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Chapter 5

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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.


Chapter VI

Where the Pirates Prowled

For many years American commerce in the Caribbean had been seriously interfered with by pirates who made their headquarters in the narrow inlets and creeks of the islands of the West Indies, whence it was extremely difficult to follow them. Finally this piracy became so general that the government was forced to take vigorous steeps to destroy the marauders. Preliminary operations against them were conducted, during the years 1821 and 1822, by Lieutenant Lawrence Kearny and Captain James Biddle with considerable success; but on February 1, 1823 a more adequate force was placed under the command of Commodore Porter for the purpose of completely stamping out these pests.

Porter's flagship was the Peacock, a sloop of war of 18 guns, commanded by Master Commandant Stephen Cassin. To this vessel were added eight small schooners, called Bay Boats, which were purchased in Baltimore and fitted for service in the navy yards of New York and Norfolk. These were fast sailers, and averaged a little more than 50 tons, carrying three guns and thirty‑one men each. They were given the following names, suggested by the nature of the service for which they had been prepared: Fox, Greyhound, Jackall, Beagle,  p48 Terrier, Weasel, Wild Cat, and Ferret. There were also five barges, each equipped with twenty oars, and named Mosquito, Gnat, Midge, Sandfly, and Gallinipper, after certain insects with which their crews were soon to become unpleasantly familiar. Commodore Porter also purchased a storeship, which he named the Decoy, and a steam vessel, originally built for a Jersey City ferry, which was called the Sea Gull. The former mounted six guns; the latter only three. With this force of sixteen vessels​1 and 1150 men, Porter set sail from Norfolk on February 14 for the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean.

Buchanan was on the Weasel, commanded by Lieutenant Beverly Kennon, which he had joined as acting master on the 1st of January. Passed Midshipman W. W. McKean, Buchanan's cousin, was aboard the Terrier; Josiah Tatnall was on the Jackall; while Farragut served on the Greyhound. The other officers on the Weasel were Lieutenant Henry Ward, Acting Lieutenant Victor M. Randolph, and Midshipmen William Green and Cadwalader Ringgold.

On the voyage south nothing happened out of the ordinary except the overhauling of every strange vessel that was seen. For example, Buchanan records in his journal for February 15: "Signal to the Terrier and this ship to chase a strange sail. She proved to be the Nomenia from Bremen to Baltimore". Again, a few days later he sets down at greater length the following incident: "At 10 A.M. discovered a strange sail to windward. At 11:30 boarded the strange sail. She proved to  p49 be the schooner Cumberland six days from St. Lucia bound to Portland, Maine. No news. The captain of the schooner was very much alarmed when I boarded her; he felt confident from our appearance that we were pirates. Our vessel resembling those of the pirates very much, he endeavored to escape from us but could not succeed. He was soon convinced, however, that he was in the hands of friends and not enemies." Three days later still, near St. Thomas, the Weasel sighted another strange ship, which apparently was a pirate. According to Buchanan's journal, the American vessel hoisted her colors and distinguishing flag, and fired her long gun ahead of the pirate. He continues: "She did not heave to but made all sail and stood for the land. She was a long low schooner and from her appearance took her to be a pirate; owing to her superior sailing, we lost sight of her in the night."

Early in March the squadron arrived off San Juan, Porto Rico, where it was foolishly suspected by the Spaniards of being a filibustering expedition. As a consequence, when the Fox attempted to enter the harbor on a mission from the Commodore who was endeavoring to secure the cooperation of the Governor in the expedition against the pirates, she was fired on and her commanding officer, Lieutenant Cocke, was killed. After securing water and provisions in this vicinity, the squadron sailed for Key West, dividing and taking different courses, however, around the Island of Cuba, to look for pirates. The Weasel was one of the schooners which looked "into all nooks and corners on the south side of Santo Domingo and Cuba. A close examination was made of Cape San Antonio, which was said to be one of their favorite haunts; but only a few fishermen  p50 were found, 'poor innocent-looking fellows', but true pirates when the occasion served them."​2 The Weasel was not so fortunate as some of the other vessels in bagging pirates. For example, the Greyhound and the Beagle discovered a nest of them at Cape Cruz and destroyed eight of their boats; while the Gallinipper and the Mosquito captured the Catalina in Seguipa Bay, and killed her piratical commander Diabolitaº (Little Devil).

