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Chapter 27

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 29
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p130  Chapter 28

The Launch

The Constellation, poised in her stocks on the left bank of the Patapsco, was an imposing sight. As yet she was just a hull; none of the lofty masts was in place; but already she towered higher than a three-story house. She was 171 feet long on deck and 40 broad. Her great body, curving upward from the keel, bulged out like some vast puncheon, reached maximum width over ten feet below the deck, and then tumbled home, or curved inward again up to the railings. Her great weight was carried by keel blocks; she was steadied by multiple rows of heavy timber stanchions, planted firmly  p131 on the ground along each side of the hull. The copper sheets, which covered her entire bottom up to the water line, gleamed dully in the late afternoon sun.1

Everything here was on a heroic scale. The brow, or ramp, laid between the deck and the ground, was over one hundred feet long and broad enough to hold four workmen abreast.​2 The ship's boats, great guns mounted in their carriages, water-casks, blocks, deadeyes, and sundry other equipment lay about the yard.​3 A cargo of spars, cannon balls, and pig iron ballast had just arrived by a vessel from Philadelphia.​4 Shrouds and stays, comprising the bulk of the standing rigging, were ready to be set up when the masts were shipped after the hull was safe in the water.​5 All around the ways were scrap ends and chips of tough, odorous woods, trimmed and bored by adze and auger; here and there was a locust treenail, shivered by a maul as it was being driven home through the planking. The saw pits were banked with sawdust, by‑product of countless gallons of sweat expended in shaping the massive timbers. A whipsaw flashed as it was drawn up through a log by the topman sawyer; a second later it was almost lost to sight as the pitman dragged it downward again.

The carved work was all in place, even to the cat faces that adorned the timbers called catheads, when readers of the Federal Gazette, attracted by a glowing description of the "super-excellent and masterly" work, began to arrive in the yard. Captain Truxtun, upon receiving an explanation of the allegorical meanings of the carvings from William Rush, who planned and executed the work, had forwarded it to the newspaper with a request that it be printed for the gratification of those who might wish to visit the ship.6

Nature, still an elegant female figure, was mounted high on the prow, just beneath the bowsprit; but she was no longer "indignant"; now that she had emerged from a block of wood she was represented "in pleasing extacy . . . she is crested with Fire, her waist is encircled with the Zone or signs of the zodiac, her hair and drapery loose and flowing, her right arm and hand elevated, her left arm lightly resting on a large sphere, on which the Constellation is rising, her feet on a rock." Flame ascended and water descended from the rock; it was flanked by a scale and mirror, emblematic of truth and justice, and a dove, symbolic of peace, resting in a liberty cap. The carvings extended back along the trailboards on each side of the bluff bows. The four seasons were represented there, "crowning  p132 the Muses," encouraging the "free and uninterrupted progress" of arts and sciences in the new world.

At the center of the stern was "a large sphere, with the Constellation inserted, resting on a massy pedestal." A panel sunk in the pedestal displayed the fasces, badge of Union. Three large volumes and a scroll, suggesting the three branches of government and the Constitution, were on one side of the pedestal, and the American eagle and shield were on the other. On the starboard side of the central figure, Fortitude was followed by the emblems of Order, Industry, and Agriculture, "supported by Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, in the starboard quarter-piece." To the larboard side, Justice stood next to the emblems of Science, Shipbuilding, and Navigation, "supported by Neptune, the god of the seas, in the larboard quarter-piece."7

The Navy Yard was, for a few weeks, the focal point of interest in Baltimore. Old William Faris, diarist, dentist, and silversmith of Annapolis, came up to the city one day; after completing his business he and a companion "went and took a View of the Frigat."​8 Captain Truxtun, approving highly of the appearance of the hull with its carved work and festooned galleries, was anxious to have the townspeople come to see his ship.​9 One visitor, however, disturbed the "pleasing extacy" of the scene. Styling himself "an admirer of truth, as well as beauty," he wrote a letter to the editor of the Federal Gazette after examining Rush's woodcarving.10

"Great was my disappointment," he complained, "on actual inspection, to find it infinitely beneath, and not at all corresponding with, Mr. R's description." Dipping his pen in vitriol, the anonymous critic launched into a lengthy diatribe, picking the work apart almost splinter by splinter. "How long, my profound astronomer," he carped, "has the goose or eagle, (for critics have not agreed which it is)," been one of the signs of the zodiac? He condemned the dove in the liberty cap "(or as some have facetiously called it, a duck in a bag)" because the dove seemed to be trampling the emblem of liberty. But his idea was no better: he thought the dove should be wearing the cap. Likewise, his judgment of Nature's figure was open to question.

"Nature is always represented," he wrote, "as having a row of breasts, wholly uncovered, to show her office of fostering all created beings: Mr. R's figure has but two." Furthermore, she should be as  p133 "naked as is consistent with modesty — on the contrary, this figure is cloathed to a preposterous degree of clumsiness." And so he continued, taking up each detail in turn, expressing his disgust with "such contemptible chopping," at the same time giving a much clearer picture of the whole work.

As the day for the launch approached, plans for the great event were perfected. Captain Staats Morris, who commanded the little Army garrison in the fort on Whetstone Point, had been extremely co‑operative throughout the building period, even to the extent of giving up a dozen of his cannon to help arm the Constellation.​11 He had furnished guards for the Navy Yard and was willing to do so again for the launch, but the crowd promised to be more than his men could handle, so Captain Truxtun called for volunteers. These came forward in droves, most of them sporting uniforms of one kind or another.

