Short URL for this page:
In the roadstead of Basseterre, St. Kitts, Captain Truxtun found five American men-of‑war lying peacefully at anchor. Three frigates and two brigs, these were five of the eight vessels that had been ordered to put themselves under his command.
p188 It was a respectable force, but of little use as long as it remained at anchor. This was what had irked Secretary Ben Stoddert so very much. The orders he wrote for his squadron commanders repeatedly stressed his injunction to keep all vessels "constantly cruising." In no other way would the enemy be met and taken. Not that he wanted the vessels to go out as a squadron: the French privateers nearly always cruised alone, so the protection afforded by cruising together was unnecessary. Besides, six or eight vessels cruising alone would cover six or eight times as much territory as a squadron sailing snugly together. "Nothing fills the President with more disgust," Stoddert had written, than "Three or four vessels sailing in company when there is no prospect of meeting an Enemy equal to the smallest of them."1
The Constellation anchored in the roadstead as the sun was going down. Early the next morning, Captain Truxtun dispatched the first of his vessels. Within a week, he had sent all of his squadron off on independent cruises. And while he prodded the other vessels out of the roadstead, he hurried to get his own ship again ready for sea. He had heard that there was another French frigate and a corvette at Guadeloupe.2 Unloading some lumber from the orlop deck, down in the bowels of the ship, one of the seamen heard Captain Truxtun tell the carpenter to have the space cleared out completely and not to leave behind so much as a single rope yarn, because, within a week from that day, he was determined to have five hundred prisoners aboard.3
Captain Truxtun was down in the West Indies for "another touch at these Frenchmen," and he was impatient to be out. His ship was remarkably healthy; there were only ten men on the surgeon's list, and six of those were "under Venereal complaints, of long standing."4 He felt sure that his crew was ready to do battle with any French vessel he might find. After scarcely more than a week in port, he laid down his course toward the latest reported position of the largest enemy ship in the Islands.
Early Saturday morning, February 1, 1800, the Constellation was beating up under Guadeloupe, keeping her tacks on board as she worked her way against the unceasing breeze that swept up from the southeast. While she was yet a few leagues from the island, a sail was sighted far to the south, standing westward.5 As she bore away to take a closer look at the strong — a large ship, probably a British p189 frigate from Martinique — Captain Truxtun ordered up English colors to entice the ship to come halfway to speak him. For him to run down in pursuit of the stranger was to abandon, for the time being, his chosen cruising grounds, where he supposed that the French were lurking. To regain the lost ground would take many more hours of laborious beating. But the stranger did not come halfway. She made no sign of recognition, threw out no signals. Instead, she blossomed out with studdingsails and every rag of canvas that could be set. It was plain that she did not wish to speak anyone.
After examining the stranger more carefully through his long glass, Captain Truxtun decided finally that she was a heavy French frigate, mounting perhaps fifty guns or more. The pursuit began at once. Although he gained rapidly throughout the morning, his advantage was threatened when the wind fell light and the chase held way with him. For a brief moment, the question of whether he could overhaul the enemy before nightfall must have entered his head. He was running his own ship to leeward at a great rate. If he could not come up with the other ship at all, he would have lost a couple of days' hunting under Guadeloupe. Only for an instant was the question entertained, however, for here was a ship even larger than L'Insurgente, which he had captured a year before. A ship in sight was worth a whole harborful of ships lying secure under the guns of a French fort.
The drum had long since beat to quarters; his ship was cleared for action almost as soon as the chase began. The yards were slung with chains, replacing ropes that might be carried away by a lucky shot; and the running rigging was reinforced with stopper ropes as a further precaution. The Constellation, pressed on at last by a freshening wind, began to gain way once more.
