Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Life in a Man-of‑War

The Book and the Author

On March 1, 1839 the frigate U. S. S. Constitution, already forty years in American naval service and celebrated for her fight with H. M. S. Guerrière during the War of 1812, headed out from New York to patrol the Pacific coast of South America and show the flag, on a cruise that would take her over forty-five thousand miles before she returned to the United States, mooring in Hampton Roads on October 31, 1841.

That cruise would be memorable mostly because of this very book. A member of the crew (whoever he was, hiding under the by‑line "a Fore‑top-man": see the Editor's Preface for a discussion) wrote a very thorough account of the entire voyage. It is authentic, it is detailed, it is lively, and it is an extraordinarily rare sustained first‑hand account of what it was like to live on board a 19c American warship: as a result it is a very valuable historical witness to the naval history of the United States. As literature, it's also characteristic of its time, and reveals a man with a very sharp eye for atmosphere and anecdote, an intelligent and vivid writer who shares his experiences with us — clothed in an abundance of nautical terminology and slang, relatively mild literary pretensions, and some very bad poetry.

Our fore-top-man rushed his book into print by the end of 1841, no more than two months after his return to the States. I have no information as to the print run or the number of copies that may have survived, but the original edition is a rare one, and we owe the rescuing of this important historical witness to Rear Admiral Elliot Snow, who modestly but regrettably does not tell us how he came upon the book and what decided him to republish it.

Adm. Snow (b. Marion Mason Elliot Snow, June 27, 1866, Salt Lake City, UT; d. November 27, 1939, Montgomery, PA) was the right man to present the work, however. Entering the Naval Academy on September 4, 1883, he graduated in the Class of 1887 and went on to become a naval constructor, eventually serving as head of naval construction at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War I; after the war he was associated with the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during which time, both before and after his retirement from the Navy in 1926, his growing interest in naval and technological history bore fruit in a number of articles in the Naval Institute Proceedings: "Model Tank Experiments By Benjamin Franklin", "The Origin Of Watertight Compartments", "The U. S. S. Niagara" (the ship that laid the first Atlantic Cable), among many others; also notable was a "Historical Sketch of the Navy Department Library and War Records" co‑authored with Isabel Smith, an adaptation of which can be read at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

In 1932, as a result in part of the book you have before you, he published On the Decks of Old Ironsides, with co‑author H. Allen Gosnell: their own study on Constitution (online at HathiTrust).

 p. xvii  Contents

Editor's Preface






The Old Guardo


Joining my Ship




The Regretted Leap


The Discontented Marine


Reefing Topsails


The Unwelcome Veto


Address to an Old Coir-brush


The Sailor's Drill


Bill Garnet's Yarn


Pat Bradley's Yarn


The Fatal Prediction


The Grog Expended


The Disappointed Tars


The Tar's Substitute for Grog


Eau de Cologne


Doubling the Cape


Burial at Sea


Revels on San Lorenzo


Life in Peru


Description of a Man-of‑War


The Literary Tars


The Boiled Mess-cloth


Auction on Shipboard


Aquatic Theatricals


The Melancholy Excursion


The Galley Politicians


The Barber's Shop


The Shabby Reception


 p. xviii  The Lost Favourite


Lament for the Dog Dick


Capturing a Whale


The Unexpected Seizure


French Polish


The Galley Marauders


New Year's Day


The Jockey Afloat


The Afflicting Bereavement


Lines on the Death of Commodore Claxton


The Nigger Pugilists


Soiree on the Forecastle


The Rowing Match


Fourth of July


Preparations for Home




Dialogue between a Sailor and a Mouse


The Three Dogs


Progress Homeward


The Happy Return




 p. xix  Illustrations

Commodore Alexander Claxton

From a miniature in the possession of Mrs. Paul Brech, of Leesburg, Va., after a painting by A. Dickinson. Obtained through the courtesy of Lieut. Richard Wainwright, U. S. N.


Title-page of Captain Dan Turner's Copy of the Original edition, with Autograph

From the original in the Library of the Navy Department, Washington

p. viii

The Constitution in the Battle of Tripoli, August, 1804

From the painting in the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis


Activities Aboard a Man-of‑War: Reefing Topsails; Lowering a Life-Boat; Heaving the Log

From Heck's Iconographic Encyclopedia, translated and edited by Spencer F. Baird, 1851


On the Deck of the Richmond


Spinning Yarns in the Old Navy

From a photograph taken on board U. S. S. Mohican at sea in the Pacific, 1888


The Deck of the Constitution at the Commencement of the Action with the Guerrière, August 19, 1812

