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Within a short time after his arrival at Basseterre, Captain Truxtun had established the routine he and his squadron would follow. He informed Captain Barry, •two hundred miles to windward, that he would arrange for convoys of homeward bound merchantmen to leave St. Kitts periodically; he suggested that Barry escort vessels from the windward station as far as St. Kitts, whence they could be added to the regular northbound convoys. When his men-of‑war were not occupied with convoys, he ordered them to cruise through the area in search of privateers.1
In the Constellation, he cruised for several days to northward among the islands of St. Eustatius, St. Bartholomew, and St. Martin. This was his assigned cruising ground; but since his orders gave him considerable leeway and because he had found nothing of much promise, he stretched to the south of St. Kitts and Nevis, past Montserrat, and on toward the French stronghold at Guadeloupe.2
One day he spied a frigate lying at anchor in a Guadeloupe roadstead, under the guns of a French fort. Tauntingly he hoisted his colors and stood in as close as he dared, but the enemy ignored his invitation to come out and fight. Two days later, at the other end of the island, he drew the well-directed fire of another fort. Keeping count of the number of rounds fired at him, he stood off just out of range of the fort's guns and returned the "Insult" with double the number of guns. Next day, he returned to the same spot and again kept just out of range, puckishly inviting the enemy to throw away more powder and shot. He circled the island and hovered off its steep‑to shores for nearly a week. He chased every sail he saw, but none turned out to be a French vessel.3
Within three weeks after his arrival in the West Indies, he had sent three convoys northward and already had another one arranged p161 for; his little squadron had cruised almost continuously throughout the northern half of the Leeward Islands; and now, on the fifth of February, 1799, having satisfied himself that his orders were being carried out by the other vessels under his command, he was off again on another patrol.4
On the ninth, a Saturday, the Constellation was a few leagues to the east of Nevis, the island next south of St. Kitts. The officer of the watch had just reported to Captain Truxtun, bringing twelve o'clock. As was his custom, the Captain wrote out, on a slip of paper, the remarks to be copied into the ship's journal for the twenty-four hours just ended. "At Noon," he wrote, "saw a Sail standing to the Westward, gave Chase. I take her for a Ship of War."5
The strange sail was perhaps •fifteen miles to the leeward, south and west of the Constellation. Running down before the wind, Captain Truxtun meant to speak her. By one o'clock, when he could see her more clearly, he threw out the private signal of the day for a British man-of‑war, a blue signal flag at the fore topmast head and a blue, white, and red flag at the main topmast head.6 The stranger replied by hoisting an American ensign. Since that was not the answer he expected, he tried next the private signal for an American warship. To this the ship made no reply. Concluding that she must be a French frigate, he ordered the drummer to beat all hands to quarters.7
At the urgent rattle of the drum, a chill of excitement swept through the Constellation as the crew took up battle stations. Men boiled up from the lower decks, running to their posts. The topmen swarmed aloft on shrouds and ratlines. The arms chests were opened and the marines, being mustered on the quarter-deck, helped themselves to muskets and blunderbusses. On the gun deck, the ports were swung outward, the tompions were removed from the muzzles, and the carriages were bowsed out — hauled outboard by heavy rope tackles — some of the guns projected beyond the wooden walls of the ship. The bulkheads of the great cabin came down and the furniture was stowed out of harm's way. Slow matches were lighted and passed up and down the line; the handling rooms were manned, scuttles opened to the magazine and shot locker, and the human train that kept the guns supplied with powder and shot was formed. In the cock‑pit, the surgeon, surgeon's mate, purser, captain's clerk, and loblolly boy laid out their amputation tools and instruments for the p162 gruesome work they hoped would not be required. The carpenter and his mates, stationed at the pumps, surveyed their stock of wooden plugs and oakum in anticipation of the moment when they might be needed to stop up shot holes below the water line.
On the weather deck, three groups of men, each led by a midshipman, stood by the pin rails at fore, main, and mizzenmasts, ready to trim sails at the Captain's order, and to act as musketeers when the opportunity offered. Two quartermasters were stationed at the wheel; the sailing master and two midshipmen messengers stood near the Captain, attending his every word and action.8
By this time, the stranger had hauled her wind and was standing northwestward. She replaced the American ensign by the tricolor of France and fired a shot to windward, which was the universal signal to confirm the fact that she was now under her true colors. The Constellation, running under the toe of Nevis, bore up slightly to head her off.
