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This webpage reproduces part of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p. v Preface

Flanking the stage of the magnificent white marble amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery are two impressively brief rosters of eminent Army and Navy officers. On the left, as one faces the stage, are the well-known names of the generals — George Washington, Anthony Wayne, and a dozen more. On the right are the names of captains and admirals. First is John Paul Jones; next is Thomas Truxtun; he is followed by Edward Preble, Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, and nine others of a later day.

This book is about Thomas Truxtun, an outstanding captain in the annals of the United States Navy. He was an able commander of men. He exercised a lasting influence upon his juniors in the service and, through them, upon succeeding generations of naval officers.

Thomas Truxtun was first and last a ship commander. In his early twenties, during the American Revolution, he commanded privateer ships. He was thirty years old when he brought Benjamin Franklin home from his long wartime service in France. For the next eight years he was a China hand, pioneering in the newly established trade to that distant corner of the world. In his forties he was the popular hero of the little-known and quickly forgotten war of 1798‑1800 between the United States and France. In the Constellation, the frigate whose building he superintended and which he coolly commanded through two savage contests with French frigates in the West Indies, he earned renown as a brave and gallant man of action. He was among the first — only John Paul Jones was earlier — who won the sea battles that made the United States Navy respected and feared upon the ocean. He has often been called the Father of the Navy, because of the heritage he bestowed upon it. Some of the officers who were prominent in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 were tutored by him; many others were not. It is a p. vifact, however, that the influential Board of Navy Commissioners, created in 1815 to advise and assist the Secretary of the Navy, was dominated for more than twenty years by officers who had been lieutenants or midshipmen in Captain Truxtun's ships.

His most important and permanent legacy to the United States Navy is the quiet and untheatrical tradition of command that he established. He drew upon precedents in the British Royal Navy, whose regulations he studied and whose system he often observed first hand. He, more than any other individual, was responsible for transmitting to the new United States Navy, in effective form, the Royal Navy's way of doing things.

His doctrine was based upon the "honor and sacred trust" reposed in those who mount the quarter-deck of a man-of‑war. He preached and practiced firm and fair government of his ship. At the same time he recognized, as few men did in his time, the truly autocratic nature of naval command, the necessity for a captain's absolute and unquestioned control of his ship. Captain David Porter, who began his naval career under Captain Truxtun, must surely have had his old commander in his mind's eye when he wrote, "A man of war is a petty kingdom, and is governed by a petty despot."

The captain of a ship of war has — and in this respect conditions have changed almost none at all in two hundred years — a continuously sustained, minute-by‑minute responsibility that can be understood only imperfectly by a landsman. From the moment the anchor is apeak, when his ship is preparing to get under way, until the voyage is completed and his ship is safely moored again, the captain must be unremitting in his attentions to the safety of his command. Furthermore, he must always be ready to take his ship into action on a moment's notice. He must be able to use his ship as a single weapon in the way a swordsman uses his sword. To be effective the ship, like the sword, must be completely under the control of its wielder. It must respond instantly to his slightest muscle-twitch. In order to be ready for action — the sole purpose for which the ship exists — the captain has the never-ending task of training and exercising his crew and of keeping his ship and its armament in a state of perfect repair.

If a naval captain uses the personal pronoun when he describes an action or evolution of his ship, if he begins his statements with "I p. viifought" or "I sailed," it is not because his ego has carried him away. There simply is no other way to say accurately what the captain is trying to express. A ship commander, after all, must always be a supreme egoist when he mounts his quarter-deck, when he "struts his few fathoms of scoured plank." He is indeed a petty despot. He is, as Captain Porter wrote, "a solitary being in the midst of the ocean." Such a man was Thomas Truxtun.

No deep-water ships were driven by steam while he commanded ships. Only the power of wind, the set of tides, and the brawn of seamen were available to him to move his ships and to hoist his anchors and set his sails. He regularly demanded of his men and of himself labor on an heroic scale, labor that would distress the hardiest of men today. He faced problems completely unknown to the modern mariner. He took full responsibility for vessels that were by the very nature sensitive to every change in the weather, at the mercy of every passing squall. Yet he had at hand none of the modern aids to navigation — no weather forecasts; no daily or hourly reports of weather conditions that might later affect him; no clear understanding, even, of the general course and nature of storms in many parts of the world. Ceaseless vigilance in watching and interpreting the face of the sea and sky provided his only means for safeguarding his ships.

