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Chapter 30

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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Chapter 32
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p144  Chapter 31

Shakedown Cruise

Captain Truxtun was ordered to cruise from the capes of the Chesapeake to the southern limits of the United States. He had sailed but a few days down the coast when he began to sense that the crew's inevitable grumbling, which was to be expected wherever men were constrained by any sort of discipline, was taking on an unnatural and angry tone.

Setting out on a cruise with a large and untried crew — three hundred and thirteen men all told, including officers — and being anxious about the health of his ship, he had ordered a water ration of slightly more than two quarts per man per day, to be served out in four portions at specified hours. He believed that some men, like horses, would drink excessive quantities of water when hot and tired and that the practice would invite serious consequences, such as bloating  p145 and dysentery.​1 Apparently this measure, added to the generally strict and exacting discipline that he had enforced since the first men had arrived on board his ship, was more than some members of the crew thought they had bargained for. In little groups the men talked themselves into a state of agitation, and when the talk reached Captain Truxtun's ears, he thought he heard in it the prelude to mutiny.

Acting immediately and with resolution, he called all hands on deck. He had the Articles of War read first, and then a paper he had prepared, in which he took notice of "several mutinous Assemblies" that had occurred. He restated the Article providing that "any Officer, Seaman, or Marine, who shall begin, excite, cause, or join in any Mutiny, or Sedition in the Ship to which he belongs, on any Pretence whatsoever, shall suffer Death, or such other Punishment, as Court Martial shall direct." He cited the Article that gave him authority for the water ration, its size being fixed at two quarts per day for foreign voyages "and such further Quantity, as shall be thought necessary on the Home Station, but on particular Occasions the Captain may shorten this Allowance." He added that if he had erred in his discipline, it had been in "not observing that Rigor, which the infamous Conduct of some On board have deserved." He stated in peroration, "You have the Law before you, and, I repeat, you know the Consequence, if, in future, you transgress. I must and will do my duty."2

As a climax to the proceedings, he had a marine private seized up at the gangway and flogged "with one Dozen of Stripes on his bare Back, with a Cat of nine Tails, for Insolence to the Sergeant of Marines, and endeavouring to arest a Pistol out of his Hands."3

From this day forward, there was never any threat of mutiny in a ship commanded by Captain Truxtun. As this first cruise of the Constellation wore on, he increased the water ration, and finally he ordered the scuttle casks filled for all to use as they wished.4

On the very day that Captain Truxtun reasserted his authority, Secretary of the Navy Ben Stoddert in Philadelphia hurriedly dispatched an urgent message to him. The Speaker of the House had just given Stoddert an anonymous, bitter, complaining letter, evidently written by someone on board the Constellation, that indicated a "spirit of Mutiny" in some part of the crew. Anxious to warn the Captain at the earliest possible moment, he posted the letter to William Pennock, the Norfolk Navy Agent, with the  p146 request that he immediately send a pilot boat in search of the Constellation.5

The subject of mutiny was still fresh in the public mind because newspapers of the summer before had been full of the latest news of mutinies in the British fleet. Breaking out at Spithead, where ships could not be got to sea because their crews refused to carry out their regular duties, the idea of mutiny spread to the fleet in the Thames' mouth. The mutinies had started as peaceful protestations against intolerable conditions on board ships full of impressed men, but they became grim, cruel, bloody affairs when the King's justice was meted out by courts-martial. Thirty men were hanged; nine others were flogged, each receiving from forty to three hundred and eighty lashes.6

The mutiny that may have sparked the threatened uprising in the Constellation was one that occurred on the West India station. The British frigate Hermione, cruising in the Caribbean, was commanded by Captain Pigot, a young man who failed to understand the distinction between firm justice and brutality. Ordering some men down from aloft one day, he threatened to flog the last man down. In their haste to avoid punishment, two men lost their hold and plunged to the deck. Looking upon them with contempt, the captain ordered, "Throw the lubbers overboard." Justice of a sort was returned to him that same night, when his crew mutinied. He and most of his officers were murdered and heaved over the side, and the ship was voluntarily surrendered to the Spanish fleet, then at war with Great Britain. It was supposed at the time that some of the mutineers had made their way to America.7

When the pilot boat carrying Secretary Stoddert's dispatches found the Constellation, more than three weeks later, Captain Truxtun set about trying to find out who wrote the offending letter. One day he assembled his crew and read the names and descriptions of the men who were known to be in the Hermione. Shortly afterwards Hugh Williams, able seaman, was found "in a tremor" by one of the officers and was brought to the Captain's cabin, where he confessed that he had been one of the mutineers. Making his way to Norfolk after the mutiny, he had been in America only three days when he entered the Constellation under the false name he now bore.

