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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Thence Round Cape Horn

Robert Erwin Johnson

published by
United States Naval Institute
Annapolis, Maryland

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p17  2. The Cruise of the Macedonian

The cruises of two American warships on Pacific Station have been chosen for narration in some detail, for they were so different that some mean between these two extremes will fairly represent an average cruise with the Pacific Station.

Captain Biddle's reports made it perfectly clear to the Navy Department that a man-o'‑war would be well employed protecting American interests in the Pacific Ocean. The ship selected for this task was the small frigate Macedonian which had been bested by Commodore Stephen Decatur's United States in 1812. Almost alone of the British warships which surrendered to American vessels during that conflict, the Macedonian had eluded the British blockade and received repairs at New York. She was smaller and weaker than most American frigates, but was thought worthy of retention in the United States Navy and was recommissioned under her original name.

To command the Macedonian on her Pacific cruise, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin W. Crowninshield chose Captain John Downes. This officer had been Porter's first lieutenant in the Essex, and had commanded two of that ship's prizes which were commissioned as cruisers, so he knew the Pacific Ocean as well as any officer of the Navy. Moreover, Downes possessed other qualities essential in an officer selected to command on a long cruise in remote waters. His sense of humor and love of practical jokes made him a favorite of enlisted men, and he was an able seaman as well. His performance of varied duties during the Macedonian's cruise made it evident that Crowninshield had chosen well.

The little frigate, deeply laden and trimmed by the head, departed Boston on 20 September 1818. A week later she was battling a full gale under storm staysails. During the evening of 27 September, a flapping sail knocked the captain of the mizzen‑top overboard, and  p18 he was soon engulfed by the heavy seas which made it impossible to lower a boat. By the next morning it seemed probable that he would soon be joined by the ship and all her company. She was laboring frightfully in mountainous seas, and her three masts were sprung.

In an effort to ease the vessel, Downes ordered the mizzen rigging cut and the mast soon went over the taffrail. Preventer shrouds failed to save the fore and main topmasts, and they too carried away. Flying jib boom and spritsail yard went next, and the captain decided to cut away his remaining masts and ride out the storm to a sea anchor. To this end a hawser was bent to part of the broken mizzen mast, but no sooner was a strain taken on it to bring the ship's head to the wind, than the hawser parted. Therefore the fore and main masts were made as secure as possible by preventer shrouds and fishing (fastening "splints" over the weakened places), and the wind died enough to allow the vessel to live. Clearly, however, she was a wreck; all hands got her under a jury rig and Downes set a course for Norfolk.

The Macedonian arrived in that port on 10 October. A month later the lost spars had been replaced, and once more she stood to sea under orders to proceed to the Pacific Ocean with utmost dispatch. Southwest to the Cape Verde Islands she went, far enough to the eastward to ensure weathering Cape San Roque, easternmost promontory of Brazil. Then she turned to the southward with the trade winds filling her sails, and it was noted that she seemed to sail somewhat sluggishly as compared with her performance before she was dismasted. Downes had shifted stores while at Norfolk so that the vessel trimmed by the stern in the approved manner; probably the Macedonian was one of those ships which sailed well when drawing slightly more water forward than aft. However, her captain was new to the ship, and so could hardly have known this.

The normal routine of a man-o'‑war at sea was broken on 25 December when some of the sailors presented the play "Weather Cock," together with an afterpiece entitled "Sailor's Fortune." The moving spirit behind this presentation was a carpenter's yeoman who had written the second feature. The performance, in Lieutenant Charles Gauntt's words:

. . . was presented for the treble purpose, in the first place, of giving amusement to the Officers & Crew of the Ship, Secondly of his faculties  p19 or powers of the mind as an author, and thirdly, to show his merit as an actor, in all of which except the former, he failed most egregiously.​1

Nevertheless, the enjoyment of all seemed to be great. It should be noted that Captain Downes was well aware of the value of such diversions for the morale of his men. Both in the Macedonian and in the Potomac, his flagship on Pacific Station at a later date, amateur theatricals were encouraged. He may not have been directly responsible for the performances, but they could not have been staged without his permission. Not a few of his contemporaries would have refused even this.