I have been confronted by two difficulties in writing his life. First, it would be easy to conclude that he was out of date, a quaint individual who was something of a fool to know so little about things that we take for granted today. Second, I have overnight been tempted to paint him bigger than life as his struggles against the sea have come alive again from the thousands of documents I have studied. I think I have entirely avoided the first difficulty, and in my attempt to guard against the second, I have been supplied many times by my subject with an appropriate phrase to restore him to proper proportions.

This portrayal of the character of an important officer who should be better known by Americans both in and out of the Navy is, within the compass of my ability, an honest one; it is an accounting of facts as I have been able to see and understand them.

It is impossible to spend years in the virtual company of a man (unless he is a thoroughly evil man), searching out the intimate details of his life and trying to divine the workings of his mind, p. viiiwithout developing a certain affection for him. Thus it becomes impossible to avoid a subjective appraisal of his actions, particularly his mistakes. This is as it should be, however. Even the cat, when he looks on the king, must have a point of view.

I have found a man whose first forty-five years were studded with periods of intense activity. The times in between were crammed nearly to the last hour with the study of such subjects as navigation, the masting of ships, signals, naval tactics, and naval organization. Most of his contemporaries in the sea service either took no notice of these subjects or had an active aversion to their study. Until he was eased out of the Navy in 1802, he had little time to engage in idle gossip or invective against those with whom he disagreed. He was too busy becoming a peerless ship commander. But after his ejection from the Navy — an event that could have been avoided by a more diplomatic and less hostile Secretary of the Navy — he became increasingly resentful of his treatment at the hands of an unfriendly government. At least he grew noisy and finally tiresome. I have not glossed over the unfortunate years he was forced to live out after he came ashore for the last time, but I have tried to put this anticlimactic period in proper perspective.

One may wonder why, if Commodore Truxtun is an important officer, this is the first biographical notice of him that exceeds a dozen pages in length. The answer lies partly in the widely scattered material and the endless searching required to locate it. If I had understood the magnitude of this task when I started, it is probable that the biography would still be unwritten. In spite of broad efforts, however, I still know little about his forebears. Unless important new material is turned up in England or on the island of Jamaica, he will remain the founder of a family, the progenitor of a proud line of numerous descendants.

Biographers have neglected him also because he wrote nothing expressly for their benefit. He was surprisingly unconcerned about what posterity's appraisal of him would be. While other men, such as John Paul Jones, always fancied the eyes of history peering over their shoulder whenever they took up their quills, Commodore Truxtun wrote as though he cared only about what his contemporaries thought of him.

This, then, is the story of an eminent naval officer, popular alike with the public and the men in ships. In twenty-seven years of p. ixcommand of merchant ships and ships of war, he was never spoken to disrespectfully by a seaman under his orders, nor did he find it necessary — as many captains did — to maintain discipline by flogging. He was a navigator in a day when navigators were rare. He was a brave and skillful fighter and tactician. Unfortunately, he never voiced during the heat of battle a succinct and quotable slogan. Nevertheless, the United States Navy is a better service because he gave to it the seven most vigorous years of his life.

Eugene S. Ferguson

Ames, Iowa
August, 1956


My principal debt is to Jo, my wife, whose constant encouragement, constructive criticism, patience, and understanding have made this work possible.

I owe a handsome acknowledgment to the following individuals who, by their interest, advice, suggestions, encouragement, and often plain hard work, have given me assistance without which this biography in its present form could not exist. They are responsible for none of its shortcomings, however; those are chargeable solely to me.

Dr. John H. Powell, by the exercise of his unique talent for transmitting to others his enthusiasm for history as a living and vital thing, started me on this work nearly ten years ago. Through the many vicissitudes that inevitably beset an author, he has supplied valuable advice and help at opportune moments.

The late T. Truxtun Hare, Esquire placed at my disposal his important and extensive collection of Truxtun papers, graciously opened his home to me, and read the manuscript. His advice and encouragement were of inestimable value.

Lieutenant Commander M. V. Brewington, USNR (ret.) suggested numerous sources that otherwise I should not have found; he answered dozens of questions, and read much of the manuscript. Dr. Robert G. Albion's painstaking criticism has enabled me to correct many errors of fact and interpretation. Mr. William Bell Clark generously gave me copies of manuscripts and eighteenth-century newspaper items that he had laboriously searched for and collected p. xover a period of more than twenty years. Dr. Earle D. Ross read the manuscript and offered many valuable suggestions.

