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Bill Thayer

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The Jockey Afloat

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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Lines on the Death of Commodore Claxton
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p193  The Afflicting Bereavement

"Oh! why has worth so short a date,

Whilst villains ripen gray with time;

Must then, the noble, generous, great,

Fall in bold manhood's hardy prime!"

"Well, well," cried an old weather-worn forecastle‑man, looking over the lee bow, as our gallant frigate was standing out of the Bay of Conception, "thank God we have bid adieu at last to Talcahuana;º and may curses light on it say I; I hope these eyes of mine will never behold the infernal dog‑hole again." This malediction was re‑echoed by the voices of a dozen individuals standing at his elbow; and I believe the feelings of every person on board were in perfect unison therewith; and why? Upon our first visit to that place, about twelve months before, whilst running in with a stiff-breeze for the anchorage, we lost one of our ship's company, a quiet unassuming man by the name of Anderson, who fell overboard whilst prosecuting some piece of ship's duty over the bows; and although a boat was lowered away almost instantaneously, not a vestige of the unfortunate fellow could be perceived. We again visited the ill‑fated place on the fourth of February, eighteen hundred and forty‑one; and whilst lying there, the relentless and unerring shaft of death was levelled with certain aim amongst our crew. On the night of the second of March, a young fellow belonging to the afterguard, by the name of Gibbs, whilst attempting to enter a boat moored to the steamboat swinging-boom, was precipitated into the water, and never rose again. This melancholy accident, coupled as it was in the minds of our superstitious tars, with the sudden fate of poor Anderson, some months before, caused a gloomy sensation throughout the ship; and Talcahuana was looked on with feelings of as great awe as if it were affected with some dreadful epidemic. In two days after, the chill hand of death was again laid upon another inmate of our frigate, in the person of William Leeds, quartergunner, who fell a victim to that dreadful malady, dysentery. As soon as it was spread  p194 through the ship that Leeds had departed, the most dreadful forebodings took possession of every bosom, knowing that our beloved Commodore lay stretched pallid and care-worn upon the bed of sickness; the same fearful scourge, dysentery, making fatal inroads day after day upon his portly and athletic frame.

How many were the prayers that any offered up to the dread tribunal of the Almighty by the rough sons of Ocean, in their own rude though fervent style, that the Great Disposer of Events would be pleased to let them retain amongst them Commodore Claxton, the beloved of every bosom; their friend, their benefactor, and their more than father! How many were the enquiries that were made every moment respecting the condition of the individual whose worth was now doubly appreciated, fearing they were about to lose him forever! But alas! all, all were in vain; the unsparing hand of death had singled out its victim, and no human aid could prevent the remorseless conqueror from grasping his prey. Up to the sixth of March he became gradually worse and worse; and even then, although the medical gentlemen attending him gave it as their opinion that nothing but a miracle could save him; still our hard old tars, as with blank and discomfited countenances they gathered together in silent groups upon the several decks, were buoyed up with the hope that he would soon become himself again, and would once more continue those exertions for the benefit of the much-wronged sons of Ocean, which he had been unceasingly engaged in up to the very moment of his confinement.

Our ship was now truly a place of disconsolate sadness. No rattling drum and shrill fife warned us to quarters; the firing of the morning and evening gun was discontinued; the lively strains from the instruments of our musicians, no longer broke upon the ear; the ship's bell instead of proclaiming each half hour with its accustomed reverberating clang, sent forth in its muffled state a chilling, death-like sound; in a word, the whole aspect of things on board our heretofore lively frigate, had undergone a complete change; and at one glance a stranger could tell, that something of the most serious moment had occurred to affect so severely, and prey so deeply on the  p195 minds of a whole ship's company. The first streak of light in the eastern horizon that ushered in the seventh of March, beheld the inmates of the war‑worn frigate, "Old Ironsides", more sad and disconsolate than the day previous; their Commodore was fast reaching that "bourne from whence no traveller returns;" and young and old, from the rough hoary mariner whose furrowed cheek had been fanned by the ocean's breeze for some fifty or sixty winters, down to the juvenile apprentice, as yet but a novice upon Neptune's boundless highway, forcibly proclaimed, by the solemn and downcast appearance of their countenances, that a revered and treasured object, which they wished to retain, was about to be snatched from them.

As soon as the decks had been swabbed up dry, a more than ordinary crowd assembled around the pantry, watching with eager eye the countenances of every person that entered or returned from the cabin; and to the oft‑repeated inquiry of "how is the Commodore?" a melancholy shake of the head was all that was returned. Further forward towards the galley, another group was assembled, listening with mute attention to some old Triton, who with moistened eye repeated some oft‑told anecdotes of Commodore Claxton, whom he had served under in his youth; and which proved that during the naval career of that illustrious and exemplary officer, the welfare of the hardy sailor was the desired object of his heart, and the beacon he never for one moment lost sight of.

