Short URL for this page:
The news of "Truxtun's Victory" trickled slowly into America.1 By the first of March, 1799, three weeks after the battle, the Secretary of State had "undoubted intelligence" of its occurrence.2 It was reported in Norfolk about the same time. Captain Truxtun's first account appeared in a Baltimore newspaper on the ninth; it was not until four days later that Secretary Stoddert received the official dispatches.3 By the middle of March the news was beginning to spread all up and down the eastern seaboard.
President Adams was about to send another trio of peace envoys to France when the news arrived. On the strength of assurances by Talleyrand, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he was hopeful that the humiliating "XYZ" treatment would not be repeated. The occurrence of this clear‑cut naval victory would go a long way toward convincing the French government that the Americans meant business when their diplomats stated that they would meekly submit to no more indignities or depredations. At the same time there were those who, like the Secretary of State, questioned the wisdom of another attempt at diplomacy. "The only negociation compatible with our honor or safety," he said, "is that begun by Truxtun in the capture of L'Insurgente."4
Toward the end of April, when the one‑year enlistments in the Constellation were beginning to run out, Captain Truxtun was forced to return from the West Indies in order to keep faith with his men. Leaving orders for the vessels under his command — by this time four in number — to continue cruising for another month or six weeks, he took his prize ship L'Insurgente with him on a last look about the Islands, and the two ships, still keeping company, sailed leisurely northward toward home. On the twentieth of May, they stood triumphantly into Hampton Roads, the prize ship wearing the tricolor of France beneath her American ensign.5
p171 Captain Truxtun was welcomed ashore, presented with a handsome address by the "Mayor, Recorder, and Alderman of the Borough of Norfolk," and deluged with invitations to dine at the homes of his many friends and acquaintances.6 As soon as it could be arranged, a lavish public celebration was held in his honor. The festivities were opened by a parade of volunteer companies of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of militia. A rifle salute of sixteen rounds was fired, after which the citizens gathered in Lindsay's Gardens, adjoining the Hotel, for an elegant dinner. Presumably entertained by a "Concert of Instrumental Music" while they dined and perhaps later on by a "country dance band," the afternoon and evening were spent in an atmosphere of the "utmost harmony and conviviality."7
Throughout the country the name and exploits of the gallant Captain became the subject of dinners, toasts, and songs. In Baltimore, a public dinner was given at the Fountain Inn; the Sons of St. George, at another dinner, toasted "Captain Truxtun, and success to the Constellation, the Vanguard of Columbia's naval glory," and followed the toast with nine cheers. Mr. Fox, at the theatre, sang a song cranked out for the occasion, "Huzza for the Constellation."8 In Philadelphia the New‑Theatre presented "a dramatic sketch interspersed with song and spectacle, called the 'Constellation, or a Wreath for American Tars.' "9 In Boston, a day of celebration was declared. The populace was urged to assemble in State Street at one o'clock where, after salutes had been fired from batteries on Copps Hill and Fort Hill and from a ship in the harbor, they could unite in giving three resounding cheers for "Capt. Truxtun, the officers and crew of the Constellation, and success to the Wooden Walls of America." The holiday came off as planned, and an additional crowd filled Liberty Square and Washington Street. In Merchant's Row, one could buy "brave Truxtun cock'd & round hats, in the Military and Naval stile"; and in the Federal Street Theatre, the singing of "a new patriotic song written by Mrs. Rowson," called "Truxtun's Victory," was followed by the display of a view of the frigates as they lay in Basseterre Roads after the action.10
Fourth of July celebrations, far and wide, sang the praises of brave Truxtun and the United States Navy. In one New Hampshire town, the thirteenth toast was drunk to "Captain Truxtun: our popular envoy to the French, who was accredited at the first interview"; and in upstate New York, three cheers followed the toast to "Our rising p172 Navy: may its canvass soon cloud the face of the deep, scourge pirates from our coast, and may its Commanders inherit the firmness and valor of Truxtun."11
His fame spread even across the ocean. It was reported that the Merchants and Underwriters at Lloyd's, in the London Exchange, had subscribed five hundred guineas as a token of their gratitude for riding the seas of an enemy frigate, thus making safer their West Indian commerce.12 The trophy from Lloyd's finally arrived nearly two years later; it was not a sword but an extravagantly handsome silver urn encased in a brass bound mahogany box.13 As soon as he received it, Captain Truxtun sent off his thanks to the gentlemen at Lloyd's, "many of whom," he wrote, "are my old friends and acquaintances."