As the Macedonian stood to the southward, preparations were made for encountering the dreaded Cape Horn seas. Her commanding officer was no stranger to these, for the Essex had nearly foundered off the Horn in 1813. Nevertheless, the haste enjoined by his orders must have led Downes to carry sail too long, for New Year's Day of 1819 saw the main-topgallant mast go over the side in a squall. It did not really matter because the top hamper had to come down anyway. The long topgallant masts were struck below and replaced by stump masts, boats were secured as well as possible, the jib boom was rigged in, double breechings were fitted to the great guns, ammunition was sent below, and preventer shrouds were set up to support the masts. The anchors were struck below to relieve the bows of their weight, but Downes seems not to have followed the later practice of dismounting the guns at the extreme ends of the ship and stowing them on the berth deck.

Despite her reduced rig, the Macedonian lost no chance to carry sail. Captain Downes kept his studding sail booms aloft and, whenever possible, he gave the gods of that inhospitable region the very unusual sight of a vessel in Cape Horn rig scudding along with these fair weather sails set. But the gods were kind; the Macedonian experienced unpleasant but not severe weather. She was off the Horn on 14 January in airs so light that a boat could be lowered to check the force of the current, and Lieutenant Gauntt recorded the information that no sign was found of the presumably prevailing easterly current. Succeeding days brought more gales, but only one studding sail boom carried away although Downes cracked on sail at every opportunity.

Two weeks after leaving the Horn, the Macedonian rounded to in  p20 Valparaiso Harbor, and her starboard bower anchor splashed to the bottom in twenty-eight fathoms of water. She was seventy-nine days from Cape Henry in Virginia, a short passage for that day. Soon afterward the American vice-consul came on board to consult with Downes, and a few days later the captain and some of his officers visited Santiago, the Chilean capital. American and British merchants residing there opened their homes to the visitors, and the Valparaiso citizens proved themselves equally gracious hosts.

In return for this hospitality, Captain Downes decided to celebrate Washington's Birthday by giving a gala ball. For this purpose, the after part of the frigate's gun deck was transformed into a ballroom decorated with flags, illuminated transparencies, and whatever other ornaments the ingenuity of officers and men could suggest. The whole received the hackneyed description of "fairy palace," and while it seems that the scene was somewhat less ethereal than a Titania might have desired, the guests were well pleased. Waltzes and Spanish dances were followed by a banquet with numerous toasts given and received. When at last the boats were called alongside to transport the guests to the shore, it was observed that many had difficulty in retaining their equilibrium, but this was easily explained by the revolutionary fervor which had inspired many of the toasts. And if some of the officers were "under a full press of sail," it was, after all, Washington's Birthday.

While captain and wardroom officers thus recovered from the rigors of the Horn, it must not be supposed that others shared in these delights. Fairy palace or no, the Macedonian was still a warship and there was work to be done if she were to retain her efficiency. Warrant officers and enlisted men were occupied with the tasks of replenishing supplies of wood, water, and provisions; recaulking portions of the hull and upperworks which had been strained; blacking the guns; and all of the myriad details that kept a sailing vessel's rigging efficient and dependable. Routine drills had been suspended off Cape Horn, but neglect of these would soon result in a loss of efficiency. As soon as the minor repairs had been completed and the necessary supplies were on board, gun crews resumed their wearisome great‑gun drills, or seized pikes and cutlasses to repel imaginary boarders.

 p21  For the warrant officers, there would be permission to go ashore when the essential duties had been performed, but the enlisted men could expect no such relief. The delights of the "vale of Paradise" were apt to be too great a temptation for the seaman when he looked back on the hardships of naval life, and there was no place in the Pacific from which an American warship could obtain replacements for deserters. Moreover, the Patriot armed forces were delighted to impress the well-trained men from a foreign warship when the opportunity offered. Even if the sailor returned on board when his liberty expired, the chances were more than good that he would soon be on the binnacle list with one or more of the venereal diseases prevalent in Valparaiso. Thus the enlisted man's only contact with the beach came when he was a member of a boat's crew.

It must be realized that the United States Navy was not unique in this treatment of the enlisted man; no common seaman was immune to the temptations mentioned, and the simplest way to avoid trouble was to keep the men safely on board. Nevertheless, Captain Downes did grant liberty to his crew at Callao in January 1819, but this port was in Spanish hands and one of the dangers, that of impressment, was almost nonexistent.

The Macedonian's first Valparaiso sojourn ended on 15 March 1819. She investigated conditions at Coquimbo, returned to Valparaiso, and then stood to the northward once more. Off Arica, a seaman fell from one of the bow ports and was drowned before a boat could reach him. Lieutenant Gauntt noted regret­fully, "We have been peculiarly unfortunate in not recovering a single man who has fallen overboard, this being the fourth. . . ."

