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Chapter 37

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 39
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p206  Chapter 38


To those who were accustomed to Philadelphia's conveniences, its cobblestoned streets, its brick sidewalks, and the luxury of its inns and boarding-houses, the new capital city in 1800 was indeed a desolate place. Work was going ahead on one wing of the Capitol and on the President's house, but almost nothing was yet complete. Those two white sandstone buildings stood out in bold contrast to the largely undisturbed woods and fields round about. Pennsylvania Avenue, running from Capitol to President's house, was a quaggy morass, dense with elder bushes.

A congressman, viewing the city for the first time, reported that "the roads in every direction were muddy and unimproved. A sidewalk was attempted, in one instance, by a covering of chips hewed from the Capitol. It extended but a little way and was of little value; for in dry weather the sharp fragments cut our shoes, and in warm weather covered them with white mortar."​1 The accommodations for congressmen were so bad that "they were within an ace of adjourning" to another city, where there was an established society and where the boarding-houses were better and the mud not quite so deep.2

Captain Thomas Tingey, who had been at the capital laboring to establish a Navy Yard while winter snows were still deep, was already one of the veteran inhabitants of the place. It was in Captain Tingey's carriage that Captain Truxtun appeared, riding about the city, during the oppressively hot June weather that greeted him.3

Although Secretary Stoddert had already arrived when Captain Truxtun reached Washington, his office was still on the way, the papers and records rumbling overland in a wagon, and the furniture  p207 and fittings rolling round by water.​4 No papers were needed, however, to satisfy Captain Truxtun that the most important job in the world was that of fitting out and manning the frigate President: the Secretary's expertness in handling his people apparently saw to that. Almost as soon as the interview ended, Captain Truxtun set out for New York. He was gone even before he could be invited to the dinner party that Mrs. Thornton was giving for the Secretaries of Navy, War, and State.​5 His friends in Baltimore urged him to stay over with them for a day or two, but he refused their hospitality. He sent word ahead to Charles Biddle, in Philadelphia, asking him to bring some money and papers out to Frankford, on the stage line, in order to avoid the loss of a moment on his journey to New York. He wanted to go over some personal accounts with his friend, but the only solution he could see was for Biddle to follow him to New York, or at least to his home in Perth Amboy.6

At once, he was deep in the manifold problems, details, vexations, and delays that always attended the fitting out, manning, and provisioning of a ship of war. The President, a 44‑gun frigate, built by the same drafts and molds as the Constitution and the United States, had been in the water for scarcely more than two months.​7 She was one of the original 1794 frigates — Captain Talbot's ship until she was discontinued in 1796. The superintendence of her building and launch had finally fallen to Lieutenant Isaac Chauncey, who, Secretary Stoddert supposed, would be her first lieutenant. But he had not reckoned with Captain Truxtun's imperiousness. The Captain had brought with him his first lieutenant, Andrew Sterett; therefore, Chauncey had to be content with the post of second lieutenant. Surgeon Balfour, who had been with Captain Truxtun when he took L'Insurgente, was ordered to the President; and four midshipmen, all of whom were made lieutenants, and James Morgan, faithful gunner, were transferred with their captain to the new ship.8

Twenty new midshipmen were entered in the President, as compared to the dozen or fourteen carried in each of the other forty-fours. Here indeed was a school of the sea, providing for young gentlemen who aspired to the command of a ship the best that the Navy could offer in the way of precept and example. In order to supplement the practical work of the day at sea, Robert Thomson, chaplain and schoolmaster, was assigned to the ship to help teach the theory and practice of navigation.9

 p208  Captain Truxtun wanted Lieutenant Clinch to follow him to his new ship in order to continue as lieutenant of marines, but Lieutenant Colonel William Burrows, Commandant of the Marine Corps, had other ideas. He had already had his fill of naval captains' interference with his marine officers. He contended that if he were not to make the assignments of men of his corps, then there would be no sue for him nor for his staff. With this opinion, Captain Truxtun was in complete agreement. He said that he was "sensible of the unimportance of the Marine corps."​10 Whatever he thought of the Marine Corps at the moment was bound to grow worse as time revealed to him the shortcomings of the two lieutenants who had been assigned to him in lieu of Lieutenant Clinch.

