An old sailor sat on the Constitution's forecastle, with his back
against the carriage of one of the forward carronades. He was skilfully
unwinding a skein of spun yarn which he held over his two bare feet,
while at the same time he rolled the ball deftly with his stubby,
jointless fingers. A young boy, not over fourteen years of age, lay
sprawled flat on the deck beside him, his chin supported in the hollows
of his two hands, his elbows on the deck.
"It comes all along o' drinkin' rum, says I," went on the old sailor,
continuing some tale he had been telling. "That, I claims, is the
reason for many unfortunate doin's; and that is why all them men I was
tellin' you about was eat by the cannibals."
"I don't see as it made any difference," broke in the boy, "except
perhaps in the taste. If they were bent on going where they did, they'd
have been eaten anyhow, wouldn't they?"
"As to that," returned the old sailor, "I contradict ye. Rum sometimes
makes a fellow want to fight when it's a tarnel sight braver to run;
that is, upon some occashuns."
"Some folks get so they can't even wiggle, let alone run," observed the
boy. "I saw our bo'sun----"
"Don't speak uncharitable of your neighbors, son," observed the old
man. "All I can say is that I don't take no stock in grog; thereby
being' the peculiarest man in the service, I dessay. I've seen lessons,
as I was tellin' ye. You see, all those friends of mine would been
livin' to-day if they hadn't taken on cargoes of that thar African
wine. Yes, they got to suppose that they could lick about twenty times
their weight of black niggers, and so they started in, and never come
back. But I, not drinkin' nothin', jes' kep' by the boat, an' when them
savages come after me, I warn't there. Had a terrible time gettin' off
to the ship all alone; but I done it, an' thar's the best temperance
lecture I know of. I got a hull lot of texts out of the Good Book; but
most people won't listen to 'em; leastways on board of this ship."
"I reckon you are the only man what don't take his grog here," said the
"That I be," returned the old sailor, "and, by Sal, I'm proud of it!
'No, thankee, messmate,' says I when it comes around, 'I don't need
that to keep my chronometer goin'.' Then they all laughs generally, and
calls me a fresh-water moss-back. Some day 'an I'll git even with 'em."
Old Renwick, although somewhat of a butt of the crew, was respected
nevertheless because of his being a good seaman, and because he also
had made a record for himself in the old days during the war with
France and the adventurous times with Preble in the Mediterranean. He
was a great favorite with Captain Stewart, then the Commander of the
old frigate, and by him he had been promoted to the position of
quartermaster. He would never have succeeded in qualifying for the
position of boatswain or for any higher grade than that which he now
held, for the simple reason that the old fellow was too lenient in his
discipline and too ready to condole with the faults of others except
where rum was concerned.
It was Renwick's greatest delight to secure a solitary and attentive
listener and spin a long yarn to him. He spoke without the usual
profane punctuation,--the habit of most seamen,--and when off watch he
read his Bible most assiduously. He had had many adventures in his
forty-four years at sea, and his memory being a most retentive one, it
required little excuse for him to start on a long mental peregrination
through the laden fields of his memory.
Many were the occasions when the boy found time to become Renwick's
solitary auditor. The lad was bright, and this was but his second
voyage at sea. He was one of those children who, although born inland
and away from the smell of the ocean, still must inherit from their
ancestors the keen desire to seek adventures and see strange
countries--he dreamed of ships and the deep. Once firmly rooted, this
feeling never dies; despite hardships, wrecks, and disasters, the
sailor returns to his calling.
The boy had never seen an action. But he had rejoiced with the rest at
America's many victories; he had joined with the crowd that had
followed the parading sailors in New York after Hull's great victory,
and he had peeped in at the window of the hotel upon the occasion of
the dinner given to Decatur and to Bainbridge and to the Guerriere's
conqueror--all this while on a visit to the city from his home in the
mountains of New Jersey. And thus inflamed with the idea, he had run
away to sea, and had made his first voyage, eight or ten months
previous to the opening of the story, in a little privateer that had an
uneventful cruise and returned to port after taking two small prizes
that had offered no resistance. His entering on board the
Constitution had been with the permission of his parents, who saw
that the only way to hold him from following his bent would be to keep
him at home forever under their watchful eyes.
A great war-ship is a small floating world, and, like the world, the
dangers that beset a young man starting alone on his career are many.
