Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Charles Stewart

Charles Stewart


In the splendid galaxy of naval officers of the early part of the century each one seems to have gained some special distinction, equally brilliant, but differing entirely from any other. Thus, as Hull made the most remarkable escape on record, and Decatur succeeded in the most daring enterprise, so Stewart may be credited with the most superb seamanship in the one great fight that fell to his lot, for with one ship, the glorious Constitution, he fought two vessels at the same time, raking them repeatedly, without once being raked himself, and in the end forcing the surrender of both his antagonists.

Charles Stewart was born in Philadelphia in 1778, and entered the merchant service at thirteen years of age. At twenty he had risen to the command of a fine vessel in the India trade, but on the reorganization of the navy in 1798 he was given a naval commission. His rise in the navy was rapid, as he was an accomplished seaman when he joined it. After serving for a short time as a midshipman, he was made the junior lieutenant on the United States, frigate, when she was commissioned at the beginning of hostilities with France. With him on this cruise were Decatur and Somers; and, as Fennimore Cooper aptly says, the noble frigate turned out to be a nursery of heroes.

Stewart began the cruise as fourth, and ended it as first, lieutenant. He was of commanding figure and of pleasing address, and his capacity was such that from the first he was thought likely to distinguish himself.

When the United States was laid up in ordinary, Stewart was given the command of a small schooner, the Experiment. In this little vessel he showed much spirit and enterprise, making many captures, and fighting whenever he had a chance.

Stewart was, like Decatur, of an impetuous and even domineering disposition, and made everybody under him "walk Spanish," as the sailors said. But he himself knew how to obey promptly. Once, having received a peremptory order from his superior officer to report with his ship immediately, Stewart sailed, towing his mainmast after him, as he had not time to have it fitted and did not choose to wait.

In 1803 he was sent to the Mediterranean with the Siren, a beautiful little cruiser, as a part of Commodore Preble's squadron destined to reduce Tripoli. Stewart was the senior among the commodore's "schoolboy captains," and second in command to Commodore Preble himself.

Although he had no opportunity of performing deeds like Decatur's in the Tripolitan war, his general good conduct was highly praised, and the Siren was brilliantly engaged in all the glorious actions of that famous time. At the beginning of the war of 1812 Stewart was given the command of the Constellation, frigate, which shared with the Constitution  the reputation of being a lucky ship,—lucky in meeting and whipping her enemies when the force was anything like equal, and lucky in running away when they were too many for her. Stewart took command of this noble ship at Annapolis in 1813. He was ordered to Norfolk, and took the ship to Hampton Roads. He arrived and anchored one night, and next morning at daylight there were five British men-of-war in sight of him. The Constellation  endeavored to get out of the way, and the British ships chased her, but, the wind failing, both the pursuers and the pursued were becalmed. Stewart, though, remembering the Constitution's  escape by kedging from a British squadron, concluded it would never do that the Constellation  should not succeed equally as well; so, putting out his boats, the frigate was kedged up toward Norfolk, until the tide fell, and she took the ground at Seawell's Point, not far from the present Fort Monroe. The mud was soft, the ship's bottom was hard, and the tide would rise; so Stewart felt no alarm about her. The British squadron were also waiting for the tide, but they did not think that Stewart would attempt to get his ship up the narrow and tortuous channel to Norfolk.

They did not know Stewart, though. As soon as the darkness of the winter night came, and the tide began to lift the ship out of the mud, he sent pilots ahead to buoy the channel with lights. The ship, helped somewhat by the wind, but towed by the boats, would go a mile or two up to the nearest buoy, when that light would be put out, and she would be headed for the next one. So quietly was this done that the British never suspected what was going on. But when daylight came there was no Constellation  to be seen; she was safe in the Elizabeth River.

The British determined to blockade her there, and succeeded in doing so; but although they made several desperate attempts to carry her by boarding, they never succeeded. Stewart had her so well guarded with boats, and the boats with a circle of booms, while the ship was protected with boarding netting, her guns kept double-shotted, and her officers and crew always on the alert, that her enemies themselves were forced to admire the care taken of her. It was the joke among the British officers that Stewart must be a Scotchman, he was so wary and so watchful with his ship; and the British Admiral is said to have remarked: "If that had been a French ship, we would have had her long ago."

Having satisfied himself that although the Constellation  could not be taken, yet it was unlikely that she would get out during the war, Stewart applied for and got the Constitution. This was in 1814. The Constitution  had then made her celebrated escape from Admiral Broke's squadron, and had destroyed the Guerriere  and the. Java,—for when "old Ironsides "got through with an enemy, he was generally past saving. It may be imagined with what splendid hopes Stewart took the great ship after she had been refitted at Boston. He got out, although seven British ships blockaded Boston, and sailed to the West Indies. He made a few prizes, and took a small British cruiser; but this was not enough for the Constitution  to do. Stewart's disappointment with his cruise was great, and it almost seemed as if the ship were no longer to be a favorite of fortune, until she was chased by two frigates, the Junon  and the Tenedos, off the Massachusetts coast. Stewart had a good pilot aboard, and he made for Marble-head under a spanking breeze, with the two British frigates legging it briskly after him. The Constitution  drew about twenty-two feet of water, and Stewart could not conceal his anxiety as the pilot carried her along the dangerous coast, and it seemed as if any moment she might be put on the rocks. The pilot, though, a cool-headed, steady fellow, knew his business, and was nettled at Stewart's evident uneasiness. The British ships, not knowing the coast, declined to follow, and were falling slightly astern; but it looked as if the Constitution  would only escape one danger to be destroyed by another. Presently Stewart asked the pilot for the hundredth time,

"How many feet of water has she under her keel now, pilot?"

