Short URL for this page:
Americans lost their privilege of trading with the British West Indies when they gained their independence. Undaunted, they continued to trade with the French and Spanish West Indies and sought new markets in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and the East Indies. Between 1785 and 1798 the United States did not possess a single naval vessel to protect this growing and venturesome merchant marine, whose captains stoutly defended their ships and cargoes against pirates and privateers with their own small guns. Many captains and officers had served in the Continental Navy, in the states' navies, or in privateers during the Revolutionary War and were equal to fighting their batteries. Outstanding among them was Captain Thomas Truxtun, Revolutionary privateersman, who sailed the first Philadelphia ship, the Canton, to China in 1786.
War between France and England began in 1793, increasing American foreign trade and its risk of capture by belligerent men-of‑war. The restraint usually exercised over the Barbary Corsairs by the Portuguese Navy was removed about the same time, and the capture of eleven United States merchant ships trading in the Mediterranean by these Moslem pirates moved a reluctant Congress to appropriate for six frigates — the afterwards celebrated Constitution, p12 Constellation, United States, and Congress, the ill‑fated President, and the proverbially unfortunate Chesapeake. Midshipmen had proved themselves essential during the Revolutionary War, and Congress authorized eight midshipmen for each frigate in our first national Navy; since its foundation midshipmen have formed an integral part of the officer personnel and have contributed their full share to the development of the United States Navy. The pay of midshipmen varied at that time from $13 to $19 a month, plus one ration.1 The boatswain got $20; the ship's cook received $18. Eight to sixteen midshipmen were allowed to a heavy frigate like the Constitution; two to a sloop-of‑war.
These six frigates had a profound influence upon the strategy and tactics of the United States Navy and the military character of the personnel. Joshua Humphreys, their designer, had sound ideas on naval warfare: he proposed to construct frigates "superior to any European frigate," which would never be "obliged to go into action but on their own terms" except in a calm.
To handle these frigates with their lighter spars and rigging and longer and heavier hulls required a high degree of seamanship among the officers, and strictly disciplined, alert crews. Orders must be executed smartly, but these lively frigates demanded more than blind obedience to orders from their midshipmen, who were stationed in all parts of the ship from the berth deck to the fighting top, from the forecastle to the quarter-deck. Midshipmen did not have senior officers at their elbows to tell them what p13 to do in an emergency, and they were often required to make important decisions. As soon as they learned their way about the ship they were expected to exercise their own judgment and were given the necessary authority to enforce their orders. These smart frigates set the tone of our young Navy, and in the naval atmosphere that they created our first American midshipmen were reared. Joshua Humphreys created the necessity for smart officers, for they alone could handle his frigates.
There was little sentiment in Congress or the nation for a Navy. Before the frigates were completed, the Government negotiated a humiliating treaty with the Dey of Algeria and halted their construction. President Washington urged their completion, but it was not until French privateers, encouraged by our national supineness, captured United States merchant ships in United States waters that Congress, in 1797, provided funds to finish three of the frigates. Lack of suitable spars, guns, and naval stores further delayed their construction until the spring of 1798, and our new Navy began the war against France with the converted East Indiaman Ganges, commanded by Captain Richard Dale. The British and French guns, round shot, and powder were distinctly superior to American. But the American frigates were finally finished, and then the infant United States Navy began its new career with "the most powerful and the most useful ships" of their class.
Americans along the Atlantic coast were in favor of the war with France. The Navy was the popular branch of the armed forces, and commercial and shipping interests advanced funds to the Government to finance the cost of men-of‑war. Seaport towns contributed money and ships, Essex, Massachusetts presenting the famous frigate Essex. Naval officers and privateersmen of the Revolution hastened to volunteer their services, and many entered p14 their sons as midshipmen. Younger officers of the merchant service were commissioned lieutenants. Merchant sailors heartily approved fighting the French, and entire crews for the frigates were shipped in the larger seaports within a few hours.2 Among the hastily assembled crews a few cowards appeared. Those who flinched were summarily handled. Third Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett of the Constellation, during her fight with l'Insurgente, was obliged to "put an end to a coward" with his sword. He wrote an intimate friend: "We would put a man to death for looking pale on this ship." Prompt action was necessary, for one or two cowards fleeing from their guns might create a panic among brave but only partly disciplined crews.