From Ballou's Pictorial and Drawing-Room Companion, 1856


The Constitution (?) at Sea

From a painting in the Peabody Museum, Salem


Activities Aboard a Man-of‑War : Repairing the Ship's Side; Topsail-Yard Lookout; Heaving the Lead; Scrubbing Wash Clothes

From Heck's Iconographic Encyclopedia


Sheer and Half-Breadth Plans of the Constitution

From a reproduction of a drawing dated 1794 at the Bureau of Construction, published in The Sea: Its History and Romance


Profile and Inboard Plan of the Constitution Made in the Boston Navy Yard, December, 1847


Midship Section of the Constitution

Drawn by Lieut. John A. Lord, (C. C.) U. S. N., from Measurements taken at the Boston Navy Yard, 1925‑1926


Spar Deck of the Constitution, 1925


Gun Deck of the Constitution, 1925


 p. xx  Billet-Head of the Constitution (?), 1812

This billet-head was attributed by Lossing to the British frigate Cyane, captured by "Old Ironsides"


Billet-Head and Trail-Boards on the Constitution at Boston Navy Yard, 1900


The Constitution Rebuilding at Old Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1874‑1876


The Chambers Model of the Constitution, about 1812

From the scale model 41 inches long in the collection of the late William Bell Chambers, R. N., London, 1925


Model Made at the Washington Navy Yard

This model was exhibited in Boston in connection with the campaign to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the vessel


Captain Daniel Turner, U. S. N.


The Model-Shaping Shop at the Washington Navy Yard, where the Official Model of the Constitution was Made


Captain Turner's Orders for a Survey on the Rice and Whiskey Aboard the Store Ship Relief


Report of the Officers Holding the Survey


The Spicer Model of the Constitution, Afloat

Photograph reproduced by courtesy of the maker and owner, Col. William F. Spicer, U. S. M. C.


The Maryland Historical Society's Model

Photograph reproduced by courtesy of the Society. This model is believed by experts to have been made about 1808‑1812 as it shows the "monkey forecastle" forward and the poop platform aft, both of which were fitted about 1807 or 1808. The bow scroll is similar to the one carried in 1812


The Constitution and the Raritan off Rio Janeiro

From a Brazilian lithograph in the Macpherson Collection of maritime prints. Reproduced by courtesy of the owner


The U. S. Schooner Shark with Foretopmast and Jib-Boom Carried Away at Sea

From an old painting


Details of the Salem Model

This model was presented to the Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass., by Commodore Isaac Hull in 1813. It was repaired by British prisoners of the War of 1812. It was used to determine details during the restoration of the Constitution in 1907‑1908


Technical Details

Edition Used

The edition transcribed here, as noted above, is a 20c reprint of the original, to which illustrations were added as well as a useful preface by Rear Admiral Elliot Snow, U. S. N.; who assures us (p. xiv) the edition was "reprinted verbatim from the original edition of 1841 without correction or modernization of spelling or style." The reprint is by the way a fairly rare book in itself, my copy bearing a handwritten number:

The text itself, therefore, has long been in the public domain; but Admiral Snow's preface and the other added material was covered by the 1927 notice of copyright. That copyright, however, was not renewed in 1954‑1955 as then required by law to maintain it, and the book as a whole has therefore been in the public domain since Jan. 1, 1956: details here on the copyright law involved.


The 29 black-and‑white illustrations ("The Constitution Rebuilding at Old Philadelphia Navy Yard", p182, is in fact two images) fall into two categories: those directly or indirectly bearing on the cruise of the Constitution as told in the book, and those that have nothing to do with the account, but document the ship itself. For the most part, the illustrations, each tipped in on its own glossy photographic paper, are pretty much randomly scattered thru the printed book. The ones that relate to the cruise, I've moved next to what I felt in each case was the most germane text. The ones that document the ship — its construction and restoration, and the models used to guide that restoration — I've gathered together on a separate index page. I colorized all of them to navy blue, as I've done with almost all the illustrations in my Naval History site.

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is shown in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line); p57  these are also local anchors. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

My transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the chapters are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree; a red background would mean that the page had not been proofread. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

The printed book was remarkably well proofread. Allowing for the evolution of usage since 1841, actual typographical errors were very few, and all trivial. Six instances were clearly due to the new typesetting in 1927: I marked these with a dotted underscore like this; as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the underscored words to read what was actually printed. Similarly, glide your cursor over bullets before measurements: they provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles.

A rather large number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any over­looked mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have a copy of the printed book in front of you.

[image ALT: A three-masted wooden sailing ship on a calm sea. The image serves as the icon on this site for the book 'Life in a Man-of‑War' by Henry J. Mercier.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is my colorization of the photograph (on p248 of the printed book) of an early‑19c model of the Constitution.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Site updated: 5 Oct 21