Sea Stories

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 him. 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 words:-- "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 harbor." 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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