Benjamin F. Stoddert, appointed by President Adams as Secretary of the newly established Navy Department, recreated the Navy while carrying on a war. Secretary Stoddert was convinced that while its character was being formed the Navy "ought to be commanded by men who will be unhappy if they do not receive and merit praise, who have talents and activity as well as spirit." And he proved his theory by ordering such officers as Captain Thomas Truxtun, lately trading to China, to command the Constellation; Captain John Barry to the United States; Captain Samuel Nicholson, commander of the Trumbull in her fight with the Isis in the Revolution, to the Constitution; Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr., to the Delaware; Captain Christopher R. Perry, who took his son Oliver H. Perry as a midshipman, to the General Greene. Other distinguished captains included Samuel and James Barron, Alexander Murray, Moses Brown, and Richard Dale; John Rodgers, who began as first lieutenant with Captain Truxtun but was soon promoted to captain; and Captain p15 Thomas Tingey, brother-in‑law of Captain Truxtun, who in 1771 had been an officer in the Royal Navy. Tingey settled in the colonies prior to the Revolution, and may have served in the Continental Navy.
Four early American naval commanders
Above: John Paul Jones (from a painting by Cecilia Beaux); Thomas Truxtun. Below: Oliver Hazard Perry; David Porter. (Jones, courtesy U. S. Naval Academy Library. Truxtun, Perry, Porter, courtesy U. S. Naval Institute and U. S. Naval Academy Museum.)
The Secretary could not be as careful in choosing his lieutenants, but among them were Charles Stewart, Isaac Hull, Andrew Sterrett, and Isaac Chauncey. Richard Somers, Stephen Decatur, Jr., David Porter, and James R. Caldwell entered as midshipmen but were soon made lieutenants. The revenue cutters were taken over by the Navy, among them the Pickering, carrying fourteen guns, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Edward Preble, who, next to Thomas Truxtun, was destined to exert most influence upon the character of the American midshipmen.
Secretary Stoddert entered his son Benjamin as a midshipman; Truxtun and Perry did likewise.3
Both Captain Truxtun and John Rodgers, his first lieutenant on the Constellation, were severe disciplinarians, and the habits acquired in the merchant service sometimes led them to depend upon their physical strength to maintain discipline. David Porter, afterwards captain of the Essex, came near resigning as a midshipman on the Constellation, but later became devoted to Truxtun and Rodgers.
Commodore Truxtun was not a mere martinet. In a p16 memorial addressed to his midshipmen and circulated among many others, he admonished them to remember that "rigid discipline and good order are very different from tyranny, the one highly necessary and the other abominable and disgraceful to the character of an officer." As midshipmen commanded enlisted men at an age when they might be tempted to abuse their authority, such advice was excellent.
Truxtun specifically urged midshipmen to "Learn to rig and unrig [a ship], to hand, reef and steer, and to navigate a ship scientifically, and to perform every act of duty, belonging to the highest and lowest order of seamen and officers. Make yourselves acquainted with the construction of all sorts of vessels and the general principles of mechanics."
Whatever knowledge is necessary to an admiral, a captain, a lieutenant, or a master, is, in a high degree, Truxtun considered, essential to a midshipman. He recommended astronomy, geometry, and mechanics "as the materials which form the skilful pilot and the superior mariner. The theory of navigation is derived from the two former, and the movements of the ship upon the latter. The action of the wind upon the sails, and the resistance of the water at the stem naturally dictate an inquiry into the property of solids and fluids; and the state of a ship floating upon the water requires the study of hydrostatics and the influence of gravity. These branches will enlarge the midshipman's views on the operations of naval war, as directed by the effect of powder; and the knowledge of projectiles."
