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Chapter 24

This webpage reproduces a chapter 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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please let me know!


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Chapter 26
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p114  Chapter 25

Delays and Live Oak

If further evidence was needed to show that the Administration intended to have a standing Navy, one had only to look at the materials of which the ships were to be built. Live oak, whose life was estimated at five times that of the white oak that was used in Europe, was specified for the principal members of the frames; the best heart pitch pine was designated for deck beams and lower decks.​1 Not many American ships built during the eighteenth century survived for more than a few years' time. Cutting whatever timber was easiest to get out and using it before it was seasoned, the builders had little reason to wonder that their ships went to pieces in so short a time. But these new frigates were to be different. The builders were convinced "that their frames will be perfectly sound half a century  p115 hence, and it is very probable that they may continue so for a much longer period."2

Heavy, tough, dense, and extremely durable when properly seasoned, live oak was found in the low country and on numerous islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Secretary Knox heard that in 1776 the frames for two seventy-four gun ships of the line had been cut near the mouth of the Savannah River but had never been hauled away. If that timber could be found now, eighteen years later, he thought not unreasonably that "it would be excellent from its long seasoning."3

John Morgan, who expected to be naval constructor in Norfolk after the live oak was cut, was sent to Georgia to supervise that work. He was an able man, uncommonly tenacious; but weather, fever, fire, and the perils of the sea all conspired to make his task an impossible one.4

After a trying summer of preliminary arrangements, Morgan was joined in October, 1794 by sixty New England axemen, but that weather was so oppressive and the place so sickly that only three of them stayed.​5 He reported that the whole area was almost under water. "Never," he wrote, "was so much rain known in this Country."6

The oxen and heavy logging wheels to haul the timber out of the woods, and even grain and hay to feed the oxen, had to be sent in by sea.​7 The coastal islands, most of them uninhabited, afforded nothing but the live oak trees. Nevertheless, with the three remaining axemen and a few negroes he was able to hire, he was determined to get the live oak out. Late in October, after the molds, or patterns, for the timbers had finally arrived, John Morgan received a letter from Joshua Humphreys complaining about the lack of progress. Morgan was nearly at the breaking point when he replied, "These Moulds frighten me they are so long. . . . I cannot stand it, you say that if I was there I shou'd be mortified, if you was here you wou'd curse live Oak."8

Captain Barry was sent down to find out what caused the delays, but apparently he could not comprehend the nature of the problem; he returned shortly with the confident report that the work could be completed before spring.​9 Another inspector, who visited the scene when spring came, was of the opinion that the job would require at least another year.​10 Progress was hampered by fire, which  p116 destroyed some of the molds; at least one vessel carrying the hard won live oak was cast away on the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras.​11 Another, bound for Baltimore, after several attempts to enter Chesapeake Bay against contrary winds, finally found a safe harbor at Martha's Vineyard.​12 Some of the largest timbers proved defective after a great deal of work had been done on them.

Laboring under tremendous difficulties and with the situation well known in Philadelphia, Morgan still got little sympathy from Humphreys. "Your Letter & Box of Oranges came safe to Hand for which you will please to accept my thanks," Humphreys wrote just after Christmas, 1795, "but the oranges were so sowered by the most infamous Stern Piece that you sent that their Flavor is lost. I am sure you must never have seen it otherwise you would not have sent it, for the most ignorant negro [would know] it would not do."13

After many months of vain waiting, Captain Truxtun contrived with Humphreys to have another man sent to Georgia to insure that if any live oak were ready to be sent anywhere, it would be sent to Baltimore and to Philadelphia.14

Because of the unforeseen obstacles that blocked the delivery of suitable materials for ships so large, many compromises had to be made. Captain Truxtun eventually made excursions down Chesapeake Bay looking for white oak timbers, and Humphreys journeyed into the back country beyond the Catskills before he found trees large enough to meet his needs.​15 Nor was that the only impediment to progress. There were twice as many opinions about how the ships should be built as there were ships. Each naval constructor and each captain had his own ideas. This resulted in endless correspondence with the War Department, which was further complicated by changes of Secretaries. Timothy Pickering held the post for a few months following General Knox's resignation, and he was followed by James McHenry.

Joshua Humphreys spent much of his time in defense of his original plans. One of his most frequent antagonists was Captain Truxtun. Humphreys expected to use pitch pine deck beams in all the frigates, but "my friend Truxtun," he said, "frustrated that good plan & prevailed on the Secretary of War to substitute white Oak" for all the ships except the one at Philadelphia.16

When Humphreys added diagonal riders to the plans in order to stiffen the hull fore and aft and to keep it from hogging, or arching  p117 like a hog's back, Captain Truxtun was opposed to the idea. Again, he went directly to the Secretary of War. The British used no riders in their ships, he argued, and the riders would cut down on his storage space in the lower decks. Finally, he had his way. "At your instance and resting entirely on your experience," the Secretary wrote, "I consent that the Diagonal riders be omitted."17

While Captain Truxtun was relying on precedent in making positive statements about how a frigate should be built, Humphreys was trying to improve on the best designs already developed. His conclusions, based on reasoning and experience, were usually sound. When disputes arose, he was willing to accede to his "worthy Friends great experience as a sea officer," but he thought that his friend might occasionally submit to his — Humphreys' — great experience in "building, repairing, strengthening Vessels many of which cases never came under his [Truxtun's] notice."​18 He was never as dogmatic as Captain Truxtun, and he demonstrated a much more secure grasp of mechanical principles. Humphreys, in his methodical way, was a creator and innovator. His friend, without peer as a ship commander, was always a little too willing to give advice and opinions on subjects that he had not mastered.

