Reuben James Able Seaman

This is a story that has oft been told before. But in history, if a man

becomes famous by one act, and be that act something worth recording,

it will stand being told about again. So if this be an old yarn, this

is the only apology for the spinning, and here goes for it:--

Reuben James may be well remembered by men who are yet living, for he

died but some fifty years ago. He was born in the state of Delaware, of

the good old "poor but honest" stock. Sailor boy and man was Reuben,

with a vocabulary limited to the names of things on shipboard and the

verbs to pull and haul. He went to sea at the age of thirteen years,

and in 1797, when only a lad of sixteen, although he had already made

three or four cruises of some length, he was captured by a French

privateer during the quasi-war between this country and the citizen

Republic of France. Upon his liberation, Reuben made up his mind to

serve no longer in the merchant service, but to ship as soon as

possible in the best frigate that flew our flag; and as his

imprisonment lasted but some five or six months, he soon found

opportunity for revenge. Upon returning to the States he was fortunate

enough to find the old Constellation in port picking up her crew.

This was in the year 1799, and the old ship was then in command of the

intrepid Commodore Truxtun, and he was her commander when she gave such

a drubbing to the French frigates Insurgente and Vengeance, which

taught the citizens a lesson, and brought to an end, as much as any

other thing, the ridiculous situation of two nations not actually at

war fighting one another at sea whenever they met. In these actions

young James distinguished himself. He was by nature fearless to the

verge of recklessness, and he was probably in trouble, on account of

his devil-may-care propensities, more than once. In 1804, he sailed in

the frigate United States to the Mediterranean, and when young

Stephen Decatur sailed into the harbor and successfully destroyed the

captured frigate Philadelphia, which the Tripolitans had anchored

beneath their batteries, Reuben James was one of the first to

volunteer. He returned from the successful accomplishment of the

design, impressed with the young leader's courage and magnetism, and as

often is the case between a beloved officer and the man who serves

under him, there grew up in the young sailor's heart--he and Decatur

were about the same age--a wild desire to do something to prove his

devotion. The affection of brave men for one another leads to deeds of

noble self-sacrifice, and Reuben James's chance was to come. Every time

that he was assigned to boat duty in the many skirmishes and little

actions, before the harbor of Tripoli, Reuben succeeded in going in

Decatur's boat, and one day to his delight he was promoted to be

cockswain, which must have proved that Decatur's keen eye had noticed


On the 3d of August, 1804, early in the morning, the orders were sent

throughout Commodore Preble's fleet to prepare for a general attack to

take place as soon as it was broad daylight. The American force

consisted of the Constitution and a number of gunboats of the same

style and size as those composing the Tripolitan forces. Everything was

ready on time, but the lack of wind prevented the action from taking

place until late in the afternoon, when the Constitution, preceded by

three of the American gunboats, entered the harbor. There were nine of

the Bey's crack vessels, composing the eastern wing, waiting not far

from shore. The three Yankee gunboats bore down upon them without

hesitation, in gallant style. In slap-bang fashion, they sailed right

into the Tripolitans and captured, cutlass in hand, the three leading

ones. The other six fled and came plashing up the harbor, working their

heavy sweeps for all they were worth.

A few minutes after their retreat, one of the other vessels that, to

all appearances, had surrendered, broke away and started up the harbor,

scrambling along as fast as she could go. Decatur in his small boat was

not far away. There was a mist of battle smoke hanging over the water,

and for an instant he did not notice what was going on; but when he did

hear what had happened, all the fierce daring in his nature was

aroused, and mingled with the anger and desire for revenge, it

completely swept him away. He was told that the Tripolitan commander,

who had just made his escape, had treacherously risen upon the prize

crew sent on board of him, after he had struck his flag, and with his

own hands had killed Decatur's beloved brother James. When this news

reached him, Decatur did not falter.

"After him!" he cried to his crew. "Put me alongside of him!"

"We'll put you there, sir," said Reuben James, who was at the tiller.

And out of the smoke into the plain view of the guns of the battery and

also of the American captives, who had viewed the whole affair from the

window of their prison, the little boat started in the wake of the

felucca, whose force of men outnumbered hers by three to one. They

gained at every jump, and in a few minutes they had run their little

boat alongside, thrown down their oars, and to a man had scrambled on

board the Tripolitan. Decatur had set his eye upon a red-turbaned

figure that he knew to be the leader. This man had killed his brother!