"Well Sam!" cried an old forecastle‑man, addressing himself to one of the Curricle's crew, who, with a troubled look and watery eye, at that moment joined the little group assembled around the confines of the galley — "What news from the cabin? are there any hopes?" "I'm afraid," returned the man addressed, with a shake of the head and a deep-drawn sigh, which spoke volumes; " 'tis a clew up and a furl with the old man; believe me, he's at the last ebb; had he the constitution of a giant, he could'nt hold out much longer; you have no idea shipmates, what that infernal disease is, when it once gets a severe grip on a person." "My eyes!" chimed in Bill Garnet, "who would have thought ten days ago, to behold his fine,  p196 handsome, commanding figure, as he stood on the forward gun-slide on the quarter-deck, smiling at the lads skylarking in the gangways, that he'd be at this time on his death‑bed; but damme, lads," continued the kind-hearted tar, a tear starting in each eye as he spoke; "I can't believe he's going to slip his cable yet, for all they say he's so bad." "I wish, Bill!" remarked Binnacle the quartermaster, "it was as you say, but I'm afraid Uncle Sam's Navy will soon lose a distinguished and valuable officer, and poor Jack, the best and most unshrinking friend he has ever had since the death of Commodore Decatur." "Have you sailed with him before?" enquired one of the crowd, addressing the quartermaster. "I have indeed," returned Binnacle; "and the man that once sailed under him, will remember it the longest day he lives, if he went in fifty ships afterwards; for such officers are not to be found with two epaulets, in every craft, these days. I was with him ten or eleven years ago, on the West India station, in the poor little Hornet, that since became the coffin of so many American tars; and afterwards, I had the pleasure of sailing under him in the Natchez, on the Brazils; and he was then the same upright, kind, affectionate commander, that he has proved to us this cruise." "If it pleases God to take him from amongst us," cried old Bowser in a solemn tone, "every man and boy on board will feel his loss severely the remainder of the cruise; I wish to start for home then as quick as possible, for to my thinking the Constitution will be an altered ship." "You're mistaken there old man," rejoined Binnacle, "you do our captain injustice, if they for one moment the ship will be altered for the worse; I'm sure we've all sailed long enough with him to know him by this time; believe me he is one of the Commodore's most zealous assistants in every thing tending to better our condition; Captain T––––– is a sailor himself, not one of your milk sops, but a rough-spun, thorough salt-water sailor; and if he does not keep the ball rolling that our excellent Commodore has put in motion, I'm much mistaken in the man;​a but," he continued, glancing his eye aft, as a crowd was observed gathering under the half-deck — "I'm afraid the game is up, there appears to be considerable of a muss around  p197 the cabin door; I'm afraid, shipmates, our best friend has left us." The quartermaster's conjectures were but too true, for during the above colloquy, and whilst the boatswain and his mates were holding themselves in readiness to pipe to breakfast, Commodore Alexander Claxton resigned his spirit into the hands of his Maker.

Let it not be deemed hyperbole, when I say, that the news of his death came with the astonishing effect of a thunder-clap amongst the ship's company, for though they were well aware that his malady was of the worst kind, and they had seen several of their shipmates consigned to the grave by the effects of the same fell-disease, still they put the flattering unction to their soul — glimmering hope, bade them look forward to the time when he would again appear amongst them as he was wont, in the full enjoyment of health and activity; but now that they were doubly certain, their cheering anticipations had become so fearfully frustrated, that their heart's idol was thus snatched from before their eyes, their leading star had thus forever set; grief, sincere, forcible, unalloyed grief, such as seldom affects the hardy sailor, took possession of every bosom. Silent and sorrow­ful passed that breakfast hour. Never, I believe, since the star-specked flag of Columbia first waved over an armed ship, were the inmates of a National vessel so deeply affected at the loss of their commander, as in the present instance. There was no childish whimpering — no violent outpourings of grief amongst our hardy crew; but each down-cast countenance, each melancholy visage, each sad and silent movement, told but too forcibly how closely the individual just departed, had entwined himself around the hearts of his ship's company. In the course of the forenoon, the remains of the illustrious deceased were tastefully laid out in the main-deck cabin, and as soon as it was intimated to the men that they were at liberty to take a last view of their departed benefactor, young and old, with one simultaneous movement, were urging their way to the half-deck; two or three messes were permitted to enter together; — and here was a scene that could not fail to affect the most callous and adamantine bosom, to behold the uncouth, reckless  p198 son of Neptune, who, perhaps, during his wanderings on the mighty deep, had beheld with unblanched check and unmoved countenance, Death hovering around him, in all its most fearful and terrific shapes; and now, as he gave a "longing, lingering gaze" upon the cold, stiff corpse of him, whom he knew to be his unalterable and unshrinking friend, and for whose recovery his humble, though ardent prayers had been offered up unceasingly; his hard, rough nature became softened, and tears streamed down the furrows of many a cheek, that had perhaps never before been watered by such drops of affection. Turn your eyes to this scene, officers of Columbia's Navy; place your hands upon your hearts, and ask yourselves, whether your conduct, to the hardy class of men under your command, when braving with you the perils of the unfathomable deep, would call forth a like tribute of warm and disinterested respect to your memories, should the dread fiat of the Almighty snatch you from amongst them. Oh man! proud, haughty man! "dressed in a little brief authority;" how erroneous are thy conceptions of what constitutes true greatness. Would not your spirit, I would ask, feel more supreme delight, as it took its departure from its frail tenement of clay, to think that the tears of five hundred of your humble followers would bedew the sod that covers you, than that of the cruel, abject, domineering wretch, who was conscious of deserving nought, but the bitter maledictions of the thousands he had in his lifetime fearfully injured!