Captain Truxtun had his every sail set, but he prudently kept bag reefs in his topsails in order to give him better control of his ship should the chase, which was now running dead away, suddenly haul up on the wind and prepare to give battle. "But this," he observed, "did not prove to be her commanders intention."6
Through the long afternoon, the pursuit continued, and on into the evening hours. For twelve hours the crew stood at quarters. "Oh! sir," wrote an observer aboard the Constellation, "it is not for my feeble pen to describe the ardor of Columbia's sons of the waves on this great and solemn occasion, seated among the engines of death, p190 some at their gambols, others combing out their hair like Spartan sons of old."7
As daylight dwindled, the distance between the ships grew shorter. About eight o'clock, Captain Truxtun ordered the American colors hoisted, the candles in the battle lanterns lighted, and the great speaking trumpet rigged at the lee gangway. Standing at the trumpet, the gallant Captain prepared to demand the surrender of the French frigate. At that moment, a puff of smoke from the enemy's deck, followed by the concussive report of an eighteen pounder, signaled the beginning of the action. The enemy, upon finding that the American ship was gaining rapidly, had hauled two great guns aft to fire through stern ports. With these stern chasers, the French captain hoped to discourage his adversary before her battery could be brought to bear.
The division commanders on the gun deck, Andrew Sterett, Ambrose Shirley, and Samuel Brooks, first, second, and third lieutenants respectively, all of them veterans of the battle with L'Insurgente, already had their orders; but Captain Truxtun sent one of his midshipmen messengers to repeat his instructions to the lieutenants. Henry Vandyke, unquestionably impressed by his Captain's unhurried demeanor, carried the word forward to Lieutenant Sterett's division and then brought it back through the length of the ship. The orders were "not to throw away a single charge of powder and shot, but to take good aim, and fire directly into the Hull of the enemy, and load principally with two round shot, and now & then with a Round Shot and Stand of Grape . . . to Encourage the Men, at their Quarters, to cause or suffer no noise or confusion whatever; but to load and fire as fast as possible, when it could be done with certain effect."8
With the new and lighter guns on her gun deck, the Constellation was much stiffer than she had been the year before. There was no need now to run under the enemy's lee, in order to keep her gun ports dry. Therefore, she gained and held the weather gauge as she drew up swiftly on the weather quarter of her harried opponent.
Captain Truxtun, cool as ever a man could be, waited now for the battle to unfold. He and his little retinue — sailing master, marine lieutenant, and midshipmen messengers — were planted on the quarterdeck. Quietly, with full confidence in his ship and men, he took into battle as smart a ship as ever spread a sail.
p191 When the space between ships had been closed to less than half-range of the great guns, perhaps three hundred yards, Lieutenant Sterett's larboard bow gun was brought to bear, and the Frenchman's defiance, offered by his stern chasers, was returned in kind. As the Constellation still gained, other guns of the larboard battery were soon brought to bear, and acrid smoke belched forth from their muzzles down the line. Cannon balls crashed into the enemy between wind and water, some of them going clear through the hull and out the other side.9
The enemy kept up a furious fire for half an hour. Firing at the rigging and firing without aiming, the French battery made a wonderful great noise. The French captain, impressed by the clamor in his own ship, thought that the Constellation's fire was but badly sustained. Captain Truxtun's order "not to throw away a single charge of powder and shot" was completely foreign to his understanding.
Enemy shot carried away the Constellation's head sails early in the action. Falling away for a few moments to repair the damage, Captain Truxtun could see — now by moonlight — his adversary crowding on all sail again, even rigging out studdingsails, trying again to escape. He drew up again and resumed the fight. For another three hours or more, the action was general, with the two ships running almost board and board. The Constellation kept up a continuous fire from her main battery; the carronades on the quarter-deck were well served; the howitzers in the tops added to the din; and the marines sent along a well-directed rain of musket balls. Twice, at least, Captain Truxtun attempted to maneuver his ship into a raking position, once ahead and once astern of the enemy, but each time the French captain anticipated his move and was able to avoid being raked. When he saw the American's flying jib‑boom run afoul of his mizzen shrouds, the Frenchman thought he was about to be boarded. He shouted a command to repel boarders, and his crew swarmed up onto the quarter-deck. It was at this juncture that the Americans, taking advantage of the opportunity, let fly a shower of grape shot.10 Through it all, as the tense minutes lengthened into hours, Captain Truxtun fought his ship with the audacity of one who knows not the meaning of personal fear. Here, indeed, was a tradition-maker at work. No extravagant poses (although he never for a moment forgot his role as "petty tyrant"), no histrionics, no ringing phrases of derring‑do: his was tradition of a different sort. He pressed home the p192 attack with coolness and deliberation born of complete control of and confidence in his ship and his crew.