On 28 May, the frigate anchored in the Tumbes River and sent a boat with two officers to call on the governor at the city of Guayaquil, some sixty miles away. While awaiting the boat's return, other officers explored part of the shore adjacent to the anchorage. A messenger from the city arrived on 3 June with news that the officers and boat's crew had been detained by the governor who could not believe that an American man-o'‑war was in that remote area. After a further exchange of messages and a small gift for the suspicious official, Downes got his men on board and sailed a week later.

Most of the summer was spent in visits to the Mexican ports of  p22 Acapulco and San Blas where information relating to pilotage and port facilities was gathered. Sailing to the southward once more, the Macedonian arrived at Valparaiso in October.

The Chilean seaport was the scene of feverish activity as Lord Cochrane was fitting out an expedition to wrest Peru from the Spanish grasp. Some days later the Chileans sailed, the Macedonian weighed anchor and stood out for Callao where American shipping was likely to be endangered by Cochrane's activities. His Lordship was blockading the port with a frigate and a corvette when the American warship arrived off Callao.

It was rumored that Cochrane had sworn to capture the Macedonian if she came to Callao, and Downes, while doubting this, had his frigate cleared for action when the two Chilean ships bore down. Their movements seemed menacing, but a boarding officer returned to the flagship with the report that American gunners were standing beside loaded eighteen‑pounders with slow matches smoldering. Probably Cochrane had no intention of fighting at all; at any rate, he hailed to wish Downes a pleasant visit, and the Chilean ships made sail once more.

At Callao, as mentioned above, the "Macedonians" had their run ashore while some of their officers visited Lima, the Peruvian capital. At Downes's instance, the viceroy agreed to release an American citizen who had been captured while fighting in the Patriot army. This man and several Spaniards were embarked in the Macedonian as passengers, and she sailed on 6 December to escort two American brigs through the Chilean blockade.

Less than three weeks later, she anchored at Panama and sent four sailors across the Isthmus to join two American merchant schooners detained by want of men. Two more were sent on board the brig Macedonian, which was sailing almost in company with the like-named frigate. The two stood north to San Blas, and here the smaller vessel shipped two of Downes's midshipmen, one as first officer and the other a passenger. Naval vessels on Pacific Station frequently sent men from their large complements to serve in merchant vessels which had lost hands by desertion or other causes. Sometimes junior officers were even ordered to command merchantmen whose masters had died.

After the transfer of personnel, the two Macedonians parted company,  p23 with the brig bound for the East Indies while the frigate returned to Panama. A number of the frigate's invalids were landed to proceed across the Isthmus of Panama on their way to the United States, but the Spanish governor of Panama refused to permit their passage. He claimed that several English prisoners had been given refuge in the Macedonian on the occasion of her earlier visit, and so they had, although Downes had known nothing of it at the time. Now, however, the American officers were unable to find the erstwhile prisoners, and the invalids had to return to the ship. For Chaplain Azariel Wilson this was particularly unfortunate. Later he was landed at Valparaiso in the hope of being restored to health, but died there before the Macedonian returned to the United States.

The frigate had returned to Valparaiso when her Panamanian visit had been cut short. In this Chilean port, on 24 July 1820, her company was re‑enlisted for a period of ten months. Only ten of the more than 370 men requested discharge, and their requests were denied. Probably the knowledge that they would not be put ashore at Valparaiso deterred others from asking for discharges, but Captain Downes ran a happy ship and there seems to have been little discontent among the crew at being detained after their original enlistments had expired. Almost no other American warship on Pacific Station was so fortunate.

After a month at Valparaiso, the Macedonian coasted to the northward, touching at Coquimbo and then sailing on to Callao, where neutral shipping was again endangered by Cochrane's cruisers. Downes went to Lima to consult governmental officials and was there when, on 6 November 1820, Lord Cochrane led a daring boat expedition which cut out the Peruvian frigate Esmeralda. The Macedonian was anchored nearby, with a small number of American merchant vessels close aboard, and she received several hits and some slight damage from the fire of the forts. Feeling on shore ran high over Cochrane's coup, and the Americans were suspected of having helped him to achieve it. Therefore, when the Macedonian's first lieutenant somewhat unwisely sent the usual market boat ashore, the American flag proved no protection whatever. Soldiers fired into the boat, killing two men and wounding five. The survivors were rescued by the British frigate Andromache, and later she recovered the boat.

