A native of tiny Woodstock, Connecticut, played an important role in many of the most celebrated events of the early history of the U.S. Navy. Born on 26 July 1784, Charles Morris was described as being about five foot nine or ten, with handsome features, an erect military posture, powerful broad shoulders, brown hair, and light blue eyes. His sense of humor and humanity is evident in a letter written on a chilly 1808 day to his cousin Lemuel Morris: “[H]ere I am shivering with cold, without a gulp of wine to inspire me, or a petticoat to warm me. . . . My furious horse . . . introduced me to about a dozen fine girls, for taking into his head that he should be well used at a house we were passing, he took the liberty of carrying me to the door . . . where a very polite gentlemen . . . invited us to both stop and dine.”1 (He goes on further to describe an encounter with a local “inamorata.”)
Morris’ strong familial naval ties presaged his future. His father, Charles senior, was a Navy purser, and his uncle Noadiah had served as secretary to Captain Silas Talbot in the frigate Constitution. In July 1799, at the age of 15, Charles Morris became midshipman in the 20-gun Baltimore, then shortly thereafter on board the frigate Congress (38 guns). The latter vessel was dismasted in a storm while sailing to the Indian Ocean, and Morris, hit by a falling spar, dislocated his shoulder. His father, the Congress’ purser, asked if he wished to reconsider a life in the Navy. The midshipman resolutely remained committed. On his return to Boston, he was assigned to the Constitution, under the command of Captain Edward Preble.
First Aboard at Tripoli
Morris’ first naval combat experience occurred during the American wars against the Barbary powers. While the Constitution was at Syracuse, Sicily, he became one of 70 volunteers for an expedition to destroy the U.S. frigate Philadelphia, which had struck a reef and now lay crippled and captured in Tripoli Harbor. On 3 February 1804 Lieutenant Stephen Decatur sailed the bomb ketch Intrepid with his band of volunteers to the Barbary Coast. Commodore Preble and the young midshipman obviously had formed a bond, because Morris was armed with two of Preble’s pistols. After 15 days on tempestuous Mediterranean waters, Decatur’s raiders entered the enemy harbor. Using a ruse, they pretended the ketch was a Maltese trader that needed to tie up to a mooring because of a lost anchor. Shortening sail, the Intrepid drifted within range of the principal battery protecting the harbor. Shortly after 2300 on a sultry night, the crew edged the ketch alongside the stricken Philadelphia.
An armed boarding party crouched out of sight below the ketch’s gunwales. When contact was made and lines secured, Morris was the first to spring aboard the disabled frigate, followed immediately by Decatur and the rest of the Intrepid’s crew. They quickly engaged the Barbary crew in hand-to-hand combat on the deck of the Philadelphia. The Tripolitans who resisted were killed, and the rest fled by leaping overboard. Then the Americans successfully torched and destroyed the disabled American ship. Decatur made sure that no one was left on board then swung from the now-blazing Philadelphia safely onto the ketch’s rigging as his men cast off. They were pursued by small-arms and cannon fire. Frantically pulling on the sweeps, they rowed out of the illuminated harbor bathed in the flickering flames of the raging ship-blaze.
For his distinguished action, Morris was promoted to first lieutenant and reassigned to the brig Hornet, which made a voyage to France to deliver dispatches. Because of his heroism, he received the honor of meeting Napoleon, at which time he presented the emperor with the gift of a model of the Constitution.
In 1810 Morris was appointed first lieutenant of the Constitution, second in command under fellow Connecticut native Isaac Hull. This was a very desirable posting, but like many of his junior-officer contemporaries, Morris worried about the slowness of promotion in the Navy. In peacetime, the system was based on seniority and demonstrated ability as master of a ship. Although only 23, Morris seemed to exude ambition and applied to command a small cruiser rather than continue as first lieutenant in the Constitution. Captain Hull cast a formidable shadow under which subordinates could rarely shine.