Aboard the French frigate, the carnage was great. Three gun ports were blasted into one. A cannon ball knocked the captain's speaking trumpet out of his hand and took off the arm of a lieutenant nearby.11 Men by the score were writhing on decks slippery with blood or lying deathly still in their last contorted postures.
Nor were the decks of the Constellation free of pools of blood turned black by the moon's pale light. Surgeon Isaac Henry, at his station far below in the cock‑pit, was hard at the gruesome work of patching shattered bodies and of trying to relieve the last agonies of those already beyond help. A seaman standing near the pumps amidships lost his right arm and had his entrails laid bare by a cannon ball. John Baptist, a boy, had his leg shot off. Arms and legs were broken; musket balls pierced hands and necks and thighs and buttocks. In all, the surgeon amputated six limbs and dressed a number of very severe flesh wounds.12
As the moon dipped low on the western sea rim,a after nearly five hours of fierce and almost constant action, the enemy's fire was completely silenced. Twice, perhaps three times, her captain had struck her flag and cried for quarter. But the action had been too intense. His cries had gone unheard and the battle had continued.13 When at last she sheered off to gain respite from the unflagging American fire, it was within a few minutes of one o'clock.
The Constellation was still close under the enemy's weather quarter, less than a half pistol-shot away. Fifth Lieutenant Robinson, commanding a division on the quarter-deck, reported to Captain Truxtun, who stood nearby. "I cannot, sir," he said, "bring the carronades to bear."
"Never mind, Robinson," the Captain replied, "she is all our own, we have nothing to do but get alongside of her."14
But the Constellation never quite got alongside her antagonist.
While he was trying to trim his shattered sails, news of the most alarming sort reached the Captain. The mainmast was in danger of going over the side at any moment. The towering pole, •a hundred and fifty feet high and nearly three feet in diameter at the deck, was normally supported by shrouds, backstays, and forestays. Now it was steadied by nothing at all above the main deck; every stay and shroud had been shot away. Captain Truxtun acted instantly. He p193 tried first to rig stoppers, rejoining the separated rope ends; but there were almost no rope ends long enough to be joined. He then ordered the men up from the gun deck, planning to use all hands in getting up temporary stays.
Within a few minutes, his exertions proved to be in vain. The great stick was wracked by the rolling of the ship; with a final shattering report, it broke off just above the deck, taking full charge for a few terrifying seconds until it was thrown clear of the ship into the water alongside.
Overboard with the mast went the topmen. Midshipman James Jarvis, commanding in the maintop, had been warned by one of his men that the mast would soon give way. Captain Truxtun journalized the incident. "He had already so much of the principle of an officer engrafted on his mind," he wrote, "not to leave his Quarters on any account, that he told the men if the mast went, they must go with it, which was the case, and only one of them were saved."15
It was two o'clock before the wreckage was all cleared away, and by that time the moon was down. Limping badly, the Constellation was again ready to meet the enemy, but the enemy was nowhere in sight. The Frenchman's pumps had been going when last seen; it was evident, even in the gloom, that the hull had been badly hurt; and masts and spars were so badly shattered that only a single sail — the mizzen topsail — could be spread.16 It was only reasonable to assume that the enemy had been sunk.
