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Bill Thayer

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Fourth of July

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.

 p247  Preparations for Home

"What pleasure fills the anxious breasts

Of those who on the waters roam,

When anchored in some distant port,

Far, far estranged from friends and home,

They first hear gently whispered round,

Their gallant bark is homeward-bound!"

No individual, but one who has been doomed to the thraldom of a man-of‑war on a far foreign station, cruising perhaps from port to port, the local beauties and gay scenes of which he has beheld in former days, and which he must now enjoy but in fancy, though lying adjacent to the same; — the precincts of the ship's docks, the extent of his footsteps; the austere rebuke of his officers, or the friendly voice of his shipmates, the only known sounds that fall on his ear, for many, many weeks; the jokes that once caused him to smile, now grown insipid, from hearing them so oft and oft repeated; from Monday till Monday, engaged in the same dull, monotonous routine of ship's duty; six, eight, or perhaps twelve months elapsing, without receiving a single line from any of the inmates of his family, or without glancing his eye over a newspaper, to obtain even the painful luxury of knowing which of his friends had sunk to the mouldering grave in his absence; — I say no one but him who has been so situated, can form anything like an idea of the pleasurable feelings, the transporting ecstacy that swells the bosom of the ocean wanderer, when he hears thrilled forth, his ship is homeward-bound; when he has a certainty, that in a few short days he will be cleaving the waste of waters that separates him from the scenes of his childhood; that fireside, and those endeared ones, that have never for one moment been absent from his thoughts.

Twenty‑six long and tedious months had passed over our heads since the Frigate Constitution bid farewell to Sandy Hook lighthouse, and left in the distance the shores of happy Columbia; during that period, twice was the oftenest that we had received dispatches,  p248 the greater part of which were for the officers. A few of the ship's company certainly were in receipt of perhaps a letter, or a straggling newspaper, but the greater part of our lads received not the shadow of a line; although month after month, our letter bags for the United States were swelled to an enormous magnitude. Such being the case, no wonder our hardy crew chuckled with delight, when they heard it go the rounds of the ship, from a source which could not be called in question, that we would certainly start an early day in July.

To say this news gave delight, heartfelt delight, is unnecessary, for all were in raptures at the announcement; and why, it may possibly be asked? — Had our ship become worse since the death of our beloved Commodore? had our Captain tightened the reins of discipline? had bad treatment usurped the place of our former good treatment? No! "Old Ironsides" was the same happy vessel, as eight months before — not one jot of our former privileges had we been deprived of, for Captain T––––– faithfully acted up to the dying entreaty of the inimitable Claxton, who requested him, whilst the taper of life stood flickering in its socket, "to treat his men well;" — still for all this, several little affairs took place; aye, and which often do take place, without a captain being, or pretending to be aware of the same; affairs, which sailors have vulgarly, though very appropriately termed "working up;" — but pshaw! what need of all this circumlocution; the fact is, the men felt dissatisfied with the first lieutenant; he was probably aware of the fact, and he therefore tried every scheme his fertile brain could invent, to make them as uncomfortable as he possibly could. Clothes, that heretofore passed inspection, were now strictly prohibited; dungaree trowsers neatly patched, showing the industry as well as the thriftiness of the owner, dared not come "between the wind and his nobility" after nine o'clock; and woe betide the poor devil that stood at his gun with his hat ribbonless. These and a few other frivolous movements, frivolous perhaps in the eyes of many who may chance to scan these pages, but of a nature sufficient to sour the temper and chafe the disposition  p249 of the hardiest tar that ever paced the forecastle, caused one and all, to hail "homeward-bound" with feelings of unalloyed joy.

Whilst preparing for our departure, news was received on board, through a letter, of the death of President Harrison, and the serious turn the case of M'Leod and the burning of the Caroline had taken in the United States; — now was the aspect of affairs changed, and "war, grim-visaged war" became the all engrossing topic throughout the ship; our Captain was on the alert in a moment, (remember he has smelled powder before,) and the first move, the entire bulkheads of the cabin and pantry were taken down, to give room to work the guns aft; shot-plugs were got up, and suspended convenient for use; battle lanterns were arranged in their proper places; a large quantity of extra cylinders were filled, and transported to the forward magazine; in a word, twenty-four hours subsequent to the receipt of the news, the far‑famed Frigate Constitution, England's greatest eye‑sore last war, the staunch old craft that encircled with unfading laurels the brows of Hull, Bainbridge, and Stewart, was once more "armed for the fight;" commanded by a well-tried son of ocean, and surrounded by a crew, though young in years, yet possessing the spirit of truth Yankees; who would willingly have made "Old Ironsides" their tomb, ere they would have allowed her to be wrested from them by an enemy, even of superior force.