There are the good and the bad, the leaders and the led; the people who
lift up others, and those who lean. It was rather well for the boy that
he had met with old Renwick and conceived a friendship for him. From
the old sailor the lad had learned much. He was an expert at tying
knots already, and he had learned to hand, reef, and steer after a
fashion on board the privateer schooner. The royal yards on a
man-of-war are always manned by boys, because of their agility and
lightness. This boy was a born topman; he exulted in the sense of
freedom that comes to one when laying out upon a swaying yard; the
bounding exhilaration of the heart, the exciting quickening of the
pulse as the great mass describes arcs of huge circles as the vessel
far below swings and rises through the seas.
The attention of the officers had been called to him more than once,
and if there was a ticklish job aloft above the cross-trees, the boy
was sent to perform it. On one occasion he had excited a reprimand for
riding down a backstay head foremost, the First Lieutenant observing,
and speaking to him thus: "While that would do for a circus, it wasn't
the thing for shipboard." But he was a perfect monkey with the ropes,
and nothing delighted him better than scampering up the shrouds, or
shinning to the main truck to disengage the pennant halliards. He used
to sing, in his shrill, high voice, even when struggling to get in the
stiffened canvas in a gale.
On the 20th of February (the year was 1815) the First Lieutenant made
the early morning inspection of the ship. He had hoped that the clouds
and thickness that had prevailed for a few days would disappear, for it
seemed as if for once "Old Ironsides" was pursued by the demon of bad
luck in the way of weather. At one P.M., after a fruitless attempt to
catch a glimpse of the sun for a noonday sight, the clouds broke away
and the breeze freshened. The boy and his companions jumped at the
orders to "shorten sail and take in the royals." Quickly they climbed
the shrouds, passed one great yard after another in their upward
journey, and came at last to the royals. The boy was first. He looked
down at the narrow deck below him, and at the curved surfaces of the
billowing sails. It seemed as if his weight alone would suffice to
overturn the vessel. The lightness and delicacy of the entire fabric
were never so apparent to him. He could see his companions crawling up,
their faces lifted, and panting from their exertions. The sunlight cast
dark blue shadows on the sails below. Two great ridges of foam
stretched out from the Constitution's bows. The taut sheets had
begun to hum under the stress of the increasing breeze. The boy began
to chant his strange song--a song of pure exhilaration.
With so many light kites flying, something might carry away at any
moment, however, and he heard the officer of the deck shout up for them
to hasten. Then he let his eyes rove toward the horizon line as he took
his position in the bunt.
Far away against the sky where the clouds shut down upon the water, he
saw a speck of white! Leaning back from the yard, he drew a long
breath; those on deck stopped their work for an instant, the officer
took a step sideways in order the better to see the masthead.
"Sail ho!" clear and distant had come down from the royal yard.
"Where away?" called the officer, making a trumpet of his hands.
"Two points off the larboard bow, sir," was the reply.
"Clew up and clew down," was now the order. The steersman climbed the
wheel, and with a great bone in her teeth the Constitution hauled her
wind and made sail in chase of the distant stranger. In a quarter of an
hour she was made out to be a ship, and then came the cry a second
time: "Sail ho!" There was another vessel ahead of the first! A half an
hour more, and both were discovered to be ships standing close-hauled,
with their starboard tacks on board. At eight bells in the afternoon
they were in plain sight from the deck, little signal flags creeping up
and down their halliards--ship fashion, they were holding consultation.
Then the weathermost bore up for her consort, who was about ten miles
distant and to leeward; and crowding on everything she could carry
again, the Constitution boiled along after her. The lower, topmast,
topgallant, and royal studding-sails were thrown out, and hand over
hand she overhauled them.
The boy was aloft again. He had caught the fever of excitement that
even the old hands felt, as they saw that the magazine was open and
that powder and shot were being dealt out for the divisions. The
half-ports to leeward had to be kept closed to prevent the water from
flooding the decks.
The boy stayed after the other youngsters had descended. He could feel
the royal mast swaying and whipping like a fishing-rod--the stays were
as tight as the strings of a fiddle. They felt like iron to the grasp;
they had narrowed under the tension. The wind in the deep sails below
played a sonorous bass to the high treble of their singing. The ship
was murmuring like a hive, now and then creaking as she lurched under
How it happened the boy never knew; but as suddenly as winking there
came a report as of a cannon aloft; the main royal, upon the yard of
which he was leaning, flew off, and caught by the tacks and sheets,
fell down across the yard below. The main-topgallant mast had been
carried clean away. No one, not even the boy himself, knew how it all
occurred. Perhaps he had laid hold of one of the reef points. Perhaps
he had made a lucky jump. But there he lay in the bight made by the
folds of the royal, softly resting against the bosom of the sail below,
unhurt, but slightly dizzy. From the hamper of wreckage above hung one
of the loosened clew-lines. The end of it reached down to the
cross-trees. Reaching forth, the young topman tested it, and seeing it
would hold, emerged from his hanging nest, and swinging free for an
instant, managed with his monkey-like powers to lay hold of a stay and
reach the shrouds. There was a cheer from below, as he sprang to the
deck, and this time there was no reprimand.
