Before winning acclaim during the First Barbary War and the War of 1812, Charles Stewart Jr. proved himself amid the Quasi-War with France while in command of his first Navy ship. Stewart’s time on board the schooner Experiment is a forgotten aspect of a relatively unknown conflict in the foundational years of the U.S. Navy. He was far from the first offered command of the Experiment, but he was the one who accepted the challenge. His eager command of a warship no one else wanted provides enduring examples of seamanship, bravery, and martial skill, as well as the importance of a bias for action.
A Hard-Fighting, Fast-Sailing Ship
Relations between the United States and its oldest ally, France, began deteriorating in 1792. The United States stopped repaying Revolutionary War debts after the abolition of the French monarchy. The French Republic believed the 1778 Treaty of Alliance required the United States to assist in its war with Great Britain. Instead, the United States claimed neutrality and mended ties with Great Britain with Jay’s Treaty in 1794. In response, France authorized privateers to attack U.S. commerce and ordered impressed Americans found on board British ships hanged.1
French diplomats then demanded bribes from U.S. delegates attempting to smooth relations. President John Adams revealed the details of the XYZ Affair in April 1798. By the end of the month, Congress had established the Department of the Navy. Congress followed up by nullifying the 1778 Treaty of Alliance on 7 July and authorizing use of military force against France on 9 July.
Shortly after the Quasi-War started, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert recognized the young Navy was ill-equipped for the conflict. Its famous heavy frigates served well against ships of their class but could not chase down the small, fast privateers attacking American merchants in the West Indies. Even the Navy’s smaller sloops-of-war and converted merchantmen could not compete. Therefore, Stoddert commissioned the construction of two schooners—the Enterprise and Experiment—to hunt down enemies escaping to the shoal waters of the West Indies.
Details of the Experiment’s construction are lost, but the schooner likely was built in Baltimore or on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She resembled many of the pilot boats of the time. The 60-foot-long craft had a 22-foot, 6-inch beam and displaced only 135 tons.2 Armed with 12 6-pound long guns, the Experiment was expected “to be prepared for hard fighting as well as fast sailing.”3
A Want for Command
Once the Experiment was delivered, Stoddert found the real challenge was not appropriating adequate ships, but finding willing officers and fit commanders. He lamented, “The difficulty of getting an Officer to go in a small vessel is inconceivable and I think not very reputable to them for they are the only Vessels onboard of which men can have a chance of reputation.”4 His first choice to command one of the new schooners instead resigned his commission.5 The next two choices took considerable persuasion. Lieutenant John Shaw, whom Stoddert eventually convinced to command the Enterprise, objected “strongly to the Quarters which he says are no protection to the men against even a Musket Ball.” Lieutenant William Maley had similar reservations about the Experiment, but he eventually consented to commanding the schooner.6
The Experiment left Baltimore for the West Indies under Lieutenant Maley’s command in November 1799. Maley and the Experiment distinguished themselves by defending a merchant convoy from 11 pirate boats during a seven-hour attack. The Experiment also took several prizes. Many of these captures, however, proved unlawful. Her crew also accused Lieutenant Maley of cowardice, abuse, and drunkenness. When the allegations became too great to ignore, Captain Silas Talbot decided to send the Experiment back early. He regretfully informed Stoddert, “I am sorry, Sir, to be under the Necessity of sending the Experiment home under such Circumstances, as, she might be a most useful Vessel on this Station if well commanded.”7
The Experiment reached Philadelphia in early July 1800. Stoddert reported to President Adams that the schooner required substantial refitting but that his greater concern was finding the right commander.8 He offered command to Master Commandant John Spotswood, despite the ship’s rate being beneath Spotswood’s rank. Spotswood declined the offer. Stoddert needed the Experiment back out to sea. She was one of the Navy’s best weapons against French privateers, and the crew’s enlistment had only four months remaining. While he searched for available officers, he instructed his Philadelphia navy agent to find “what provisions, sales, rope, and military stores the Schoor may want; and have them instantly provided . . . that she may be ready to sail as soon as she has performed quarantine.”9
Captain John Barry had his frigate the United States undergoing repairs in Philadelphia as well. Fortunately for Stoddert, Barry had a lieutenant he was willing to give up—Charles Stewart Jr.10 Stewart became Stoddert’s choice by default. The Navy Secretary ordered Stewart to take command of the Experiment on 16 July and instructed him: “The most essential things must be immediately done & furnished—what can be put off, must be put off until the end of the cruise, which cannot last longer than four months on account of the men. . . . there is an absolute necessity for the services of the schooner immediately.”11
