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Bill Thayer

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The Rowing Match

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

by
a Fore‑top-man


published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York
1927

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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Preparations for Home
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p235  Fourth of July in a Yankee Frigate

"Can we forget we're branches of that stock

Which stood so nobly every fearful shock;

No! distant though far, our hearts are still the same,

Our bosoms burn with patriotic flame."

Where is the American, possessing one spark of patriotism, one ray of feeling, even though immured by towering pinnacles of ice in the frigid regions of the North, or languishing beneath the scorching influence of an African sun, whose bosom does not throb with transport, and whose imagination does not lead him back to the scenes of his childhood, upon the Anniversary day of his country's Independence! Well might the people of America be proud, doubly proud of this day; well might they devote it to festivity and rejoicing, since it is the epoch from which they may date all the incalculable blessings the Divine Ruler has so liberally showered upon their beloved country, and which causes her at present to be pointed at with the finger of envy by rival nations, seeing her towering head raised to such a proud pre‑eminence. Thanks to the Great Disposer of events, we have seen our day of Independence three times return, on board the gallant "Old Ironsides;" the first we lay in Havana, the other two in the placid Bay of Callao. During the lifetime of our excellent and exemplary commodore, he made it a rule, and invariably acted up to it, of distributing among the ship's company an extra allowance of grog upon those days dear to the sons of freedom; but in consequence of a little shindy which took place in Talcahuana,º at the serving out of the liquor upon one birth‑day of the immortal Washington, some of our half-crazy, devil‑may-care fellows, taking possession in a manner of the grog‑tub and all, our lads thought upon the approach of the Fourth of July, that Captain T––––– would take that scrape into consideration, and veto the extra tot altogether; but they were most agreeably disappointed, for with his usual patriotism and liberality in affairs touching his country's festivities, he extended  p236 to them the means of making merry in a manner perfectly to the satisfaction of the greatest whiskey-bibber on board.

A few evenings previous to the festal day which furnishes a topic for the present Sketch, one of our forward officers, (by-the‑by, I beg pardon, warrant officers I imagine is the term, but I follow the fashion, and the former designation is I believe most commonly used, at least on board ship) — well then, one of our forward officers. — Now reader, don't misconstrue me, there are four of those personages on board a frigate, which of them was it? For your information I will inform you that it was not our worthy and efficient boatswain, for he is too much of the sailor, and consequently his heart teems too profusely with their characteristic feelings of off‑handedness and liberality, to do anything "under the rose." It was not our gunner, for he crept through the hawse-holes to the station he now fills with so much credit to himself, and satisfaction to those above him, and of course has too much the principle of a man to commit himself in a manner which would give his shipmates a chance to point the finger of ridicule at him. It was not our sailmaker, for he possesses the fine feelings of the gentleman, aye, to a greater extent than many who frown down on him from their little elevated stations, and certainly would not degrade himself in the enemies of five hundred men, by doing on the sly what he never had dissimulation enough in him to cloak in public. Who was it then? Reader, you are perhaps a Yankee and good at conjecturing — guess! Well, this personage being no doubt a rank republican, was engaged in some evenings previous to the glorious Fourth, on board an English vessel with one or two of his gang, and he thought to himself as the rules of the ship would not admit of his bringing any quantity of ardent spirits on board boldly, that he would in the present instance smuggle a little of that article to regale himself with upon the approaching festival, and accordingly a demijohn of good, prime Holland gin was procured, stowed away snugly and stealthily in the boat, and he wended his way for the ship. Upon arriving alongside, and very apropos too, the larboard side, he took his dear demijohn and shoved it through the air‑port leading into his room, thinking it perfectly safe there, until he'd put  p237 his eager hands upon it from the interior; but alas! how fleeting the object of our hopes and expectations; truly sayeth the old adage,

"There's many a slip

'Twixt the cup and the lip."