Mrs. Edward Truxtun Beale, who gave her collection of Truxtun manuscripts to the Office of Naval Records and Library; Mr. Clinton V. Black, Archivist in Jamaica, B. W. I.; and Mrs. Hazel Brodhead, who gave me a copy of genealogical data recorded by the subject of this work in the Truxtun family Bible, without which we should have almost no trustworthy information about the Commodore's family; Mr. Barney Chesnick, whose cheerful assistance and advice I enjoyed during many, many visits to the Ridgway Library; Mr. Robert W. Hill, who set me on the trail of the Constable-Pierrepoint Papers in the collections of the New York Public Library, which gave another dimension to the China voyages; Mr. Edward B. Morrison, who helped me in numberless ways during the time I was able to spend in the New York Public Library's Manuscript Division, and who has been tireless in his search — on my behalf — for obscure Truxtuniana; Mr. Lewis M. Johnson, who furnished information concerning the Commodore's Perth Amboy home; Mrs. Alma R. Lawrence, who made my visits to the Office of Naval Records and Library particularly fruitful; Mr. Jesse Merritt, whose knowledge of Nassau County history provided useful leads; The Honorable Samuel Seabury, who supplied information concerning Thomas Truxtun's attendance at the Reverend Mr. Samuel Seabury's school; Mrs. John Hall Wheelock, who directed me to David Porter's vivid description of "the little tyrant" — all of these and many other people have helped me with no thought of personal return or recognition.

A special mention is due Commander Robert W. Copeland, USNR. I met him in the first days of 1945, a few weeks after he had lost his ship to a formidable Japanese fleet in the hopeless action off Samar. He is responsible for the awakening of m interest in naval history.

I have made much in this book of Captain Truxtun's bravery and calm demeanor, his talent for command, and of the traditions he established for the Navy to cherish and maintain. While I studied about his cruises and sea fights, I thought often of Bob Copeland. Bob, commanding the Samuel B. Roberts, a destroyer escort that mounted two five-inch guns and three torpedo tubes, acting as part p. xiof the screen for a half-dozen escort carriers in the Philippine Sea, one morning found himself faced by a Japanese force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Characteristically, Bob attacked. He closed to within 4,000 yards of a cruiser before launching his torpedoes; a short time later, after retiring unscathed from the attack, the Roberts was mortally hit by a succession of salvos from the battleships and cruisers. Literally, the Roberts went down with her guns firing.

As long as men like Bob Copeland command ships of the Navy, I shall know that the traditions of bravery, audacity, and steadfast devotion to the honor and glory of the national flag are in strong hands.

When I was spending my days in libraries and ferreting out the materials of which this work is composed, I often made a mental note, when a member of a library staff was particularly sympathetic and helpful in guiding my research, that I would adequately acknowledge my debt to him or her when the writing of my book was complete. But now that I sit down to offer my thanks, I find that many of my mental notes have been obliterated by time and that my written notes of favors received are in no wise complete. Librarians being what they are, it is perhaps only necessary for me to point out to the reader that my hundreds of demands have always been met with patience and courtesy.

I have been helped by the following institutions, all but the last six of which I have visited in the course of this work:

Iowa State College Library, Ames; State University of Iowa Library and State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City; Chicago Historical Society and John Crerar Library, Chicago; Tippecanoe County Historical Association Museum, Lafayette, Indiana; Tracy W. McGregor Lib, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Office of Naval Records and Library, Library of Congress, and National Archives, Washington; Maryland Historical Society, Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Peabody Institute Library, Baltimore; United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis; Pennsylvania State Library, Harrisburg; Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Ridgway Branch of the Library Company, Free Library of Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society Library, University of Pennsylvania Library, Franklin Institute Library, Commercial Museum, and the indispensable Union Library Catalog, Philadelphia; p. xiiNew Jersey State Library, Trenton; Perth Amboy Public Library; New York Public Library and New York Historical Society, New York; Public Library, Jamaica, N. Y.; New York State Library, Albany; Boston Public Library, The Boston Athenaeum, Archives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston; Peabody Museum and Essex Institute, Salem; Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor; Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino; Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia; Virginia State Library, Richmond; The Island Record Office, Spanish Town, Jamaica, B. W. I.

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