Near the end of June, 1800, Charles Biddle brought two of his sons — James, seventeen years old, and Edward, a little younger — to New York to see them safe aboard the President as midshipmen under his good friend's especial care. Before and during the revolution, Charles Biddle had spent twenty years at sea in the merchant service, and it was only natural that his sons should want to taste sea life; but all during this journey, he later related, he secretly wished that something might happen that would prevent their going. If only the ship would burn or sink, then they might return home and forget the sea. He understood, as well as did Captain Truxtun, the many and various vicissitudes that faced the boys as they looked forward with keen anticipation to their life afloat. When he left his boys in Captain Truxtun's ship, he enjoined him to take good care of them and then added, "and you, I suppose, will make them good officers. They know the advantage of being with you, and are informed that nothing will gratify me so much as meeting your approbation, nothing give me more pain than their not doing it."11

James and Edward were immediately favored by their captain. In August, 1800, when the President was nearly ready to sail, he took them down to his home in Perth Amboy while their father and mother paid them another farewell visit. The final parting scene was in the best melodramatic tradition. Mrs. Biddle, greatly distressed by the whole affair, was finally reconciled to her sons' going when old faithful black Tom, a slave who had been born and brought up in the Biddle household, agreed to go with them in the frigate in order to look after them during the cruise.12

Throughout the whole summer Captain Truxtun took little time  p209 off from his ship, but there was one celebration that he willingly attended. He was invited to the annual Fourth of July dinner of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of officers of the Revolutionary Army; and although he was not eligible for full member­ship, he had been elected an honorary member and was admitted to the brotherhood on that day.13

Except when something special lured him away, he appeared regularly on board his ship each day. As each article was received from the naval agents in New York, he personally checked it off in his record book.​14 At the same time, he kept close tally on recruiting, being carried on in Philadelphia as well as New York. By the middle of August, his crew was complete except for a few petty officers.​15 Scarcely two months after he took command of the President, Captain Truxtun had his ship completely equipped, manned, and ready for sea.

On a clear and windy evening early in September, 1800, he sailed out to sea past Sandy Hook lighthouse, from which he took his departure.​16 He laid down his course once more for Basseterre Roads at the island of St. Kitts.

"I see in the papers," du Pont de Nemours wrote to Vice-President Jefferson, "that Truxtun is leaving and will do the impossible in order to have a second fight with the Vengeance. . . . And it is said that he hastened for fear of getting official news of an armistice. What vain and unreasonable creatures most men are!"17

The naval war with France was fast running out. In spite of Secretary Stoddert's urgent pleas that he get to his station as soon as possible, because of the sudden increase of French raids on American vessels, Commodore Truxtun found no French cruisers on his station, nor did he hear of any that he might hunt down nearby. La Vengeance, he was told, had been forced by a change of political weather in Curaçao to leave that island while she was still in a poor state of repair and badly undermanned, and that she had been taken shortly afterwards by a British forty-four gun frigate, following a sharp and severe action.18

Commodore Truxtun kept his squadron cruising constantly, and his own ship was seldom at anchor; but in spite of all the cruising there were only a half-dozen captures made by his squadron during the four months he commanded it. French vessels of all kinds were  p210 becoming "scarce," he said, "so much so, that what I formerly found (chasing) an amusement, and pastime, is now insiped, Urksome & tiresome, and the life I lead may be truly called sedentary."19