At two o'clock an angry squall raced across the sea; the wind, already brisk, suddenly rose to gale force as the squall struck both ships. With a cracking and snapping of sails and rigging as sheets and braces were let go on the run, the Constellation weathered the shock, losing only a single studdingsail boom; but the other ship, responding an instant too late, shuddered as her main topmast gave way and crashed downward. While the French frigate's wreckage was being cleared away, her antagonist was coming up fast. Bearing up a point or two closer to the wind, the French captain decided to try to run for shelter in the neutral roadstead of St. Eustatius, •thirty miles distant.9
By three o'clock, the Constellation had nearly ended the chase. Almost due west of Nevis, the two frigates were sailing north-northwestward in sight of Basseterre Roads, St. Kitts.10 Because his ship was heeled over by the press of sail she carried, Captain Truxtun had his larboard guns housed while those on the weather side were run out, ready to fire.11
At a quarter past three, the Constellation ranged up on the lee quarter of the French frigate, whose captain began to hail. Captain Truxtun heard the hail but made no move to answer. Only the creaking of timbers, the moaning of the wind in the rigging, and the insistent surging of seas under her bluff bows disturbed the p163 pregnant silence that pervaded his ship. He stood fast on the quarter-deck, narrowly — almost calmly — watching the enemy, trying to anticipate her actions.
On the gun deck, the division commanders already had their orders. Through the gun ports they looked across the rapidly closing stretch of water at their French counterparts, who looked nervously back at them. Lieutenant Rodgers, commanding the first five great guns; Lieutenant Cowper, the next five; and Lieutenant Sterett, the remaining four; all waited until their ship was almost abreast of the enemy at point blank range, scarcely more than a hundred yards distant. Only then was the French captain's hail answered. The three lieutenants gave the signal to fire as their guns were brought to bear; matches were put to the touchholes, and a broadside of twenty‑four-pound balls crashed into the enemy's hull. Belching fire and acrid smoke, Constellation's cannon leapt back from the ports. Each gun and its carriage — three tons of iron and oak suddenly come alive — were checked by a heavy breeching rope. When the brutish contraption came to rest, its gun crew sprang into action to reload. The bore was sponged out, the flannel powder cartridge was rammed home and wadded, two balls were loaded, and the whole charge was secured by another wad. The cartridge was pricked through the touchhole and the train was poured from a powder horn. After each gun was served, its carriage was bowsed out to firing position again; in a few short moments the battery was again ready to fire.
The first broadside was almost instantly returned by the enemy. Thus began a close action that lasted for an hour and a quarter. The French frigate wore as though to come alongside for boarding, but the Constellation raced ahead and crossed her bow, making the most of an opportunity to rake her, each gun of the battery firing in its turn. Ranging now ahead and now astern, the Constellation raked her several times during the battle, the heavy balls inflicting terrible losses as they crashed down the length of her deck.
The howitzers in the Constellation's tops and the twelve-pounders on her quarter-deck took their toll of the enemy's top hamper. The French frigate's running rigging was badly cut up, her foretopsail was riddled, her mizzen topmast was shot away, and her spanker was cut to ribbons. Her situation soon became critical. Repeated hails from the deck got no answer from the tops; no quartermasters p164 attended the wheel; men by the dozens lay about the decks, dying and dead.
Her guns were aimed high; the sails and rigging of the Constellation were cut up, but few if any shot landed in her hull between wind and water. At half past four, the Constellation, still under control, stood up athwart her antagonist's stern, ready once more to rake. The French captain was discussing his next move with his officers. He wanted to surrender, but he also wanted to share the responsibility for his decision. His first lieutenant said, "Do as you please." The others offered no objection.12 Thereupon he hauled down his flag and gave the Americans a valuable prize.