Builder Stodder's preparations were carried out with admirable thoroughness. He bought a hundred and twenty dollars' worth of tallow and spread it on the launching ways, down which the ship would slide.​12 The bilge ways, which would carry the ship down the tallowed launching ways, were hauled up into place and made fast to the under side of the hull before the morning of the seventh. That would leave for Thursday morning only the wedging‑up and the final launch.

After dawn on Thursday, David Stodder waited for the flood tide. The ship still rested on the keel blocks. The last operation was to raise the hull a few inches with wedges, in order to remove keel blocks and stanchions and to transfer the hull's weight to the bilge ways.

Even though the event was planned for an early hour, the surface of the Patapsco was covered with innumerable boats, and the low hills to the east, across Harris Creek, swarmed with spectators. Never before had such a concourse of people, of both sexes and all ages, been assembled in the city of Baltimore. One group of uniformed volunteers was stationed around the yard to prevent the entry of anyone but the workmen and invited guests. Another group of volunteers, carrying muskets, was admitted on board to make the thrilling descent with the ship. A park of artillery was planted on high ground within the yard.13

Captain Truxtun, who commanded on board, was resplendent in  p134 his new uniform. He wore a full dress blue coat with long buff lapels, gold "anchor and eagle" buttons, and a standing collar; a cocked hat with cockade; and buff breeches. The golden epaulets on his shoulders sparkled as they caught the morning sunlight.14

The workmen — two hundred of them — were ranged up and down the ways beneath the hull in two rows. Armed with heavy mauls, they were ready for the wedging‑up. David Stodder was in command of the actual operation of launching. At a signal from Stodder there was a ruffle on the drum, and two hundred mauls rained down on the wedges. At another signal from Stodder the ruffle ended, the men stayed their blows, and a rally at the wedges was complete. This was performed, according to one observer, "with as much exactness and precision, as the manuel exercise by a regiment of veterans."

The rallies continued. As the hull was raised and the strain came off the stanchions, they were removed. When the keel cleared the blocks, they too were knocked aside. By nine o'clock the ship was ready to launch.

"And now," continued the observer, "description is beggared."

"Everything being in the most complete preparation, all the blocks taken away, every man from under the vessel, and the hull standing on almost nothing but the slippery tallow, orders were given for knocking away the last stanchion. This being done, she moved gracefully and majestically down her ways, amidst the silent amazement of thousands of spectators, to her destined element, into which she plunged with such ease and safety, as to make the hills resound with reiterated bursts of joyful acclamations." Another witness wrote, "Nothing could surpass the proud and stately movements of the ship — she seemed conscious of the occasion, and passed on to the embrace of her destined element, with an air of dignity and grandeur, inconceivable."

The volunteers on board fired a musket salute of sixteen rounds, one for each state in the Union, each star in the Constellation. This salute was answered by the park of artillery.

Her launch was perfect. She came to anchor within a hundred yards of shore. The opinions of the builder and captain repeated the superlatives that appeared in the newspapers.15

"I launched the United States frigate Constellation," Stodder  p135 proudly reported to the Secretary of War, "without the least appearance of the smallest accident happening." He praised his workmen for executing his orders "at the instant directed."16

Captain Truxtun was more eloquent. "The masterly manner in which the ways were laid by Mr. Stodder," he wrote, "and the other precautions he took to prevent the smallest accident, which had the desired effect, does him the highest honor as a master builder and professional man. In fact, Sir, I never witnessed in Europe, or any other country, a performance of the kind better executed and more highly gratifying, and I am convinced a more sightly ship of the sort cannot be built."17

If he imagined for a moment that his troubles were over now that his ship was in the water, Captain Truxtun was sadly disillusioned as the fitting out period dragged on for many exasperating months. The first of a series of vexatious delays came within two days after the launching. Before the week was ended, Baltimore was struck down by the dreaded yellow fever.

The Author's Notes:

1 Dimensions of the ship are given by Truxtun in HSPa: U. S. Frigate Constellation Orders, Muster Rolls, Stores, etc.

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2 American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive (Washington, D. C., 1832‑61), Naval Affairs, I, 50.

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3 Barbary WarsI, 188.

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4 Navy 1790‑98 LB, July 24, 1797.

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5 Barbary WarsI, 188.

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6 Navy 1790‑98 LB, August 8, 1798; Federal Gazette, Baltimore, August 9, 1797.

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7 Federal Gazette, Baltimore, August 9, 1797.

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8 Maryland Historical Magazine, XXVIII (1933), 197 ff., October 29, 1796.

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9 Navy 1790‑98 LB, July 24, 1797.

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10 Federal Gazette, Baltimore, September 6, 1797; see also Eugene S. Ferguson, "Figure-head of the United States Frigate Constellation," American Neptune, VII (October, 1947), 255‑60.

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11 Quasi‑WarI, 9; HSPa: Constellation Orders.

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12 Documents Accompanying a Message . . . (Chap. 27, note 28 above).

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13 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, September 11, 1797; Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, September 8, 1797.

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14 Quasi‑WarI, 10‑11; New Jersey Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 4th ser., III, 15.

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15 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, September 11, 1797; Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, September 8, 1797.

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16 Federal Gazette, Baltimore, September 19, 1797.

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17 Ibid.

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