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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part 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.

 p. vii  Editor's Preface

The author of these "Scenes in Old Ironsides," or "Life in a Man-of‑War." was evidently a foretop‑man on "Old Ironsides" during the cruise she made to the Pacific in the forties. His rating as such, however, has not been verified, but it is definitely known that the original copyrighters, of which he was one, were members of the crew of the U. S. S. Constitution during the entire period of this cruise. A better record, nor one in greater detail and as faithfully portrayed, may never be found.

The Constitution sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, on April 10, 1839, and, after cruising over forty-five thousand miles, returned to Hampton Roads, Virginia, on October 31, 1841. During that time — a total absence of five hundred and thirty-five days — she was at sea three hundred and ninety‑two days; thus her average speed is shown to have been close to four and eight tenths knots.

Of the two original copyrighters of these very graphically depicted scenes of life on board the frigate "Old Ironsides," Henry James Mercier must have been the writer, because William Gallop did not join the crew until April 30, 1839, at the time the U. S. S. Constitution was lying in New York.​a An entry in the official log of this cruise, a copy of which is to‑day one of the records of the Bureau of Navigation, contains the following short entry:

April 30th — 4 to 8 A.M. — William Gallop came aboard.

This does not mean that Gallop had previously left the ship and was only "returning from liberty," for had that been the case, the words "returned from liberty" would have been used.

Little did the officer who made this entry (his initials are W. S.) realize that some day the log would be searched from end to end to clear up a bit of history connected with a book written about this memorable cruise.

Henry J. Mercier is mentioned but once in this log and that was  p. viii shortly after the burial, at Valparaiso, of the commander-in‑chief, Commodore Alexander Claxton, who died at Talcahuana​b on March 6, 1840. The log entry on this occasion reads:

March 14th — 8 A.M. to noon James DeCouse, John Savage, Peter Keller, Henry J. Mercier and Austin Ellison returned from Liberty.

The inference that Mercier did most, if not all, of the writing is based upon the following statement which appears in the second chapter entitled "Joining my Ship":

The Fates decreed in my favor [he was then on the receiving ship or, as termed in those days, "The Old Guardo-Java"] 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 light hearts and smiling countenances stepped upon the decks of Old Ironsides.

The officially recorded account of this event reads as follows:

Norfolk, Va. March 1st, 1839.

At 2 P.M. the following officers reported themselves for duty

Lieutenants — Edward W. Carpender
R. R. Pinkham
Thomas D. Shaw
Peter D. Turner
Purser — McKean Buchanan
Actg. Surgeon — Charles S. Maxwell
     "            " — Samuel Jackson
Passed Midshipmen — L. C. Sartori
— Montgomery Hunt
— Maxwell Woodhull
— Francis S. Haggerty
Midshipmen — W. C. B. S. Porter
Silas Bent
George Cooper
 p. ix  Henry H. Harrison
John H. M. Madison
Instructors — P. McFarland
— Wm. H. McCrohan
— Richard T. Renshaw
— Charles W. Hayes
Boatswain — Nicholas Steerbogh
Gunner — Thomas Kelly
Carpenter — John Cahill
Sailmaker — Nathaniel B. Reed

And two hundred and forty of the crew consisting of seamen, ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys came on board for duty.

The commanding officer was Captain Dan Turner, U. S. Navy; it was he who gave a copy of the original printing of this book to the Navy Department Library.

Mercier must have been one of the first draft, as the foregoing quotation shows, and Gallop, as has already been shown, did not join the vessel until later. On March 12th a second draft of twenty-four seamen reported, and again twenty more seamen came from the Java on March 16th. The credit for this remarkably accurate and interesting book probably rests principally, if not wholly, with Mercier.

Three days after the log entry of "William Gallop came aboard" follows one reading:

At 3 P.M. the U. S. Steamer Fulton gave three cheers which were answered by the Constitution.

The reader may here, metaphorically now, give three cheers for Mercier and Gallop. What a splendid thing did Fate decree in placing these men aboard "Old Ironsides" during that cruise!

Whether or not the initials "W. S." are those of Midshipman Sperry is of little moment. However, the day he reported, May 11th, saw another record made under his initials which shows how  p. x the "Old Man" in command of the Constitution insured safety of our merchantmen on the high seas:

May 11th — 4 to 8 P.M. — Captain Cole of the American Merchant Ship Niagara sent to request assistance, as a part of his crew were in a state of mutiny.