Unlike the previous officers offered the Experiment, Stewart relished the opportunity for an independent command and was eager to prove his fighting skill. When Stewart tried to load more guns on the little schooner, Stoddert warned against it for fear of overburdening the vessel and ruining her seaworthiness. But Stoddert compromised and allowed Stewart to add two more.12 Stewart’s former commander, Captain Barry, hoped for such initiative. He wrote to Stoddert, “I am perfectly satisfied with your appointment of Lieut Stewart I hope he will be more active when he comds than when he is comd.”13
Although just short of 22 years old, Stewart already had almost a decade of experience at sea. At 12, he first sailed the West Indies as a cabin boy on board a merchant ship. By 1798, he had earned one of the first lieutenant commissions in the U.S. Navy. His time on board the United States was unremarkable, but he and his childhood friends Stephen Decatur Jr. and Richard Somers learned a lot under Captain Barry’s command.14
The little schooner required 70 men to fight and sail her. Stewart had only one other officer with him, Lieutenant David Porter, although his midshipmen, James Caldwell and John Trippe, would soon earn their commissions. On 28 July, less than two weeks after receiving his first orders from Stoddert, Stewart had the Experiment under way, bound for Bermuda. After ten days cruising around Bermuda, Stewart’s orders instructed him to proceed to St. Christopher’s to fall into Captain Stephen Decatur Sr.’s squadron.15
The Experiment reached the West Indies on 1 September. That evening, Stewart sighted his first enemy ship. He brought the Experiment closer, and before nightfall, he engaged the French schooner. The 8-gun French privateer Deux Amis could not outmaneuver the Experiment and put up little resistance. Within ten minutes of the Experiment firing the first shot, the Deux Amis surrendered and Stewart claimed his first prize. The prize crew found the schooner loaded with cargo taken the day before. When the Experiment and Deux Amis returned to St. Christopher’s, they found a crowded port. The Enterprise and the frigate John Adams each escorted in prizes of their own.16
Stewart and the Experiment continued hunting for French privateers but soon found themselves entangled with Britain’s Royal Navy. While replenishing fresh water in Prince Rupert’s Bay on the island of Dominica, Stewart received a letter smuggled to him asking for help. Its author, Amos Seeley, was an American sailor pressed into service on board the British sloop-of-war Siam. Held against his will by the British and liable to be hanged if caught by the French, Seeley pleaded to Stewart to secure his release. The Siam was one of two British 20-gun sloops currently in the bay. The Royal Navy had long treated the impressment of sailors as a prerogative, and the Napoleonic Wars exacerbated the practice. Outgunned 40 to 14, Stewart was in no position to demand the Siam’s captain release a crewman. Stewart, however, must have had diplomacy and tact beyond his years, because he still persuaded Seeley’s release.17
After replenishing and rescuing an impressed American without starting an international incident, Stewart resumed the search for French privateers. The Experiment cruised windward of St. Bartholomew’s until 1 October, when two sails flying British colors approached. Stewart ordered U.S. colors and British signal of the day raised as he closed with the ships. When the strangers failed to respond, Stewart turned about and pushed the Experiment for all the speed she could muster. The other vessels, an 18-gun brig and a 14-gun schooner, made chase. When they could not match the Experiment’s speed, the brig and schooner raised their true French colors and each fired a single shot before breaking off their pursuit.
Likely to the surprise of the French, Stewart turned about again and brought the Experiment to windward. He now pursued the enemy vessels on his terms. By 2000, the Experiment had gained enough on the rearmost vessel, the schooner Diane, to fire a broadside into the larboard quarter. The Diane was not a privateer like the Deux Amis, but a French Navy warship. However, she did not fare much better. The Diane threw all but two cannon overboard in her attempt to outrun the Experiment. Fighting ended within minutes of the first shot. In the brief engagement, Stewart suffered a bullet wound to the left shoulder—the only battle wound of his career. He tried to chase down the French brig after the Diane’s surrender, but darkness approached, and she had made too much distance during the short engagement.18
