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Chapter 31

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 33
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p152  Chapter 32

Petty Kingdom

After two weeks at sea, the Constellation was still shepherding the little schooner with the lady aboard toward her destination. Captain Truxtun had had "a vast Deal of trouble" with the master of the Thetis, whose vessel was a dull sailer and who, like most merchant masters under convoy, paid no attention to the signals or the sailing of his escorts. One of the other vessels had disappeared from the convoy the first night out, and the remaining two were being led to their intended port in the Virgin Islands by the Richmond.​1 The Constellation was almost half way down the chain of islands that rims the eastern end of the Caribbean Sea and separates it from the Atlantic Ocean when the steep rugged coast of Martinique hove into view on the larboard bow. The town of St. Pierre, menaced by the mile high furrowed cone of Mount Pelee to the northeast and the abruptly rising Carbet Peaks to the southeast, was huddled on a shelf below the backbone ridge of mountains as though in imminent peril of being pushed into the sea. About four leagues offshore, Captain Truxtun peered through his long glass and inspected the bold coast on either hand of the town. Finding it perfectly clear of vessels of any description, he hailed the Thetis. Speaking through a trumpet, he told the master to make the best of his way up to the anchorage before the town; and then, unbending for a moment, he bade farewell to the young lady and wished her "a happy Sight of her Friends."​2 He recovered his dignity as he lowered the trumpet and gave orders to bring the ship about; within a few minutes he was standing northward by the wind toward Basseterre, St. Kitts, his port of rendezvous.

Next morning, still rolling northward with the wind coming in from her starboard side, the Constellation was almost abreast of the island of Guadeloupe, where French naval vessels and marauding  p153 privateers were based.​3 Since his cruising grounds were north of St. Kitts, Captain Truxtun chose to ignore the Frenchmen here until after he had looked over his own station. It was a fine morning, clear, with pleasant breezes.

While the "petty despot," arrogating to himself "his few fathoms of scoured plank" on the weather side of the quarter-deck (just abaft the poultry coops), struts up and down the line of twelve-pounders that were borrowed from the embrasures of Fort McHenry, one finds the opportunity to look about the ship and to investigate the nature of his "petty kingdom."​a

He commands a fast-sailing ship. He has hesitated to make any definite statement about her performance to the Secretary of the Navy because he has seen "so much in the public Prints of the Sailing of Barry's ship [United States], and so much more bombastical Nonsense of that at Boston [Constitution]." Should he meet those ships, however, he is confident that the Constellation will outsail them both.4

All the sails are spread to catch every ounce of the light winds. Under the bowsprit, the spritsail yard carries a square of canvas only a few feet from the water. Above is a cloud of canvas, with jibs, staysails, and spanker rigged fore and aft from the jib boom, between the masts, and from the spanker gaff and boom on the mizzenmast. The huge courses, lowest sails on the main and foremasts, are suspended athwart­ship from the lower yards. The other square sails, duplicated on fore, main, and mizzenmasts, are topsails, topgallants, and royals, towering skyward almost to the trucks. The main truck, highest point in the ship, is 150 feet above the deck.​5 Leading down from aloft is the maze of running rigging that is used to control the set of the sails. Hauling singly and in unison, the sailors can regulate the canvas from the deck. But when a sail is loosed or furled, men must go aloft. Up there, lying out on a yard, each man perched precariously on foot ropes and hanging on with one hand, the job of handing a sail for furling can become cruel punishment when seas run high and the cold gale bites through heavy jackets. The stout canvas, stiffened by rain and spray, flapping violently as the wind takes charge, burning and blistering hands and tearing out fingernails by the roots, can break the spirit of the hardiest jack‑tar.

 p154  At the lower mastheads, fifty feet above the deck, are the fighting tops. These are platforms as big as the floor of a fairly large room where, during an action, a midshipman and six sailors use four-pounder howitzers, blunderbusses, and hand grenades to rain down a deadly fire on the enemy's decks.

When the ship is sailing herself in fine weather, the men on deck sit about in little groups, swapping yarns, or pursue the endless job of repairing and overhauling the lines and ropes that is necessary to keep the sails where the Captain wants them. In the Constellation, seamen are dressed in duck trousers and striped and checked shirts; although shoes are provided, most of them go barefooted in the tropics. For colder climes, they have blue trousers, round jackets, and woolen caps.6

The marines drilled as soldiers and do none of the ship's work except heaving at the capstan, when all hands are needed to hoist an anchor or set up the stays and braces. They are aboard to do sentry duty, to provide a landing party, and to cover the sailors in a boarding party. Below the tropic, the marines wear white linen overalls. In northern latitudes, they were blue overalls with red piping; and for dress occasions, short blue coats and blue pantaloons, both garments edged in red, red belts, red vests, and black leather stocks and clasps — from which comes the term "leathernecks."7

The Navy lieutenants stand out sharply in their long blue coats with buff half lapels and standing collars, buff vests and buff breeches. Their uniforms are slightly less elegant than, though similar to, the Captain's. They wear a single gold epaulet on the right shoulder, while the Captain wears one on each shoulder.8

Before leaving the main deck, one must remark the crew's house of comfort. It is a compartment divided into two by the bowsprit and located at the very bows, or head, of the ship.