"This mark of your attention," he continued, "will leave an impression of respect and esteem on my mind, that will only cease with my existence, and will be remembered after by my offspring."14
More details of the action were broadcast when the letters of Lieutenant Rodgers and Midshipman Porter were printed in the newspapers; and alas, there was the one by Lieutenant Sterett. Rodgers had only praise for "Our brave commander, who well deserves the appelation";15 Porter did not mention Captain Truxtun in this letter, but he remembered him, years later, as a "proud and tyrannical, though gallant naval commander."16 Sterett unfortunately invited a storm of abuse when he boasted that he had killed Neal Harvey for cowardice and that "we would put a man to death for even looking pale on board this ship."
The Antifederalist press, hostile to the Navy and opposed to war with France in any form, capitalized on Sterett's indiscreet remark. The Philadelphia Aurora turned pale immediately. Here, said its editor, was a perfect illustration of the arrogance that always accompanies military command. In the same paper was printed a spurious letter from "Ruby Nose," who requested that "you will have the charity to publish immediately a list of all the shops in the United States, where the best rouge is sold, in order that every pale-faced subject may purchase a quantity to give their cheeks a courageous appearance." The Federalist newspapers, on the other hand, saw nothing wrong with Sterett's deed. Discipline, they said, must be maintained.17
Captain Truxtun failed to notice publicly his subordinate's contumely, p173 which amounted to his condonation of an inexcusable performance.
Nevertheless, Captain Truxtun deserved the praise he enjoyed. While he was remote from the seat of government, he had acted with decision in many matters affecting foreign relations of the United States. He had maintained, and even strengthened, the cordial relations with the British that he had established upon his arrival in St. Kitts. He had kept his little squadron busy with the work he had been sent out to do. He had carried on negotiations with Desforneaux, often resorting to his French-English dictionary in order to answer his notes. These exchanges were accomplished "as you would suppose, with good sense and dignity," according to Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State.18
Often he had felt the need of most specific, less ambiguous instructions. Although he wondered at times whether his moves would be approved by his government, he was never inactive; he always did what he considered best for "the "Good of the Service" and for the national honor. "I hope," he told Secretary of the Navy Ben Stoddert, "my Zeal in the Cause will entitle me to expect, if not altogether the Approbation, the Protection of the President of the United States."19
He received the protection in full measure, and much approbation, too. President Adams, writing to Stoddert, wished that "all the other officers had as much zeal as Truxtun. What has become of them? We hear nothing of any but Decatur, Truxtun, and Murray."20
The President thought that Captain Truxtun's admission to Desforneaux, that his orders forbade him to molest unarmed French vessels, was a case of giving away information that "might as well have been concealed." Apparently he did not recognize that Captain Truxtun expected this admission to influence Desforneaux' future policy with regard to American merchantmen. However, the President instructed Secretary Stoddert to use the utmost tact in dealing with matters affecting his zeal. "If you correct Truxtun's ardor a little, as you ought to do," he wrote, "I pray you to it very gently and with great delicacy. I would not have it damped for the world."21
Stoddert, past master of the useful art of flattery, wrote Captain Truxtun a congratulatory letter as soon as he heard of his taking L'Insurgente. He assured him of the President's "high approbation p174 of the whole of your able and judicious conduct in the West Indies," and then added, "I must however add, that he observes . . . indeed all others I have heard speak on the subject, join in the observation, that this is nothing but what we expected from Truxtun."22
When first he learned that Captain Truxtun had returned to America, the President had told Secretary Stoddert, "Capt. Truxtun has deserved well of his country and will as he ought, have their thanks, as well as yours and mine. But I should have been much easier on account of the safety of our commerce, if he had remained longer in the West Indies." But if he had stayed longer, he would have broken faith with his men, who had enlisted only for one year. Furthermore, American seamen were the most precious commodity in the West Indies. He had been unable completely to man L'Insurgente, and his squadron was never large enough to effect a rotation of crews in homeward bound vessels. Nevertheless, both Adams and Stoddert had hoped that he would find a way to resolve all difficulties.23 While serving a government that wished to carry on a war without declaring war and while attending to instructions that were equivocal and in constant need of clarification, Captain Truxtun made many difficult decisions. It is small wonder that he was unable always to divine what the President and the Secretary of the Navy would have him do every time a choice had to be made.