Except for keeping a sharp lookout, there was little that Captain Truxtun could do about the vanquished but missing ship. The safety of his own ship had become his main concern. Although his hull was not badly damaged, his rigging was almost completely wrecked, with scarcely anything standing. Faced with the task of getting his unweatherly ship into port, he gave up any idea of beating back up to St. Kitts, which by now was •a hundred and fifty miles to windward. Instead, he bore away for Jamaica, over •over seven hundred miles to leeward.
Next morning, while all hands toiled to square the ship away for the long run down to Jamaica, Captain Truxtun published and proclaimed his "thanks to the officers of every description, seamen, marines, and others, for the gallantry they displayed on this occasion, which under a beneficent Providence, has enabled me to add another laurel to the American character, on the records on the Navy."17 By p194 the nature of command at sea, the Captain was not merely asserting his ego when he used the personal pronoun in a sense that must include the men and ship under his control. Dead, wounded, and live heroes he carried in his ship, but it was Captain Truxtun's incomparable skill in the art of command at sea that had won the day for the Constellation. The men in his crew possessed more brawn, more brains, more proficiency in many branches of practical gunnery and seamanship than he could ever hope to have. But it was he, after all, who possessed the rare and peculiar ability to make his ship and crew a wieldy weapon. It was he who fought his ship as a single instrument; it was he who hammered to the point of submission a ship of greater force than his own.
The Secretary of the Navy, commenting later on the "Heroic Action," pointed out that while every officer and man on board must have "nobly performed" his duty, it will be remembered that "The praise of having pursued for many hours a Ship of force greatly superior to his own, to bring her to action, and of conducting this action with so much skill as to compensate for his great inferiority of force, belongs exclusively to the gallant Commander."18
Men on both sides in this duel of the frigates acknowledged Captain Truxtun's bravery and skill. His officers, replying on behalf of the ship's company to his proclamation of thanks, said, "They [officers and men] with one Voice proclaim, That under such a Commander whose example would have made even Cowardice Brave, they must have been less than Men, not to have Acted" as they did. More often than not, when the Captain was mentioned in a personal letter by a member of his crew, he was "brave Truxtun," or "the brave Commodore."19
On Monday, February 3, two days after the action, her jury‑rig was carrying the Constellation toward Jamaica, when an American man-of‑war hove in sight. The schooner Enterprize, Captain John Shaw, was immediately designated to carry the news of the battle back to the continent. Because Thomas Truxtun, junior, was a midshipman in the Enterprize, Shaw was ordered to take his vessel to Perth Amboy, where he could anchor almost in the Truxtun front yard, and carry the dispatches overland to the Navy Office in Philadelphia.20
Next day, when the United States frigate Insurgente happened by, Captain Truxtun ordered her to accompany him down to a safe harbor.21 p195 After the late action, it was appropriate that he should be convoyed by this former French frigate, which his zeal and audacity and skill had just a year before brought under the American flag.
Finally, on Saturday, a week after the engagement, the Constellation came to anchor in the harbor of Port Royal at the island of Jamaica. Captain Truxtun sent an officer to the British admiral's flagship, proposing that a salute be exchanged between the British and American ships; but the admiral took the same stand as had Admiral Vandeput in Norfolk. He said he would be glad to return a salute, but because of his superior rank he would return two guns less than he received. As before, no salute was fired by American guns.22
Surgeon Isaac Henry sent nine badly wounded survivors of the action ashore to the hospital at Port Royal. Henry, who was greatly fatigued in body and in mind after attending night and day to the wounded aboard ship, noted dejectedly that "some of them have died since we got in with Lock Jaw."23
Three weeks after the action, when American casualties stood at eighteen dead and twenty‑one wounded, nothing at all had been heard of the French frigate.24 "It is hard to conjecture," Captain Truxtun wrote to Secretary Ben Stoddert, "whether she sunk, or whether she got into St. Thomas's or Curracoa. If she is still above water, she must be irreparable in the West-Indies. Her loss of men must have been prodigious in an action of five hours, with 600 men on board: My fire was directed principally at her hull."