and our forward officer found this verified to the letter; he sprung up the ship's side with an agility which his limbs for many a month before had been a stranger to, and the words "returned on board, sir" addressed to the officer of the deck, had scarcely passed his lips ere he was descending the ladder leading to the berth-deck; in another second the key was in the lock — the door opens — he rushes in and clasps in a loving grasp — what? alas! a shadow — empty space was all that remained where he so anxiously anticipated to find his beloved blue-ruin. To picture forth his astonishment or describe his chagrin, alas! is beyond my humble efforts; none but an anti-temperance customer, who has by some unforeseen occurrence been deprived of the only three cents he had been husbanding over night to pay for his bitters in the morning, can form an adequate idea of his disappointment; he knew it was lost — irrecoverably lost; for amongst five hundred sailors, the most temperate of whom would consider a gallon of prime gin a wind-fall, how could he possibly expect to recover it.

This affair with all the circumstances attending it was soon spread amongst the ship's company, and they gave the purloiner due credit for playing his part so slick and dexterously; but who was the thief? — aye! that was the query towards the elucidation of which no person would drop the slightest hint. Now we had on board a whole-souled light-hearted lad, whom we shipped on the coast, called Jack Oakum, though better known amongst the crew by the sobriquet of Lord John; he was a caulker, and a better one never smeared his fingers with pitch, paying a seam; now, Lord John was, generally speaking, a sober man on board ship, that is, I mean he did'nt, like many, keep half muddled a month on a stretch, incapable of attending to his duty; no! no! John was more systematic in his orgies; he'd take perhaps a spree to himself once a month, or when a ready money  p238 job on board of some merchant vessel would come in the way and furnish him with the needful; but when he did flare up (his own peculiar term for an amiable drunk,) all hands were quickly aware of the fact, for his vocal powers were then brought into full force; and if all three decks would not on those occasions reverberate to his transcendently sonorous music, I wonder at it. Upon the evening the demijohn was so dexterously taken, Lord John was observed to be completely elevated; but whether from the effects of pure Holland, or common rot‑gut, was not exactly known; suffice it, he had been imbibing something stronger than water, for he was gloriously intoxicated; in the course of the night he trolled forth his favourite songs with such an alarming loudness, as to attract the attention of the officer who had charge of the deck, and he put him in "durance vile;" which irritated poor Oakum's feelings so severely that he let the murder out, by dropping a few hints which led all to suppose he had been a participator in the contents of the lost demijohn.

He was kept in confinement with two or three others who had been incarcerated for the same crime, intoxication, until the morning of the Fourth, when in accordance with a rule Captain T––––– adopted the first of the cruise, and which he never broke through, they were let off, scot-free, in honour of the day; but Lord John was put down by the owner of the gin as the person who had deprived him of it, being convinced he had observed him pushing it through the air‑port; and though the vessel that contained this precious liquid was left at the door of his room the next morning, (empty, of course, as it could possibly be,) still he never forgave him for what he termed his bare-faced assurance.

It is a general practice on board an armed ship when lying in port, upon the approach of any great festival, to endeavour to raise a purchase towards procuring a quantity of liquor; and accordingly the smugglers are on the qui vive, and leave no stone unturned to cheat the master-at‑arms; for they well know at a time like this the dear stuff can command almost any price. On the night of the third, an enterprising cholo, upon of the ropes, came under our bows in the mid‑watch with a glorious load; but the sharp and watchful eye of the  p239 officer of the deck twigged his moves, it being bright moonlight, and the reception the poor devil received was a striking proof of the said officer's approbation, from a missile in the shape of a thirty‑two pound shot which was cast into his frail boat, and had the desired effect, viz. that of staving her so completely, that with difficulty he kept afloat till he reached the French frigate Thetis, thus in a moment spoiling his Fourth of July speculation; many a countenance this news caused to look glum the next morning, for more than one were lying back to ease him of his precious freight.