The Constellation's crew was discharged shortly after her arrival in American waters. To men who would enlist for another year, Captain Truxtun gave — according to one of those who did — a beaver hat, a black silk handkerchief, two months' pay in advance, and two weeks liberty on shore.24 To every man he gave a prize ticket, which entitled him to his share of prize money when — and only when — the prize had been legally condemned and the money had been delivered to the prize agent, who would redeem the tickets.
It was an intricate business, this settlement for a prize taken by a ship of war. Officers and crew received one‑half the value of a prize if it was inferior to its captors; if the prize was adjudged superior, then it became the sole property of those who took it. And there were exceptions to this rule. If other naval vessels were in sight when a capture was made, all crews shared the prize money, dividing it according to the number of guns and men on board each vessel. If a prize was taken by a vessel operating in a squadron, the commodore of the squadron was entitled to a share, and the captain who took p175 the prize had his share reduced accordingly. The last regulation made some junior captains reluctant to fall in with a commodore, and it was the source of much litigation. In order to recover his (commodore's) share of one prize, Captain Truxtun finally had to sue a subordinate captain who claimed he had not yet joined his squadron when the prize was taken; the legal contest dragged on for years.25
Soon after he took L'Insurgente, Captain Truxtun appointed as prize agent Henry Benbridge, who had married his eldest daughter. Benbridge, son of a Philadelphia portrait painter, was, in Charles Biddle's estimation, "a very good young man, . . . sober and industrious," but "not prudent." His father-in‑law had set him up in the grocery business with a capital of some ten thousand dollars. Without Captain Truxtun's knowledge, the young man's capital had shrunk most alarmingly in the space of less than three years. When Benbridge received the bills of exchange for prize cargoes that had been sold in the West Indies, he foolishly used them to bolster his tottering credit.26
When he finally realized that he was facing serious trouble, he called on Charles Biddle for advice. Biddle immediately saw that the prize agency would become hopelessly entangled in Benbridge's other affairs if his business failed, and that the prize money might never be paid to those who had earned it. Always solicitous for his friend Truxtun's welfare, he wrote him a letter which the Captain received in Norfolk.
"I am the most unfortunate man alive," was the Captain's immediate reaction; "every attempt even, to serve a child, turns out to my disadvantage." He was aware of the consternation that would arise if the prize tickets were not paid off, and he implored Biddle to take over the agency. "I pray you," he wrote, "not to suffer him to ruin me . . . and oblige me to resign my station besides. . . . That will be a pretty business."27 Biddle, a little reluctantly, accepted the job.
L'Insurgente was regularly condemned by a Court of Admiralty sitting in Norfolk. When it came to the decision as to whether she was superior or inferior to the Constellation, Lieutenant Rodgers, who commanded the prize ship, was called to testify. He knew well the details of both ships. The Constellation, mounting twenty-eight 24‑pounders and ten 12‑pounders, was sailed by 316 men. L'Insurgente had twenty-four 12‑pounders in the main battery, and four p176 36‑pounders, two 24‑pounders, two long eighteens, and eight 6‑pounders on quarter-deck and forecastle, for a total of forty guns; she had a crew of 409 men.28 The American's battery could hurl a broadside of nearly four hundred pounds, while that of her antagonist was somewhat less than three hundred pounds. There was really little question about which ship had the material advantage; the Constellation was physically the larger ship, and her main battery of 24‑pounders was unquestionably superior to the French battery of 12‑pounders. Before he had talked himself into his now firm conviction that he had vanquished a superior foe, Captain Truxtun had tacitly admitted that the French frigate was nominally inferior to his ship.29 However, Lieutenant Rodgers in court stated the bare facts, and because he was not pressed to do so, he did not elaborate. Forty guns to thirty-eight, he said; 409 men to 316.30 Thereupon the Court decreed that L'Insurgente was the stronger ship.