Preparations were immediately entered into for conveying the remains of our late commander-in‑chief to Valparaiso; knowing we could inter him at that place in a style more suited to his rank than at Talcahuana; and on the morning subsequent to his death (the inanimate clay having been previously enclosed in a compact, hardwood coffin, lined with lead) we stood out the Bay of Conception, and moved smoothly and silently along with our melancholy burden. To show how unalloyed and sincere was the affection that each and every one on board bore for the deceased, the evening prior to our departure from Talcahuana, a letter was sent to Captain T–––––, containing the simultaneous request of the whole ship's company,  p199  that he would use his influence at the Navy Department, to endeavour to gain their sanction towards having the remains of their beloved commodore conveyed to the shores of America, in the same time-honoured craft that fluttered his pennant whilst living; which Captain T–––––, with his usual frankness agreed to forward. Upon the evening of our departure, the all‑engrossing topic in every group was the resplendent virtues of the individual that had been thus so suddenly snatched from amongst us, and every tongue had some little incident to relate of his good nature and affability. "Do you think we'll have the pleasure of taking the commodore's body home in our old frigate?" enquired a maintop‑man of Binnacle, the quartermaster; who, by a crowd in the starboard gangway, was descanting with the greatest fervour upon the character of the illustrious deceased. "I don't know how that will be, Ben," returned the quartermaster; "they may not have him removed for two or three years to come, perhaps — but if the folks at Washington only knew how anxious we all are to pay even this little tribute to his memory, I don't think they'd refuse our request."​b1 "Well, he's worthy of it, if ever an officer was," remarked Flukes — "I'm sure, not only our ship's company, but every sailor in the American Navy, has lost a good main-stay when he slipped his cable." "You may well say that, Flukes," rejoined Binnacle, "I know him perfectly; was'nt I with him as far back as eighteen hundred and twelve, in the little Wasp, when we took the Frolic; and in that same action, though he was on the sick list, low enough too, I tell you, in spite of all the captain or doctor could say to the contrary, he fought his division — aye, and fought it in a way that showed there was no white feather in him. Why, mates, to prove his good nature, look at that liberty scrape at Talcahuana last year, when so many of our chaps, a little hard up, shoved their jackets and trowsers up the spout for a mere trifle; did'nt he himself, with one or two of his boat's crew, board every shanty and pulpería in the infernal place, and make them poney up all the clothes they had in pawn, and brought them off in his own gig. I've sailed with many a commodore, but never seen one of them do anything that could touch that, yet."

 p200  On the eleventh — sad and disconsolate was the appearance the gallant and far‑famed frigate Constitution presented, with her flags hanging listlessly at half-mast, as she dropped anchor in the harbour of Valparaiso; a boat had been sent in the previous evening, mentioning the melancholy object of our present visit; and as we drew up to our berth, we had the pleasing gratification of beholding every man-of‑war and merchantman, of five or six different nations, with their banners suspended at half-mast, as a tribute of respect. The news of Commodore Claxton's death, at Valparaiso, was as an electric shock; they could not for one moment believe, that the roseate, healthy individual, who but a few short days before was participating in their activities, the gayest of the gay, and whose affability and courteousness had the effect of winning upon the hearts of all those with whom he chanced to commingle, was now lying a cold, stiffened corpse, a lump of inanimate clay; his once vigorous limbs palsied by the cruel hand of Death; — but such is the mutability of every thing human; for life is but