The loss of her upper sails appeared to impede the speed of the frigate
but little. It would not be long now before the bow-chasers might be
expected to begin. The men were mustered on the deck. Along came the
stewards and the mess-men with the customary grog.
The officers all this time had been busy surveying the two ships. An
hour ago they had been pronounced to be English.
Old Renwick grumbled as he watched the men pour down the half pannikin
of scalding liquor.
"Well, here's to us," chuckled a tall, red-nosed sailor, emptying the
stuff down his throat as if it had been spring water. "Here's to us,
and every stick in the old ship."
"We ought to get double allowance," put in another man just before it
was his turn to take his portion. "There are two of 'em to fight, which
makes me twice as thirsty. Here's to the best thing in the
Quartermaster Renwick did not like to hear all this, and overcome by a
sudden impulse, he stepped out from behind the bitts. There were two
buckets full of the strong-smelling drink resting on the deck. With a
sweep of his foot he upset them both! A howl of rage went up from all
sides. One of the men loosened a belaying-pin and advanced
threateningly. The old sailor stood his ground.
"Avast this 'ere swillin', lads," he said; "there shall be no Dutch
courage on board this ship." He folded his arms and stood looking at
the angry crowd. The First Lieutenant had observed the whole
occurrence, and immediately gave the order to beat to quarters. The
boy, thinking that his old friend was about to be attacked, had jumped
to his side. But his station in action was on the forecastle, where he
was powder-monkey for the two forward guns.
The call to quarters and the rolling of the drum had stopped any
trouble that might have arisen owing to the quartermaster's sudden
action, but the men were surly, and it would have been hard for him if
they could have reached him unseen.
Every second now brought the Constitution closer to the enemy. Never
could the boy forget his sensations as he saw the gunners bend down and
aim the forward gun on the larboard bow. The smoke from the shot blew
back through the port. The gun next to it now spoke, but both balls
fell short, and neither of the ships replied.
They were both ably handled, and their commanders had now reached
some understanding as to the conduct of the action; for when the
Constitution was yet a mile's distance from them they passed near
enough to one another to speak through the trumpet.
The beginning of an action at sea, before the blood is heated by the
sight of carnage and the ear accustomed to the strange sounds and the
indifference to danger has grown over the consciousness of self, is the
most exciting moment. There is a sense of unreality in the appearance
of the enemy. If he is coming bravely up to fight, there is no hatred
felt for him. Men grow intensely critical at such moments, strange to
say. They admire their opponent's skill, although they are inclined to
smile exultantly if they perceive he is making missteps. Captain
Stewart and his officers, grouped at the side, were discussing calmly
the probable designs of the enemy.
"Egad! They are hauling by the wind, and they are going to wait for
us," said Stewart.
"They are not going to run, at any event," observed the First
Lieutenant. "They are tidy-looking sloops of war, sir!"
In five minutes both the English vessels had made all sail,
close-hauled by the wind, with the plain intention of trying to
outpoint the frigate.
"No, you don't, my friends," remarked Stewart to himself. "Not if I
know my ship."
The crew, who were watching the oncomers, shared his sentiment, for
they knew that the Constitution was not to be beaten on that point of
sailing; and the strangers soon noticed this, also, for they shortened
sail and formed on a line at about half a cable's length apart. Not a
shot had been fired since the two bow guns had given challenge, but now
the time had come, the huge flag of the Constitution went up to the
peak, and in answer both ships hoisted English ensigns. Scarce three
hundred yards now separated the antagonists. The English ships had
started cheering. It was the usual custom of the Anglo-Saxon to go into
battle that way. Quartermaster Renwick called for three cheers from the
Constitution's men, but they had not forgotten, at least some of
them, his upsetting of the grog. His unpopularity at that present
moment was evident, for few answered the call, and thus silently the
men at the guns waited for the word to fire.
The boy was half-way down the companion ladder when it came. There was
a great jar the whole vessel's length. A deafening explosion, and the
fight was on!
For fifteen minutes it was hammer and tongs. Broadside after broadside
was exchanged, and then it was noticed that the English had begun to
slacken their return; and now they suddenly were silent. A strange
phenomenon here took place. As all the combatants were close-hauled and
the wind was light, a great bank of opaque sulphurous smoke had
gathered all about them. The Constitution ceased firing, also; for
although the enemy was within two hundred yards' distance, not a sight
of either ship could be seen. They were blotted out; their condition
and their exact positions were unknown. Not a gun was fired for three
minutes, and then the smoke cleared away.