I have no doubt but what the majority of my readers have witnessed the orgies upon a Fourth of July in some of our large and populous cities; they have beheld perhaps the bacchanalian revelry, the broken-heads, the black-eyes, the bloody-noses this festival produces amongst those patriotic souls, who swallow too many draughts to the success and continuance of American Independence; but the most vivid description that ever came under the observation, through the columns of a daily paper, would fall short of the scenes that were enacted upon all three decks of the old Constitution, amongst four or five hundred true sons of Ocean, when their extra whiskey began to operate. A plan that had never been acted upon before was adopted on this occasion, viz. that of serving their extra to them in messes, pure and unadulterated as it came from the spirit-room, and ere two bells had struck, its effects were visible in every corner. Where to begin with the description I scarcely know, for galley-cooks, ship's barbers, shoemakers and tailors, quarter-gunners and quartermasters, officers, servants and loblolly-boys, young apprentices and hoary-headed salts were staggering about delightfully intoxicated, forming a scene of glorious confusion. On the lower deck just in the wake of the galley a couple of darkies might be seen, (the delicacies they had been previously cooking for the young gentlemen's dinner, in the interval looking out for themselves,) endeavouring to settle some little point of etiquette in a pugilistic encounter; but each of them receiving more kicks and cuffs from the intoxicated crowd than they at all bargained for, or in any way coveted. Further along was a fellow, Dutch as sour- p240 crout, singing out with stentorian lungs that "he shall be a Jankey, aye! as good a one as anyting dat wore a yacket;" whilst a true son of the sod at his elbow, showered blessings upon the still that manufactured such delicious nectar, and drawled forth with an arch brogue a verse of the "Star Spangled Banner." Many who had never been known the previous part of the cruise to be under the effects of liquor, and who had in consequence thereof gained a character for sobriety and rectitude, were upon this occasion observed to be the drunkest of the drunk, and by their wild and foolish antics, cancelled the good opinion they had for so many months before been endeavouring to gain; many were the little quarrels, long sent to the "tomb of the capulets," that were this day renewed; many were the debts of long-standing which the discipline of the ship would not admit of bringing to a settlement before, that were on this particular evening paid with compound interest; many were the eyes that were blacked, the ribs that were pummelled, the faces that were scarified by the sharp knuckles of some two‑fisted customer; and all the effects of this Fourth of July extra tot. Our intermeddling friends, Garnet and Flukes, were on the alert, as they themselves observed, "twigging the moves" at one moment on the spar-deck, urging a couple of braggadocios to the conflict, who showed their courage by waging a war of words in the true Billingsgate style; and, who thought with the portly Sir John Falstaff, that "discretion was the better part of valor;" and the next, they might be seen round the confines of the galley, cheering up a couple of ebony disciples of the range, who in the true Mendoza style, were squaring for each other at an awful distance apart, their countenances betokening that they would much rather not come in contact.

"Ah! Garnet," hiccoughed forth old Tubbs, the broken-down whaleman, as him and a bevy of intoxicated sons of liberty, seated on mess-chests, listening to one of the party attempting a song, perceived our foretop‑man passing in their vicinity, "come here, and join our little party; they done the thing genteel to‑day, and no mistake; — this is what I calls the riglar fruits of liberty, and the man that would'nt offer up a prayer to have this day return as often as  p241 possible, I say he's nobody; — he does'nt love his country. I'm a republican, myself, every inch, and will drink all I can catch in times like this; ain't I right, Bill?" "Aye, that you are," returned Garnet, with a smile, "you enter into the spirit of it, at all events." "Yes, and I'll stand to what I say," continued the patriotic Tubbs, rising from his seat at the moment; but his legs refused to do their office — he pitched head-foremastº on the deck, and was heard from no more until next morning. "Dis is de day dat makes de chord ob my bosom trob wid transport," broke forth Swampweed, one of the "coloured gemmen" at the galley, staggering along, a huge spoon in one hand, and the grease oozing from his ebony countenance and running down his cheeks in streams, "dis is de time," he continued, cutting sundry flourishes with the culinary instrument which he held in his hand, "dis is de time dat makes me glory in the de name ob Yankee, dis is de day dat tried men's souls!" "Yes," chimed in Flukes, who was standing by, "and if you don't keep an eye to the steerage grub you have got burning up on the fire there, you'll find 'twill be a day that will try your body as well as the soul; for believe me, they'll get you a quilling when they find their dinner spoiled." "Never mind dat," continued our sable cook, "de wittles for de young gentlemen may be a little behind hand on dis particular occasion, but dey will find eberyting according to Gunter; and I believe it takes dis here child to know a ting or two in the cooking wocation, from a broiled mackerel to a French fricassee;" and so saying he staggered away to attend to his sauce-pans and frying-pans again.

