as "improper familiarity with the petty Officers &c."
He outlined the etiquette to be observed when coming on board or leaving the ship, when addressing an officer, and when stepping onto the quarter-deck. In each case, officers "simply lift their hat." When delivering a message, petty officers, seamen, and marines "Speak holding their hats in hand."
Finally, he aired his views on "that detestable vice drunkenness," which he found too frequently among officers in the sea service. "I do not mean to insinuate," he said, "that a Convivial fellow is a drunkard, who may become Chearful in Company, the distinction is too great to make it necessary for me to draw any line on that subject."12
In order to make sure that every commissioned and warrant officer p141 knew exactly what was required of them, he made it a practice to supply each one with a written statement of his duties and responsibilities. The lieutenants, the boatswain, the gunner, the carpenter, the armorer, and the master-at‑arms received individual instructions to regulate their conduct.13 All of his orders, to whomever addressed, kept one idea paramount: his ship and crew were to be organized "so that in a few minutes warning the ship may be ready at any time to go into an Engagement by night or day." Thus he demonstrated his understanding of the function of naval command. If all the rules and regulations were observed in spirit as well as letter, he was confident that he would have a "happy and well govern'd Ship."
"We have an Infant Navy to foster, and to organize," he said, "and it must be done."14
Little more than two months after dropping his anchor in the Patuxent, Captain Truxtun had developed what promised to be a spirited and efficient fighting organization. He had labored incessantly to get men and materials on board and to use both to the best advantage. Supplies arrived from time to time, and his head was filled with the details of equipage, from rammers and sponges and worms and ladles for the great guns down to bed pans and chamber pots for his sick bay.15 He had some of the cannon powder made up into cartridges for scaling the guns; he had some fifteen thousand paper cartridges of musket and pistol powder filled and stowed away in padded barrels.16 He was sorely vexed by the failure of the War Office to order the huge quantities of bread and cheese, rice, peas, potatoes, flour, and rum that his crew would consume. He was able to get them without protracted correspondence only because he knew William Pennock, the Navy Agent in Norfolk, who had sailed with him as his second lieutenant in the Mars, nearly twenty years before.17
When he moved his ship down to Hampton Roads, almost at the door to the ocean, his crew was complete except for a few men whom he was to receive from Norfolk. Finding more men there than he had hoped for, he was able to discharge "a Number of Rotten and inanimate Animals that found their way into the Ship, by imposing on the recruiting Officers and Surgeon's Vigilance."18
He already had his orders for cruising. He waited only for the arrival of a dozen merchant vessels that he had agreed to convoy a few leagues beyond the capes, in order to protect them from the p142 French privateers he felt sure must be lurking nearby. He made good use of the delay, however. He fired the scaling charges in his guns, removing the rust that had accumulated inside them; the drum beat to quarters, the great guns were exercised, and the marines were drilled in the use of their muskets. He was determined to be prepared for a fight if one awaited him outside the Bay.19
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the possibility of war with France was at last being discussed openly. The President called for a fleet of ships to cruise off the coast and for an Army to prevent invasion if it should be threatened.20
It had been recognized for a long time that James McHenry, Secretary of War, was not equal to his charge. He was, after all, a Hobson's choice. Three others had refused the appointment before it was finally offered to him.21 He was completely "bewildered with Trifles," turning for help with Army affairs to Alexander Hamilton and gladly turning over to him the details of raising the Army.22 But there was no one to take care of the Navy. In McHenry's hands it might remain but a paper fleet, while he busied himself with such projects as naming the new fort being built on Whetstone Point after himself.23 The answer to this dilemma was not long in coming.
In a strong Federalist Congress, where mercantile interests were heavily represented, it was becoming easier to push through measures that led to a strong Navy. The opposition was noisy but it was not too numerous. McHenry's incompetence suggested the separation of naval affairs from the War Department and provided the excuse for the introduction of a bill calling for the formation of a Navy Department. In favor of the bill, it was argued that he was not conversant with naval business and because of the press of Army affairs the Navy was beginning to suffer. By spending a few hundred dollars to pay someone to direct the Navy, it was claimed, thousands could be saved. The other side of the debate was more lengthy. It was pointed out that there was no economy in creating a new department. The head of the Navy Department would try to make it as important as he could; soon the Army and Navy would be competing for men and materials. Perhaps the War Department might be enlarged; but if the claim that an executive must be conversant with all the details of his department was valid, then it would logically p143 follow that the business of the War Office should be split up still further; it would soon be argued that it was necessary to have a Commissioner of Gun Barrels and a Commissioner of Ramrods.