Captain Truxtun was satisfied that he had gotten to the bottom of the affair. He clapped Williams in irons, and after he returned to  p147 Norfolk he turned the prisoner over to the British consul. Even while he agreed that Captain Pigot was "not a disciplinarian but a brutal man," he could not overlook the fact of mutiny nor the treasonous surrender of the Hermione to the enemy.8

Captain Truxtun's rule of his ship was absolute but it never approached brutality. His sense revolted at having a man flogged. Throughout the rest of his naval career, he never found it necessary in his own ship to resort to the cat; and this included the period when Captain Nicholson, in the Constitution, was flogging as many as six men in a single day.​9 He preferred to stop a man's allowance of grog, which, at a quart a day, he thought was too great anyway.10

His officers gave him nearly as much trouble as the seamen and marines. It pained him to see the slovenly way Lieutenant Cowper stood his watch, with sails untrimmed, loose rope ends towing in the water, and petty officers scuffling on the quarter-deck while he talked and joked with the common seamen. He was wearied almost beyond endurance by Lieutenant Triplett's inattention to duty, his failure to appear on deck when speaking other vessels, and the altercations that continually occurred among marines because of his neglect of the watch bill. A fist fight between two midshipmen on the quarter-deck, a midshipman asleep at his post, and a squabble among several petty officers — these were all situations that he had to deal with in one way or another. Usually he chose merely to reprimand the offenders, hoping to appeal to an officer's reason and self-respect, and recognizing that it was "much easier to make a deep Wound, than to heal a small one."11

David Porter, a lad of eighteen, was a midshipman in Captain Truxtun's ship for over a year. More than thirty years later, thinking back on his days in the Constellation, he painted a vivid picture of naval command, in the center of which stood his first captain.

"A man of war is a petty kingdom," he wrote, "and is governed by a petty despot. . . . The little tyrant, who struts his few fathoms of scoured plank, dare not unbend, lest he should lose that appearance of respect from his inferiors which their fears inspire. He has therefore, no society, no smiles, no courtesies for or from any one. Wrapped up in his notions of his own dignity, and the means of preserving it, he shuts himself up from all around him. He stands alone, without the friendship or sympathy of one on board; a solitary being in the midst of the ocean."​12

 p148  The government of Captain Truxtun's ship struck different men in different ways. Lieutenant John Rodgers, for example, was entirely in accord with his Captain's system. So highly did he regard it, in fact, that he carried it with him to his next ship, where an overseer noted that "The order on Board was Great, & Probably too much all a mode L'Truxtun."13

Captain Truxtun was always aware that he was "Surrounded by a crew composed of so many Argus's," who watched his every move and expression;​14 but his actions were in the last analysis always guided by one overriding idea. The end of military discipline is the winning of battles. Everything else is subordinate to that end. Only when every man in a fighting unit obeys reflexively and without question or reservation, can its full force be wielded by its commander. To be effective in action, a ship must have an able captain, of course; but the ship in turn must become in his hands a single weapon, instantly answering to his will; it must be completely adaptable to the changing fortunes of battle. Captain Truxtun was one of very few men who understood this idea completely. His every effort was bent toward the moment when he would close with the enemy. Not knowing how soon that time would come, he was determined to be ready. He would have a happy ship if possible, but above everything else he would have an obedient ship.

After returning from this shakedown cruise, which lasted nearly two months, Captain Truxtun found orders awaiting him to take under his command the Baltimore, 20, Captain Isaac Phillips, to proceed with all possible speed to Havana, where it was reported that some sixty American vessels were assembled, waiting for a convoy, and to bring them home.​15 Twenty or thirty French privateers were thought to be lying in wait for this convoy in the Gulf of Florida; but in the course of the whole voyage Captain Truxtun saw only one French vessel, and that was a one‑gun schooner, which he chased. While pursuing the schooner close in under the shore, the Constellation suddenly found herself becalmed. The French crew then had the satisfaction of watching the hoisting out of boats and the wearisome towing that it took to get their pursuer back into deep water.16

Otherwise unevent­ful, this convoy duty gave him an additional opportunity to exercise his ship and crew, and incidentally to  p149 purchase a barrel of oranges and a barrel of limes, which he forwarded along with two jars of sweetmeats to his family in Perth Amboy.17

Before the first cold weeks of autumn had arrested the yellow fever season of 1798 in Philadelphia, and before Secretary Stoddert had returned to the city from his temporary office in fever-free Trenton, Stoddert had decided how he would employ his growing naval force during the coming winter. Since the swarm of French privateers that was expected on the American coast had failed to materialize and since Congress had extended the limits of the retaliatory and as yet undeclared war, he hoped to be able to send a respectable fleet to the West Indies, where it would be easier to find and capture Frenchmen.18

Several new vessels were abuilding, authorized by an act of Congress that permitted the Navy to accept them from patriotic citizens — who were paid at the rate of six per cent for their patriotism — in return for government bonds. These vessels, added to those already purchased and built, brought the total number of vessels of all descriptions in the Navy to an encouraging twenty‑one by the end of 1798.​19 Now the vessels were causing him little worry. It was the captains who kept him awake nights.