In such style as the above did our Fourth of July pass away; our lads pursuing their bacchanalian orgies until ten or twelve o'clock at night; and the next morning many a visit was paid to the barber's looking-glasses by some of the fighting characters, to see what quantity of black-eyes and deep-gashes they could lay claim to, gained the day previous in a cause so truly patriotic. Believe me, sore heads were plenty; and the fellow who was on the grog list chuckled with delight to think he had his little tot of whiskey and water to steady his nerves, which were completely disordered by the  p242 previous night's debauch; whilst on the contrary the temperate individual, who had his liquor stopped through savings' sake, as he perceived his more fortunate messmates smack their lips with true relish as they retreated from the grog‑tub, after imbibing their beloved beverage, cursed inwardly the barrier that deprived them of indulging in the like luxury. As the Fourth chanced to be the Sabbath, on the next evening the "corps dramatique," with their usual promptitude and good nature, came forward and performed the beautiful tragedy of Pizarro, with the afterpiece of "Man-of‑war's‑men Adrift, or Old Ironsides Paid Off." As the curtain rose, to a slow and solemn measure, a hearty round of applause was elicited from the audience upon perceiving a monument in the back ground, bearing upon it the memorable date 1776, supported on each side by two of our apprentice boys, splendidly dressed in the costume of American Aboriginals, holding in their hands two small national flags; and as the loud clapping ceased, our fore‑top poet (his name failing him on no occasion) stepped to the front in a neat sailor's dress, and delivered the following lines:

"Hark! hark! what acclamations rend the skies,

Bright beams of gladness flash from beauty's eyes;

Upon the breeze the deaf'ning cannons roar

And joy extends along Columbia's shore;

The hoary-headed, antiquated sire,

His eye lit up with patriotic fire,

Smiles with delight, as he recounts aloud

The scenes of yore, of which he's doubly proud —

When, joined with some hardy, enterprising band

He drove the rash‑led minions from that land

Which he had sworn with fierceness to defend

Till victory would glorious freedom send.

The young aspirant for his father's fame

Catches a spark from the undying flame —

Hears mentioned with enthusiastic zest

Those names so dear to each Columbian's breast,

And plights his faith that through both good or ill

His heart will throb but for his country still.

Aye! e'en on childhood's smiling, roseate face,

Some buds of patriotism you may trace

 p243 

As they upraise their feeble, tiny voice

And prattle forth the inspiring word rejoice;

All, all, the young, the old, both high and low,

With thankfulness their bosoms overflow

That the Supreme One whose kind, fostering hand

Has so enriched our fruitful, happy land,

And in a rapturous strain their voices raise —

A free-born people echo loud their praise,

And hail with beating hearts, with spirits gay,

The glorious Fourth, our nation's festal day.

Oh! spirit of great Washington, could you

From your exalted seat look down and view

The tens of thousands on Columbia's shore

Who on this natal day their voices pour

In lauding that boon to each Columbian dear,

That boon which every freeman should revere;

You'd smile to find them freest of the free,

To find your sapling now a thriving tree;

Your face would glow to find that they had not

Fouled their escutcheon by one single blot. —

Although a waste of waters intervene

Shall we not join in this festal scene?

Shall we forget, although the billows' foam

Part us awhile from our loved, happy home,

That we are branches of that parent stock

Which stood so nobly every fearful shock?

Can we forget the days that now are sped

When our forefathers for that country bled —

That country whose bright flag flits at our mast

Ready to brave the battle and the blast;

Those brilliant stars fixed in their azure field

Which 'Ironsides' was never known to yield?

No! distant though far, our hearts are still the same,

Our bosoms burn with patriotic flame;

And as Columbians, wanderers on the sea,

Sons of that land the freest of the free,

Our ponderous, deaf'ning guns proclaim aloud

That of this festal day we're truly proud.