"I cannot but think," Secretary Ben Stoddert told Captain Truxtun when he heard the Court's decree, "on a full consideration of all circumstances, the opinion of the Court erroneous."31 Moreover, he thought that the estimate of the prize's value — $120,000 — that had been made by a board of six men convened by William Pennock, the Norfolk Navy Agent, was entirely too high.32 Therefore he called on Joshua Humphreys, who, without ever leaving Philadelphia, produced an estimate of $84,500, which was much more to the Secretary's liking.33 Declaring his confidence that a higher court would reverse the decree, and at the same time proclaiming his aversion to starting a legal contest between the United States and the crew of a United States ship, he tactfully but very firmly offered Captain Truxtun and his crew $84,500, practically on a take‑it-or-leave‑it basis.34
After sailing the Constellation round to New York at the end of June, 1799, to complete her refitting, recruiting, and provisioning, and after visiting his family for the first time in over a year and a half, Captain Truxtun hurried down to Philadelphia.35 Finding the Secretary adamant in his decision and realizing that his reasoning was probably correct even though it was unnecessarily arbitrary, he accepted the $84,500 on behalf of his crew.
The Captain's share of the prize was three-twentieths, over $12,000; the four sea lieutenants and the sailing master each received about $1,600; the other officers received lesser shares; lowest on the p177 scale, seamen and marines were entitled to $106.80 each.36 Every share was reduced below its nominal value because Biddle, as prize agent, received five per cent of the whole. However, his acquisitive friend Truxtun claimed half of this commission for the trouble he was put to in settling the accounts of the business.37 This was after Captain Truxtun had told William Pennock who had assembled the board to value his prize: "Not one Dollar of Commission will you or any one receive on that Prize. . . . You are capital Fellows for Commissions at Norfolk; let me ask you, if you dont dream of Commissions every Night. . . . no Commission, No, No, on L'Insurgente".38
Most of the officers drew their shares with no difficulty, but relatively few of the seamen and marines received what they were entitled to. According to Biddle, nineteen out of every twenty sold their shares to speculators or friends for a mere trifle, some for not more than ten dollars. Some lost their tickets, and others never made the journey to Philadelphia to collect their money.
With his ship anchored in New York harbor, Captain Truxtun supervised the complete replacement of her armament with guns that he had decided would be more suitable. He had been forced, when approaching L'Insurgente, to run under the enemy's lee in order to keep his gun deck dry, so far did the stiff breeze heel his ship over. The main battery 24‑pounders, being too heavy and thus making the ship tender, were supplanted by eighteens; on the quarter-deck, he replaced the long twelves with 32‑pounder carronades mounted on sliding carriages.39 Effectively he lowered the center of gravity of the ship without materially changing the weight of her broadside.
Many of the details of provisioning he left to his Purser with the admonishment to carry out his general orders without delay. "I say without Delay," he said, "for naval Agents often love to take their time, and you have no Aversion to your Bed of a Morning."40
While the work went forward in his ship, he lived in New York, taking up lodgings at Mrs. Gallop's boarding-house in Cortlandt Street, across town from the Tontine Coffee House.41 He frequented the Tontine, a commodious brick building in Wall Street; he was often seen in the public room where the shipping books were kept, and which served gentlemen and merchants as a stock exchange.42 On Thursday, the twenty-fifth of July, he attended a dinner given in p178 his honor by the Washington Troop and Rifle Company.43 He greatly admired the painting — on silk — of his renowned action, which was displayed at the head of the table, and also "two other figuersº suitable on such a complimentary occasion" at the other end of the table.44
On the following Tuesday, the Chamber of Commerce and two insurance companies gave him another sumptuous dinner at the Tontine. In spite of the hot weather, the Mayor and a large company of gentlemen attended. The cosmopolitan diplomat, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton were there; the dinner was presided over by the President of the Chamber of Commerce, John Murray, a wealthy and venerable Quaker merchant; indeed, according to the guest of honor, "every man of distinction, in the City" was present.45
These were pleasant days for Captain Truxtun. However, his ship was almost ready for sea, and he was eager to be out once more. Planning to visit his family again for a day or two, he told his friend Biddle that he would have "one frolic more in Jersey before I embark, and then Sir for another Insurgente if they please to come in the way of the Constellation."46
Already riding the crest of a wave of fame that had greatly increased the popularity of the Navy at home and established it abroad as a power to be reckoned with, he was about to go out in search of new laurels when suddenly — precipitously — he made a decision that threatened to end his whole naval career.
