Monday, December 6, 2010

Deleting an Urban Legend on USS Constitution

The Internet is a wonderful tool for distributing information.  Unfortunately, that includes urban legends and misinformation.  You made have seen this e-mail forwarded to your inbox:


The U. S. S.. Constitution (Old Ironsides), as a combat vessel, carried 48,600 gallons of fresh water for her crew of 475 officers and men. This was sufficient to last six months of sustained operations at sea. She carried no evaporators (i.e. fresh water distillers).

However, let it be noted that according to her ship's log, "On July 27, 1798, the U.S.S. Constitution sailed from Boston with a full complement of 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of fresh water; 7,400 cannon shot; 11,600 pounds of black powder and 79,400 gallons of rum."

Her mission: "To destroy and harass English shipping."
Making Jamaica on 6 October, she took on 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum.

Then she headed for the Azores , arriving there 12 November. . .She provisioned with 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine.

On 18 November, she set sail for England . In the ensuing days she defeated five British men-of-war and captured and scuttled 12 English merchant ships, salvaging only the rum aboard each.

By 26 January, her powder and shot were exhausted. Nevertheless, although unarmed she made a night raid up the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. Her landing party captured a whisky distillery and transferred 40,000 gallons of single malt Scotch aboard by dawn. Then she headed home.

The U. S. S. Constitution arrived in Boston on 20 February 1799, with no cannon shot, no food, no powder, no rum, no wine, no whisky, and 38,600 gallons of water.

I told my students, "That’s probably where the expression ‘Sailing the  High Seas originated.’"


Not only is this "forward" full of errors, it is somewhat insulting to the real history of "Old Ironsides."  Here are just a few of the errors:

1) In 1799, the United States was war with France, not England.  The British were actually our unofficial allies in the "Quasi-War" with the French Republic. 
2) The United States Navy moved away from using Jamaican rum as part of the grog ration and moved towards more home grown spirits such as Kentucky whisky.  Captains also had a strict policy against public intoxication.  A sailor found less than sober was often subject to flogging.
3) Speaking of Jamaica, the colony was a major British naval station.  Why would it outfit an American warship during an alleged war with the British?
4) USS Constitution defeated four British warships (Java, Guerriere, Levant, and Cyane) the War of 1812.
5) Having said that, Constitution never raided the home isles.  However, the brig USS Argus did (see the book Fatal Cruise of the Argus). 
6) When a warship captured a merchant ship, the alcohol supply was the last thing on the captain's mind.  Instead, he was looking for goods he could sell when the cruise was over. 

I strongly suggest going to Constitution's website to see more about the real ship.  Better yet, go to Boston and see the ship in person.


Christopher said...

If you run the the numbers provided:
- 209 Days on Cruse.
- 187,700 Total Distilled Spirits Gallons used on cruse.
- 475men on board

This equates to 1.89 Gallons per man per day. The US Navy ration for distilled spirits was .5 Pints.
Thus the author implies that each man aboard Constitution consumed on averag 1.89 Gallons (or 30.25 times his daily ration)a day for the duration of the cruise.

I should also note that even If one accepts the statistics of distilled spirits loaded aboard the Constitution, one certainly need NOT accept that it was due to crew consumption.

Note: Distilled spirits were treated as international currency and could be, and often were, traded for things a vessel may need like rope, new yardarms, provisions etc. etc.

Unknown said...

very good points. Now I will admit that the American sailor tended to be an alcoholic and the grog ration possibly caused it (a charge made by many anti-grog politicians and Naval officers like Andrew Foote). All too often when an American warship pull into port in the 19th century, European and American wine and spirit vendors had their carts at pier side.

Additionally there are a couple document examples in the American Civil War when a blockade runner was captured and it had brandy on board, the officers "liberally tasted it for quality."

There is once incident during the Nat Turner Slave Revolt where American sailors from two warships en route to Southampton County, Virginia came upon an apple farmer who made hard apple cider. The farmer decided to "support the troops" and handed out as much hard cider as they wanted. The officers did not stop him. They arrived a week after the revolt had been suppressed, quite inebriated. The militiamen didn’t mind because they were inebriated too.

scottdave said...

I guess they should call it a Sea Story, rather than an Urban Legend.

Unknown said...

As an ex sailor i find it hilarious that non sailors are bewildered when our tales are at best exaggerated or at worst completely made up. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is one of the first things you learn.

Indigonegative said...

I am a professional journalist. I cannot enjoy a supposedly factual story full of fallacy. I'd rather read Treasure Island.

Ead101 said...

There's tall tales and there's factually incorrect internet nonsense