Altogether, according to Porter's report of May 10, 1823 to the Secretary of the Navy, "The result has been the capture of one piratical schooner and a very fine felucca, the destruction of one building, and the burning of three schooners in the different establishments to leeward of Bahia Honda; the complete dispersion of all piratical gangs from Rio Palmas to Cape Antonio". In a very short time piracy in the West Indies had been given a severe blow, and the pirates abandoned the ocean, for the time being, to prey upon the estates in the interior of the islands, a just punishment to the Spanish authorities who had long condoned their nefarious acts against foreign commerce.

The service had been a strenuous one, as most of the operations had to be carried on in open boats in which the men were subjected both to the bullets of the pirates and the fierce heat of the tropical sun. They were constantly in peril of hurricanes and shipwreck on unknown shoals, and because of the swamps they were constantly in danger of disease. Indeed, the latter proved more deadly dangerous than the pirates, for in August the yellow fever broke out in the squadron while  p51 in Key West, and in those days no other visitation was so much dreaded as that of "King Death in his Yellow Robe." Commodore Porter was himself stricken with the disease, and narrowly escaped death. Twenty-three out of the twenty-five officers who took the yellow fever died, and the sailors suffered in the same proportion. Operations against the pirates were thus brought practically to an end for that year.

The Weasel then returned to the United States with dispatches, and on September 15 Buchanan was granted a well-merited leave of absence for three months. At the end of his leave, he did not return to the Weasel, but was ordered to the sloop of war Hornet,​3 commanded by Master Commandant Edmund P. Kennedy. On this vessel Buchanan sailed as acting sixth lieutenant, from Hampton Roads, on July 30, 1824, to patrol the Caribbean for pirates, in cooperation with Porter's squadron. She cruised round both the northern and southern coasts of the western half of Cuba, looking in at various small places and making longer stops at Havana and Matanzas. Near the first of August, 1825 the vessel returned to Norfolk without having accomplished anything more than impressing the pirates with the fact that Uncle Sam's cruisers were on the lookout for them and that they had better behave themselves. On his arrival, Kennedy sent dispatches to Secretary of the Navy Samuel L. Southard by Fifth Lieutenant Franklin Buchanan. The latter had been promoted lieutenant January 13, 1825, fifth in standing in his class of passed midshipmen. "He is a moral correct gentleman", wrote Kennedy, "and an officer of the very first capacity".

 p52  In spite of this hearty recommendation, the months went by without Buchanan's receiving orders from the Secretary for active duty. He was detached from the Hornet on September 30, 1825, and on the 9th of October he wrote Secretary Southard requesting the "Lieutenant's situation at the rendezvous" at Philadelphia. This was not granted, and he then asked that his two months' leave be extended to four months. Finally, on his request to leave the United States on "some important private business", the Secretary granted him, on July 31, 1826, an extension of leave for six months.

This "private business" was a very important one for a young officer not quite twenty‑six years of age. It was nothing less than the command of the beautiful 64 gun ship, built by Mr. Beacham of Baltimore for the "South American market". According to Niles' Weekly Register,​4 she was launched at Baltimore on May 11 in the presence of about 40,000 people. As a matter of fact, the ship was built for the Emperor of Brazil, and it was to be Buchanan's duty to deliver the vessel, named the Baltimore, safe and sound in the harbor of Rio Janeiro.

The Baltimore set sail from an anchorage about ten miles above Annapolis on October 30, 1826, and on November 4 passed the Virginia Capes and put to sea. The first part of the voyage was "rolling down to Rio", with a vengeance, for the ship soon ran into heavy weather. This culminated in a very rough storm on November 11, which Buchanan thus graphically describes in his journal: "At 2 A.M. gale increasing to a hurricane in squalls with a high sea; called all hands, took in fore and main top sails, bent the storm staysails, set the mizzen. At 4 gale still increasing; upwards of  p53 fifty men on the main topsail yard for five hours attempting to furl the sail, several of them severely injured between the yard and rigging, owing to the ship's rolling and pitching; hatches all battened down fore and aft; making a great deal of water owing to the air ports not being properly fitted, pumps constantly going, spray of the sea flying like rain up to the mastheads, shipped several heavy seas; the decks, store rooms, state rooms, cabin, wardroom, and steerage all afloat. At 5:30 hauled down the mizzen storm staysails and scudded the ship under fore staysail. Main mast in great danger owing to the rigging stretching."