"Several of my officers have told me," he continued, "that they thought they saw her go down — certain it is, that the ship and her lights disappeared of a sudden, and we ought to have seen her at day light. But I was so employed myself, in preserving our fore-mast and mizen-mast, after the main-mast went over the side, that I attended to nothing else."25
His skill as a mariner was put to the test again while the Constellation lay in Port Royal. In order to replace his mainmast alone, even disregarding all the yards and other missing spars, he needed three pieces of timber. The lower mast was a stick •a hundred feet long and nearly three feet in diameter; above the lower mast was the topmast, •sixty feet long; and above that was the topgallant mast, •nearly fifty feet long. Given the timbers, the hoisting and shipping of the masts would still be a formidable task. But in Jamaica he found that p196 no masts of the kind he wanted could be bought at any price, so he decided to take his ship under a jury‑rig back to an American port, where such timbers were available. It was only the indefatigable zeal and ingenuity of the Captain that enabled the ship to sail forth from Port Royal on the first day of March, 1800. Exactly what sort of rig she wore is unknown, but she took fourteen sail of merchantmen under convoy, and her journal of the homeward bound passage gave no hint that she was disabled. She could beat to windward and she weathered some violent squalls.26 After arriving in Hampton Roads, Captain Truxtun sent up to Norfolk for more than a score of masts and yards to replace his jury‑rig, in order to make permanent repairs to his ship. The smallest of the spars he ordered, a mizzen royal yard, was •twenty‑two feet long.27
It was only after he had anchored in home waters, nearly two months after the action, that he heard for the first time the name and fate of his antagonist. She was La Vengeance, Captain Citizen Pitot; she had not been sunk as he supposed, but survived the battle and made her way to the Dutch island of Curaçao.
La Vengeance, a large frigate mounting fifty-four guns, had just departed from Guadeloupe for France when she was sighted by the Americans. She had on board a crew of 320 men and carried, in addition, 80 military passengers, many of them artillery officers.b Also on board were thirty‑six American seamen, prisoners of war, who were being transported to France. The French passengers had gone to quarters and fought alongside the seamen throughout the battle; but the Americans, who refused to fight against their flag, had been sent below and had no part in the action. However, she might never have reached port again if the American prisoners had not been on board.
When the French ship bore away after the long conflict, her upper works were in ruins, and she had nearly two hundred shot holes in her hull. There was already more than •five feet of water in her hold, and the water was gaining fast. As soon as the firing ceased, the American prisoners sprang willingly to her pumps, while the French passengers manned buckets and even wooden bowls; before daybreak they had gotten the better of the inundation that threatened to swamp the ship. During the next five days, while she limped southward toward Curaçao, the prisoners did duty as seamen alongside p197 the surviving Frenchmen. They won the gratitude of Captain Citizen Pitot for their exertions in helping to bring his ship into port "in a most distress'd situation without a Mast standing except the lower Fore and Mizen Masts, and not an original rope to be seen except the fore and bobstay that was not knotted or spliced."28
While the number of casualties in La Vengeance cannot accurately be determined, it is certain that her crew fared much worse than that of the Constellation. Contrasted with the final count of eighteen Americans killed and twenty‑one wounded was the French captain's report which minimized his losses but admitted to twenty-eight killed and forty wounded. Other reports claimed as many as 160 French casualties. The truth lay somewhere between these extremes; probably La Vengeance lost about a hundred killed and wounded.29
Captain Citizen Pitot, in his anxiety to justify his defense of his ship, paid Captain Truxtun a few unwitting compliments in his official reports. "The ship which we fought," he wrote on the day after the action, "is a ship of the line, quite long and very high in the stern. . . . She had a very numerous crew and a well-served musketry." Even after he had learned the name of his adversary, he told his seniors that she carried "60 guns and a complement of 500 men." In actual fact, the Constellation carried 38 guns and 320 men.30
While the French captain was forced to exaggerate the strength of his assailant in order to give his story credibility, Captain Truxtun had no such need. From the American viewpoint, it was a glorious action; it should have insured the undying fame of the gallant Captain. But about this time he began to indulge an unfortunate tendency to magnify his own accomplishments, to embroider his statements, and in time to become convinced that his extravagances were bona fide facts. Instead of 400 men in La Vengeance he chose a figure that varied between 560 and 600. In comparing the weight of metal in a broadside that each ship could hurl at the other, he was not content to list a total of fifty-four twelve- and eighteen -pounders and thirty‑six-pounder carronades, all of which gave the French frigate an advantage of 516 pounds to 372; he felt compelled to claim, without a sound reason, that a French eighteen-pound ball weighed twenty pounds and that a thirty‑six-pound ball weighed forty‑two.31 Eventually, his eagerness to display his prowess in the best possible light was to become wearisome. It annoyed and repelled those who might have been warm in his praise. If his positive accomplishments p198 had been less durable, he would have within a few years dulled the luster of his fame beyond repair.