He charged midshipmen "to pay the closest attention to Naval Tactics, which you can never know properly until you know mathematics; consequently until then fighting in a line of battle and maneuvers will always appear a confused business." Before there was a 74‑gun ship of the line p17 in the United States Navy, Thomas Truxtun exhorted the brood of midshipmen to prepare themselves to fight in a line of battle.
"Learn to be seamen of the first order. Each of you calculate and prepare yourselves to be Admirals and to command the American fleet." This advice was given before the rank of admiral existed and when our little fleet consisted of about thirty frigates and smaller craft. But Truxtun and a few others of his generation had already visioned the future growth of our Navy and the greatness of our country.
In conclusion, Commodore Truxtun exhorted the ambitious midshipman, "while the dunces who are his officers or messmates, are rattling the dice, roaring bad verse hissing on the flute, or scraping discord from the fiddle, to direct his attention to more noble studies which would sweeten the hour of relaxation." He should allow "no example from Fools" to influence his conduct, or seduce him from that laudable ambition which his honor and advantage are equally concerned to pursue.
Thomas Truxtun gave our new Navy a fine start with the capture of the French frigate l'Insurgente, and followed it up with the night action with la Vengeance. He showed American midshipmen in his own person how to fight, repeating the example set for them by such captains as John Paul Jones, John Barry, Lambert Wickes, and Samuel Nicholson. Truxtun had a fine sense of honor, a fiery temper, and was quick to take offense. In 1802 he resigned command of the squadron fitting out for the Mediterranean because the Department would not allow him a flag-captain. The Navy Department construed his action as resigning from the Navy, while Captain Truxtun intended only to resign command of the squadron. Thus Truxtun passed from the service, but not before he had p18 left an indelible impress upon it and particularly upon the officers and midshipmen.4
Altogether, between 350 and 400 midshipmen served during the war with France, of whom only 159 were retained in the Peace Establishment of 1801. In the drastic weeding‑out process the Department followed the idea of Captain Thomas Truxtun, to encourage the meritorious and to rid the service of the unworthy. Thomas Truxtun inaugurated the custom of removing idle or vicious midshipmen from the Navy. This was continued by the Department in 1806 and has persisted to the present day.5
p19 It was not customary in Europe to provide half pay for midshipmen when they were unemployed, but Secretary Stoddert realized that they were the future commanders of our Navy, and at the close of the war with France he recommended that midshipmen as well as commissioned officers be allowed half pay, for they "are among the most promising young men of our country, possess all the materials to make officers equal to any in the world." To obtain half pay, unemployed midshipmen were required to spend at least four months each year "in acquiring a better knowledge of [their] profession, if not in foreign service, at least in the merchant ships of [their] own country."
The training of midshipmen begun under Commodore Truxtun in the Caribbean was carried on in the Mediterranean mainly by Commodores Preble and John Rodgers during the Barbary Wars, assisted by Stephen Decatur, Andrew Sterrett, Richard Somers, James Lawrence, Charles Stewart, Isaac Hull, and others. The senior officers learned to fight by fighting and instructed their midshipmen while they were learning themselves.
Instruction was not systematic or progressive. Before some of the midshipmen learned seamanship or navigation, they were given command of squads of sharpshooters, also armed with hand grenades, in the fighting tops; they went on cutting‑out expeditions in armed boats. Practice made them expert in hand-to‑hand fighting with pistols, pikes, sabers, p20 and tomahawks; they were exercised in boarding enemy ships and in resisting hostile boarders.