Morris believed the best path to promotion and success in the Navy was by obtaining an independent command. He applied for appointment as a lieutenant colonel of artillery in the army. In spite of his impatience with bureaucracy, Morris realized that Hull, “gives his first Lieut every opportunity of displaying taste or talents that they can desire.” The good fortunes of the Constitution in the upcoming War of 1812 battles would moot his ambitions to leave naval service.2
Evading, then Besting the Guerriere
On 16 July 1814, a British squadron consisting of the ship-of-the-line Africa and the frigates Guerriere, Shannon, Belvidera, and Æolus happened upon a becalmed Constitution off New Jersey. Outnumbered and outgunned on a huge unblemished mirror of sea, the vulnerable Constitution drifted aimlessly and unmanageable. Her spread white sails resembled a giant swan drying its wings. The crew grew desperate at the British approach. The resourceful Morris then remembered that one of his former captains had employed kedging to get their vessel moving when the winds were unfavorable. (See “The Constitution’s Great Escape”) Morris suggested such a move to Hull, who decided it was worth a try. The Constitution’s small boats were lowered and sent out ahead, and then kedge anchors were dropped into the seabed of the relatively shallow coastal waters. Men left on deck manned the capstans and winched the great warship forward. The crew labored at this task continuously for 60 hours, staying out of cannon range of the British warships giving chase. Then a welcome breeze allowed them to escape. They had evaded harm through ingenuity and seamanship without the loss of life or vessel.
Weeks later, on an overcast windy day about 400 miles southeast of Halifax, the Constitution and Guerriere had a second encounter. Having the weather gauge, the Guerriere fired first. The broadside produced a few hits, but did little damage to the American frigate. The Constitution returned fire, but similarly with limited effect. In the early evening of 19 August 1812, the two warships drew alongside each other. The Constitution’s gunnery now battered the Guerriere, severely damaging her hull and masts. The British frigate’s splintered mizzenmast parted and fell over the side, greatly hampering her maneuverability. The Constitution then moved ahead of her foe, but the Guerriere’s bowsprit became caught in the American rigging. Thus tangled, both sides prepared boarding parties for hand-to-hand combat. A melee ensued and, when the vessels separated once again, the Guerriere’s foremast collapsed, and her mainmast partly fell into the sea. Now disabled, the frigate surrendered at about 1900. British casualties exceeded those of the Americans by five times, and the once-proud Guerriere was now a hulk beyond saving.
The first major American naval victory of the War of 1812, the Constitution-Guerriere battle was an event that stirred much-needed national pride. As executive officer, Morris had commanded the cannon battery that dismasted the British frigate and then led a party to grapple and lash the two vessels together for boarding and fighting hand-to-hand. During this action a British marine shot Morris. The ball entered his abdomen, grazing his hipbone before exiting. With the help of surgeon Amos Evans, he recovered from the grievous wound.3
The citizens of Philadelphia gave a presentation plate to Morris in honor of his gallantry, and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton promoted him to captain. The date of the promotion was the day of surrender of the Guerriere, and Captain Morris was given command of the 30-gun corvette Adams. This advancement came not without professional rancor; letters of complaint from three lieutenants above Morris on the Navy’s seniority list were sent to Secretary Hamilton.4
Explosion on a Maine River
Morris now proved his ability as a naval commander by capturing ten prizes at sea during 1814. His extraordinary good luck suddenly ran out, though. Scurvy flared up on board and, while seeking a port, the Adams struck ground in a thick fog off Maine’s Isle of Haute. Lightening the vessel, Morris stayed afloat and sailed up the Penobscot River to Hampden for repairs.5
On 26 August, a British naval force under the command of the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Sir John Sherbrooke, was given the mission of reestablishing British title to Maine east of the Penobscot River, an area the British had renamed New Ireland. Carving off this northeastern land mass from New England would allow the British to administratively consolidate three provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and hopefully New Ireland. The expedition consisted of the Royal Navy warships Dragon, Endymion, Bachante, and Sylph, and ten transports carrying roughly 3,000 British regulars. Shortly thereafter the Bulwark, Tenedos, Peruvian, and Pictou augmented the force off Castine, Maine. Seeing the formidable British fleet offshore, the Castine militia melted into the Maine wilderness. Meanwhile, a small U.S. Army contingent commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Lewis spiked its four 24-pounders, blew up the magazine, and retreated with two field pieces.