Stewart’s prize crew found 300,000 pounds of coffee and sugar as well as 30 invalid soldiers on board the Diane. The greatest reward, however, was General André Rigaud of the French Republic forces fighting in the Haitian Revolution. He was responsible for the deadly pirate attacks off western Hispaniola. Stewart ecstatically reported, “This is the man, Sir, that has wrested millions from my countrymen; the depredations, the piracies, plunder and murders he has committed on my fellow-citizens are but too well known in the United States; and now the supreme ruler of all things has placed him in the hands of the country he has most injured.”19 Haitian General Toussaint Louverture recently had defeated Rigaud, but Rigaud had been released to take the Diane to France. Instead, Stewart delivered him to Captain Thomas Truxtun, who hoped “Rigaud’s papers may bring to light some useful Secrets of state.”20
Captain Truxtun sent the Experiment to escort the Diane part of the way back to Baltimore on 4 October.21 By 15 October, he expected Stewart’s return. Instead, Lieutenant Shaw of the Enterprise reported hearing from an English schooner that an 18-gun French brig had brought the Experiment to St. Martin’s as a prize after a two-hour engagement. The logbook from Truxtun’s frigate the President recorded, “This we fear is too true, the Experiment was to have joined us before this, & from the known character of Mr Stewart, we fear many lives has been lost, as we are certain he never would have struck while a possibility of saving his vessel remained.” Truxtun sent the Enterprise back out to investigate another sail on the horizon.22
The President rode out a violent storm for the next 24 hours as Truxtun worried about the loss of one of the Navy’s best privateer hunters and a promising young captain. The Enterprise returned the afternoon of 16 October, and Lieutenant Shaw reported that the sail he chased the day before was a small schooner from Guadeloupe. When she was last in St. Bartholomew’s, her crew saw a French brig fitting out to hunt down the Experiment.23 This development reinforced the tragic news of the day before. The “hard fighting and fast sailing” schooner had developed quite the reputation in her brief life under Lieutenants Maley and Stewart—their success put a French target on the schooner. Truxtun and his squadron spent the next week searching for more information. When the President arrived at St. Christopher’s on 23 October, Truxtun learned the reports of the Experiment’s demise were false.24
Stewart and his crew were just fine. In fact, the period they were feared lost was rather dull, as were the next few weeks. On 28 October, Truxtun sent the Experiment to patrol north of Antigua with Captain Samuel Barron and the frigate Chesapeake.25 Halfway through November, the Experiment ran short on supplies. The decreased weight caused the little schooner to rock harder than normal through a storm the night of 15 November. As midnight approached, an armed schooner came upon the Experiment. Stewart repeatedly hailed but never received a response. After firing a musket at the vessel, he ordered the strange ship to heave to or be fired on. The other ship finally answered but refused to reveal her identity. As he warned, Stewart fired a single gun into the uncooperative schooner. It returned a full broadside. The two ships were locked in battle for the next four hours.
The strong wind, heavy seas, and light weight of the Experiment caused her to lay over severely. Even in the dark of the night, Stewart could tell the Experiment’s shots were landing in the enemy’s rigging. His gun crews could not depress their cannon enough to strike the enemy’s hull. Eventually, some expeditious seamen cut planks to wedge under the carriages to effect better fire. Within minutes of the Experiment’s improved fire, the enemy schooner struck. In the four-hour engagement, the Experiment took only one hit, but it managed to kill the boatswain.
When Stewart’s prize crew came aboard, they found the enemy schooner badly damaged and more than capable of communicating in English. She was the privateer Louisa Bridger of Bermuda, traveling from Antigua to New York.26 Stewart explained, “The captain of her appears to be an obstinate man: he informed me he had fallen in with the Patapsco, capt. Geddes, at night, and in the same manner engaged her till day-light.”27
Rescues and Strategic Impacts
After assisting in the Louisa Bridger’s repair, the Experiment continued on her patrol off Antigua. On 4 December, Truxtun ordered Stewart to take on stores meant for the frigate Philadelphia and deliver them to Captain Decatur near Marie-Galante.28 While searching for the frigate on 14 December, the Experiment instead found the 16-gun French privateer Flambeau escorting an American prize. As the Experiment closed, the Flambeau exploited the wind gauge to escape to the protection of French artillery on shore but left her prize behind. Stewart reclaimed the Zebra of Baltimore and sent her on to Martinique.29 On 26 December, he recaptured two more prizes—the brig Dove and sloop Lucy of New London.30
Despite his success, Stewart’s command of the Experiment was always going to be brief. His crew’s enlistment reached its end. The Experiment started the voyage to Norfolk on 12 January. When the schooner reached Hispaniola on 18 January, Stewart discovered a ship stuck on the reef off Isla Saona signaling distress. He brought the Experiment as close as he could to the wreck and sent Lieutenant Porter with the schooner’s boats to offer assistance.
