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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 26

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 28
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p122  Chapter 27

Maryland Constellation

Ten years after the first American vessels were captured by the Algerine corsairs and after ten years of slavery for the surviving members of their crews, a treaty of peace was signed by the capricious and tempestuous Hassan Bashaw, Dey of Algiers.​1 The peace was concluded at the cost of nearly one million dollars.​2 When the first payment of tribute to the Dey was delayed because the American envoy could not immediately command so large a sum of merely, the Dey threw one of "his usual Blustering Comvulsions of Passion" and threatened to abrogate the treaty.​3 Finally he was quieted by the promise of a present — a thirty‑six-gun warship — if he would wait three months longer for his money.

Those who knew the Dey predicted that peace could not last long. An American agent in Algiers said, "They are now going to War with Denmark. After that it is probable they will take Venice or Sweeden, or both, they will then try Holland again & perhaps Spain, and our turn will be the next."​4 Besides, all the Barbary pirates were not in Algiers. No treaties had yet been made with Tunis and Tripoli; and the treaty with Morocco, concluded some time before, could last only as long as the present emperor lived, since none of the Barbary rulers would recognize treaties made by their predecessors.

Taking careful note of this danger as well as the unsettled state of European politics, President Washington informed Congress that he had not yet halted construction of the Navy as he was required to do by law, because he feared that the sudden suspension of all activity would cause a considerable loss in money, materials, and  p123 men. He gave Congress another opportunity to change the law and to adopt the policy that he thought would "best comport with the public interest." Then he awaited further instructions.5

In the House of Representatives, the Navy fight broke out anew. All the old arguments for and against it were paraded again. The opposition contended that if the frigates were got to sea, they would surely find an enemy. This would be inviting disaster, because these few ships would give little protection against the great European powers. And the expense of completing the ships would be enormous. Those in favor of the Navy argued that these frigates could defeat a European antagonist piecemeal, taking on individual ships and small squadrons as they arrived in American waters. As for the expense, all of the money would be spent at home; the farmer, the merchant, the mechanic, all would be benefited; nobody would lose anything.6

At length the issue was settled and a new Navy bill was signed by the President on April 20, 1796. The Navy was saved. As a concession to those who wanted to scuttle the frigates before they were launched, the majority of Congress agreed to go ahead and finish only three of the ships, leaving it to the President's discretion whether the others should be completed or abandoned.

Long before this definite turn of events occurred, Captain Truxtun had made a frontal attack on the uncertainties that lay before him. Carefully setting down everything in favor of completing the Baltimore frigate, pointing out that the other thirty-six, in Portsmouth, was not nearly so far along, that Maryland white oak was superior to that of New Hampshire, and that more live oak was expected daily in Baltimore, he sent off his report to the War Office; but he was not content to rest his case there.​7 Upon hearing that General Anthony Wayne, just back from his brilliant successes in crushing the Indians on the Ohio frontier, might be appointed Secretary of War, he wrote to him and briefed him on the situation. Even if the President decided to continue with his ship, Captain Truxtun told the General, he had heard that Captains Nicholson and Talbot might try to use their influence "(or their friends for them)" to have him displaced by one of them, because they stood higher on the list of captains. That, he said, would be contrary to custom and usage in either the British or the French Navy, where a captain could expect to keep his own ship even when senior officers were in  p124 need of employment. "I have made great sacrifices, by My engaging in this business," he wrote; "I should be Mortified . . . if I am superceded."8 He talked to Captain Barry, who assured him that he had nothing to worry about, but he placed little confidence in Barry's encouragement.

Leaving no bastion unbreached, he sat down one evening in Baltimore and wrote a letter to President Washington. He hoped the President could see his way clear to order his frigate to be continued. In which case, he wrote, "I shall take a particular pleasure, in exerting my utmost abilities, to have her speedily compleated, and in a way that will do honor to the United States."9

Shortly after the passage of the new Navy bill, in the spring of 1796, the pleasure of the President was made known.​10 Captains Nicholson, Barry, and Truxtun were permitted to continue with their ships in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Captains Talbot and Sever were returned to private life; Captain Dale, away on a private voyage to China, was likewise put aside.

Except for occasional flying trips to expedite the business of the frigate, Captain Truxtun now spent nearly all of his time in Baltimore; he was determined that his ship should get to sea as soon as either of the others.

One day he journeyed up to Cecil Furnace, near Head of Elk, where he and Captain Barry were to inspect some cannon for their respective ships. They were told that thirty-five had already been proof-fired; but after making a visual inspection, they agreed to accept only twenty-nine of these. Furthermore, they doubted whether the guns had been adequately proven. They knew of too many cases where guns had burst in action with disastrous results. They thought the charge and wadding ought "at least to have been as much in proving as in time of Action."​11 Ironmaster Sam Hughes disagreed. His contract did not even require that the cannon be proved; he had done that solely from benevolence. He was merely to furnish so many guns at so much per ton. Captain Barry dryly commented to Captain Truxtun that the contract was the work of "your friend Tench Coxe." This altercation, which forced Captain Truxtun to make at least one extra trip to Philadelphia, had to be settled by the Secretary of War, who as a consequence took pains to spell out the requirements for proof-firing for all future contracts.12

The frigates had been named by President Washington more than  p125 a year before, but it was only after her "raising," early in 1796, that Captain Truxtun's ship began to be referred to by her proper name. When Joshua Humphreys first prepared the molds, he arbitrarily assigned a letter to each ship as a matter of convenience. The Baltimore frigate, according to her mold markings, was the "E." When names were being selected, Humphreys submitted to the War Office a list of some forty names ranging all the way from Thunderer and Terrible to Virtuous and Modeste, but none of his ideas was finally adopted. Timothy Pickering, who served during the first few months of 1795 as Secretary of War, made perhaps his sole contribution to the naval program when he prepared a much shorter list for the President. George Washington made the final selections by running his pencil across the page beneath the first five names suggested by Pickering.​13 The Boston frigate was named Constitution; Captain Barry's ship, in Philadelphia, the United States; and the Baltimore frigate became the Constellation, named for the American flag. It may have been Timothy Pickering who had remembered the resolution made by the Continental Congress twenty years before: "that the Flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."14

The names were chosen early in order to allow time enough to complete the figureheads and other carved work before launching. The Constellation and United States both were to be embellished by William Rush, a celebrated Philadelphia ship carver who, when he heard the names, hurriedly drew a few swatches from his grab bag of ideas and set down his "first thoughts" on how the work should appear.

"The Constellation," he wrote, "should be represented by an elegant female figure, characteristick of indignant Nature, at the period of the American Revolution determined on forming a New Creation, from that Chaos of Ignorance, Vice and folly, which house had long been burthened with. — She should have a flaming torch in her right hand, setting fire to the bursting world under her feet, with the emblems of Tyranny Superstition Folly, &c issuing from it, and thrown into Confusion and fermentation, her left arm resting on the altar of Liberty. The American Eagle in the act of flight, a sphere resting on his pinions with the Constellation inserted, soaring to heaven with one more great offering of Nature — or to adorn the  p126 now political fermament, with light and Glory, to Serve as a light to the Nations that have long Wandered in political Darkness; and to Strike with Wonder and Surprize the Wise Men of the East."​15

In the same grandiloquent manner, the "raising" of the Constellation was noticed in one of the Baltimore newspapers.

There is a time in the building of a ship when the meaningless aggregation of timbers, properly scarfed and bolted together, suddenly assumes the definite shape and form of the finished work. This metamorphosis begins spectacularly when the stern frame is hoisted into place. Until that time, the building ways are encumbered only by the keel and some staging. Once the stern is raised, however, the structure takes on the appearance of a ship; its size and bulk stand out in sharp perspective.​16 It was after the raising, which occurred on February 5, 1796, that a writer for the Maryland Journal unleashed his pen and let it soar away on a flight of fancy.

This great ship, said the Journal, "reflects no small lustre on the state of Maryland, and particularly on those gentlemen concerned in this glorious undertaking. . . . Now may the servile instruments of a foreign despotism tremble; . . . For soon shall the genius of Columbia, adorning the prow of the Maryland Constellation, clear the seas of those marauding depredators, and extend our commerce in safety from pole to pole."​17

When Captain Truxtun picked up the paper and read the item, he suspected that it might be "some of Stodders nonsence." He immediately asked the other publishers in town not to reprint it; then he went in search of Stodder. Upon being confronted with the piece, Stodder swore that he knew nothing about it until it was printed.

"I must confess," Captain Truxtun wrote to Josiah Fox, "I was very much ashamed, at seeing the piece, least some person might suppose, it was published by some one Concern'd in building the Frigate."18

Joshua Humphreys read the "Bombastical publication about your frigate" a few days later when it had been copied in a Philadelphia paper. He told Captain Truxtun that he thought it "was really laughable."19

In the evenings, when he could take time from writing letters, preparing his reports to the War Office, and checking over the endless lists of stores and materials, Captain Truxtun often dined and  p127 drank with the gentlemen of the city. It was a pleasant place, Baltimore, with clear wide streets, paved sidewalks, and wooden bridges over the rivulet called Jones Falls. Colonel Howard's beauti­ful park over­looked the city from a commanding hill north of the Court House, there were good eating and drinking places, a theatre in Holiday Street, and many gracious homes.​20 Captain Truxtun made numerous friends here, Doctor Rattoone and the merchant prince William Patterson​a among them. He made some enemies, too. It was here that he met the two Smiths, General Sam of the Maryland militia and his younger brother Robert, the latter of whom was destined eventually to frustrate his ultimate ambition for fame and glory. While Sam was always a friend to the Navy, he never forgave Captain Truxtun for some remarks that passed in Baltimore during a political argument. Robert, apparently snubbed by the Captain as being beneath his notice, lived to see the day when the situation was reversed.21

Captain Truxtun also found time to prepare another book for the printer. Realizing that unless some energetic measures were taken, the Navy, when finally it got to sea, would consist merely of a number of individual ships, each operating under the particular system devised by its captain, or under no system at all, he was anxious to bring the subject of organization and training to the attention of those who might be able to do something about it.

Already, in his first book — on navigation and assorted nautical lore — he had published a treatise on the general duties of officers "from an Admiral, Down to the most inferior officer." Wisely, he devoted the largest amount of space to the instruction of inexperienced midshipmen; but he did not pass over captains lightly. His belief was reinforced during the few following years that these were the officers who needed most to learn the details and philosophy of naval command.

In that treatise, which he compiled largely from the British naval regulations, he stressed the need for system in "our young navy." Since precedent was lacking in America, he recommended following, though not blindly, the customs and usage of an old and experienced sea power.​22 Basically, his pattern — the Royal Navy's way of doing things — was sound, and he was able by precept and example to pass on to his successors the best traditions of command at sea.

 p128  This second book, a quarto volume of forty pages, published in Baltimore in 1797, was entitled "Instructions, Signals, and Explanations, Offered for the United States Fleet." Again drawing on the experience of the Royal Navy, he devised a system of signals to be used by a squadron or fleet of warships.​23 The day signals, designated by numbers, were to be displayed on a pennant hoist. Each number from zero to nine was represented by a particular pennant. Thus, with only three sets of pennants, a thousand different signals could easily be made. His list of signals contained something less than three hundred, among them the following: "21. Prepare for battle"; "224. Are your dead buried and the ship well washed?"; "187. A mutiny"; "188. Mutiny quelled and ringleaders secured"; "225. Prepare to hold a court martial as directed"; and "226. Execute the condemned criminal." He also prepared fog signals, which prescribed the firing of guns and muskets, the ringing of bells, and the beating of drums. His night signals required lights, flashes from the pans of muskets, and false fires.

His system of night and fog signals was in many ways cumbersome and impractical. The night signal of distress, for example, required a range of fifteen lights at one‑fathom intervals on a halyard suspended from a yardarm. This string of lights would be not only enormously difficult to display but also was likely to be obscured by spars and sails. However, while his system was far from perfect, it was as good as most. It was common knowledge that the British signal book was so defective that each admiral commanding a squadron had to compose his own set of signals.​24 A simple and universal signal system was not devised until sixty years later.

Although Captain Truxtun was not an original thinker, he recognized and proclaimed the need for a system, however imperfect, for the government of the naval service. He characterized naval officers generally as "uninformed men, who mostly have an aversion to reading and studious application," and urged upon them the study of the literature of their profession. At the same time, he recognized the dearth of dependable marine works, owing mainly to the jealousy with which the principal maritime nations guarded the discoveries and advances that they had made in the naval arts. He advocated the founding of a national marine academy and a society for the study and improvement of naval architecture. If his present work "should be approved of," he declared that he was willing to  p129 spend his leisure hours in compiling a comprehensive treatise on naval tactics and evolutions, "but to do it completely and extensively," he wrote, "it will take some time."25

The larger work never materialized, and the only tangible approval of this book that he enjoyed was in having the War Department pay for its printing.​26 However, one is obliged to conclude that he was the only one of the first six Navy captains who was at all inclined to improve himself by "studious application" and to encourage his juniors to become proficient in anything more abstruse than the reefing, handing, and steering that were known to every common seaman.

In his own copy of his signal book, he wrote the only two surviving examples of any poetry he may have composed. The first is a five-line stanza of bad verse having to do with the protection of injured American commerce. The second is this:

"The rights of America we'll maintain

And then return to you, Sweet girl, again

T. T."​27

In the summer of 1797, three years after the Navy was first authorized, the Navy Yard in Baltimore resounded with the ring of the adze and the thud of the maul. The Constellation still rested in the stocks. The planking of her hull was complete and the bottom was being sheathed with copper sheets imported from England.​28 Some of the inside work was well under way and much of her top hamper was in the yard ready to go on board as soon as the ship was launched.29

The United States, in Philadelphia, had been launched in May, and it appeared that the Constellation might be ready before the end of the summer. The Philadelphia frigate had actually launched herself, having started to move before all the keel blocks had been knocked loose and before all the workmen were out from under the hull. In her precipitate haste to plunge into the river, she suffered some underwater damage that required heaving her down for repairs.​30 In order to avoid any similar troubles with the Baltimore launch, the Secretary of War asked — of all people — Joshua Humphreys, whose launch had gone awry, to go to Baltimore to "consult on the best Method to be pursued in Launching the Frigate Constellation into the Water (so as to float)."​31 One might idly wonder  p130 whether Humphreys was being sent to help out or to learn something.

He was received by David Stodder in a "very polite manner." The two constructors and Captain Truxtun discussed the prospects of a success­ful launch. Learning that the United States, when launched, drew nineteen feet of water, Stodder had soundings made off the end of his ways. Sixty feet out from shore, he found sixteen feet of water and eight feet of soft mud; three times as far out, a pole was pushed down over thirty feet without reaching solid ground. He observed that a high tide would add at least three feet to his figures. The three men carefully surveyed the situation of the ship; they checked the descent of the ways; and at length they agreed that there appeared to be nothing to prevent the ship from being launched in complete safety.32

As the month of August wilted away into September, the grand preparations were nearing an end. The Baltimore Telegraphe of August 29, 1797, announced the coming climax to three long years of delays, changes, mistakes, hard work, and worry. "Wind, weather and tide permitting, the United States Frigate Constellation, will be launched on Tuesday, the 7th of September."33

The Author's Notes:

1 Barbary Wars, I, 1, 119, 143.

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2 Ray W. Irwin, Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers 1776‑1816 (Chapel Hill, 1931), pp80‑81; G. W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston, 1905), p56.

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3 Barbary WarsI, 83.

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4 Ibid.I, 141.

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5 Ibid.I, 139.

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6 [Annals of Congress.] Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Washington, D. C., 1834‑56), 4 Congr., 870, 872‑73, 879, 882, 893.

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7 PMS: Fox Papers, Truxtun to Fox, January 4, 1796.

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8 HSPa: Wayne Papers, vol. 43, p104, Truxtun to Wayne, January 23, 1796.

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9 LC: Washington Papers, vol. 277, Truxtun to Washington, February 4, 1796.

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10 Barbary Wars, I, 150‑51.

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11 NDA: War Department Letter Book, Arming and Equipping Frigates, 1795‑98, p2; NYHS: Barry Papers, John Barry to Truxtun, May 22, 1796.

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12 NYHS: Barry Papers, John Barry to Truxtun, May 22, 1796; Barbary Wars, I, 172‑74; Navy 1790‑98 LB, May 20, 1796.

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13 George Washington, Writings, J. C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D. C., 1931‑44), XXXIV, front., March 14, 1795; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, 36, 81, 87. Chesapeake was named later — Quasi‑WarIII, 63.

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14 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, September 2, 1777.

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15 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Correspondence, William Rush to Humphreys, April 30, 1795. Printed in Pennsylvania Mag. of Hist. and Biog., XXXI (1907), 239‑40; see also American Neptune, VII (1947), 256.

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16 For evidence of this and other "raisings," see Philadelphia Gazette, February 9, 1796; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books I, 187 (President Washington attended raising of stern in Philadelphia); ibi, I, 200 (six weeks later several frames had been raised).

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17 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, February 10, 1796, copied from Maryland Journal, Baltimore, February 5, 1796.

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18 PMS: Fox Papers, Truxtun to Fox, February 7, 1796.

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19 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, I, February 22, 1796.

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20 Kenneth and Anna Roberts, ed. and trans., Moreau de St. Méry's American Journey, 1793‑1798 (New York, 1947), pp76‑81.

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21 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, August 3, 1799; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, December 15, 1803, March 23, 1806, March 5, 1810.

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22 Great Britain, Admiralty, Regulations and Instructions Relative to His Majesty's Service at Sea (13th ed., London, 1790).

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23 Truxtun Hare Collection: Signal Book for the Ships of War, n. d. [watermark: GR].

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24 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering [1806], fol. 308.

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25 Thomas Truxtun, Instructions, Signals, and Explanations Offered for the U. S. Fleet (Baltimore, 1797).

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26 Navy 1790‑98 LB, June 16, 1797.

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27 This copy is in Navy Department, Office of Naval Records and Library.

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28 Documents Accompanying a Message from the President of the United States, with Sundry Statements of Expenditures of Public Monies, by Naval Agents, from the 1st of January, 1797 to the 31st of December, 1801 (Washington, D. C., 1803), part III. Approximately 27 tons of copper in sheets, bolts, nails, etc., were purchased from Alexander Bisland & Co., London.

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29 Barbary WarsI, 188.

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30 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, II (1797‑1800), 26‑27.

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31 Navy 1790‑98 LB, July 25, 1797; Quasi‑WarI, 9.

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32 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, II, 36.

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33 Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, August 29, 1797.

Thayer's Note:

a See Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, pp19‑20. (His daughter Elizabeth would marry Jerome Bonaparte, about which that book has a lot more to say.)

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