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Chapter 2

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 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p10  Chapter 3

His Majesty's Service

Departing from New York in December, 1770, on board the London, it appeared that Tom would celebrate his sixteenth birthday in London and then return to New York ahead of the warm weather; but in planning to spend Maytime ashore in Long Island, he did not reckon with the press gangs of the Royal Navy.

In September, a warship of the Royal Navy had sailed up the English Channel, crowding on all the sail she could carry, hurrying to get into her home port to deliver momentous news. She had been insulted — insulted and humiliated by a few arrogant Spaniards in the far distant Falkland Islands, down off Cape Horn. Spain and Great Britain both claimed the islands for their own. An argument had arisen, and a small Spanish force had overcome an even smaller British force, which consisted merely of a single ship of war. It was agreed by the Spaniards that the British might return to England, but not until after the Spanish governor had arrived to take account of the situation. In order to make sure that the British, living in  p11 their ship, complied with the agreement and did not slip away ahead of time under cover of fog or darkness, the Spaniards took ashore some of the ship's sails, and — indignity of indignities — unhung her rudder, took it ashore, and placed it under guard. This was the comic-opera news that reached England late in 1770.1

Nations as well as individuals go to great lengths to save face. The reaction in England to this insult in the remote Falklands was immediate and violent. How dare those Dons? Call out the Navy. Where is the Navy? Sixteen sail of the line, peacefully rotting away in ordinary, were put back in commission immediately. Appropriations for the Navy were more than doubled.​2 But the suddenly expanded Navy needed many thousands of additional seamen, and these were not so easily obtained as the money and ships.

His Majesty offered a bounty of thirty shillings to every able seaman who would enter the naval service, and the cities of London, Bristol, and several others offered additional bounties to induce seamen to sign up.​3 These inducements unfortunately were overbalanced by the nature of the royal sea service. Crowded quarters, rotten food, months and sometimes years on board a ship with no liberty to go ashore lest a man desert: all of this was common knowledge. Still, men were needed; so the Navy met the need in traditional fashion. Press gangs were called out. They would find the men.

Impressment of any able-bodied British subject, no matter what his occupation or family obligations might be, was legal when men were needed for the Navy. Only those who had influence in official circles could buy their way out of the service if the press became hot. A hapless man, beset by a prize gang, might be torn from his family for years, or forever, without warning and without recompense.

The press gangs usually consisted of fifteen to thirty men, armed always with cutlasses and sometimes with pistols besides. A lieutenant commanded the gang, which included two or three midshipmen, several ratings, and seamen big enough and strong enough to do the job effectively and expeditiously. They were put ashore from warships, generally in and around the cities and larger towns. Occasionally they would range through the countryside, traveling on foot and in coaches from one place to another.4

This was the sort of gang that Tom Truxtun encountered as his ship came into London early in 1771. The seamen on board merchant ships, as long as they even looked like British subjects, were fair game  p12 for the press gangs. Working afloat, the gangs would surround an incoming ship and prevent the escape of any of her crew. So hot did the press become in London that the Lord Mayor had to ask the Admiralty office for "protections" for enough merchant seamen to bring vessels loaded with food up to the city.​5 But this happened after Tom already had been taken by a press gang and sent on board a Britain man-of‑war.

Tom was in the Royal Navy only for a few months, serving all of his time in the 64‑gun ship Prudent. He was alert and eager; the captain found him to be an uncommonly good boy. Before long the captain showed his confidence in him by sending him ashore as a member of a press gang.​6 He talked to Tom about the naval service, painting a pleasant picture of the life it afforded. The captain, according to Tom Truxtun's first biographer, "endeavoured to prevail on him to remain in the service, and assured him that all his interest should be used for his promotion."​7 Tom took naturally to the routine and discipline of the service, and indeed was greatly and lastingly influenced by the laws, custom, and traditions of the Royal Navy. Twenty-five years later, when he was wrestling with the organization of his own ship of war, he leaned heavily on what throughout the years he had learned of the ways of the British sea service. However, in 1771, after the British had within a few months' time settled their little altercation with Spain and press gangs were no longer being sent ashore, Tom decided he would prefer the peacetime merchant service to the peacetime Navy. He may have read in a London newspaper what he might expect of the Navy after the peace: "After the navy has been reviewed by his Majesty, and paraded round Spithead, with Music playing, Guns firing, Flags flying &c. all the Ships are to be distributed among the several Sea Ports of this Kingdom — to rot, until the next Spanish Encroachments rouse them from their Lethargy."​8 Perhaps Tom wondered what officers did while their ships were rotting. In any case, as soon as he was released from the Navy he returned to his old ship London.

On board the London for another three years, Tom completed his training in merchant ships, still under the tutelage of Captain Chambers, who it has been said was "a celebrated commander in the London trade."​9 He was probably a good commander, because Tom learned his sea trade well; but when Captain Chambers is remembered  p13 it is not for his seaman­ship: it is for the infamous part he played in the New York tea party, a most uncelebrated event.

The Author's Notes:

1 Isaac Schomberg, Naval Chronology (London, 1892), I, 406.

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2 Ibid., I, 394.

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3 Ibid., I, 406.

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4 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Secretary of State, December 1, 1796.

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5 New York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, April 15, 1771.

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6 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to Secy. of State, December 1, 1796.

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7 Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 31.

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8 New York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, June 10, 1771.

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9 Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 31.

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Page updated: 13 Jun 13