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Bill Thayer

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The Old Guardo

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p7  Joining my Ship

"I soon unto my sorrow found

A difference very far

Between the dull receiving ship

And the flashy man-of‑war."

Upon my arrival at the Gosport Navy Yard, I perceived every appearance of soon exchanging the dull, uninteresting life on board the Guardo, for the more bustling and active one of a ship outward-bound; three men-of‑war lying here "all atanto," two of which had not as yet received their crews on board; so of course I had every hope of becoming an inmate of one or other of them. The first picking out was for the sloop-of‑war Warren, bound on the West India station, in which draft I was not included, and I candidly confess I was glad of the omission; for, in the first place, the station itself is the most harassing and disagreeable imaginable; you stand a chance of trying the merits of every ship and the disposition of every commander and first lieutenant in the whole squadron; for it is not an unfrequent occurrence for a poor fellow to be passed along from craft to craft, like a superfluous coil of cordage, until he at last finishes his three years' career amidst the unpleasant and never-ending drudgery of a navy-yard. I had also another reason for wishing to remain: I perceived the old Constitution lying in the river, with her neat and faultless hull, and elegant tapering spars; she certainly was an object which the criticising eye of a sailor would wish to gaze ardently upon; she is at any time a superb looking frigate, and well may the American people be proud of her; but at this particular time, she looked to me all I could require for a three years' habitation; and her destination being the Pacific Ocean, I anxiously wished that no unforeseen accident would occur to prevent me from being enrolled among her crew. The Fates decreed in my favour, I had my wish, for on the first of March one hundred and fifty of us, bag and baggage, vacated the Java, "nothing loath," and with unfeigned  p8 light hearts and smiling countenances, stepped upon the decks of "Old Ironsides".

I had not much time to moralize upon the by‑gone deeds of this fortunate and justly famed frigate that I had now taken up my abode in; for a man-of‑war preparing for a foreign cruise, is any thing but a place of idleness, and we, with scarcely one‑third of our crew on board, (for men were uncommonly scarce at the time our ship was put in commission,) found so much harassing employment from "morning's light till set of sun," that I assure you every one of us, as soon as our evening meal was concluded, eagerly took possession of our several hammocks, and "nature's soft nurse," with little wooing, soon "weighed our eye‑lids down." On the twelfth of March we hoisted the broad pennant of Commodore Alexander Claxton, and many a time since we have blessed the day and hailed the circumstance with supreme delight, that gave us such a humane, gentlemanly, and unpretending individual for a commander-in‑chief: yes, take a lesson from him in meekness, suavity of manner, as well as practical knowledge with regard to the government of a ship of war, you domineering individuals who pride yourselves on wearing two epaulets, — ask of him whether humane and tender treatment, or cruel blood-thirsty castigation, makes a crew of American seamen more expert in their tactics or attentive to their duty, or more determined and zealous, should the fortune of war bring them in contact with a foe; ask him this I say, and hear the response; and would every individual who may have the honor of commanding the squadrons of the United States on foreign stations, but follow his exemplary footsteps, our light hearted, unsophisticated tars, instead of enrolling in themselves under the banners of other nations, would rally in a multitudinous phalanx around Columbia's "stars and stripes," until death would summon them to their last muster.

During our stay at Norfolk we had little breathing time, for our frigate was fitted out so hurriedly, or so carelessly (I know not which but perhaps both) that it kept us on the constant jog — redoing work about her rigging, which had it been accomplished in the navy-yard anything near the mark, would have saved us many a  p9 cold finger in this bitter month. We received a draft from New York of sixty seamen, which I assure you was a great desideratum, and in a few days, every body working with a will, our decks were somewhat cleared of the lumber, that had lain ever since we first joined her, strewed in glorious confusion in every corner.

On the tenth of April we weighed anchor, and with a prosperous breeze, bid farewell to Cape Henry and shaped our course for New York, for the purpose of obtaining the residue of our ship's company. We carried the fair wind but a short distance, for ere twenty-four hours out the fitful appearance of the firmament augured but too plainly the rough and tempestuous weather we were about to encounter, and we were not deceived: it came on as our tars express it, "hot and heavy," though cold and heavy would at this particular time have been a more appropriate expression, for bitter cold it was in all conscience, and those of our crew (and they were many) that had but now made their debut upon Neptune's boundless territories, had more opportunities than perhaps they at all coveted, of going through the nautical evolution of reefing in all its forms; and I have no doubt but that this passage destroyed the hopes and cooled the ardour of many of our aspirants, who had enrolled themselves but a short time before under the "stars and stripes," with light hearts and buoyant spirits. Our sick-list was considerably augmented when our lads felt the chilly breath of Boreas; and many of our wide-awake old cruisers, expert at "Tom Cox's Traverse," hauled into dock with some imaginary complaint that would puzzle the experience of the famed Doctor Sangrado himself to come at the source of, and underwent cupping, bleeding and blistering with stoical indifference and a martyr's patience, rather than give up their snug billet in one corner of the sick‑bay, leaving those of more ambitious inclinations and warmer temperament, to encounter the "peltings of the pitiless storm" on the upper deck.

After a boisterous passage of thirteen days we made Sandy Hook light-house, and with the assistance of a couple of steamboats entered the harbour, and came to anchor almost abreast of the Battery; and now our old Craft was in confusion with a vengeance.  p10 Carpenters, caulkers, joiners, plumbers, painters, armourers, all rattling away pell-mell at their several jobs to expedite our departure — in fact she was in as glorious an uproar as one can well imagine, and to "cap the climax" hundreds of the beau monde were visiting the ship every hour in the day, and our unprepossessing appearance together with the turmoil naturally attending the various and multiplied duties that now devolved upon all on board, caused many a fashionable gad‑fly to turn his nose up with scorn and disappointment, and some of the "corps editorial" thought proper to show us up in the columns of their journals, because forsooth we had not in the midst of our accumulating employment, snow-white decks, glittering bright-work, and neatly flemished rigging, to please their fastidious and overweening tastes. In consequence of the scarcity of men we were necessarily obliged to make up our crew by receiving from the Hudson sixty or seventy boys; they were stationed in the several tops, where seamen ought to be, and although possessing our full compliment in number, yet believe me, there was a greater defalcation than ought to be sanctioned, in the nautical experience of at least one‑third of our ship's company. And this too when about to brave the icy perils and tempestuous violence of dreaded Cape Horn. But it behooves me to clap a stopper on my moralizing; the efficient individuals connected with the Navy Department know "what's what" better than an unlettered, unpretending fore‑top-man; but I would whisper a word in their ears — there were to my knowledge twenty or thirty able bodied seamen, who came home in the frigate United States, in New York at the time our ship wanted men, some of whom I conversed with; you will perhaps ask why they would not try the service again — the reason is obvious — the wages were too low compared with what was then giving in merchantmen; and as one of them expressed it, "he could'nt no how think of going for twelve dollars a month where he had to find his own small stores and come out in white perhaps every day in the year; when he could get eighteen, his tea and coffee, and wear what sort of clothes he pleased." There's nautical, philosophic reasoning for you. This expression of our tar, spoken in his own peculiar style,  p11 was more to the point than all the columns that have been written for years back, on the subject of seamen's wages.

In a week or two we got things pretty well to rights, and our old frigate began to look herself again. On the nineteenth of May we received on board the Hon. Powhatan Ellis, Minister to Mexico, and dropped down below Fort Diamond, awaiting an auspicious breeze to shape our course upon the broad blue expanse of the mighty ocean.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21