Soon, soon our ship will leave in distant view

The beauteous scenes of Chili and Peru,

When you may hear full many a plaintive wail,

As they perceive our frigate under sail;

Some bright eyed girl may then lament in vain

The departure of her loved and loving swain;

 p244 

Some true, unshrinking friend may then deplore,

Him who 'oft set the table in a roar;'

And e'en poor Jack, whilst on the giddy mast,

As he one lingering look will shoreward cast,

May see some fond embrowned one standing nigh

With heaving bosom, and with tearful eye;

To which his rugged nature will respond,

And bless her heart, he thinks and knows is fond.

Full soon our 'bonnie bark' with bellying sails,

Will onward plough to face Cape Horn's chill gales;

But not one heart will quail 'neath all its roar;

We know the ship, we've tried her worth before.

And may kind Heaven, as tow'rd our home we sweep,

Guide us in safety o'er the troubled deep;

And when the glorious sight shall glad our eyes,

To see our country from the waters rise,

May we behold her as she ought to be —

Land of the happy, prosperous, and free.

At the conclusion of the tragedy, (which went off in such style as to reflect credit upon all the performers,) a mizentop‑man made his apprentice and sung the following song, written on board our ship, in consequence of the late competition between our life-boat and the first-cutter and launch of the Dale and Relief, which met with no little applause; and though the greater part of the crews of those two ships were present, they took all the allusions in good part.

The Boat Race

Tune. — "Bow wow wow."

"Come all you tight Columbian tars

'Board Ironsides, Dale, Relief, sirs,

Just listen to my ditty now,

I will be very brief sirs;

That is, I mean I would be brief,

But my song it is a long one;

And when you hear it all, you'll say

The subject is a strong one.

Chorus, &c.

We had a boat on board our ship,

A rough one for to view her;

 p245 

She is so cursed clumsy built,

Folks think all boats outdo her;

And though she is infernal green,

She makes om other boats look blue,

Because she shows them her goose-rump,

And twice she's to us proved it too.

Chorus, &c.

The store-ship had a flashy boat,

A clipper too they thought her;

Against our life-boat for to run

With smiling face they brought her;

She beat the race in pretty style,

No lads could e'er pull better;

That is, she would have beat I mean,

But our life-boat would'nt let her.

Chorus, &c.

As they passed by our gallant ship,

We loudly clapped the first boat;

We then could see with half an eye,

The store-ship's was the worst boat;

And though her crew strained every nerve,

And tried to beat by every means,

They found to their confusion, that

They could'nt do old goose-rump, beans.

Chorus, &c.

Now when this race was o'er and won,

There were many rows and quarrels;

The Dale's, they did'nt wish that we

Should longer wear our laurels:

Their launches sent a challenge then,

To stake a hundred dollars flat;

That is, they would have staked it,

But they knew a trick worth two of that.

Chorus, &c.

At all events, her boat appeared,

Her crew were strong and gritty;

She had a broom stuck in her bows,

Now did'nt that look pretty.

Of course it meant, she thought herself

A reg'lar ringtailed roarer;

 p246 

Indeed she played the sweeper well,

For she swept our boat before her.

Chorus, &c.

As they did not plank down the cash,

We run just for the notion;

The launch gave way with vig'rous stroke,

She thought to sweep the ocean;

But like our sweepers 'board of ship,

When Monday morning comes, sirs,

They all of them give up their brooms —

She had to do the same, sirs.

Chorus, &c.

But what's the use of talking thus,

Columbian tars we all are;

And with the store-ship's or the Dale's,

We'd spend our only dollar.

And though we row amongst ourselves,

Whilst racing this fine weather,

Yet should a strange ship interfere,

You'd find we'd stick together.

Chorus, &c.

The evening passed away pleasantly; but this did not finish the Fourth, for many of our old soakers, for five or six days afterwards kept a high pressure of steam up, and though several were reported for the same, yet Captain T––––– good naturedly glossed it over, until he thought they had sufficient time to recover their scattered senses; when strict discipline once more resumed its sway, and thus put a sudden stop to the orgies of the Fourth of July.


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