Her British Majesty's Ship President lay at anchor near us, and many a joke was cracked, regarding perhaps the no improbable idea of her and ourselves coming in contact; she had at that time the worst of usage on board; desertions were frequent, and her crew were in a state of the greatest dissatisfaction, (to give it the easiest term,) and some of our old fire-eaters gave it as their opinion, that should we come to the scratch, her men would'nt fight with that ardour British tars are celebrated for. The day previous to our departure, we beat to quarters, and passed the word to fill up the shot-racks and shot-boxes with round, grape, and canister; and now was a scene rife with interest, though coupled with confusion, which could have been avoided had things been done ship-shape. Whilst so employed, the Frigate President and Sloop-of‑War Acteon got  p250 under‑way, and commenced manoeuvring about the harbour, and our wags let off their sallies of wit on the occasion, although in one sense of the word things did look suspicious.

"Pass me up some twenty-four pound grape," sang out a liquor-loving tar, belonging to one of the guns in the second division. "I imagine you are more inclined just now for the juice of the grape than you are for the fruit," responded Garnet, the foretop‑man, — "I know your coppers are hot since that bounce‑out you had ashore at market yesterday." "Is dem dere balls dirty‑two?" enquired a Dutchman of our friend Flukes, whom he perceived coming up from the berth-deck with a rusty looking shot in either hand, which he had secured after no little trouble for his quarter-deck carronade. "Yes, old sour-crout, and you'd be dirty too if you were stowed away in that infernal shot-locker as long as these fellows have been without being turned over." "I mean is dem the one's as we want for de fifth division?" "Yes, something like those," returned Flukes, "except your gun is bored catty-cornered; in that case you must get a re­quisition signed by the ship's armourer for some three-squared ones," and the Dutchman walked away seemingly satisfied at this information. "Bear a‑hand boys," cried Pat Bradley to a crowd assembled around a large tub of water on the main-deck, in which they were washing the round shot just brought with as much care and precision, as if at work on a frock for Sunday's muster. — "Bear a‑hand, John Bull is just gone out to wait for us, 'twould be murder to disappoint him; don't be so damn'd particular with them shot, they'll leave as pretty a mark behind and spoil a fellow's countenance as quick full of rust, if only hove in the right style, as if you were French polishing them for a month." "Pass me up some twenty-fours;" "let us have some thirty-twos;" "give us some grape;" "shove us along two or three canister," were repeated by twenty voices at once, in as many different cadences; but asking for them was but of little use, for ere the articles would be forthcoming, the persons that required them had to jump in into the shot-locker themselves, pass them up on the berth-deck, and then keep their eyes about them, or some less active shipmate, perhaps belonging  p251 to the same division, would monopolize them to himself, without having the trouble of breaking them out from their rusty bed; in consequence of things being so situated, over two hours elapsed ere a sufficient quantity were in the racks and shot-boxes. Could this delay have been obviated? Certainly, as I remarked before, had things been done ship-shape.

"Are none of the shot-locker men below?" enquired old Bowser, the forecastle‑man, in a grum voice, as he stood around the combings, expecting very naturally the shot would be passed up to him. "No," answered Nathan Dobbs, "they are above, I reckon." "Above where, Dobbs," asked a witty mizentop‑man, chuckling at what he termed Nathan's long-shore lingo. "Why, "above their business, I expect he means," cried Garnet. "It appears so at all events, for they are too infernal lazy to attend to their duty, they ought to be here every man of them." "I'd wager a trifle, if we were actually receiving broadsides from an enemy's ship, you'd find them in the shot-locker," testily remarked an old mastman; "aye, as deep down as they could possibly get." "What a pretty kettle of fish we'd make of it, if the President and Acteon would take us on the ground hop, as the Phoebe and Cherub did the Essex last war in Valparaiso, if it takes us this length of time to get our shot up," spoke up a dry old sea‑dog, with a knowing shake of the head. "Oh! we could pipe belay or pass the word to them to hold on till we got our racks filled again," rejoined Flukes with a laugh. "There is little danger of such a thing as that taking place, mates," chimed in old Binnacle, the quartermaster, "we are all of a match for the President, big and saucy as she looks, and the little Dale that lies yonder would give the Acteon a dose of Yankee pills, that would take her sometime to digest." This remark of the old quartermaster's drew forth a murmur of approbation from the assembled crowd, for however they might condemn the austere and nonsensical theories of the executive officer, which were often of such a nature as to irritate the feelings of the most passive and uncomplaining, yet the gallant time-honoured old frigate that had been our habitation for the last twenty-eight months, was endeared to every bosom as strongly as when she  p252 fluttered the pennant of our deceased, though not forgotten commodore. With such remarks as the above they did beguile the time, whilst passing and repassing from the shot-lockers to their several guns, until the drum beating the retreat proclaimed that every thing was in readiness with regard to our armament; and an enemy's ship (should one feel inclined to make the experiment) would find that "Old Ironsides," with her present commander and crew, was now the same staunch, invulnerable structure

As she was wont to be, in days long past,

When she withstood the battle and the blast.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21