"Two," answered the pilot; when, seeing Stewart's countenance turn pale with apprehension, he added nonchalantly: "And afore long she won't have but one!"

The effect of this news upon the captain of a war-ship may be imagined; but in a moment or two the ship slipped into deep water, and, carrying sail hard, got into Marblehead safe and sound, while cheering multitudes flocked to the shore to welcome her.

In a few days Stewart succeeded in slipping into Boston again,—the sixth time in the course of the war that the ship had eluded the British blockade. Stewart took up his berth in the upper harbor, and as he was known to be a fighting captain with a fighting ship, the State and city authorities concluded that they would rather have him a little farther off. Accordingly they asked him to take his ship down into the lower harbor, as, if the British blockading fleet attacked him where he was, the cannonade would do great damage to the town. Stewart's reply to this request was characteristic. He coolly informed them that he should stay where he was, but it would make very little difference to them where he lay, as, "if attacked, I shall make such a defence as will endanger the town." He recommended them to build some additional batteries to defend the town. The authorities had to be satisfied with this reply; but they took Stewart's advice, and increased their batteries so that they were better prepared than before to meet a bombardment, should the British fleet treat them to one.

On the 17th of December, 1814, Stewart again slipped past the blockading fleet, making the seventh time the Constitution  had done this, and sailed on his last and greatest cruise. He had lately been married, and it is said that he asked his wife what he should bring home to her. She replied, "A British frigate." Stewart replied, "I will bring you two of them." He kept his promise.

Stewart was soon on the broad ocean. Nothing of note happened until February, when one morning, off the coast of Portugal, Stewart suddenly and from no reason he was able to give, except an unaccountable impulse to proceed to a certain spot in the Atlantic, changed the ship's course and ran off sixty miles to the southwest. At two o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th of February, 1815, about sixty leagues southwest of the Madeira islands, a small frigate, the Cyane, was sighted, and a little later a large sloop-of-war, the Levant. The Constitution  immediately gave chase, although it was thought that one of the ships was much heavier than she really was, as she had double gun-streaks and false ports painted amidships, which the Americans, in chasing, took for real guns and ports.

It soon became plain that the two ships were bent on fighting, but they maneuvered in a very masterly manner for several hours, in order to get together before trying conclusions with the great frigate. At five minutes past six o'clock they hove to and hoisted their ensigns, and the Constitution  replied by showing her colors. The three ships were arranged like the points of an equilateral triangle,—a very advantageous position for the two attacking ships, but one which was turned by the superb seamanship of Stewart to his own profit by what is commonly esteemed to have been the finest maneuvering ever known of an American ship in action. Stewart fought his port and starboard batteries alternately, giving one of his antagonists a terrible broadside, then wearing, and letting fly at the other, raking them repeatedly, and handling his ship in such a manner that neither the Levant  nor the Cyane  ever got in a single raking broadside.

Soon after the action began, a full moon arose in splendor, and by its radiance the battle went on stoutly. There was a good working breeze, and the British captains handled their ships admirably, but "old Ironsides "appeared to be playing with them. She answered her helm beautifully, and always presented her broadside to the ship that attempted to approach her. Soon both the British ships were suffering dreadfully, and the leading ship, the sloop-of-war Levant, was forced to wear under a raking broad-side from the Constitution, and ran off to leeward, unable to stand the fire. Having disposed of her, the Constitution  now turned her attention to the other ship, the light frigate Cyane, and another raking broadside caused her to strike her colors. Stewart at once sent Lieutenant Ballard and a prize crew aboard of her, and after repairing the slight damages his ship had sustained, set off to look for the Levant. She too had repaired damages, and, although free to escape, was gallantly returning to meet her mighty antagonist again. For a time the little Levant  bravely withstood the heavy frigate's fire, but at last was forced to run away, the Constitution  pursuing her. The two ships were so close that those in the Constitution  could hear the planks ripping on the Levant  as the heavy shot tore through her. At ten o'clock she was overhauled, and forced to strike also, and the Constitution  had gained the most brilliant and seamanlike of all her victories.

The Constitution  lost in this fight three men killed and twelve wounded. The other two ships lost, altogether, nineteen killed and forty-two wounded.

The Constitution, with her two prizes, made sail for Porto Praya, where they arrived on the 10th of March. Next day, about twelve o'clock, while the captured officers of the Cyane  and Levant  were on the quarter-deck, the first lieutenant, happening to pass along, heard a little midshipman who had been taken on the Cyane  utter an exclamation to Captain Falcon, late of the Cyane,

"Oh, Captain Falcon," he cried, "look at the large ship in the offing!"