A boat was sent to the Niagara, and Samuel Sartine, Thomas Jones, and William Wiley were taken from the Niagara to the Constitution "for safe keeping until the civil authorities could take them away." Incidentally it should here be added that these three men were landed the next day, as Captain Cole sailed without sending the police officer for his men.

The author's description of "A Burial at Sea" was written about Lieutenant R. R. Pinkham, U. S. Navy. The official entry in the ship's log reads thus:

October 29th, 8 A.M. to Meridian All hands were called "to bury the dead." The church service was read over the body of the late Lieut. R. R. Pinkham and "the corpse was committed to the deep" with customary military honours due to his rank.

When the reader comes to "Bill Garnet's Yarn" telling of "the wretched Godfrey struggling in the fiend-like grasp of Krantz" and being thrown from the fore-topsail yard, let him turn and gaze at the picture of that old sea dog spinning a yarn "on the deck of the Richmond" and imagine the man speaking to be "Bill Garnet." Garnet's yarn, however, has nothing to do with the following sad entry in the log concerning the loss of William Johnson:

September 11th at 11:15 A.M. William Johnson fell from aloft. The ship was hove to and the lee quarter boat lowered. The boat returned to the ship at 11:45; the man was lost.

The disappointment of the tars when nearing Cape Horn when they found the grog expended, and the ingenuity they displayed in finding a substitute in the form of a novel beverage prepared from  p. xi eau de cologne, are not at all overdrawn. Any one who has followed the sea, even for a short while, soon learns of the wily ways adopted by sailors surreptitiously to introduce spirituous liquors aboard ship. It was not until September 1, 1862 that the "grog ration" was discontinued under the following statute:

On Sept. 1st 1862 the spirit ration shall forever cease and thereafter no distilled spirituous liquor shall be admitted on board vessels of war, except as medicines and upon the order and under the control of the medical officer of such vessel and to be used only for medical purposes. (U. S. Stat., Vol. 12, p565.)​c

That some difficulty was had with "five barrels of whiskey" is shown by a reproduction in this book of two original documents.

The vivid descriptions flowing from Mercier's pen can be grasped better by comparing his account of the death and burial of Commodore Claxton given in the chapter "The Afflicting Bereavement" with the following brief entries in the ship's log under dates of March 6th and 12th:

March 6, Talcahuana — at 7:15 A.M. Alexander Claxton departed this life. At 8 hoisted the colors at half mast. The ship's draft aft 22 feet 9 inches, forward 21 feet. The ship's plumber made a lead coffin for Commodore Claxton.

March 12 — Valparaiso — The funeral of the late Commander-in‑Chief was held and 61 minute guns were fired. The Commodore's broad pennant was hauled down and the long one hoisted.

The log on the cruise shows more than once the use of "the cats." The use of this word in its plural form is noted thus:

May 10 (1839) At 6:30 P.M. punished at the gangway with one dozen of the cats, Thomas Frazier and Thomas Webb, also Peter Hudson six, with the cats.

One of the crew of U. S. Schooner Shark suffered a similar punishment  p. xii with one dozen "cats" in Callao, in the execution of a court-martial sentence.

This cruel and inhuman form of punishment might well have been earlier challenged under the specific clause of the Constitution of the United States which forbids the inflicting of cruel and unusual punishment. By act of Congress September 28, 1850, "flogging in the Navy and on board vessels of commerce was abolished."

At Callao, Peru, we hear of "Old Ironsides" paying loud-mouthed tribute to royalty. The following is found in the log:

"Callao, Friday, May 1st, 1840. — From 8 to meridian, Light breezes from NW by W and pleasant. Sent the launch for a load of water. At meridian fired a salute of 21 guns in honor of the birth of Louis Philippe, King of France.​1

"J. Graham."

Any one who knows anything at all of the affection bestowed by seamen on pets aboard will lament, along with the crew of "Old Ironsides," the sudden disappearance and premature loss of the dog Dick, who it is supposed fell overboard on the passage of "Old Ironsides" from Payta to Callao. Dick seems to be a favorite name for a seagoing dog. We had one on the U. S. S. Adams in Samoa, at the time when Germany and the United States came so near to a clash over these islands.

The celebrated artist L. G. Sellstedt records in his autobiography "From Forecastle to Academy" the arrival of the Constitution in Callao in 1840 to relieve the North Carolina. The man-of‑war life told by Mr. Sellstedt is very much like that set forth in such minute detail in these pages.