But only two months had passed since the action; most of his troubles still lay in the future. Judging by the acclamation that followed him wherever he went, his future was never brighter than it was at this moment.
1 Quasi‑War, IV, 170, 377‑79; V, 112.
2 Ibid., V, 112, 115, 159.
3 John Hoxse, The Yankee Tar (Northampton, 1840).
4 Quasi‑War, V, 44. The surgeon was entitled to $5 for curing a seaman and $10 for curing an officer of a "Venereal complaint." See ibid., VII, 127‑28.
5 Ibid., V, 160, 162.
6 Ibid., V, 160.
7 Ibid., V, 165.
8 Ibid., V, 160‑61.
9 Ibid., V, 170.
10 Ibid., V, 167‑68, 198.
11 Ibid., V, 165, 170.
12 Ibid., V, 163, 208. See also John Hoxse, op. cit. "Soho Hurst" in Quasi‑War, V, 163, is undoubtedly John Hoxse.
13 Quasi‑War, V, 171.
14 Ibid., IV, 48. Robinson is indicated as 6th Lieut.; however, Lt. Archer was not on the Quarter Bill (HSPa: U. S. Frigate Constellation Orders, Muster Rolls, Stores, etc.) and apparently Robinson had advanced to 5th Lieut.; Quasi‑War, V, 172.
15 Quasi‑War, V, 161.
16 Ibid., V, 167‑68.
17 Ibid., V, 172‑73.
18 Ibid., V, 333.
19 Ibid., V, 165‑66, 173, 392.
20 Ibid., V, 183, 193, 538; VII, 354.
21 Ibid., V, 193.
22 American Neptune, V (April, 1945), 156.
23 Quasi‑War, V, 208, 211.
24 Ibid., V, 162‑63, 211. Probably there were more dead. See ibid., V, 208.
25 Ibid., V, 210.
26 Ibid., V, 259‑348 passim; e.g., 294.
27 PMS: Fox Papers, Truxtun to Josiah Fox, April 1, 1800, List of spars wanting. Size of spars in Barbary Wars, VII, 70.
28 Quasi‑War, V, 166, 168‑70, 197‑98.
29 Ibid., V, 168, 198, 333, 473.
30 Ibid., V, 164, 168; VII, 461.
31 Ibid., IV, 52‑53; V, 163‑64, 210.
a According to the Naval Observatory's Astronomical Tables — if we approximate the Constellation's position at Guadeloupe (16°15′ N, 61°35′ W) — on February 1, 1800 the Moon would set at 0029h local time; the Sun had set at 1757h.
b French historians disagree sharply; Troude, for example, claims that the crew of the Vengeance at the time was running only 77 men total. Details of the encounter as seen from the French side are given in "La guerre Franco-américaine", Revue Historique, LXXXV.2, p297, where the author comes very close to calling Truxtun a liar and a cheat.
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: 21 Apr 18