On the first day of August, 1799, he resigned his commission as a captain in the United States Navy.
1 "Truxtun's Victory" was one of many songs written to celebrate the victory. A copy of the broadside "Truxtun's Victory together with the Beggar Girl and Two Strings to My Bow" is in Boston Public Library.
2 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Pickering to William Smith [March 1, 1799], fol. 443.
3 Quasi‑War, II, 333, 421, 450.
4 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Pickering to Rufus King, March 6, 1799.
5 Quasi‑War, III, 122, 210‑13, 217.
6 NYHS: Address to Truxtun by Citizens of Norfolk, n. d. .
7 Truxtun Hare Collection: Officials and Citizens of Norfolk to Truxtun, May 22, 1799; Norfolk Herald, May 25, 30, June 6, 1799.
8 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 19, 1799; Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, March 12, 13, 1799; Federal Gazette, Baltimore, April 24, 1799. Maryland Historical Society has framed a leaf of the song.
9 American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 20, 1799.
10 Columbian Centinel, Boston, March 23, 27, 1799; Independent Chronicle, Boston, March 14, 1799.
11 Spectator, New York, July 11, 27, 1799.
12 Ibid., June 1, 1799.
13 NYHS: Truxtun to Rufus King, April 15, 1801; Maria Scott Beale Chance, A Chronicle of the Family of Edward F. Beale (Haverford, 1943), p216.
14 NYHS: Truxtun to Merchants and Underwriters at Lloyd's Coffee House, April 15, 1801.
15 Quasi‑War, II, 336.
16 [David Porter], Constantinople and Its Environs (New York, 1835), II, 10; Federal Gazette, Baltimore, March 12, 1799.
17 John B. McMaster, A History of the People of the United States (New York, 1888‑1913), II, 433; Aurora, Philadelphia, March 16, 1799.
18 Quasi‑War, III, 60; MassHS: Pickering Papers, Pickering to William Smith, [March 15, 1799] fol. 532.
19 Quasi‑War, II, 458.
20 Ibid., III, 84.
21 John Adams, Works, C. F. Adams, ed. (Boston, 1850‑56), VIII, 630; Quasi‑War, III, 84.
22 Quasi‑War, II, 450.
23 Ibid., III, 50, 273, 312.
24 John Hoxse, The Yankee Tar (Northampton, 1840).
25 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, March 6, 1802, and throughout this collection.
26 Quasi‑War, III, 143, 358; Art in America, VI (February and June, 1918); Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1833), pp278‑79.
27 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, June 29, 1799.
28 Quasi‑War, II, 329‑33.
29 Ibid., II, 359.
30 Ibid., III, 552.
31 Ibid., III, 480.
32 PMS: Fox Papers, Letter Book II, certificate of Constellation's value dated May 27, 1799.
33 Quasi‑War, III, 450; HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Letter Books, II (1797‑1800), p224.
34 Quasi‑War, III, 480.
35 Ibid., III, 455.
36 Statutes at Large of the United States of America, 1789‑1873 (Boston 1850‑73), I, 709‑17 — Navy regulations, adopted March 2, 1799; Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p279.
37 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 13, 26, 1799.
38 Quasi‑War, III, 386.
39 Ibid., III, 394; PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 31, 1799.
40 Quasi‑War, III, 456.
41 Spectator, New York, July 18, 1799.
42 W. Harrison Bayles, Old Taverns of New York (New York, 1915), pp356, 360.
43 NYPL: Elizabeth de Hart Bleeker MS. Diary, 1799‑1806, July 25, 1799.
44 PhilaLC: Truxtun-Biddle Letters, Truxtun to Biddle, July 31, 1799.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 22 Aug 13