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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral Franklin Buchanan

Charles Lee Lewis

published by
The Norman, Remington Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.


Chapter III

Schoolboy Midshipman

The career of a midshipman in 1815 was entirely different from that of this embryo officer nowadays, more than one hundred years afterwards. Then, the midshipman went at once to sea, and learned largely in the hard school of actual experience the fundamentals of his profession; while to‑day the "future admirals" spend all their four years at the United States Naval Academy, with the exception of the summer practice cruises.

The midshipman's warrant, forwarded to young Buchanan January 28, 1815, was accompanied by a copy of the naval regulations, the required oath to be executed, and a description of the uniform with which he was to provide himself. The "Full Dress" was as follows: "The coat of blue cloth, with linings and lappels of the same; the lappels to be short, with six buttons; standing collar, with a diamond formed of gold lace on each side, not exceeding two inches square; a slash sleeve, with three small buttons; all the button-holes to be worked with gold thread. Vest, single breasted, and breeches, white, the same as the lieutenant's, except the buttons on the pocket of the vest". The "Undress" uniform was, as specifically described, "A short coat without worked button-holes, a standing collar with a  p17 button and a slip of lace on each side; when in full dress to wear gold laced cocked hats and hangers, with shoes and buckles — dirks not to be worn on shore by any officer".​1 As the pay of a midshipman was only nineteen dollars a month with one ration a day, he found it difficult to be properly uniformed for every occasion. The youngsters, therefore, often resorted to borrowing, and it has been claimed that on a man-of‑war in those days there was an understanding that no invitation for a festive entertainment on shore could ever include all members of the midshipmen's mess, as there would not be a sufficient number of cocked hats, boots, etc., etc., to completely furnish more than a third of the "young gentlemen".

Though the naval regulations of those early years state that "no particular duties can be assigned to this class of officers", this statement was completely nullified by the very next sentence which read, "They are promptly and faithfully to execute all the orders for the public service, of their commanding officers". In other words, as some one has aptly said, "The midshipman was to do what he was told, and that ––––– quick", or he might feel the sting of a rope end or be brought to a sudden realization of his status in the navy by the persuasive force of an officer's fist or his boot. It might, therefore, have been better for the lads if their duties had been more specifically set down in the regulations, in spite of the fact that their commanding officers were reminded therein that they were to "consider the midshipmen as a class of officers meriting, in an especial  p18 degree, their fostering care". "They will see, therefore", it was further stated, "that the schoolmasters perform their duty towards them, by diligently and faithfully instructing them in those sciences appertaining to their department; that they use their utmost care to render them proficient therein". The only specific duty set down in the regulations was that "midshipmen are to keep regular journals, and deliver them to the commanding officer at the stated periods, in due form". Though those were intended to afford the midshipmen practice in spelling and writing, and give them some skill in English composition, the journals, although turned in regularly on the first and fifteenth of each month, usually deteriorated into mere copies of the ship's log, and were consequently of little value.

The last item in the navy regulations relating to midshipman was that "they are to consider it as the duty they owe to their country to employ a due portion of their time in the study of naval tactics, and in acquiring a thorough and extensive knowledge of all the various duties to be performed on board of a ship of war". Now, the mere learning the different ropes on a sailing ship was no little accomplishment; and this so tasked Decatur's memory when he first went to sea that he ingeniously wrote the name of each rope on the paintwork behind the rail, though this brought down on him the wrath of the first lieutenant.

But the learning the ropes was only a beginning to becoming familiar with the complexities of a man-of‑war under sail. There were, besides, multitudinous duties expected of the midshipmen. They had to see that the orders of the officer of the deck were obeyed promptly by the watch, and at night they had to "rout them out"  p19 from the secluded places where they had concealed themselves for a bit of sleep. During principal evolutions of the ship two midshipmen were ordered in advance to the tops to direct the work of the crew, and in a storm to encourage the men by taking the most dangerous places themselves on the yards. In port, they were in charge of every boat that left the ship and were taken held responsible if they returned with any of the boat's crew missing. At the guns, the midshipmen served as assistants to the officer commanding a division and saw to it personally that all his commands were properly executed. They had to inspect the clothing of the crew once a week; they had to serve as "master's mates" on the deck and in the hold and berth-deck had to supervise the issuing of provisions, water, and spirits; and besides they had to perform many other minor miscellaneous duties too numerous to mention. In view of these varied duties, a midshipman in the old navy of sails might almost have claimed, in the words of that fantastic mariner of the Nancy Bell,

"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,

And the mate of the Nancy brig,

And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,

And the crew of the captain's gig."