"A tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

In accordance with the customary regulation of the place, at once superstitious and ungenerous, which prohibits the dead body of any person, how exalted soever his rank, from being paraded through the streets after sunrise, we were constrained to send the remains of Commodore Claxton on shore to the dead-house at day‑break on the morning of the twelfth; but still this observance of their frivolous custom did not debar us from paying him, ere he was consigned to his mother earth, all the respect his high station and exemplary virtue so well entitled him to. At eleven o'clock, our boats, containing the officers, musicians, the entire marine-guard, and about two hundred and fifty of our hardy tars and apprentice boys, neatly and uniformly dressed in blue jackets, tarpaulin hats, and snow-white frocks and trowsers, left the ship's side; and following each other in graceful rotation, they pursued their solemn and almost noiseless course towards the shore, impelled by the slow and measured minute- p201 stroke. Upon the mole they were met by a numerous assemblage of the élite of Valparaiso, together with the officers from the British frigate President, the French frigate Thetis, the Danish frigate Bellona, the Chilian frigate Chilia, and the French sloop-of‑war Camille, as well as the masters, supercargoes, &c., of every vessel in port, and a detachment of Royal marines; and as the first minute‑gun from our ponderous thirty‑two pounders boomed over the waters and reverberated amongst the distant hills, the soul-thrilling anthem of the Dead March in Saul, from the instruments of our musicians, arose upon the balmy breeze; and the procession began its silent march towards the sanctuary of mortality, in the following order: — First, came out the band dressed in their plain, neat uniform — the sombre drapery of death pendent from each instrument; followed by our marine-guard, whose firm measured tread, erect stature, and glittering appendages, formed a sight truly martial; — the Chaplain of Her Majesty's ship President followed next in order; after whom, eight American Naval Officers as pall-bearers; next, dressed in suits of deep mourning, came the body servants of the deceased — their downcast countenances proclaiming how severely they felt this sudden and unexpected bereavement; foreign Consuls and foreign Naval Captains followed next; after whom, Rear Admiral Ross, accompanied by the French and Chilian Commodores; and now came Captain T–––––, our respected commander, accompanied by the United States Consul, as chief mourners; and his moistened eye and sorrow­ful visage, told but too plainly how sincere was his affection, and how deep-rooted was the grief he felt for the individual he was now paying the last tribute of respect to. Next in order came foreign and United States Naval Officers —- two and two — according to rank; followed by some hundreds of merchants, merchant captains, and citizens dressed in deep mourning; immediately after, the most interesting part of the procession, came the United States apprentice boys — two and two — dressed in their neat naval uniform, and moving with the most perfect order and decorum; they were followed by about two hundred of the petty officers and seamen belonging to the Constitution; who, from their  p202 quiet, orderly, and solemn deportment during the obsequies, reflected credit upon themselves as well as upon the ship that was manned by such a specimen of the Yankee sailor. Bringing up the rear, and closing this mournful train, came a detachment of the Royal marines from His Majesty's ship President, with arms reversed — their bright scarlet coats and glittering accoutrements, forming an elegant contrast to the short blue jacket, lined frock, and flowing trowsers of our tars. In the order I have endeavoured, but feebly, to describe, did they bend their slow and melancholy steps up the winding declivity, at the summit of which was located the small though neatly laid‑out burial place; wherein many a gallant son of Neptune lay mouldering into dust, far, far, from the shores of happy Columbia or merry England. The narrow path, together with every pinnacle of rock, or dizzy precipice, as well as the windows and verandas of the houses adjacent, were literally swarmed with individuals of every age and sex, for their eyes were never before greeted with such an imposing spectacle; — and to view the solemn train wending its way along the circuitous and craggy road, whilst the plaintive and soul-touching strains of the Dead March from the instruments of the musicians, and the death-like sound of the muffled drum, were borne upon the pinions of the breeze, ever and anon accompanied by the booming sound of the minute gun; it was indeed a scene long, long to be remembered. At length we reached the sanctuary of the dead, and the capacious coffin containing all that was now left of the once humane and indulgent officer, sincere and devout Christian, generous and upright man, was borne from the dead-house by ten of our ship's company, and laid upon the brink of the yawning and insatiate cavity that was soon to swallow it from our sight forever. A death-like stillness prevailed; not a whisper was heard from the surrounding crowd; — every eye was bent in the direction of the grave — every ear was inclined to catch each word that fell from the lips of the devout minister; who, in an audible and harmonious voice, read the burial service. — Here was a scene worthy of contemplation; to behold the Naval officers of four different nations, throwing aside every feeling of ancient malignity, religious  p203 enthusiasm, or political prejudice, coming forward simultaneously — their bosoms in perfect unison with the mournful occasion — to pay the last sad tribute of respect to a brother-sailor in a far foreign land. The funeral service ended, and the coffin lowered into its dark, narrow resting-place;​b2 it was gratifying in the extreme, as our marine-guard discharged the three customary volleys over the grave, to behold the detachment of Royal marines from the British frigate President, form into line and pay our deceased commander-in‑chief a like farewell tribute; the circumstance made a deep impression upon the minds of our men; and it spoke loudly for the kind-heartedness and generosity of Rear Admiral Ross, and showed plainly that his friendship for the deceased during their short intimacy, had become strongly cemented.