Lieutenant Rodgers was sent to take possession of the ship. He described the scene in a letter home a few days later, after the casualties had been counted. "I must confess," he wrote, "the most gratifying sight my eyes ever beheld was seventy French pirates (you know I have just cause to call them such) wallowing in their gore, twenty-nine of whom were killed and forty one wounded."13
On board the Constellation there was no such carnage. In spite of the close and general action, the men in the tops were the only ones hurt by the enemy. Midshipman David Porter, commanding in the foretop, reported the injuries of three of his men: "John Andrews, shot through both of his legs — George Walters, back broke by the wind of a cannon ball — Samuel Wilson, in the side." In the maintop, Midshipman James Macdonough14 lost a foot; and in the mizzentop Thomas Wilson, a seaman, had a leg shot off and died next day.15
The only American killed during the action was on the gun deck. Neal Harvey, a seaman in one of Lieutenant Sterett's gun crews, was terrified by the action and ran from his station. Andrew Sterrett, a young man just twenty‑one, apparently hypnotized by the tumult of battle, ran him through with a sword. "And so," he said, "put an end to a coward." Writing to his brother, he continued, "You must not think this strange, for we would put a man to death for even looking pale on board this ship."16 Captain Truxtun's reaction to Sterett's deed is unknown. Apparently he wrote it off to the impulsiveness of youth. Perhaps he reprimanded him privately, but he praised him publicly for his zeal. In the ship's roll, opposite Neal Harvey's name, he entered simply "Killed in Action."17
When the vanquished captain was brought across to the Constellation, p165 he came on board sputtering with indignation. "Why have you fired upon the national flag?" he demanded of his captor; "Our two nations are not at war."18
Captain Truxtun made no reply because he was busy with the several tasks of transferring prisoners from the other ship, arranging for repairs sufficient to make her weatherly, and supervising the repairs in his own ship. Taking time only to learn that he had captured the forty‑gun frigate L'Insurgente, Captain Citizen Barreaut, he relieved the captain of his sword and sent him below.
L'Insurgente! This fast-sailing frigate, reputed to be the fastest in the French Navy, able to outrun all the British ships that had chased her, was the one that Joshua Barney only recently commanded. She had not, after all, gone home to France. Remarking on the coincidence, Captain Truxtun said, "It is singular she should be the first taken."19 It would have been even more singular had he taken the French frigate while the American, Joshua Barney, still commanded her.
Next morning, he talked with his chief prisoner. Barreaut, claiming that he had orders not to fire on the American flag, was still highly incensed by the unfair advantage that had, in his view, been taken of him. If he had known that he might be attacked, he said, he could have used his eighteen-pounders on the quarter-deck as stern chasers, and the Constellation might not have been able to come up with him at all. He was surprised, he continued, to see the Americans declare war, because he thought their differences were being settled peaceably.
Captain Truxtun told him the United States had not yet declared war on France. "Pardon me," said Barreaut, "your taking me . . . is a Declaration of War."
If that is so, Captain Truxtun replied, what about your capture of the Retaliation, an American man-of‑war?
Here the conversation ended, with this one further observation by Captain Truxtun, "that be it War, or be it Peace," he should certainly attempt to take every French frigate he met.
In his report to the Secretary of the Navy, he wrote, "The french Captain tells me, I have caused a War with France, if so I am glad of it, for I detest Things being done by Halves."20
Whether the battle might have turned out otherwise had Barreaut been instructed differently, or whether, as he claimed later,a the loss p166 of his main topmast was the "source of all our misfortune," is a subject for idle speculation. Because his report of the action21 is full of inconsistencies, one is inclined to agree with Captain Truxtun's verdict that the Frenchman was "as fully prepared for meeting an Enemy, as she could have been, if an Express had been sent to the Commander, that I should make an Attack on him, whenever we met."22
By the time L'Insurgente was ready to spread sail, the two ships had drifted far to leeward. In their present crippled state, it was doubtful whether they could beat up to St. Kitts at all. However, Captain Truxtun decided to try. On Monday morning, the ships were sailing in company, now on the starboard and now on the larboard tack, clawing up into a contrary wind, when a sail appeared in the offing. The Richmond, one of the ships of his squadron, was on her way north with a convoy when she sighted the two crippled ships and ran down to investigate. Captain Truxtun had his dispatches ready to send to Secretary Stoddert, but he was afraid that if he hove to in order to send them across to the Richmond it would take him "half a Day's hard Beating" to regain the ground he would lose. Therefore, the first word of the action to reach the United States was compounded of what Captain Barron could understand of the account Captain Truxtun shouted through his speaking trumpet and of the outward appearance of the two frigates.23
Nearly three days after the battle, the Constellation and L'Insurgente made Basseterre roadstead, coming to anchor under the guns of the fort on Bluff Point, just north of town. When he reported his arrival to Secretary Stoddert, Captain Truxtun wrote, "It is impossible for me to state to you the Joy demonstrated by the Inhabitants on this Occasion."24
British gentlemen of the first rank came on board his ship to congratulate the intrepid commander. Governor Thomson sent him a congratulatory letter in which he repeated his offer to help the Americans in any way he could. A member of the King's Council asked the Captain to fire a salute in order that the fort might return it. A British frigate and a sloop-of‑war, standing near his ship, manned their yards and gave him three hearty cheers.25
Captain Truxtun basked in the warmth of applause that greeted him at every turn. He sent off word of his exploit to Captain Barry, asking him incidentally to send down several score men from his p167 squadron to help man his prize ship. He hired a schooner to take his dispatches to America, but not until after he had ordered a search of the roadstead to find an eligible captain, the first one approached "being too extravagant in his Terms." He asked Secretary Stoddert to write a line to Mary at Perth Amboy telling her he was well, because, he said, "I have not Time." He distributed the enemy lieutenants' swords to his own lieutenants, and he sent a beautiful plume, part of Captain Barreaut's battle array, to his "God Son, John Williams Truxtun," in St. Kitts. However, consumed though he was by his increasing fame, he did not neglect his principal task as commodore of the American squadron in the northern Leeward Islands.
He sent the wounded from both ships to a hospital ashore, and he disposed of his prisoners by sending the French officers — fifty‑two in all — in a cartel to Guadeloupe after exacting from them a promise that they would not take up arms against the United States, by putting a hundred men in the Basseterre jail, and by sending the rest — 180 men — to a British prison hulk lying in the roadstead.26
Captain Barreaut, on taking his leave, was moved to write to his captor, "You have united the two Qualities, which characterize a man of Honor: Courage and Humanity. Receive from me the most sincere Thanks, and be assured, I shall make it a Duty, to publish to all my fellow Citizens, the generous Conduct, which you have observed towards us."27
Captain Truxtun sent word with the cartel to Desforneaux, Governor of Guadeloupe, that he might have the rest of the prisoners if he would send down all of the Americans he was holding there.
Instead of returning the Americans, General Desforneaux, who was still inclined to maintain the fiction of peace between France and America, sent an envoy to demand the instant return of L'Insurgente. "If you do not act according to this Demand," he threatened, "I will confiscate all American Property, which is in this Colony, and consider the Americans, as Prisoners."28
Captain Truxtun of course had no distant idea of returning the ship; however, because the French prisoners were expensive to maintain and because Governor Thomson was stretching his authority by permitting prisoners taken by another nation to be held in St. Kitts, the envoy was able to return to Desforneaux not entirely empty-handed. Except for a dozen men who had already entered the United p168 States Navy, all the prisoners were released and sent back to Guadeloupe with the understanding that Americans being held there would be set free. As for peace and amity between the two countries, Captain Truxtun told the French general, "I, like my Government, and Countrymen in general, wish Peace with France, and all the World on fair, and honorable Terms, but on any Other we disdain it, Yes sir, we spurn at the Idea."29
Lieutenant John Rodgers was put in command of L'Insurgente; he made every effort to repair and refit her for immediate service in the United States Navy. Captain Truxtun enjoined him to "be as frugal as possible in the Outfit" and reminded him that "character is always concerned in the Expenditure of public Money." But that was not the only reason for frugality. The Captain warned him that "when the United States value the Ship, we shall have to pay perhaps our Proportion of her Outfit."30 This was a reminder of the fact that Captain and crew had a pecuniary interest in the prize ship, although she would have to be regularly condemned by an American Court of Admiralty before the prize money was paid.
One day, shortly after the two ships had anchored in Basseterre Roads, Lieutenant of Marines Bartholomew Clinch dined in the great cabin with the Captain. After dinner was cleared away and wine was served tête à tête, the conversation turned to the action and the dispatches concerning it that had been sent home. While they were speculating on how soon the news would reach America and how it would be received, Captain Truxtun called to Edward, his servant, to open the secretary and hand him his letter book, in which he kept copies of all his letters and dispatches. Taking the book, he opened it to February 14th and began reading the report he had written upon his arrival at St. Kitts.
The Lieutenant listened while the Captain named off the first three lieutenants, Rodgers, Cowper, and Sterett. "The Zeal of these 3 Officers in performing their Duty, and complying strictly with my Orders," he continued, "cannot be surpassed, but I must not in Praise of them be silent as to the good Conduct of Mr. Shirley, the Master, and Mr. Archer, the 4th Lieut. . . . I must declare that it is impossible for Officers and Men in any Service to have behaved better, than my People generally did on this Occasion, it must therefore not be understood because I have mentioned the Names of a few of the principal Gentlemen, that those of an inferior Grade in their Stations p169 are less deserving. On the Contrary, to the latter I always feel myself most indebted for their Exertions in the Hour of Battle, as they have generally much less at Stake, than those in higher Stations [for example, a smaller share of prize money], and consequently less inducement to display their Valor."
He closed by professing his own zeal for "the Good of the Service, and I hope and trust for its Honor too."31
Lieutenant Clinch wondered out loud why all the commissioned officers in the ship except him had been specifically named, and why his own name was missing.
In reporting the incident to the Commandant of the Marine Corps (recently formed by an Act of Congress), Clinch said in defense of his own honor and fame: "The question seemed to embarrass him for untill that moment I am well convinced the omission never occurred to him. He desired however that I would not feel uneasy . . . his Conduct towards me on every other occasion has been of such a nature as to make me regard esteem & respect him during Life." Moreover, he was convinced that the sword Captain Truxtun had given him as a trophy was "the second best" of the six he had to distribute.32
When, after nearly a month of hard work, L'Insurgente was materially ready for sea, she still had a crew of only one hundred and twenty-four men. This did not even remotely approach her complement of four hundred, but in order to man her at all, Captain Truxtun had taken out more men than he could conveniently spare from the Constellation and other ships of his squadron.
While he wrestled with this latest of his many problems ("He creates his own difficulties by his own zeal," was Secretary Stoddert's opinion), the news of his victory had at last arrived in the United States.33
1 Quasi‑War, II, 269, 304. By contemporary custom and usage, Truxtun's title was "Commodore" whenever he commanded a squadron. However, it was a title of courtesy only. He never held a rank higher than captain for the reason that no higher rank existed in the United States Navy until some sixty years later. In order to avoid needless confusion of titles, he will continue to be referred to as "Captain" for the present.
2 Ibid., II, 73‑74, 272, 275, 280‑83, 287‑88.
3 Ibid., II, 292, 296‑97, 300, 302, 305.
4 Ibid., II, 307‑309.
5 Ibid., II, 328; HSPa: Constellation Journal. One of the slips was found in the Journal. The Journal itself was not written in Truxtun's hand.
6 Quasi‑War, II, 328; IV, illus. facing 426.
7 Most of the information for this encounter is in Quasi‑War, II, 326 ff. A few other sources are listed below.
8 Quarter Bill is in HSPa: U. S. Frigate Constellation Orders, Muster Rolls, Stores, etc.
10 Federal Gazette, Baltimore, March 12, 1799; American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 12, 1799.
11 Hoxse, op. cit.
12 Maclay, op. cit., I, 185.
13 Quasi‑War, II, 337; Rodgers' ship Hope had been taken by a French privateer (ibid., I, 26, 28).
14 Captain Thomas Macdonough, famed for his exploits on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812, and whose name is enshrined along with Thomas Truxtun's in the Arlington amphitheatre, was a younger brother of James.
15 Federal Gazette, Baltimore, March 12, 1799, letter from David Porter to his father; Quasi‑War, I, 306.
16 Quasi‑War, II, 335.
17 Ibid., I, 306.
18 Maclay, op. cit., I, 185.
19 Quasi‑War, II, 357, 427.
20 Ibid., II, 327, 357‑58.
21 Maclay, op. cit., I, 183‑86, translated from the French.
22 Quasi‑War, II, 470.
23 Ibid., II, 329.
24 Ibid., II, 329, 346; Evangeline W. Andrews, ed., Journal of a Lady of Quality (New Haven, 1934), map facing p120. There is no basis in fact for the exciting story that probably appeared first in Goldsborough's Naval Chronicle in 1824 (pp132‑33). It has been copied numberless times, sometimes with variations. Goldsborough related how John Rodgers and David Porter boarded L'Insurgente after the action. He wrote, "night set in, and it came on to blow so hard as to separate the ships, leaving one hundred and seventy-three prisoners on board the Insurgente, to be guarded by lieutenant Rodgers, and his small party. Two officers and eleven men kept the prisoners below for three nights and two days while they brought the ship to St. Kitts.
Actually, Constellation's Journal indicates that the ships were constantly in company while they beat their way up to St. Kitts (Quasi‑War, II, 328‑29, 343, 346). John Hoxse in his Yankee Tar wrote that they "bore away for St. Kitts, where we arrived two days afterwards, with our prize, all safe."
25 Hoxse, op. cit.; American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 29, 1799; Quasi‑War, II, 329.
26 Quasi‑War, II, 327, 331‑32, 351, 353‑56, 379.
27 Ibid., II, 354.
28 Ibid., II, 378.
29 Ibid., II, 332, 378, 392, 409.
30 Ibid., II, 358‑59.
31 Ibid., II, 329‑31, 481.
32 Ibid., III, 318.
33 Ibid., III, 40.
a At his court-martial in October 1799, which ended in censure for Barreaut. The eminent French naval historian O.‑J. Troude puts the defeat down to poor discipline on the Insurgente. See a French account by George-Nestler Tricoche, "La guerre Franco-américaine", Revue Historique, LXXXV.2, p296.
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