If the vessel was a so‑called "smart-ship" in which a sort of perpetual dress parade was maintained, the lives of the midshipmen were very wretched indeed as they served as buffers between the captain and his lieutenants and the poor sailors who were kept scrubbing and painting and drilling from morning to night. But they soon learned to steel themselves against the discomforts  p20 of the service, for no sympathy was to be expected from their senior officers. It is related that a midshipman, who was foolish enough to complain to Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones that the steerage was uncomfortable, got this rejoinder for his pains: "Uncomfortable, sir, uncomfortable! Why, what ––––– fool ever joined the navy for comfort?"​2

The frigate Java was the first vessel to which Midshipman Buchanan was ordered, April 4, 1815. This ship was named after the British frigate Java, which was captured by Captain William Bainbridge in the Constitution on December 13, 1812 and so badly injured that she had to be burned at sea. The American Java was being built at Baltimore but was not ready for service at the time Buchanan joined her. Having gone into the navy with the evident intention of going to sea at the earliest possible moment, two months of inactivity around Baltimore was not a pleasant prospect for the young officer and he accordingly secured from Secretary of the Navy Crowninshield permission, on June 10, 1815, to make a voyage to the West Indies in a merchant vessel, named the Acme, a brig commanded by Captain James Gibson and owned by Thomas Tenant, a wealthy shipping merchant of Baltimore. Within two months after going to sea in this merchant vessel he was back in Philadelphia, writing to the Secretary of the Navy, on August 5, as follows: "I have the honor to inform you of my return to the United States and now report myself to your department and request that you will be pleased to order me to my station on board the frigate Java. I expect to be in Baltimore on Tuesday next and will there await your orders." Two days later he was  p21 ordered to report for duty on this vessel, then under command of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry; and Buchanan's naval career soon thereafter began in earnest.

This experience in the merchant service was a valuable one in preparation for life on board a man of war, for when the youthful midshipman found himself on the Java at last he was by no means a green hand on ship board, and he thereby escaped much of the unpleasant hazing to which midshipmen were first subjected on their entrance into the navy. He was thus already accustomed to the strange sights and sounds on a sailing ship, and knew to some extent what to expect of the life at sea. Being also an extraordinarily strong lad, he was amply able to take care of himself physically, and this stood him in good stead when he found himself a newcomer among the midshipmen, some of whom in every ship were mercilessly cruel to those who were weaker than themselves.

Many opportunities for bullying were afforded by the fact that the midshipmen all lived together in the steerage, or the "gun‑room", which was a section of the berth-deck just forward the ward-room. Here they all ate at a mess-table which was securely fastened to the floor; and here also they slept in hammocks which were at night suspended from hooks attached to the beams overhead. The steerage was neither well ventilated nor adequately lighted. For heat in the cold winter months at sea, the midshipmen had to be content with buckets of sand in each of which was buried a hot 24‑pound shot. Into these buckets were thrust as many feet as each would hold. A midshipman rarely had any privacy for writing a letter or reading a book, as there was usually a noisy crowd in the steerage spinning yarns, playing  p22 cards, and singing, or engaging in rough pranks on their shipmates, ordinary horse play, and sometimes fisticuffs.

The food in port was rather good, but at sea "the fare, especially if the ship had been fitted out for a long cruise, was apt to be pretty bad, — hard-tack infested with weevils (they used to improve it by baking it until crisp, weevils and all), beef, tough and indigestible, but generally sweet enough, thanks to the brine in which it was soaked, and squashy rice. The pork and the bean soup were generally rather better, and an experienced caterer could often get up a 'scouse' (hard-tack softened with water and baked in a pan with plenty of pork fat), or even venture upon saleratus biscuit occasionally."​3 The midshipmen received a regular grog ration, and the older ones invented ingenious ways of enjoying that of the younger midshipmen as well as their own. It was not until 1842 that the government saw fit to stop this ration to midshipmen entirely. Some of the "young gentlemen" accordingly fell into habits of intemperance, as there were opportunities to drink on every side when the ship was in port. They were also subjected to the practice of dueling; and the newspapers of that day afford a sad record of such encounters in which these lads observed as punctiliously all the etiquette of the code of honor as did their elders. Most people then took the attitude expressed by General Andrew Jackson, himself a famous duelist, who said that, while he was determined to stop dueling between officers and citizens, he would "not interfere between officers, whose profession was fighting and who were trained to arms".

This was the kind of life into which Buchanan entered when he was not yet quite fifteen years old. On  p23 account of his inherited strength of character and fine physique, he was able to endure its hardships and not to be overcome by its temptations, and to develop into one of the best naval officers of his day.

The Author's Notes:

1 Sands in his "From Reefer to Rear Admiral" says that in 1828 the uniform was the same as described above except "When in full dress to wear plain cocked hat, half boots, and cut-and‑thrust sword with yellow mountings."

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2 The United States Naval Academy by Park Benjamin, p89.

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3 Ibid., p62.

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Page updated: 11 Aug 21