Captain Barry had gone with a small squadron to the West Indies, but he had already returned in precipitate haste, being afraid to stay on his station during the hurricane season. Unimpressed by his fears, Secretary Stoddert sent him out again. His performance this time was notable for his inactivity in seas that apparently swarmed with enemy privateers waiting to be caught.​20 Sam Nicholson, the second ranking captain, was described by the Boston Navy Agent as "a rough blustering Tar merely, he is a good Seaman probably . . . but he wants points much more important as a Commander in my view, prudence, judgement & reflection are no traits in his character, nor will he ever improve." He had already demonstrated his lack of prudence and judgment by capturing a British privateer, which act cost the government considerable embarrassment and ten thousand dollars for damages. Stoddert, who feared to trust him with a separate command, was forced to send him out in Captain Barry's squadron, because he was junior to no one else in the Navy.21

The captains who ranked after Barry and Nicholson were causing trouble of another kind. On George Washington's sixty-fifth birthday,  p150 in 1797, the year the first three frigates were launched, he had signed the commissions of the captains attending them. The commissions were numbered consecutively according to rank: Barry one, Nicholson two, and Truxtun three. That "No. 3" on Captain Truxtun's commission was to cause trouble for years to come. It will be remembered that Talbot and Dale, ranking third and fourth on the original list of captains, had been returned to private life when the building of their frigates was suspended. Now, when they were recalled to service, they found themselves junior to Captain Truxtun. Talbot would not serve unless his original rank was restored, and Dale, who had already been cruising in the Ganges, refused to continue until the issue was settled. Secretary Stoddert was anxious to pacify all parties, but he was afraid Truxtun would resign if he placed Talbot and Dale ahead of him; he wanted to avoid that if in any way possible. Therefore, he submitted the question to President Adams, who ignored it as long as he was able.22

When Captain Truxtun arrived in Philadelphia, near the end of November, 1798, the question of relative rank was still a long way from being decided. However, he had come not to contend for rank, but to plan a winter cruise.

After more than six months of almost incessant labor — he had been ashore only three days in all that time — he was satisfied that his ship and crew were equal to any service they might be called upon to perform.​23 Stoddert had given him the choice of leaving his ship at Norfolk or taking her round to New York, where he would be close to his family at Perth Amboy. Owing to the thinness of his sails and the possibility of meeting with wintry gales off the Jersey coast, he had decided it would be best to leave her where she lay. "I have not been able," he told the Secretary, "to get my own Consent, to run into a Northern Port at this Season." Instead of journeying on to Perth Amboy, he asked Mary to come down to Philadelphia to visit him, so he could return to his ship as soon as his business was concluded.24

While he was in the city, Secretary Stoddert asked him and Captains Barry, Dale, Decatur, and Tingey, to get together in order to revise the Articles of War for the government of the Navy, which had been in force since before the Declaration of Independence. These captains, meeting for a few days only in the Navy Office on Walnut Street, making use of the "room, pen Ink & paper" provided  p151 by Stoddert, added to but did not substantially change the original Articles. All subsequent Navy regulations have been based upon the rules that evolved from these sessions.25

In less than a month after he left her, Captain Truxtun was back on board his ship, ready to proceed to his assigned cruising grounds in the West Indies.26

While he was making final preparations for his departure, late in December, 1798, he took time out to eat Christmas dinner and spend "an agreeable Day" with the British admiral, George Vandeput, whose squadron was lying in Hampton Roads. He suggested to the admiral that they exchange salutes when the Constellation sailed. Admiral Vandeput, an old sea dog who had spent over forty years in the King's service, would be happy to oblige; following the custom of the British navy, he would answer Captain Truxtun's salute with two guns fewer. Needless to relate, no salute was exchanged. The admiral outranked a captain in the Royal Navy, but in the United States Navy a captain was the highest ranking officer. "It is impossible for me to acquiesce," said Captain Truxtun, "without degrading the Flag of the United States." However, the old admiral was not offended; he simply could not understand how a mere captain could expect him to exchange a salute gun for gun.27