The mournful train now retraced their steps towards the mole, in the same quiet, orderly manner; and as our tars vacated the burial place and cast a long, last, lingering look upon the silent grave that held in its cold damp embrace their revered commander-in‑chief, many an humble prayer was breathed forth from the lips of those hard, reckless sons of Ocean, for his future happiness, as pure and holy in their import as any that ever ascended to the throne of the Most High. As the boats shoved off from the mole to return to our bereaved frigate, the reverberating sound of the minute-guns, fired from every vessel of war in port, added another link to the chain of gratitude that already so closely bound us to our foreign naval friends. As the boats reached the ship's side an alteration was perceptible to the quick detecting eye of the sailor as he glanced aloft — there fluttered the coach-whip where the broad blue pennant was wont to expand to the breeze, and which every eye daily gazed on with feelings of delight. On the twelfth of March, eighteen hundred and thirty-nine, in the harbour of Norfolk, it first gladdened our sight; and on the twelfth of March, eighteen hundred forty‑one, in the harbour of Valparaiso, it disappeared from its towering height. On the seventh of March, eighteen hundred and thirty-nine, our regretted commodore first presented his smiling countenance upon the decks of "Old Ironsides," and on the seventh of March, eighteen  p204 hundred and forty‑one, his spirit winged its flight to the mansions of immortality.

Such is a slight, feeble outline of the death and obsequies of Commodore Alexander Claxton; an individual who possessed every qualification of an officer, every attribute of a Christian, every tenderness of a parent, and every feeling of a man. Peace, peace to his ashes; — may the green turf press lightly on his bosom; — long, long will his exertions for the weal of the hardy sons of Ocean, be held in remembrance by that grateful class; long, long will the inmates of the Frigate Constitution treasure up in their memories his watchfulness over their interests and attention to their comforts; his exemplary virtues will be the theme of the rough, untutored sons of Neptune, upon the forecastle or in the gangway, for years to come.

"And the tear that is shed, though in silence it rolls,

Shall long keep his memory green in our souls."

Thayer's Notes:

a Bowser knew more than our author tells us, and Binnacle is clearly using his moral authority as a senior crew member to calm the waters for the good of the ship. During the course of the cruise, Captain Daniel Turner and Commodore Claxton, who had once been friends, grew so estranged as to be barely on speaking terms, ultimately exchanging written threats: the details are given by R. E. Johnson, Thence Round Cape Horn, pp54‑56.

[decorative delimiter]

b1 b2 According to the Army and Navy Chronicle, new series, II.18 (November 2, 1843) — as excerpted at The Captain's Clerk — Commodore Claxton's body was brought back to the United States and reburied in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, on Oct. 30, 1843; his tombstone there can be seen at Find-a‑Grave.

By way of confirmation I find a notice on page 2 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of November 3, 1843 reading:

The Remains of the late Com. Claxton were buried on Monday [October 30], in the Government Cemetery, Baltimore, with solemn public ceremony, attended by civil, military and naval officers. Com. Claxton died at Talcahuana, March 7th, 1841, after an illness of a few days. In the last war Com. Claxton, then a midshipman, served with characteristic bravery. He was on board the Wasp in the severe conflict which resulted in the capture of the Frolic, and although on the sick list, no remonstrances could prevent him from serving in the fight. His kindness of heart and the generous spirit infused into his manner as Commander, gave him a strong hold upon the affections of the sailor.

The Constitution was not to be the ship that repatriated the Commodore's remains: she returned to Hampton Roads from the Pacific Station and Brazil on October 31, 1841 (p288) and was attached to the Home Squadron, based in Norfolk, until late 1843. It was to the sloop of war Dale, Commander Thomas A. Dornin, that the honor fell: she took on board Commodore Claxton's remains in July 1843, and reached Philadelphia on October 19 or 20 (sources for this date differ slightly, the best presumably being the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy [1843], p484).

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21