The British occupied Castine without a fight and assured the population that they would have the protection of the Crown. While there Sherbooke learned that the disabled Adams had entered the Penobscot to undergo repairs. Sherbrooke assigned Captain Robert Barrie of the Dragon to lead an assault on the crippled American corvette. The 74-gun Dragon proceeded up the Penobscot with the sloop Sylph, the brig Peruvian, the transport Harmony, and a tender. The ships carried an army contingent of 750 infantrymen, an artillery company, and an unrecorded number of marines.
Meanwhile, after entering the Penobscot, Morris had moved the Adams past Buckstown (present-day Bucksport), then anchored at the mouth of the Sowadabscook Stream in Hampden, about 30 miles upriver. Given the new British presence, escape by sea seemed hopeless. Morris decided to mount a defense to buy time. Nine of the ship’s guns were removed to form a battery on a nearby hill. Another 14 were placed on the wharf next to the trapped vessel. Morris’ 150-man crew joined Brigadier General John Blake’s 550-man Maine Eastern Militia and quickly formed the center of a defensive line. U.S. Army Lieutenant Lewis in the meantime had made his way to Hampden with his small band of men and their field artillery. General Blake assigned the Lewis contingent the task of covering the north-south road into town—the expected route of the British attackers.
During the early evening of 2 September, Captain Barrie landed his force three miles downriver from Hampden. The next morning, in rain and fog, the British cautiously but steadily advanced toward the town. The sight of the disciplined, steadily marching Redcoats, bayonets glistening in the clearing weather, rattled the undertrained militia. The American defensive line broke and men fled in disarray into the woods. Morris and Lewis were now in vulnerable positions. They spiked the American cannon to deny them to the advancing British. Meanwhile, Morris ignited a powder train that led to a stack of combustibles and powder on board the Adams. The once-proud American corvette blew up before the eyes of the British, and the intense explosion echoed among the surrounding granite hills.
Morris and his sailors made their way overland to Bangor, then through the backcountry to the Kennebec River, generally receiving help from locals. Around 9 September Morris arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Within two weeks, all of his sailors rendezvoused and reported for duty. None went missing—a source of great satisfaction for the captain. Because of the loss of the Adams, Morris was ordered to appear before a board of inquiry but was fully exonerated and commended for his actions.6 The 1815 Treaty of Ghent ended the conflict.
A Career Man of Note
Morris, an impressive, commanding figure, was described as “unpatronized and unobtrusive . . . [but] in personal appearance, he [is too handsome] to justify ideas of the sturdy seaman, enduring hardships, toils, and wounds.”7 In February 1815 he married Harriet Bowen, the daughter of locally prominent William Bowen of Providence, Rhode Island. During the post–War of 1812 peace, the Navy employed Morris in a variety of important naval services. He was appointed captain of the Congress, the frigate on which he had served near the start of his naval career, and was assigned to participate in a show of force off Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis following the 1815 final treaty that ended the Second Barbary War.
In early February 1820 Morris learned that he would receive a Congressional Silver Medal for his heroic actions during the War of 1812.8 (This was shortly before the 22 March dueling death of his friend and mentor Decatur.) In 1823 Captain John Rodgers recommended Morris to the secretary of the Navy for a position on the Board of Naval Commissioners. Rodgers described Morris as a man of “strong discriminating mind, of considerable science, and unites perhaps as much, if not more, theoretical and practical knowledge than any man of his age in the service.”9
President John Quincy Adams, impressed by the officer’s abilities, gave Morris a singular honor by assigning him as captain of the newly built frigate Brandywine. That vessel was specifically used to convey the much-loved marquis de Lafayette to France after his visit to America in 1824–25. (Originally called the Susqehanna, the 44-gunner was renamed Brandywine to commemorate the 1777 Revolutionary War battle in which Lafayette had been wounded.) This assignment was a personally moving one for Morris; at the age of 16 his father had served under Lafayette in Rhode Island during the Revolution.10
One political incident offers insight into Morris’ character. During the winter of 1836–37 Congress modified the existing law concerning Navy pensions for wounded veterans. The pensions started on the date of the wounding incident, and the monetary compensation was determined by rank. Wounded during the War of 1812 while a lieutenant, Morris was promoted to captain that same day as a result of his actions. According to the new law, he was entitled to a disability pension as captain even though he suffered no impairments and was receiving full pay as an active-duty officer. Morris thought that this made no sense and could bankrupt the Navy. He appealed to Secretary of Navy Mahon Dickerson and subsequently to President Martin Van Buren that his pension should reflect his rank at the time of his wound and should only be paid if he was disabled. The president and Congress agreed. The law was repealed and revised to state that pensions would not be paid to those still on active duty unless their disability from a wound prevented them from being promoted to a higher grade.