That was the situation which this very young captain of a 64 gun ship found himself in on the way to Rio. Fortunately, the weather soon moderated and as the ship sailed further south smoother seas were found, the sun rising clear on November 21 for the first time since Cape Henry had been left behind. On December 12, the ship approached the equator, and in referring to the ceremonies incident to "crossing the line", Buchanan wrote in his journal, "At 8 P.M. saw Neptune's light; he hailed us and said he would board us in the morning. . . . At 11 A.M. Neptune and suite paid us the customary visit; after going through the necessary operations, as in days of yore, on 58 of his children, they departed." The ship then sailed on, with favoring winds, while the crew put the vessel in first class condition for port. On Christmas day, 52 days out from Cape Henry, she arrived at her destination, sailing into the harbor through the midst of a fleet of seventeen Brazilian men-of‑war and merchant vessels, recently taken as prizes of war. On January 5, 1827, Buchanan, according to the orders of Marquis of Paranogoa, Brazilian Minister of Marine,  p54 delivered the Baltimore into the hands of Captain Thompson of the Brazilian Navy.

The Emperor Dom Pedro was not then in Rio Janeiro. The war between Brazil and Argentina over Banda Oriental (Uruguay) was still in progress, and he was with his military forces in the south. Buchanan was, accordingly, not received at court. After a month in Rio, he returned to the United States, sailing February 9 as a passenger on the brig Ruth, J. Jefferson, master. This passage was as smooth and pleasant as the voyage downward had been tempestuous. So beautiful was the weather that Buchanan, who had a fondness for poetry, entered the following lines in his journal for February 28: "The sun arose beautifully clear this morning; it reminded me of the following verse:

"The sun when arising bespangles the dew,

And tints with its glory the skies;

All nature's in motion, how charming the view,

When day is beginning to rise.' "

On April 2, after a voyage of 52 days, exactly the same length as the passage of the Baltimore, the young officer arrived on the Ruth at Philadelphia, with his mission successfully accomplished.

Buchanan immediately wrote to Secretary Southard for active service, repeating his request on May 6 and specifically asking for duty on the Lexington. This was not granted, but on May 30 he was ordered to the sloop of war Natchez, Master Commandant George Budd, which belonged to the West Indies Squadron, then under the command of Commodore Charles G. Ridgely. The base was at Pensacola, and the mission of the squadron was to patrol the Caribbean and overawe the  p55 pirates and slavers. As fifth lieutenant on the Natchez, Buchanan repeated his former experiences on the Hornet, a few years previous, in the same waters, the only difference being that the observations were extended to the coast of Mexico as well as Cuba.

The ship sailed from Norfolk on July 26, and while cruising north of the island of Cuba on August 20, the vessel was almost wrecked by hurricane. The storm began very early that morning, and preparations were made at once for weathering it. "At 7 wind rapidly increasing", wrote Buchanan; "at 7:30 a heavy squall from the Sd and Ed. Fore and mizzen topsails furled. Foresail and main topsail clewed up, the latter close reefed; the squall was so violent as to blow them from the yards except the mizzen topsail; split fore topmast, staysail, and main trysail; blew away the fore and main royal masts, lost the starboard quarter boat, all the spare spars in starboard chains, boat davit, and a number of oars, hand spikes, and other articles off deck; hatches battened down fore and aft; blowing a violent hurricane. Lee waist under water; scuttled the berth deck; all hands at the pumps; in great danger of losing our mainmast owing to the rigging stretching." Buchanan's recent experience in such a storm while in command of the Baltimore no doubt rendered his advice and assistance valuable in this emergency. The following day the storm abated, and the cruise was continued.

During this cruise, Buchanan was given, on three occasions, responsible independent commands. From Port Francis, Isle of Pines, on March 23, 1828, he was sent in command of the first cutter, accompanied by the second cutter, on an expedition against pirates. Four days later, the boats returned after cruising on the north side of the  p56 Isle of Pines and Indian Keys without meeting "with any suspicious vessels" or hearing "of any piracies having been committed upon our commerce". On June 17, the Natchez anchored in lee of Key Mono, 20 miles east of Matanzas, Cuba, whence Buchanan was dispatched in another expedition in command of the second cutter. The next day the little vessel returned after "having overhauled the Keys in Seguapa Bay via Romer Blanco, Diana, and two others and found nothing suspicious". Still later, on July 25, he was sent from Key West in command of the schooner Lily, a small vessel with a crew of 35 men, which had been chartered along with two others for an expedition against pirates on the south coast of Cuba. The most exciting incident of this cruise was a chase off Cape Antonio of a suspicious hermaphrodite brig of 14 guns and a large crew, which was supposed to be either a slaver or a pirate ship. She escaped during the night after a chase of sixteen hours, through her superior sailing. The Lily examined critically Capes Antonio and Corrientos, St. Philip's Keys, and the south side of the Isle of Pines and proceeded as far east as Cape Cruz; but she did not see any other suspicious vessels.

