The Navy celebrates its birthday, with no great enthusiasm, every 13 October. On that date in 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the outfitting of two ten-gun vessels. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, the United States had no Navy for nine years. On 27 March 1794, however, the service was reborn-with muscle. Congress authorized the construction of six warships, which ended up being the biggest, fastest, and most powerful frigates afloat.
The exploits of these mighty vessels—the Chesapeake, Congress, Constellation, Constitution, President, and United States—are frequently featured in Naval History's pages. But in this issue we examine an indispensable yet often-overlooked side of the frigates' history: their Sailors.
Our main article, "'Children of the Storm': Life at Sea in the First Six Frigates," is by Charles E. Brodine Jr., a War of 1812 historian at the Naval History & Heritage Command. Retired Navy Commander Tyrone Martin, who commanded the still-in-commission Constitution, contributed "The Butcher's Bill," about care of "Old Ironsides'" casualties after her battle with HMS Guerriere. Finally, in "Getting the Feel of Frigate Sailor Life," Sarah H. Watkins describes a new exhibit at the USS Constitution Museum.
In the mid-19th century, one of the most famous—or infamous, depending on one's perspective—of the frigates' tars was none other than Herman Melville, author of the classic whaling tome Moby Dick. In August 1843, eight years before that book's publication, he enlisted in the Navy for service in the United States. The budding writer was stranded in Hawaii, and serving on board the frigate meant free passage to New England.
The subsequent trip across the Pacific, around Cape Horn, and to Boston was unexceptional as far as warship voyages go, and Melville was discharged from the Navy on 14 October 1844. Five and a half years later, the publication of his novel White-Jacket touched off a firestorm. About a voyage similar to his own in the fictional Navy frigate Neversink, it presented a fascinating look at Sailor life but cast the service in a highly unfavorable light, to say the least.
For instance, Melville wrote, "The Navy is the asylum for the perverse, the home of the unfortunate." He reserved his harshest criticism for the practice of flogging, even imploring readers to demand of their legislators what right they had in condoning the harsh, often arbitrarily imposed punishment.
Naval officers were outraged. According to Melville scholar Stanton Gardner, who wrote the introduction to the 1988 edition of White-Jacket (Naval Institute Press), Commander Thomas O. Selfridge penned a 21-page rebuttal in which he pointed out errors in the book and opined that the author's "mind and feelings were . . . warped by prejudice . . . elated by any advantage the sailor might obtain over the officer." Commander Samuel F. DuPont, a firm believer in the positive powers of the "cat," called Melville an "undyed villain."
In the end, Congress abolished flogging in September 1850 and the book that had gotten the Navy so worked up proved a commercial failure. Ironically, the reform-minded author had been a model Navy Sailor. As Gardner put it, Melville "was precisely the kind of sailor who . . . harbored no enmity toward the officers of his ship."
Richard G. Latture