The United States of America brig Richmond, 16, Captain Samuel Barron, was ready to sail with the Constellation, as were four merchant vessels, bound for West Indian ports. In the Thetis, a small schooner from Alexandria, was a passenger whom Secretary Ben Stoddert had asked Captain Truxtun to pay particular attention to. A young French lady it was, bound for the island of Martinique; she was to have the best protection that the Navy could afford. She was probably of a royalist family that had fled to America after the French Revolution. For these reasons, and because he was a normally chivalrous man in uniform, Captain Truxtun was determined to see her safe to her destination. He had offered to take her aboard his ship, where she would be safe from capture by the "Pirates of her Nation," but he warned her it would be most uncomfortable. Therefore she chose to stay in the Thetis.28

As the new year, 1799, reached the Virginia coast, the Constellation was standing out to sea, bound out on a cruise that would bring glory to the infant Navy and fame to her gallant commander.

The Author's Notes:

1 Quasi‑war, I, 152‑53, 291.

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2 Ibid., I, 156‑58.

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3 Ibid., I, 160.

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4 Ibid., I, 233, 291.

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5 Ibid., I, 158‑59.

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6 Irving Anthony, Revolt at Sea (New York, 1937), pp68‑95.

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7 Dictionary of National Biography (London, 1885‑1901), XLV, 281‑82.

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8 Quasi‑War, I, 312, 365; cf. Aurora, Philadelphia, October 7, 1816; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, October 26, November 22, 1807.

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9 Quasi‑War, I, 370; II, 11, 296, 298.

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10 Ibid., VII, 223. One‑half pint of rum was mixed with 1½ pints of water to make 2 pints of grog (ibid.I, 152).

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11 Ibid., I, 254, 290‑91. 298‑99; HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, 1798‑99, p26.

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12 [David Porter], Constantinople and Its Envoys (New York, 1835), II, 10. I have rejected the statement and quotation made by David D. Porter in his Memoir of Commodore David Porter (Albany, 1875), p24, that Captain Truxtun, "the honest hearted old seaman," took Midshipman Porter "by the hand and said, 'My boy, you shall never leave the navy if I can help it; why you young dog, every time I swear at you, you go up a round in the ladder of promotion; and when Mr. Rodgers blows you up it is because he loves you and don't want you to become too conceited.' " This does not ring true, and Admiral Porter was not discriminating in his use of sources. For example, he swallowed the Goldsborough version of the sequel to the Constellation-Insurgente action. See my comment in note 24, chapter 33, below.

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13 Quasi‑War, IV, 159.

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14 Life in Letters: American Autograph Journal, Merion Station, Pa., June, 1941, Truxtun to Charles Biddle, October 16, 1805.

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15 Quasi‑War, I, 288.

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16 Ibid., I, 319, 467.

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17 HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, 1798‑99, p44, October 8, 1798.

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18 Quasi‑War, I, 460‑61.

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19 Ibid., I, 146, 278, 330, 339, and passim. See index: Navy, Secretary of; Charles W. Goldsborough, United States' Naval Chronicle (Washington, D. C., 1824), I, 94.

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20 Quasi‑War, I, 430; III, 25, 66.

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21 Ibid., I, 106, 555‑56; II, 519; G. W. Allen, Our Naval War with France (Boston, 1909), p71.

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22 Quasi‑War, I, 542‑43.

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23 HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, 1798‑99, Truxtun to William Pennock, October 30, 1798.

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24 Quasi‑War, II, 5, 15; III, 455.

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25 Ibid., II, 55‑56, 522; Leland P. Lovette, Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage (Annapolis, 1939), p61. "Rules for Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies" were compiled in 1775 by John Adams [G. W. Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution (Boston, 1913), p24; the rules are quoted in ibid., pp686‑95; also in Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D. C., 1837‑53), 4th ser., III, 1929‑32]. More than half of these rules were lifted, nearly intact, from Great Britain, Admiralty, Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea (11th ed., London, 1772). Over half of the 1799 regulations, in turn, were lifted from the 1775 rules. Several articles were added to prescribe the conduct of courts-martial and the distribution of prize money. See references above and Statutes at Large of the United States of America, 1789‑1873 (Boston, 1850‑73), I, 709‑17 — Navy regulations adopted March 2, 1799.

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26 Quasi‑War, II, 35, 110.

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27 Dictionary of National Biography (London, 1885‑1901), LVIII, 99‑100; Quasi‑War, II, 127‑28.

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28 Quasi‑War, II, 28, 144, 439. Martinique was in British hands, having been taken in 1794.

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