On November 24, the Natchez arrived at New York, in obedience to the following orders from Commodore Ridgely: "In consequence of the ravages of yellow fever on board the Natchez and the utter impossibility of stopping it within the tropics you will repair to New York direct and avail yourself of the cold climate and other means to restore her wonted healthy state".

Under a new commander, Master Commandant W. B. Shubrick, the Natchez sailed again for the West Indies on March 28, 1829, and cruised in Cuban waters,  p57 where in the harbor of Xibara a boat expedition within the Keys under command of Buchanan was organized to "apprehend if possible the perpetrators of the atrocious piracy lately committed on the American brig Attentive5 near Matanzas".​6 The results of the expedition are fully set forth in the following official report which Buchanan made to Captain Shubrick on April 25, off Key Piedras, north coast of Cuba:

"I have the honor to report my return to the ship in the launch, accompanied by Lieutenant Eagle and Past Midshipman H. E. V. Robinson in the first and second cutters from a cruise of ten days. Officers and men all well. In compliance with your orders of the 15th inst. I have carefully examined the principal keys, bays, and inlets on the north coast of Cuba from Xibara to Point Yeacos in search of the perpetrators of the piracy lately committed upon the American brig Attentive, but during the cruise I did not meet with any suspicious vessels, or hear of any piracies having been committed upon commerce since the capture of the Attentive. On the 18th and 23d I was informed by the commander of a Spanish Guarda Costa and Spanish merchant schooner that two piratical vessels had been captured within a month by an English man-of‑war and Spanish Guarda Costa off Cape Buenavista and the Island of Jamaica, but could not give me any particulars".

This cruise of the Natchez was a short one, for she  p58 was after a few weeks back in New York, where Buchanan was transferred to the Constellation, Captain A. S. Wadsworth, on June 4, 1829. This brought to a close his experiences in attempting to suppress piracy and the slave trade in the West Indies. The service had extended over a period of about six years, and though no spectacular results had been achieved, the constant patrolling year after year of the pirate-haunted bays and inlets of Cuban waters, in particular, by American men-of‑war practically put an end to this menace to our commerce in the Caribbean. The dangers to which the American naval officers and men were exposed were many; not only did they run the risk of being shot from ambush when examining the inlets or of meeting death in hand to hand encounters with the pirates, but they also had to reckon with hurricanes and the far more dangerous and insidious enemy, the yellow fever. The service was, by no means, devoid of romance; and out of the barren recital of the daily events, as recorded in Buchanan's journals, one catches hints here and there that quicken the imagination, — the howling hurricane, tempestuous seas, and men struggling with the sails and the pumps; a strange sail sighted, and all sails set in a mad pursuit; a small row boat or sailing vessel threading the blue inlets, a scorching sun, and thick tropical vegetation concealing pirate eyes intently watching or the insects ready to spread the deadly diseases which they carried.

What experiences for a young man of Buchanan's age! He had already had two long cruises in the Mediterranean, where he had been schooled in the storied past of many nations while learning his profession at the same time; he had voyaged to China across both the  p59 Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and had commanded a 64 gun ship across the Line down to Rio; and then had spent the last six years cruising on the blue Caribbean, a sea rivaling the Mediterranean in its wealth of naval history and romance, — the sea of Spanish conquistadors, of Drake and Hawkins, of Blackbeard and many another famous, or infamous, pirate, of Rodney fighting De Grasse at Saints' Passage, and of other famous sea fights and naval leaders. Buchanan had certainly had the life of action which his soul had yearned for when he surrendered himself, some fifteen years previous, to the lure of the sea.

The Author's Notes:

1 Under Porter's orders in the West Indies were the sloops of war John Adams, 28 guns, and Hornet, 18 guns; the schooners Shark and Grampus of 12 guns each; and the brig Spark of 14 guns.

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2 From Farragut's Journal in The Life of David Glasgow Farragut by Loyall Farragut, p93.

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3 This was a famous sloop, which in the War of 1812 under command of Captain William Bainbridge captured the British sloop Peacock. See page 12.

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4 Of May 13, 1826.

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5 The Attentive of Boston, commanded by Captain Crozer, was stopped by pirates a few hours' sail out of Matanzas, February 22, 1829. The crew of seven men, with the exception of the second mate, Alfred Hill, who secreted himself in the hold, were murdered. The ship was then looted and scuttled; but Hill fortunately escaped on a plank to shore and reported the incident. (Niles' Register, March 21, 1829, p50.)

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6 Buchanan's Orders, of April 15.

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