The gentleman from North Carolina summed it up by saying that "the arguments in favor of the bill were derived from a want of knowledge of naval affairs in the War Department." In spite of the shaky ground on which the arguments rested, the Federalists managed, in April, 1798, to pass the bill and thus create an autonomous Navy Department.24
The newly chosen Secretary of the Navy was Benjamin Stoddert, at forty-seven a prosperous merchant from Georgetown, Maryland, near the site of the proposed capital city called Washington. He brought to the office boundless energy and a talent for organization. By the time Captain Truxtun was ready for sea, the plans for a greatly expanded naval force were framed, five ships had been purchased from private owners, others were being considered, and all were to be armed and sent out to cruise as soon as possible. Captain Richard Dale, who had just returned from India in the Ganges, had already armed his ship for war and was out looking for a French privateer reported off Sandy Hook, complaining that "Some Dam rascal has been giveing him information of my giting out." Captain Barry's United States was nearly ready to sail; in Boston the Constitution was yet a month from departure.25
On the point of sailing, Captain Truxtun sent off his letters to the War Office, because he did not yet know that the Navy Department existed. He wrote also to his friend Charles Biddle, telling him that if anything should happen to Mary, who was expecting another baby "(life is uncertain)," he would be greatly obliged to him for looking after the children until his return. Then his thoughts turned to his profession of arms.
"War is Certain," he wrote. "I am directed to send in all French Cruizers Only, but should I meet a fat Merchantman, or a Neutral Covering French property, it will seem hard to let such pass."26 He was annoyed not so much by the possible loss of a valuable prize as by the reticence of Congress to admit that the proposed retaliations for French insults and plunder amounted to a full blown war. When he accepted his commission, he put aside for all time what he chose to call "the privateering Principle."27 He had come up through the p144 school of privateering, but he was soon to demonstrate by word and deed that his first concern was for the national honor. All of his actions were now attuned to "the Good of the Service."28
On the twenty-sixth of June, 1798, the Constellation was quite ready for sea. The water-casks were full; everything on board was stowed carefully and well; the guns were loaded, ready to be run out at a moment's notice and fired in anger if need be. At eleven o'clock, Captain Truxtun signaled the merchantmen to be convoyed that he was about to weigh anchor. By noon, his ship was under way. Rain squalls scudded before the wind across the open water. The high, square lighthouse on Cape Henry towered above the sandy beach and the low woods; its lime-whitened bricks stood out sharply against the dark rainy sky.29
At four o'clock in the afternoon, the pilot clambered down over the side into the pilot boat. Heading east, the Constellation stood out to sea.30
Oil painting of the Constellation by Col. Phillips Melville, U. S. A. F. (Ret.), courtesy of the United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Md.
1 Federal Gazette, Baltimore, April 11, 1798; Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, April 13, 1798.
2 Quasi‑War, I, 7, 49.
3 Simon Gross, a lieutenant in the Continental Navy, was appointed first lieutenant before August 17, 1797 and served for a few weeks at least. However, no mention of him appears after September 18, 1797. American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, August 17, 1797; Quasi‑War, I, 12‑16, 28; C. O. Paullin, Commodore John Rodgers (Cleveland, 1910) pp22‑29.
4 Quasi‑War, IV, 159.
5 Paullin, op. cit., front. and pp27, 172; Quasi‑War, V, 435.
6 Quasi‑War, I, 49‑50, 304‑12.
7 An Impartial Examination of the Case of Captain Isaac Phillips (Baltimore, 1825), p47; Quasi‑War, I, 304‑12; VI, 34, 188.
8 Quasi‑War, I, 77‑78, 114.
9 Ibid., I, 41, 304‑12.
10 HSPa: U. S. Frigate Constellation Orders, Muster Rolls, Stores, etc.
11 Quasi‑War, I, 82, 298‑99, 362.
12 Ibid., I, 12‑15.
13 Ibid., I, 61, 70‑71, 98‑99, 103, 144.
14 Ibid., I, 13, 99, 144.
15 HSPa: Constellation Orders; Quasi‑War, I, 105, 125, 132.
16 Quasi‑War, I, 102.
17 Ibid., I, 104, 134; Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Archives Division: Petition of Isaac Sears for letter of marque for Mars, May 24, 1777.
18 Quasi‑War, I, 118, 135.
19 Ibid., I, 133‑35, 139, 143.
20 American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive (Washington, D. C., 1832‑61), Foreign Relations, I, 152.
21 George Washington, Writings, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D. C., 1931‑44), XXXVI, 394.
22 Bernard C. Steiner, Life and Correspondence of James McHenry (Cleveland, 1907), p379; Nathan Schachner, Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1946), pp374‑75, 379.
23 Steiner, op. cit., p479; Quasi‑War, I, 410.
24 [Annals of Congress.] Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1789‑1824 (Washington, D. C., 1834‑56), 5 Congr., 534‑35, 539‑41, 1522, 1545‑47, 1553‑54.
25 Quasi‑War, I, 101, 236; William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York, 1938), p414.
26 Quasi‑War, I, 118‑19, 132‑33.
27 Ibid., III, 30.
28 Ibid., II, 331.
29 Kenneth and Anna M. Roberts, ed. and trans., Moreau de St. Méry's American Journey, 1793‑1798 (New York, 1947), p28; Quasi‑War, I, 143.
30 Quasi‑War, I, 141, 148.
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