"Hold your tongue, you little rascal!" answered Captain Falcon, in a low voice.

The American lieutenant looked up and saw, on the top of a fog bank that lay on the water, the sails of a large ship. Indistinctly as she was seen, the squareness and smartness of her rig induced the lieutenant to think her a man-of-war. Instantly he went below and told the captain. Stewart, who was shaving, without stopping in his occupation, directed him to call the men to quarters, and make ready to go out and attack the advancing ship. The lieutenant went on deck, gave the order, and it was promptly obeyed. The men were not surprised, because, as they explained, a dog belonging to the ship had been drowned that day, and they knew they would have to fight or run within twenty-four hours. Then the lieutenant noticed that two more ships had appeared above the fog-bank, with the first one. He ran below to tell this to Stewart, who was wiping his face and getting into his uniform at the same time.

"Cut the cables," he said, "and signal the prizes to do the same and follow us out."

In another minute he was on deck, and the cables were out, leaving the anchors at the bottom, and sail was being made with perfect order and marvellous rapidity. In fourteen minutes from the time the first ship had been seen, and ten minutes from the time the Constitution's  cable had been cut, the frigate was standing out of the roads under a cloud of canvas, ready to fight or run, as occasion might require.

The trade winds were blowing, and the Constitution, with her two prizes, passed within gun-shot of the three strangers. Some of the English prisoners who had been landed, manned a battery on shore and opened fire on the Americans. This and other circumstances revealed to the British squadron that the three ships making out to sea were American men-of-war, and they promptly tacked and followed.

The British ships were the Acasta, of forty guns, a very fast ship; the Leander, of fifty guns; and the Newcastle, of fifty guns, all be longing to Admiral Sir George Collier's fleet. The British officers, prisoners on the Constitution, became jubilant as the British ships gained on the Constitution  with her two prizes, and promised the Americans that "Kerr in the Acasta" would soon overhaul the Americans. One of the British captains, standing in the stern gallery, called out as the Acasta  neared the Constitution, "Captain Kerr, I envy you your glory this day!"

Stewart, with his men at quarters and every rag of canvas set that would draw, was edging off, but prepared to fight the three heavy frigates with the Constitution  and the two smaller ships if obliged to. He signalled the Cyane  and the Levant  to take different courses, so that the British squadron might divide in pursuit. This was done, and to the amazement of the Americans and the painful chagrin of the British prisoners the Acasta  suddenly went about in pursuit of the Levant, which, by a singular mistake, was supposed to be a heavy American frigate; the other two ships followed, while the Constitution  was trotting off at an eleven-knot gait.

The Levant  put back to Porto Praya, which was a neutral port; but the three frigates, after chasing her in, opened fire on her, and her commander, Lieutenant Ballard, of the Constitution, hauled down his flag. He had his revenge, though. When the British prize-master came on board to take possession of the Levant, he said, "This is, I presume, the American man-of-war Peacock." "You are mistaken, sir," replied Ballard coolly; "this is the Levant, late of his Britannic Majesty's navy, and prize to the United States ship Constitution."

The commander of the British squadron was censured at home for his mistake in leaving the Constitution  that he might go in pursuit of the smaller ship; and the affair on the part of the British was thought to have been bungled to the last degree.

Stewart carried the grand old ship into New York the middle of May, and then learned that peace had been made many months before.

He was received with acclamations. The people by that time had come to believe the ship invincible. Besides her glorious career before Tripoli, she had made two extraordinary escapes from British squadrons. She had run the blockade seven times through large British fleets. She had captured two heavy frigates, one light frigate, a large sloop-of-war, and many merchant-ships, and had made more than eleven hundred prisoners. Her fire had always been fearfully destructive, while she had never had any great slaughter on her decks, nine being the largest number killed in any single engagement. She had never lost her commanding officer, either by wounds or death, had never lost a mast, and had never taken the ground. This record is not one of chance. She was, first, one of the best built frigates in the world; and, second, she was officered and manned in a surprisingly good manner. Her crews were generally made up wholly of American seamen, and her four great commanders during her warlike career—Preble, Hull, Bainbridge, and Stewart—would have given a good account of any ships they might have commanded.

Congress rewarded Stewart by a gold medal and a resolution of thanks. His officers received silver medals, and there was the usual distribution of prize-money among the officers and crew.

Stewart had a long and distinguished career in the navy, rising in 1859 to be senior officer; but his fighting days were his early days. He commanded the Franklin in 1817, a splendid line-of-battle ship, and took her to Europe under his broad pennant as Commodore. She was visited by the Emperor of Austria, and many royal persons, besides officers of high rank in foreign navies, all of whom were struck with admiration at her beauty, force, and the fine crew she carried. Stewart was retired in 1861, and spent his last days at his country-place, "Old Ironsides," in New Jersey. Among the souvenirs of his great fight was a rude iron hilt to his full-dress sword, a superb Toledo blade. The gold hilt had been shot away in his great fight, and the ship's armorer had made an iron one, which Stewart afterward wore.

He died in 1869, after having been borne on the navy list for seventy-one years, and he was the last survivor of the great captains of 1812-15.