Going below to the gun deck, first beneath the main, or spar, deck, one finds the heavy twenty-four pounders ranged in two rows, fourteen on a side, each with its muzzle ready to be run out through a gun port when the port covers are swung outward in preparing for action. At the after end of the gun deck, occupying all the space abaft the mizzenmast and walled off by removable bulkheads, is the Captain's great cabin. He shares his quarters with four cannon, which greatly cramp his dining room. Nevertheless, there is room for a mahogany dining table, a dozen Windsor chairs, a mahogany  p155 secretary, and a copper coal-burning stove. Opening off the dining room is his stateroom, and off the stateroom, in one of the quarter galleries, his private water closet. Incongruous are the delicate lines of Windsor chairs and the fine mahogany pieces that sit among heavy gun carriages; most unwarlike is the finishing touch in the great cabin — curtains at the windows!9

In the dining room, each day at quarter past two, the Captain dines with two of his officers and one midshipman. He has told his first lieutenant that he expects "all that reserve when on duty Set aside" during this daily occasion.​10 But it is unlikely that any liberties are ever taken with the Captain as he presides at his table. The midshipmen do well to utter a syllable, so completely discomfited are they by their commander's presence.

Forward on the gun deck, before the mainmast, is the "Complete Camboose," where the crew's daily allowance of a pound of pickled meat per man is soaked overnight in steep tubs to remove some of the salt, and where, in the cook stove, it is rendered vaguely palatable. In addition to the meat, each man is allowed a pound of ship's bread a day (baked in Norfolk before this voyage, or perhaps even the previous one), a quarter-pound of cheese on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, two ounces of butter on Fridays, and a quantity of dried peas, beans, rice, or turnips on specified days of the week.

Below the gun deck, the crew is lodged. The lieutenants, surgeon, purser, gunner, carpenter, boatswain, and captain's clerk: each has a tiny cubicle dignified by the name of "State room." Seamen, marines, petty officers, and midshipmen swing their hammocks from the overhead each night. During daytime, the hammocks are carried topside and stowed in the boarding nettings just above the bulwarks surrounding the main deck. This serves to clear the between-decks space and also to provide the crew on deck with additional protection from enemy gun shot and musket balls. When hammocks are swung below, their occupants can stare up at the foot-and‑a‑half-deep oak beams that support the gun deck. Captain Truxtun has pointed out that "The space of sixteen inches, between each hammock is allow'd, which is two Inches more, than in any other service in the world."11

There is yet another deck — the orlop — below this one. It is allotted entirely to storage spaces and ammunition handling rooms, except for one compartment abaft the cable tiers and between the  p156 two bread rooms, which is designated as the cock‑pit. It is here that the surgeon and his mate labor over the shattered bodies that inevitably result from engagement with an enemy of sufficient force.

In the very bottom of the ship is the magazine, in which a hundred and fifty barrels of gunpowder are stored; the shot locker, containing nearly a hundred rounds of assorted plain, double headed, bar, chain, grape, and canister shot for each of the guns; a spirit room; and finally a coal hole with its cargo of thirty tons of sea coals.12

This, then, is the huge machine that constitutes the "petty kingdom." Self-sufficient for perhaps three months without replenishment, this community of better than three hundred men is confined between wooden walls but a few fathoms apart. The men work, eat, sleep, and work again according to the absolute law of the "solitary being" who, in a coffee house or on a city street, appears to be merely another man with the requisite number of eyes, ears, fingers, legs, and feet. Appearances are deceptive, however. As in every vocation, there are superb and good and ordinary and indifferent captains of men-of‑war; and the difference between the first and the last consists of the indefinable force of character that inspires or disgusts, leads or coerces, commands or bullies.

In the best military sense of the word, Captain Truxtun commands.
[image ALT: A photograph of an oval portrait of a middle-aged man in military uniform, his somewhat unkempt hair in a queue. He is the 18c American naval officer Captain Thomas Truxtun.]

Guadeloupe was still in sight when Captain Truxtun discovered a fleet standing to northwestward. He hove his ship about and ran down before the wind to investigate. After throwing out the private signal for the day, he soon learned that the fleet consisted of some two dozen sail of homeward bound American merchantmen under convoy of two Navy vessels, the ship Montezuma, 20, and the brig Norfolk, 18. The United States, 44, Captain Barry, which had accompanied the convoy on the first leg of its long journey home, was hull down on the horizon, returning to her port of rendezvous at the island of Dominica, next south of Guadeloupe.