Almost before the bowman had laid hold of the enemy's gunwale, he had

made a flying leap off it and gained the deck. Ignoring every risk,

scarcely pausing to ward off the many blows that were aimed at him, he

made straight for the man in the red turban. The pirate was armed with

a long spear and one of those deadly curved scimitars, sharp as steel

can stand it, capable of lopping off a limb at a single stroke; drawing

back he aimed a full-length thrust as soon as Decatur confronted him,

for he must have read his fate in the determined look on the latter's

face. Decatur dodged skilfully and tried to come to closer quarters;

but the Tripolitan by great agility succeeded in keeping out of the

way, and once more he lunged. This time as Decatur parried his

sword-blade broke off at the hilt; dropping it, he laid hold of his

enemy's spear, and in the wrestle for its possession, he succeeded in

tripping up the Turk, and both fell upon the deck. The red-turbaned

one, freeing one hand, drew a dagger from his waist-cloth, and just as

he was about to plunge it into the body of the young American, Decatur

managed to draw a small pistol, and lifting himself on his elbow, blew

off the top of his opponent's head.

Revenge was his. But what about our friend Reuben? The only reason that

Decatur had not been killed in the early part of the struggle by the

many blows that were aimed at him--for the American boarding party

numbered but twelve all told--was the fact that seaman Reuben James was

close behind him, warding off blow after blow. Disdaining to protect

himself, his right arm was rendered useless, so that he had to shift

his cutlass to his left hand. He was slashed seven times about the

body. A cut on the shoulder made him drop his weapon, and just at this

moment he saw that Decatur was lying upon the deck with his foeman over

him. Behind him a sinewy man was aiming a deadly blow directly

downward. Reuben James sprang forward. His right arm was useless and

his left almost so. There was nothing he could interpose between that

deadly blow and his beloved commander but his life! Trying weakly to

push back the Tripolitan, he leaned forward swiftly and caught the blow

from the scimitar on his own head. It fractured his skull, and he fell

insensible to the deck.

But a Yankee sailor is a hard man to kill--in three weeks cockswain

James was at his post again. His recovery was no doubt due to his

wonderful constitution and his youth.

As soon as the war with Great Britain was declared, Reuben made all

haste to join his old commander, and he served in the frigate United

States when she captured the Macedonian, and afterwards in the

President when she took the Endymion. In both actions he got as

near Decatur as he could, and in the last-named conflict he received

three wounds. Although suffering greatly, he refused to leave the deck

until after the President had struck her flag to the squadron that

captured her, whereupon Reuben James was carried below weeping--not

from pain or anguish, but from sheer mortification and grief.

At Decatur's funeral he wept again, honest fellow, and whenever he came

to port he would visit his commander's grave. Reuben was in actual

service until the year 1836, when he arrived in Washington for the

purpose of obtaining a pension. He was suffering very much at this time

from an old musket-shot wound that had caused a disease of the bone of

his leg. It was exceedingly painful and becoming dangerous. After

consultation the doctors ordered amputation, and as he lay in the

hospital the decision was announced to him. With his old indifference

to danger, and his reckless spirit, Reuben replied in the following


"Doctor, you are the captain, sir. Fire away; but I don't think it is

shipshape to put me under jury masts when I have just come into


The day after the operation Reuben was very low, and it was thought

that he had but a few hours to live. The old sailor himself declared

that he had reached the bitter end of his rope, appeared resigned to

his fate, and begged the surgeon to "ease him off handsomely while he

was about it."

"Reuben," said the doctor, "we have concluded that we will give you a

good drink and allow you to name it. What will you have, brown stout or

brandy toddy?"

"I s'pose I won't take another for a long time, sir," Reuben responded,

with a twinkle in his eye. "So just s'pose you give us both; which one

first it doesn't much matter."

He prided himself that he had been in ten fights and as many

"skrimedges," and as he was a favorite character, he was allowed to

celebrate each in turn as they came around, so his happy days were

many. There was one subject to which, however, no one could ever

refer--Decatur's sad and untimely end. Always in his heart Reuben bore

a deep and lasting love, and an ever-living admiration for the man

whose life he had saved; and those friends of the young Commodore

always treated the old sailor with the greatest of deference. Had

Decatur lived, it is safe to state that wherever he went Reuben would

have gone also, and if the latter had not walked bare-headed and

weeping at his officer's funeral; and had it been the other way about,

with Reuben being put to earth, Decatur would have been there, if

possible, hat in hand, to shed a tear of sorrow.

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