Lieutenant-Commander Sterrett in the Enterprise showed how, by skilful seamanship, a superior tactical position could be taken and held and an enemy ship disabled without loss. Decatur, Lawrence, Porter, and Somers demonstrated the method of fighting and boarding enemy gunboats. Preble showed how land fortifications could be temporarily subdued by bombardment, and in the attack on Tripoli forts and gunboats on August 3, 1803, gave midshipmen their first lesson in squadron tactics. The Constitution with her battery of 14‑pounders kept down the fire of the shore batteries; the brigs supported the gunboats, who pursued and boarded the enemy gunboats. No lesson from a textbook on naval tactics could equal the one Preble gave his midshipmen that afternoon off Tripoli. They were fighting immediately under his eye, and he quickly noted any unusually gallant action. That afternoon, lieutenants and midshipmen proved themselves definitely superior in hand-to‑hand fighting with the Tripolitan pirates. Midshipman Thomas Macdonough was present during most of the fighting in the Mediterranean. Midshipmen Oliver H. Perry was present for some. The War of 1812 proved that they had been attentive scholars.
Americans were not always successful. The attempt of the fire-ship Intrepid was a complete failure, costing the lives of Lieutenant-Commander Richard Somers and Midshipmen Henry Wadsworth and John Israel. Midshipman Israel, who was designated to carry the last-minute instructions to Somers, pleaded so eloquently to be allowed to remain that Commodore Preble permitted him to go as a supernumerary in recognition of his ardent spirit. The war in the Mediterranean was full of hard knocks, and p21 American midshipmen were taught to persevere in any undertaking, even if their first efforts failed.
When the Philadelphia was captured and her officers and men imprisoned, Captain Bainbridge ransomed the professional books and organized a school for midshipmen under the direction of his executive officer, Lieutenant David Porter. While their more fortunate colleagues were learning to fight by fighting, Midshipmen Bernard Henry, James Gibbon, B. F. Reed, James Renshaw, Wallace Wormley, Robert Gamble, James Biddle, R. R. Jones, D. T. Patterson, Simon Smith, and William Cutbrush studied the theory of navigation, seamanship, and ordnance. Their minds wandered from their books when the Constitution bombarded the forts or a gunboat fight took place beneath their prison windows, but the positive interest taken by senior officers of our infant Navy in the training and education of midshipmen is strikingly revealed in the care Preble took with their training afloat, and Bainbridge with their education behind prison walls.
Lieutenants and midshipmen alike responded to the leadership of Commodore Preble and later of Commodore John Rodgers. Captains and officers had an opportunity to compare the frigates and brigs-of‑war with the British and found them superior. A spirit of emulation and professional pride arose spontaneously in the squadron. Each day in the Mediterranean Squadron added to the knowledge, skill, and spirit of the midshipmen, who, like their captains and commodore, were ready to challenge comparison with any vessels of war afloat.
Dueling was a universal custom among the military and naval professions when our Navy was founded. It was accepted as part of the code of officers, and American midshipmen adopted the custom as they did others associated with their profession. Preble boasted that there were no p22 "duels" between American officers during his short command, but there were duels between British and American officers. And Stephen Decatur probably saved the life of Midshipman Joe Bainbridge by acting as his second in an affair with an experienced British duelist. There were numerous duels between American midshipmen before and after Preble's régime. Some duels between midshipmen occurred for trivial, a few for unworthy, reasons; most of them arose because at that time an officer was not only required to be brave, but was further required to prove his bravery on any and all occasions when it was questioned. In the first few years of our Navy, dueling among midshipmen was firmly established, and it persisted for the first half century of its history.
Our midshipmen contributed their share to the successful conclusion of the wars with France and the Barbary pirates. During these two wars, the Navy established high standards for its officers, and particularly for its midshipmen, for the captains realized that the future of the Navy lay in the hands of the entering midshipmen.
James Fenimore Cooper, who served a brief period in the Navy and who knew many of the officers personally, followed its development with a friendly but not uncritical eye, and was jealous of its honor; he wrote: "Perhaps no service, either in the way of ships or officers, ever had so large a proportion of what was excellent in it, and so small a proportion of that which was defective, as the Navy of the United States, the day peace was signed with Tripoli. A stern discipline, a high moral tone, rare models in seamanship, active warfare, and a spirit of emulation . . . had conspired to produce this end."6 Cooper may be dismissed as a biased witness; Admiral Nelson, commanding the British Mediterranean Squadron, thought the recapture and p23 burning of the Philadelphia the most daring act of the age. His Holiness, the Pope, said that the United States had done more for Christendom against the Moslems than all of Europe together.
1 A term in general use in all military services, meaning the amount of food issued daily to a soldier, sailor, or marine. A ration consists of a certain amount of meat, bread, and vegetables. Its money value was frequently commuted to officers who purchased their own food. To‑day a ration has a value of thirty to sixty cents, depending upon the cost of provisions.
2 James Fenimore Cooper, History of the Navy, Vol. I, pp270‑277.
3 Among other midshipmen of our new Navy were two Decaturs, Stephen, Jr., and James; three Biddles, Clement, James, and Edward; three Nicholsons, W. R., John B., and James; two Macdonoughs, James and Thomas; William H. Allen, James Lawrence, Stephen Cassin, John Trippe, John Downes, Edward Trenchard, John Dorsey, Henry Wadsworth, States Rutledge, Robert T. Spence, James Jarvis, Johnston Blakely, Lewis Warrington, James Renshaw, Daniel T. Patterson, William and Thomas Burrows, Robert Henley, Robert Tilghman, Joseph Israel, George Spotswood, Edward O'Brien, L. Warfield, Timothy Pickering, Ralph Izard, James and Thomas Rodgers. Captains and lieutenants showed their confidence in the future Navy by eagerly entering their sons, nephews, and cousins as midshipmen.
4 Captain Truxtun was a mathematician and navigator as well as a sailor. In August, 1794, he published a treatise on latitude and longitude and the variation of the compass, to which he added a chart of the globe tracing the routes used by him in different ships to the Cape of Good Hope, Batavia, and Canton, China, on which he encountered the most favourable winds.
In the appendix Captain Truxtun gave his views on the proper organization of our Navy. He believed that the British Navy was the first maritime power on the globe in naval tactics, discipline, and the general management of ships of war; they afforded a proper example for the United States to imitate in its infancy. The customs and manners of the United States sea service were similar to the British; therefore he was convinced that by a steady attention to their naval system we should very soon have our ships of war and marine affairs in good order, and our internal government aboard the different ships in the United States Navy similar to each other.
5 Many of the midshipmen who entered between 1794 and 1800 met the highest standard. Among them were James C. Jarvis, who went overboard with the mainmast of the Constellation rather than leave his post, and David Porter, whose seamanship and sound judgment saved the foremast of the same ship. Stephen Decatur, Jr., and Richard Somers, who were brought up by Captain Barry on the frigate United States one rung below the fourth lieutenant, Charles Stewart, soon became lieutenants. James Lawrence was thought by Mahan to be "one of the most gallant personalities in the annals of the American Navy." Midshipmen Thomas Macdonough and Oliver Hazard Perry, whose victories on Lake Champlain and Lake Erie preserved our northern frontier in the War of 1812, both entered the Navy during the war with France. Midshipman Henry Wadsworth entered on the Congress from Maine. Midshipman Benjamin Carpender of New Jersey died in service in January, 1800. Edward, Clement, and James Biddle joined from Pennsylvania; Edward died at sea soon after entering. John Trippe, from Maryland, who later showed the Tripolitans a trick or two in hand-to‑hand fighting, joined the brig Experiment. Lewis Warrington, from Virginia, joined the Chesapeake. Edward Trenchard was on the New York. John Downes was on the Constitution. From Maine to Georgia, American lads eagerly offered themselves as midshipmen in the hope of earning their commissions as lieutenants in the United States Navy.
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: 10 Nov 20