Captain Alexander Murray, of the Montezuma, came on board the Constellation from his own ship and diplomatically requested that Captain Truxtun take charge of the fleet, which the latter was happy to do. Captain Truxtun decided to anchor the convoy in Basseterre Roads, St. Kitts, and to send the Norfolk eastward to  p158 Antigua in order to give homeward bounders there an opportunity to join the fleet before proceeding northward.13

He sent Bartholomew Clinch, his Lieutenant of Marines on this voyage, ashore to inform the commanding officer of the British fort that the Constellation would salute with thirteen guns if the fort would answer with a like number. Captain Truxtun brought up the rear of the convoy, and by the time all the vessels were safely at anchor and Lieutenant Clinch had returned to the ship, it was too late in the day to salute the fort. However, next morning promptly at seven o'clock, the first bark of the ship's guns rolled in across the water. Shore guns spat answering fire as the etiquette was nicely observed.14

The captain of the Cyane, British sloop-of‑war lying in the roadstead nearby, promptly made his call aboard this new American frigate, and a number of gentlemen of the town came off in boats to pay their respects to Captain Truxtun.​15 As soon as he could do so, he went ashore to call upon the governor and to return the calls that the others had just made.

The town of Basseterre lay between the roadstead and the remarkable green dome of Monkey Hill, which took its name from the chattering, grimacing little animals that lived upon it. Since there was no pier at the leading place, the Captain's heavy boat plunged in through the surf and set him down most unceremoniously on the open beach.​16 "The town Basseterree,"º he later entered in his journal, "is a very small disagreeable place, though the Country about is very delight­ful. The beauti­ful Sugar Cane fields interspersed with hansome risings, renders the prospect delight­ful."​17 This island, like the others in the Leeward chain, was steeply reared in great backbone ridges that often pierced the clouds.

The governor, Robert Thomson, was a gracious host. He offered the Americans every service within his power and invited Captain Truxtun to visit and dine with him whenever he had an opportunity.​18 The governor also brought him up to date on the French situation in the Islands. The notoriously cruel governor of Guadeloupe, Victor Hugues, had been deposed and sent back to France in one of the frigates that brought out his successor, General Desforneaux. It was supposed that L'Insurgente, which until recently had been commanded by the disgruntled American, Joshua Barney — who quit the United States Navy rather than be junior to Captain  p159 Talbot — had sailed for France, and that only the frigate La Volontaire remained in the West Indies. The British had unquestioned control of the sea lanes, but there were still many French privateers operating out of Guadeloupe and skulking among the other islands in search of unescorted merchantmen. One American man-of‑war, the schooner Retaliation, 14, which had been a French privateer until she was captured by Captain Decatur off the Jersey coast, had been retaken recently by the frigates L'Insurgente and La Volontaire and sent in to Guadeloupe; her crew was now languishing in a dungeon.19

While he may have wished for more excitement than the French forces would be likely to afford, Captain Truxtun could see nevertheless that the mere protection of commerce in these islands, spread out as they were, would keep all available American ships of war quite busy for some time to come.

He thought that his orders, which permitted him to engage only armed French vessels, and which specifically forbade his interfering with ships of any other nation, were not consistent with the honor of a great nation.​20 One must agree that they were poorly conceived and badly stated. He was not even permitted to recapture an American vessel should he find her in the hands of anyone but the French, nor to interfere if anyone but a Frenchman detained or captured a merchantman while under his convoy. While he disagreed violently with the spirit of his orders, he was bound to conform to their letter. As to the requirement that he molest only armed French vessels, he was sure he could abide by this order. He could find at least a case knife aboard any vessel; for him that would be arms enough.21

When next he addressed a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, he noted the friendly reception he had been accorded by the British naval and civil authorities. "I am satisfied," he wrote, "we shall find the Station a very pleasant One."

"The Crew of the Constellation is in good Health, and fine Spirits," he continued, "all meritoriously wishing to meet the Enemy on equal Ground." He invoked the "kind Indulgence of Heaven to our united Prayers" that the wish might come true. Although he may have been over-optimistic in concluding that his crew felt as he did, it was clear that the Captain of the Constellation, at least, was spoiling for a fight.22

The Author's Notes:

1 Quasi‑War, II, 144, 234, 258.

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2 Ibid., II, 238.

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3 HSPa: Constellation Journal, January 15, 1799.

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4 Quasi‑War, I, 301.

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5 Barbary Wars, VII, 70.

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6 Details of clothing are from HSPa: U. S. Frigate Constellation Orders, Muster Rolls, Stores, etc.

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7 Quasi‑War, I, 12, 404.

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8 Ibid.I, 10‑11.

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9 Details of compartments and furnishings are from HSPa: Constellation Orders.

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10 Quasi‑War, I, 14, 155.

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11 HSPa: Constellation Orders.

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12 Ibid.

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13 Quasi‑War, II, 246‑47.

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14 Ibid., II, 247, 253.

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15 Ibid., II, 253, 272.

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16 Evangeline W. Andrews, ed., Journal of a Lady of Quality (New Haven, 1934), p121.

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17 Quasi‑War, VI, 412.

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18 Ibid., II, 257.

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19 Ibid., I, 175; II, 122; VII, 370.

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20 Ibid., II, 73‑74, 135, 241.

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21 Ibid., II, 332.

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22 Ibid., II, 259‑60.

Thayer's Note:

a The description of the ship that follows here is usefully complemented by a description of the interior of the Constellation, "most carefully written and interesting" since especially geared to the lay reader who knows little about ships: E. C. Wines' Two Years and a Half in the American Navy, I.16, 29 et seq. (I was alerted to it by a note in Charles Lee Lewis's biography Admiral Franklin Buchanan.)

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