More trouble followed three days later. The American merchant  p24 schooner Rampart, standing in to an anchorage under the Macedonian's guns, drifted close to shore batteries which opened fire immediately. She was quickly abandoned by her crew and the Spaniards took possession.

This seemed almost to be the final provocation. The junior officers, already angered by the attack on the Macedonian's small boat, now were furious over this added insult to their flag. Some seem to have felt that Captain Downes should have been on board his ship instead of visiting in Lima. Perhaps, but Downes's presence at the capital resulted in the return of the Rampart to her crew. Moreover, he had arranged for the release of sixteen American prisoners held by the Spaniards, so his time had not been entirely wasted. And desirable as his presence was on board the Macedonian, it would have been foolhardy for him to have undertaken any punitive action. The frigate was the only American warship within thousands of miles. Had she been lost of damaged seriously, no other could have arrived for a period of months. Moreover, there was little that one vessel could do alone. Lord Cochrane had no less than eighteen ships off Callao at one time, but did not feel strong enough to attempt more than the blockade. In this instance it seems that Downes was correct in acting as he did.

Meanwhile, the lives of American and British citizens residing at Lima were imperiled, so Captain Downes led a group of them to a small port south of Callao where they were embarked by the Macedonian's small boats and taken on board the frigate. On 20 November, she was put to sea to escort seven American and British merchant vessels through the Patriot blockade. This was in accordance with an agreement whereby Downes and the commanding officer of HMS Andromache undertook to protect the interests of one another's countries when possible.

With the merchantmen safely at sea, the Macedonian visited several smaller ports. At one of these, Huacho, she found the American Louisa detained for carrying contraband. At Lord Cochrane's order, the Chilean frigate Lautaro was watching her until his government ordered her seizure. After consulting Louisa's master, Downes concluded that her detention was unwarranted and escorted her to sea. The heavier Lautaro followed for a time, but made no effort to interfere. Captain Downes could play a bold hand when it seemed necessary,  p25 but in this case he incurred the displeasure of the American consul at Valparaiso and of Chilean officials, as well.

The Macedonian anchored at Mollendo, Peru, on 14 January 1821 and here learned that the USS Constellation had arrived at Valparaiso to relieve her. Accordingly, Downes steered to the southward, touched briefly at Coquimbo, and arrived at Valparaiso on 4 March. While his men made preparations for the long passage to the United States, Downes undertook to acquaint his successor, Captain Charles G. Ridgely, with the problems and conditions prevailing on Pacific Station. The two officers journeyed to Santiago to consult the American chargé, and Ridgely was introduced to Chilean officials.

The Macedonian weighed anchor and sailed for home on 19 March. As usual, the eastward passage around Cape Horn was much easier and quicker than the outward rounding, and no untoward incidents delayed her progress. Downes took his ship into Rio de Janeiro for water and fresh provisions, and sailed again on 13 May, after an eleven‑day visit. The USS Macedonian anchored in Boston Harbor off the Charlestown Navy Yard on 19 June 1821, two years and nine months after sailing from that port.

During her Pacific cruise, she had logged some 58,878 miles, and had lost twenty‑six of her original company of a little over four hundred officers and men. Four were lost overboard, two were killed by Spanish fire at Callao, a midshipman was killed by a shipmate in a duel at Valparaiso, and nineteen died of various ills. This was not an abnormal death rate for a cruise of such duration; considering the conditions of life on board a small frigate, it must surprise us that so many survived.

Captain Downes had performed his various duties very well, and his diplomatic skill had averted serious trouble without exposing his country to disrespect. With a single ship, he had visited more ports and cruised a greater distance than would many of his successors who commanded squadrons. His feat of maintaining good relations with both Spanish and Patriot authorities was almost unbelievable, and if he failed to get along well with Lord Cochrane, that daring individual must have held the American officer in some respect, for Downes consistently bluffed him although Cochrane always had the stronger force.

It must be stated once more that the Macedonian's cruise was  p26 unusually active, and lest there be a distorted impression of duty on the Pacific Station, the cruise of Commodore Henry E. Ballard in the USS North Carolina will also be related in some detail. But nearly two decades separated the cruises of the Macedonian and North Carolina, and to the events of the intervening years attention must first be given.

The Author's Note:

1 Charles Gauntt, "Journal of the Cruise of the USS Macedonian, 29 July 1818–18 June 1821."

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