Morris assumed the honorary title “commodore” while commanding American squadrons from his flagship Delaware along the South American coast and in the Mediterranean. These vessels represented American interests during a time of political unrest during the 1840s. Morris rose to serve in the highest naval administrative posts in the Navy Department, making contributions to both naval and marine science while heading the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography in Washington. At the time of his death, he was chief of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs, the department that helped chart the oceans and was the predecessor of the Bureau of Navigation. Morris was regarded as a “scientific” officer, a scholar-of-the-sea who endeavored to improve man’s mastery of it.11
Morris admitted to little formal education or to “justly claim peculiar merit, literary accomplishment or [wealth] . . . . Nor has nature been over bountiful in her favor [with him].”12 Still, he worked hard to overcome these deficiencies and taught himself French, mathematics, mapping, and hydrography. He wrote his autobiography without the view of publicizing his accomplishments in life, but as a record of it for his descendants. One historian described him as “the foremost man of the old Navy, one who united judgment and self control, in the highest degree, with courage and zeal, and who was as successful in the office as upon the quarter deck . . . the modest record of a blameless life.”13
Morris died on 27 January 1856 after 57 years of naval service. “Flags were hung at half-mast; minute guns fired; high government officials attended the funeral and many glowing tributes [attested] to his character and service.”14 His furloughs and absences from active duty amounted approximately to only two years. A newspaper obituary stated: “History will chronicle [Morris’] name among the most illustrious of those who have contributed to the naval glory of the country.”15
The newspaper proved wrong in its prognostication, but correct in its approbation. Why has Morris been largely forgotten? During the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 he performed heroic acts, many of which were pivotal. But he was a deputy to other naval figures, men who were transformed by history into icons. By the time Morris rose to his own command, the days of glory from naval combat were largely behind him—but that is conjecture. Charles Morris’ long and noteworthy service occurred during the crucial formative years of the U.S. Navy, a time in which this naval officer stood high in the esteem of his countrymen for bravery, wisdom, and integrity.
2. Ibid., 10 July 1810. Christopher McKee, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794–1818 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 241.
3. Thomas Wilson, Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval Heroes (New York: John Low, 1822), vol. 2, 131. The Prescription Book of the U.S. Frigate Constitution, vol. 1, 19 August 1812 entry, Amos A. Evans Collection, Manuscripts Division,William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.
4. William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985, 1992), vol.1, 423 (Daniel Patterson), 430 (Joseph Bainbridge), 522 (James Jones, James Lawrence); vol. 2, 641 (Joseph Bainbridge).
5. James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwaite and Company, 1839), vol. 2, 204–5.
6. Charles Morris from Secretary of the Navy William Jones, 26 September 1814, Record of the General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, 1799–1867, Microfilm 7 (11 April 1814–17 February 1815), case #175, National Archives, Washington, DC.
7. Wilson, Biography, vol. 2, 132.
8. Letter, Smith Thompson, Secretary of the Navy to Captain Charles Morris, 10 February 1820, USS Constitution Museum Archives, Charlestown, MA.
9. Charles Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 1775–1911 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1968), 169.
10. Charles Morris, The Autobiography of Commodore Charles Morris, U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002 edition of orig. 1880 work), 107. Ellen D. Larned, “An Old Time Hero: Commodore Charles Morris,” The Connecticut Magazine, vol. 5 (1899), 411.
11. Morris, Autobiography, x.
12. Charles Morris to Lemuel Morris, 21 August 1808, Charles Morris Papers.
13. Morris, Autobiography, 4, xix–xx.
14. Larned, “An Old Time Hero,” 411.
15. Providence Daily Journal, 29 January 1856.