When the latest newspapers from London, which he received in November, 1800, reported that a French-American treaty had been signed in Paris, he was ready to go home. He was tired of the duty, and he was tormented by "an obstinate complaint of my bowels, that has debilitated me so much that the pure Northern air of America, can only restore the usual, and natural action, to my languid and emaciated frame; for such I assure you it has become, by being constantly under the muzzle of the sun for such a length of time." Contrary to his surgeon's advice, he dosed himself with calomel. When Doctor Balfour had him read a chapter in one of his weighty tomes in order to carry his point, Commodore Truxtun told him that since his indisposition was caused "intirely by wind or bile, or perhaps both," he was sure that it was the disease and not the remedy that made him suffer.20

Along with his lingering ailments and the complex business of keeping a squadron constantly employed, he was bedeviled by problems of discipline on board his own ship. A seaman threw a marlinspike at Lieutenant Sterett, was promptly clapped in irons, and finally sent ashore to prison. Sailing Master John King, who on the quarter-deck menaced Lieutenant Chauncey with a bayonet, threatening to drive a thunderbolt through his soul, was placed under arrest in his cabin to await court-martial. Chaplain Thomson, continually at odds with the lieutenants in the gun room ("a sycophant and a tatler," said one), was permitted to return home before the cruise was six weeks old. Captain Truxtun had no fault to find with his chaplain, but he could see no other way to restore some semblance of harmony among his officers. Some of his midshipmen, as usual, tried his patience. Archibald Kearney was punished for an "impropriety" by being sent to another ship in the squadron, but when the President was ready to go home he was brought back on board.

Many an insufferable young gentleman was sent to a midshipman's berth by influential parents who had despaired of his rearing, but still hoped that the Navy could do something with him. Such a one was John Harris, son of one of Captain Truxtun's friends. Almost admitting his failure in "reclaiming, and yet making you a  p211 man," the long-suffering Captain decided, more than once, to give him one more chance.21

Of all those who ran afoul of Captain Truxtun's will, none was as bitter as Marine Lieutenant John Lewis. A misunderstanding in New York, before the ship sailed, had caused him to read all sorts of sinister motives into every order the Captain issued. Because he, as an officer in the Marine Corps, reported to the Commandant of the Corps, he felt that he should somehow be excused from being ordered around by a naval officer. He took Captain Truxtun's insistence upon discipline among marines, as well as seamen, as a mark of personal animosity. "Capt. T," he wrote midway in the cruise, "has been accustom'd to receive homage, he now demands it without bounds. His officers, and they are those who have sail'd with him in the Constellation, with one voice lift up their hands and are astonished at his insolence and tyranny."

"I hold him now in the most contemptible light," he continued, "and with such an oppinion it is possible to be happy."22

His nagging sickness undoubtedly made the Captain sharp and irritable. It irked him, too, to have to spend his time on petty details of shipboard administration when he was responsible for the performance of a squadron of men-of‑war. He may have recognized that he played an important role in the country's foreign affairs; or perhaps his hat was fitting him badly, pinching at the temples.

Any unusual charges of contumely must be viewed in the light of a personal tragedy that had occurred while he was down under Guadeloupe searching for the enemy. Midshipman Edward Biddle, ailing for a few days with a fever that Captain Truxtun supposed was "generated on board during the calms and intense warm weather, we have experienced during the Hurricane season," suddenly became worse. Chaplain Thomson, who visited the sick youth, found faithful black Tom huddled under his cot, sobbing as though his heart would break. Tom told the chaplain that his master was very, very sick; but Edward told him, a bit impatiently, that he was feeling better. Half an hour later, he was dead.23

Deeply hurt by the loss of his particular friend's son and acutely aware of his helplessness in the face of death, he could not bring himself to write directly to Charles Biddle; but he said requiem over the boy in other letters that he wrote. "He was," he wrote to Captain Tingey, in Washington, "without a vice of any kind, or ever a  p212 foible that I ever heard of, his disposition was of the most friendly, & benevolent kind, his education, Mental qualifications, symposium habits, becoming Pride, discernment and good sense, bid fair to make him a Naval Ornament, . . ." And so on, and on, trying as men will to fill the terrible vacuum with words.24