David Stodder, naval constructor of the Baltimore frigate, was as much vexed by delays and improvisations as anybody concerned in the business. Captain Truxtun had heard — at third hand — that Stodder was contemptuous of the whole proceedings, and that he thought he could do a much better job of drafting and molding a frigate than Joshua Humphreys had. Furthermore, he saw no need for a naval captain to superintend the building. He had declared — this was still at third hand — that he would follow neither draft nor molds nor any directions from the War Office, and that he would not take orders from any officer in the yard; in short, he would do just as he pleased.19

As it turned out, there was surprisingly little strife in the Baltimore yard, considering the tempers of the two men. Faced with a situation that could become quite impossible, Captain Truxtun was determined to make the most of it. Stodder, outnumbered by the aggressive Captain and an adamant Secretary of War, grumblingly consented to follow instructions.

The first task was to transform Stodder's yard into a Navy Yard.  p118 Large and expensive building ways had to be erected; a great many piles had to be driven and a sizable quantity of fill was required. These ways might be used to launch a hundred ships later on, as Captain Truxtun pointed out, but they had to be built for the first one. Except for this project, however, there was little work needed to complete the transformation. The buildings seemed adequate — rigging loft, blacksmith shop, boatbuilder's shed, mast shed, and a few others — and the road connecting the yard with town, though rough, was passable.20

When the molds, or patterns by which to cut the timbers, arrived from Philadelphia that first autumn (1794), Captain Truxtun told David Stodder in "plain terms" that the frigate would be built according to the direction received from the War Office.​21 Stodder yielded, although he was impelled eventually to tell the Secretary of War that, had he been permitted to supply the materials, he could have furnished them "at least one hundred per cent cheaper"; and he could thus have saved a great deal on labor, too, being able to plan his work so the bulk of it could be done during "the long days," men working from sun to sun being paid by the day regardless of season.22

Stodder often had more or less serious trouble with his men, and Captain Truxtun, by way of keeping peace in the yard, interceded in some of the disputes. While his instructions charged him with responsibility for pushing the work with all possible vigor, he had no direct authority over Stodder or the workmen. Accustomed as he was to giving positive orders, he was often frustrated by being merely an adviser on labor problems. Therefore, he wrote to the Secretary of War requesting authority "to regulate disputes," which implied the power to hire and fire. He had to be satisfied with a negative answer, to which was added a mitigating compliment. "But by your prudence," the Secretary wrote, "you may reconcile disputants, & restore & preserve harmony in the yard."​23 Although he was never satisfied with his anomalous position, he continued, as he described it, "by a decided conduct, and independent spirit," to bend the efforts of all concerned toward the building of the best possible frigate in the shortest possible time.24

In spite of his exertions, the ship consisted of little more than a keel when the second annual report was made to Congress more than a year and a half after the start of the business. The live oak came  p119 slowly; mistakes were made by agents in ordering materials;​25 questions were answered only after protracted correspondence, and even then with little conviction because there were no precedents in American shipbuilding upon which to draw. When he surveyed the yard at the end of 1795, there was no towering ship to block his view of the surrounding wintry hills and brooding ramparts; and yet the Baltimore frigate was as far advanced as any of the others.26

Then came like a thunderclap the news that the Dey of Algiers had signed a treaty of peace with the United States. According to the Act of Congress, this was the end of the Navy.27

The Author's Notes:

1 American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive (Washington, D. C., 1832‑61), Naval Affairs, I, 6; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 113‑26.

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2 American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 8.

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3 Navy 1790‑98 LB, April 21, 1794.

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4 Barbary Wars, I, 77, 80, 98; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 28‑29, 190; American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 8, 18.

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5 American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 17.

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6 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 28.

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7 American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 9, 10.

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8 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 28‑29, Morgan to Humphreys, October 21, 1794.

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9 American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 8.

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10 Barbary Wars, I, 103.

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11 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 190; American State Papers, Naval Affairs, I, 18.

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12 Navy 1790‑98 LB, December 31, 1795.

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13 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 182.

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14 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Correspondence, (1775‑1831), I, 28, Truxtun to Humphreys, June 26, 1795.

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15 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Joshua Humphreys, October 8, 1795; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Correspondence (1775‑1831), I, 132.

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16 Quasi‑WarI, 337; Navy 1790‑98 LB, p85; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 14, Humphreys to Tench Coxe, September 29, 1794.

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17 Navy 1790‑98 LB, November 2, December 5, 1796.

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18 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 14, Humphreys to Tench Coxe, September 29, 1794.

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19 PMS: Fox Papers, Fox to Truxtun, April 2, 1795.

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20 LC: Jefferson Papers, vol. 142, Truxtun to Jefferson, July 10, 1804.

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21 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Correspondence (1775‑1831), Truxtun to Humphreys, April 19, 1795.

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22 Maryland Historical Society: David Stodder to Secretary of War, April 20, 1797.

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23 Navy 1790‑98 LB, April 7, 1795.

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24 Maryland Historical Society: Truxtun to Secretary of War, May 20, 1798.

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25 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books I, April 27, 1795.

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26 Barbary Wars, I, 122‑25.

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27 Ibid., I, 121‑22.

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