"Here they are!" cried Stewart, and his exclamation was drowned with a
broadside, for the gunners of the Constitution had discovered that
the headmost ship was just abreast of them and but a hundred feet away.
The sternmost was luffing up with the intention of reaching the
Constitution's quarter. The smoke from the big guns had hidden
everything again, but orders were now coming fast from the
quarter-deck. Men were hastening aloft, and others were tailing on to
the braces, tacks, and sheets. The main and mizzen top-sails were
braced aback against the mast, and slowly the Constitution began to
move stern foremost through the water. It was as if nowadays the order
had come to reverse the engines at full speed. All the sailors saw the
importance of this act. They were cheering now, and they had good right
to do so. Instead of finding herself on the larboard side and in good
position for raking, the English vessel was in a very bad position. It
must have astonished her commander to find himself so unexpectedly
confronted, but he was directly beneath the Constitution's guns
again. There was no help for it. He was forced to receive her fire. The
big sloop of war, which had been deserted so unceremoniously, kept on
making a great hubbub, aiming at the place where she supposed the
Yankee frigate yet to be.
To repeat all the details of the rest of the struggle would be but to
recount a tale filled with the detailed working of a ship and nautical
expressions, but it is safe to state that never was a vessel better
handled, and never did a captain win a title more honestly than did
Charles Stewart the sobriquet of "Fighting Stewart."
It was ten minutes of seven in the evening when the first English
vessel struck her flag. She proved to be His Britannic Majesty's sloop
of war Cyane, under the command of Captain Gordon Falcon, a gallant
officer, and one who had earned distinction in the service. His ship,
that he had fought bravely, mounted thirty-four guns. He was so
overcome with emotion at having to surrender, that he could scarcely
return Captain Stewart's greeting when he came on board, for he had
entered the fight declaring that he was going to receive the Yankee's
sword. As soon as he had placed a prize crew on board the Cyane,
Stewart headed the Constitution for the other sloop of war, who was
doing her best to get away. So fast did he overhaul her that the
Levant--for that was her name--turned back to meet her big opponent,
and bravely prepared to fight it out. But it was no use, and after some
firing and manoeuvring Captain George Douglass struck his colors, as
his friend Falcon had been forced to do some time earlier.
But what of old Renwick and the boy? They lay below in the cockpit--the
old man with a shattered leg and the hero of the royal yard with a bad
splinter wound across his chest. Men forget their wounds in moments of
great mental excitement; since he had been brought below, the
quartermaster had been following every movement of the ship as if he
had been on deck.
"We are luffing up," he would say. "Ah! there we go, we headed her that
time! By tar, my hearties, we will win the day! Hark to 'em! Hear 'em
bark!" And so he kept it up, regardless of the fact that his shattered
leg was soon to be taken off; and all of the thirteen wounded men there
under the surgeon's care listened to him, and when the news came down
that the first vessel had struck, Renwick called for cheers, and they
were given this time with a will!
Three or four days after the fight, Captain Stewart was dining in his
cabin, and as usual his guests were the English captains, who had not
yet entirely recovered from the deep chagrin incident to their
surrender. How it started, no one exactly knew. It is not on record
which of the gentlemen was at fault for the beginning of the quarrel,
but they were fighting their battles over again in a discussion that
grew more heated every moment. Suddenly one of the officers, jumping to
his feet, accused the other of being responsible for what he termed
"the unfortunate conclusion of the whole affair." Hot words were
exchanged. Stewart, who, of course, had his own opinions on the matter
in question, said nothing, until at last he perceived that things might
be going too far, and it was time for him to interfere. Smiling
blandly, and looking from one of the angry men to the other, he spoke
"Gentlemen, there is only one way that I see, to decide this
question,--to put you both on your ships again, give you back your
crews, and try it over."
This ended the argument, but the story went the rounds of the ship, and
one of the lieutenants in writing to a brother officer described the
incident in those exact words.
Quartermaster Renwick survived the loss of his leg, and he used to
relate the story of how and where he lost it to the youngsters who
would gather about his favorite bench fronting the Battery seawall.
The boy recovered also, and he served his country until they laid him
on the shelf after the Civil War was over. Very nearly forty years
had he passed in the navy, where he grew to be a great hand at
yarn-spinning, and was much quoted, for he linked the service back to
the days of wind and sail, although he had lived to see the era of
steam and steel. His favorite story of them all was of the old
Constitution and how she behaved under the command of "Fighting