When, in the middle of January, 1801, Commodore Barry arrived in the frigate United States to relieve Commodore Truxtun, there still was no news of the impending peace that could implicitly be relied on. The French governor at Guadeloupe had sent down a flag of truce, bearing a proclamation of peace, a few days before; while Commodore Truxtun replied graciously enough that he was happy to hear the good news, he added that he could not recognize the existence of peace until he received instructions from his own government. Thereupon he had sailed off on another cruise in search of Frenchmen, during which he was fired upon by a French fort on Guadeloupe.25

He was pleased to see Commodore Barry for two reasons. First, he could now return to the "pure Northern air of America"; and second, since the peace settlement seemed imminent, he was no longer interested in remaining on a station that offered only the routine task of showing the flag among the islands of the Caribbean.

He showed Commodore Barry the courtesy due his rank by hauling down the broad pennant he had been wearing in the President, but in view of a letter from the Secretary of the Navy that told him that "His [Barry's] seniority entitles him to this command, & it could not be denied to him," and the "roving Commission" that Truxtun was given rather than being placed under Barry's direction, it is no wonder that he addressed him as a friend and not as a senior officer. Giving freely of his friendly advice, Commodore Truxtun within a fortnight weighed anchor, took with him the thirty‑six gun frigate Chesapeake, and after a final look about the islands laid down his course for the mainland.26

The Author's Notes:

1 H. P. Caemmerer, A Manual of the Origin and Development of Washington (Washington, D. C., 1939), pp39‑40.

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2 Charles R. King, ed., Life and Correspondence of Rufus King (New York, 1894‑1900), III, 461.

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3 Quasi‑War, V, 113, 201; "Diary of Mrs. William Thornton," Columbia Hist. Soc. Records, X (1907), 154, Thursday, June 12, 1800.

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4 Quasi‑War, V, 577; VI, 26, 59, 111; NYHS: Truxtun to Charles Biddle, June 19, 1800, in Cooper's Extra-Illustrated History of the Navy.

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5 "Diary of Mrs. William Thornton," loc. cit., p157.

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6 NYHS: Truxtun to Charles Biddle, June 19, 1800, in Cooper's Extra-Illustrated History of the Navy.

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7 Quasi‑War, V, 405.

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8 Ibid., III, 329; VI, 122, 566.

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9 Ibid., VI, 521, 531.

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10 Ibid., VI, 175, 547; VII, 195.

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11 Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia, 1883), pp6, 188, 286‑87, 370.

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12 Ibid., p288.

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13 John Schuyler, Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati (New York, 1886), pp85, 97.

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14 Quasi‑War, VI, 240; HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, 1800‑1801 [Am 681], August 2, 1800.

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15 HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, August 13, 1800.

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16 Quasi‑War, VI, 321.

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17 Dumas Malone, ed., Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours, 1798‑1817 (Boston, 1930), p22.

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18 Quasi‑War, VI, 198‑200, 267‑70, 419; VII, 86‑90, especially 88.

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19 Ibid., VII, 1, 86‑89, 373.

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20 Ibid., VI, 547; VII, 1. Doctor Balfour had Bell's System of Surgery, 4 vols. See Naval Academy Museum: Truxtun to Dr. George Balfour, December 25, 1800.

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21 Quasi‑War, VI, 241, 359, 496, 516, 530‑31; VII, 106, 123; HSPa: Thomas Truxtun Letter Book, 1800‑1801, pp21, 81‑82; Truxtun to Gentlemen of the Gun Room Mess, November 12, 1800.

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22 Quasi‑War, VI, 240‑41.

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23 Ibid., VII, 1; Autobiography of Charles Biddle, p292.

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24 Quasi‑War, VII, 1.

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25 Ibid., VII, 74‑75, 77‑78, 85.

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26 Ibid., VII, 20, 90‑91, 106‑107, 109, 111.

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