On board, Porter found seven crewmen as well as 60 women and children. They were families of Spanish officers at Santo Domingo fleeing from Louverture’s encroaching forces. The ship, the Eliza, struck the reef two days earlier while en route to Puerto Rico. The captain, mate, and a crewman took a boat to seek help ashore but were crushed to pieces on the reef. The passengers and remaining crew had been without food or water for the past two days, and only a small portion of the quarterdeck remained above water. Despite the crashing waves, Porter managed to get everyone out and aboard the Experiment. Stewart returned them safely to Santo Domingo the next day. Shortly afterward, Don Joaquin Garcia, the Spanish governor, wrote President Thomas Jefferson to expound on the heroism of Stewart and his crew. He also expressed, “I shall have the honor to render an account of it to my master, the king of Spain, in order that such an action may redound to the honor of this officer, of his flag, and of all his brave and generous crew.”31
The Experiment’s return was otherwise uneventful. The schooner reached Norfolk by 4 February, and by 12 February, the crew was paid off. Secretary Stoddert ordered Stewart to prepare the Experiment for repairs but not to start them.32 French and U.S. delegates had signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine to end hostilities on 30 September 1800, but the news did not reach Washington until mid-December. Under the Navy Peace Establishment Act of 1801, Congress forced a massive drawdown of naval forces. Of the 24 U.S. Navy warships at the time, only 13 would remain in active service. The Experiment did not make the cut. After barely two years in the Navy, the schooner was sold for $7,350 in October 1801.33
Along with scaling back warships, Congress reduced the active officers in the Navy. Stewart’s performance with the Experiment secured him the highest-ranking spot of the 36 lieutenants retained. In his command of the Experiment, he first displayed the seamanship, bravery, and martial skill that he came to be known for during his 62-year naval career. But perhaps the most indicative facet of his Experiment command to portend on his future success was his eagerness to take command when no one else wanted to.
1. Howard P. Nash Jr. The Forgotten Wars: The U.S. Navy in the Quasi-War with France and the Barbary Wars, 1798–1805 (South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1968), 39–44.
2. Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy: The Ships and Their Development (New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1949), 145–46.
3. Secretary of the Navy to Jeremiah Yellot, 1 October 1799, in Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War with France: Naval Operations from February 1797 to December 1801, 7 vols. [hereinafter NDQW], Dudley W. Knox, ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1935–38), 4: 244.
4. Secretary of the Navy to Yellot, 25 October 1799, in NDQW, 4: 322.
5. Secretary of the Navy to Yellot, 30 September 1799, in NDQW, 4: 240.
6. Secretary of the Navy to Yellot, 1 October 1799, in NDQW, 4: 244.
7. Silas Talbot to the Secretary of the Navy, 13 June 1800, in NDQW, 6: 41–42.
8. Secretary of the Navy to President John Adams, 12 July 1800, in NDQW, 6: 138–39.
9. Secretary of the Navy to George Harrison, 9 July 1800, in NDQW, 6: 129.
10. Secretary of the Navy to Adams, 129.
11. Secretary of the Navy to Charles Stewart, 16 July 1800, in NDQW, 6: 156.
12. Secretary of the Navy to Stewart, 183–184.
13. John Barry to the Secretary of the Navy, 30 July 1800, in NDQW, 6: 198.
14. Claude Berube and John Rodgaard, A Call to Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), 3, 8, 14.
15. Berube and Rodgaard, A Call to Sea, 15–17.
16. “News item concerning captures made by USS Enterprise, John Adams, and Experiment,” 13 September 1800, in NDQW, 6: 334; Berube and Rodgaard, A Call to Sea, 17.
17. Berube and Rodgaard, 17.
18. “Extract from Letter from Charles Stewart,” 3 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 422–23; Berube and Rodgaard, 17–18.
19. “Extract from Letter from Charles Stewart.”
20. Thomas Truxtun to the Secretary of the Navy, 3 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 427.
21. Truxtun to the Secretary of the Navy, 4 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 434–35.
22. “Extract from log book of the USS President,” 15 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 476.
23. “Extract from log book of the USS President,” 16 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 478.
24. “Extract from log book of the USS President,” 23 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 496.
25. Truxtun to Stewart, 28 October 1800, in NDQW, 6: 510.
26. “Extract from log book of the English schooner Louisa Bridger,” 16 November 1800, in NDQW, 6: 533; “Extract from Letter from Charles Stewart,” 16 November 1800, in NDQW, 6: 534; Berube and Rodgaard, A Call to Sea, 19.
27. “Extract from Letter from Charles Stewart.”
28. Truxtun to Stewart, 4 December 1800, in NDQW, 7: 10.
29. “Extract from log book of the USS President,” December 1800, in NDQW, 7: 41.
30. “Extract from log book of the USS Philadelphia,” 26 December 1800, in NDQW, 7: 49; “Extract from log book of the USS Philadelphia,” 27 December 1800, in NDQW, 7: 50.
31. “Concerning the assistance given by the U.S. schooner Experiment,” 21 January 1801, in NDQW, 7: 100–1.
32. Secretary of the Navy to Stewart, 12 February 1801, in NDQW, 7: 122.
33. Secretary of the Navy to William Pennock, 12 November 1801, in NDQW, 7: 302; “Experiment,” in NDQW, 7: 366.