In the ancient times the two great factors which determined the length of voyages were fatigue of the personnel and lack of space to carry food and water; even the inability to cook food while under way meant frequent overnight stops. When sailing vessels came  p. xiii generally into use, water alone under normal conditions became the limiting factor. To‑day fuel controls the radius of action of our vessels. It is interesting to observe that when "Old Ironsides" sailed from Norfolk at the commencement of this cruise she started out with 46,014 gallons of water. The first day out, 567 gallons were "expended" and the next but 486. During the cruise the water expenditures usually ran between these limits, though greater and lesser expenditures were often recorded.

At noon on Wednesday, October 27, 1841, the U. S. S. Constitution was in lat. 33°43′05″ North and long. 69°53′00 West. At the close of that day the log shows:

Upon examining the water tanks and casks there was found 10,252 gallons of good water and about 5000 gallons of damaged supposed to have been by salt water getting into the tanks. There was also found 10960 gallons short of what should have been on board. The masters note has accounted for a part of this by the holder serving out more than the allowance without his knowledge. The remainder he cannot say whether it leaked out or in what manner it became deficient. In consequence of this deficiency Captain Turner has directed that the officers and crew be put on an allowance of 5 pints each.

Note. The above is in accordance with the report of the Master's Mate — My sickness for some time past has prevented my attention to the Hold.

L. C. Sartori


By reason of this restriction the daily expenditure of water dropped from about 500 gallons a day to 322, which shows there were about 515 in the ship's complement of officers and men. Although then but three days' run from a home port, the captain took no chances; had anything gone wrong, it would have been a very serious matter to be found at sea without drinking-water, when by taking a reasonable measure the risk would be minimized if not entirely avoided.

 p. xiv  The millions of school children who have generously given their pennies that "Old Ironsides" may once again plough the seas and have scenes enacted on her decks — but scarcely like these — and the officers of the Navy who are searching high and low for accurate data to use in that restoration, will find in the tales in this book some recompense for their gifts and labor.

"Living tales of the sea, told by real sailors sailing real ships, make wholesome food for the imagination." These stories of real "Life in a Man-of‑War" of the forties cannot help but stimulate youth and old age alike in the right direction.

Every page of this splendid account of "Life in a Man-of‑War, or Scenes in 'Old Ironsides' " contains accounts that rival in interest any fiction that could be imagined by those who love reading of this kind.

Elliott Snow

Washington, D. C.

January, 1927

Note: — This edition has been reprinted verbatim from the original edition of 1841 without correction or modernization of spelling or style.

The Author's Note:

1 As Louis Philippe was at this time sixty-six years old, and as his birthday came on October 6th, it is probable that the birth celebrated was that of his grandson the Comte de Paris, who was born August 24, 1838, or perhaps of a granddaughter. His grandson the Duc de Chartres was not born till some months later.

Thayer's Notes:

a The reasoning seems flawed to me. Why would Gallop be one of the two copyright holders if he had no hand in writing the book? At the same time, there's admittedly a marked unity of style thruout, suggesting there really was a single author; but by my lights it could well have been Gallop: reporting on board two months later than Mercier when the cruise lasted one and a half years, he would have been an equal witness to almost every event recounted. Indeed, the argument might be made that Gallop was the principal author, but for the sake of presenting a complete account of the cruise from beginning to end, he enlisted Mercier to write Chapters 1 and 2; who then naturally would refer to his own arrival on board as "Joining my Ship".

An alternate solution to the two copyright holders (and while we're at it, to the pen name in lieu of a proper author's name) might be that one of these men wrote the prose, and the other the verse; or yet again that one of them was the author and the other served as a copy editor, since the author shows himself diffident as to his literary ability, not only in his preface where convention might dictate the modesty, but in a curious aside to the reader on p216.

[decorative delimiter]

b Adm. Snow here adopts the spelling used by the book's author. The port has long been known as Talcahuano; such is the spelling, for example, adopted thruout in the 1941 English translation of Chilean author Luis Galdames's History of Chile.

[decorative delimiter]

c Reading this, we may get the impression that American naval vessels went totally dry in 1862, but such is not the case. It was only the ratings' grog ration that was eliminated by this order, and alcohol continued to be available and consumed on board, with increasing restrictions, until finally forbidden in any form by General Order No. 99 on July 1, 1914. The details are given in an authoritative article by the United States Naval Institute, "A Hundred Years Dry: The U. S. Navy’s End of Alcohol at Sea".

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21