Fighting Stewart

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

the pressure.

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

as follows:--

"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


Fate Of Seven Sailors Who Were Left On The Island Of St Maurice Fingal's Cave facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail