Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Thomas Truxtun

In the old days the American sailors were great singers, and naval songs, rude in construction but vivid with patriotic fire, were immensely popular. When they were trolled forth on the fok'sle, nearly every sailor could join in, and the effect was as inspiring as Dibdin's songs were to the British navy about the same time. Among the first and favorite of these songs was "Truxtun's Victory," beginning,—

"Come, all ye Yankee sailors, with swords and pikes advance;

'T is time to try your courage and humble haughty France."

There was a good deal of poetic license regarding facts as well as forms, and the poet, in describing Truxtun's victory on L'Insurgente, a crack French frigate, represents

"The blood did from their scuppers run;

Their captain cried, 'I am undone!"

Instead of crying that he was undone, the French captain made a gallant defence; and if his metal had been heavier, it might have been "Barreault's Victory," instead of "Truxtun's Victory."

Medal  of Thomas Truxtun


Thomas Truxtun was born in New York in 1755, but, losing his father early, was taken to Jamaica by a relative and brought up. He had but little chance of a school education, and went to sea early. He was but twenty years old when the Revolution broke out, and was then in command of a merchant vessel. Unfortunately it cannot be recounted that Truxtun entered the American navy then. Instead he chose serving in a privateer. But it must be remembered that the whole naval force of the colonies was very feeble, and so slight was the expectation that it could prevail against the mighty fleets of England that only a few small ships were officered, and there was no more room for would-be officers. Truxtun, however, did excellent service in privateers, usually not very honorable ships in themselves, as they prey only on the commerce of an enemy; yet in the Revolution many privateers boldly engaged with armed ships. Naturally the naval men held privateers in contempt, and a letter of the great Paul Jones is extant which shows that he and young Captain Truxtun had a sharp quarrel over the rights of privateers. Congress had passed an act forbidding a privateer to hoist a pennant in the presence of a naval ship, without first getting the consent of the naval ship's commander. Truxtun, an impetuous young man of twenty-five, in command of the ship Independence  from Philadelphia, arrived at L'Orient in France in 1780. At the same time the Arid, under command of Paul Jones, was lying in the port. What followed Paul Jones himself describes in a letter addressed to "Mr. Thomas Truxtun, master of the ship Independence."

"You passed, some time ago, with the merchant ship called the Independence  belonging to Philadelphia, close under the stern of the continental ship Ariel, under my command in the Road of Groix; and you then showed no mark of respect to the Continental flag of commission, but went on with a long Pendant flying, and without lowering any sail or colour, or crew showing any mark of politeness. In the port of L'Orient you were not satisfied with a long Pendant, but you hoisted a kind of Broad one; and until yesterday you have worn it at your moorings in presence of the Continental ship Ariel. This was flying in the Face of a positive resolution of Congress. When your vessel was yesterday under sail, she was steered in my presence very near the Ariel in passing down to Port Louis. I then sent a Boat with an officer to request yourself or your representative to take down the Pendant. The officer returned and reported to me that my boat's crew had been menaced by your people, and that your mate said he had Orders to treat me with Contempt, and disobey any order or request to haul down the Pendant. When I found this, I sent Lieut. Dale back with two Boats armed, and with another polite message, and such orders as I will answer for having given. The Pendant was then hauled down as he approached. I cannot answer your letter of this date more particularly, as there are in it several words that I do not understand and cannot find in the dictionary. I shall receive no more letters from you on the subject. It is not me you have offended. You have offended the United States of America. I am, sir, your most humble servant,


By this letter it will be seen that Captain Truxtun, like Richard Dale, was better at fighting than writing; and it will also be noted that when Paul Jones's blood was up, he sent Dale to call Captain Truxtun to account, and as soon as Dale took the matter in hand, "the Pendant was then hauled down."

Truxtun had an adventurous time of it during the Revolution, and made a name for himself as a man of enterprise and a fine seaman. His after achievements make it a source of keen regret that such a man should have been engaged in such a calling as privateering, when, like Paul Jones and Richard Dale, he might have assisted his country much better on a regular ship of war.

He remained in the merchant service after the war was over; but when the United States began to create a navy in 1784, Truxtun was given a captain's commission. Trouble had been brewing with France for some time, and in 1797 the government determined to build several frigates in case of war, and this year saw the launching of the two noble ships, the Constitution  and the Constellation, which were both destined to win immortal fame. Truxtun was appointed to command the Constellation, and also to superintend the building. She was laid down at Baltimore in the summer of 1797, and few ships ever took the water more quickly than the glorious Constellation. She had a very remarkable launch on the 7th of September, 1797. Nearly all her guns and stores were on board, and seven days after she kissed the water she was ready to sail. She had been coppered in ten hours. The Constellation  was a beautiful frigate, very fast and Weatherly, and carrying thirty-eight guns. She was finely officered and manned, and Captain Truxtun sailed on his first cruise with every advantage in his favor,—a ship that could both fight and run, and a company worthy of the ship. He cruised for some time without meeting with any extraordinary adventures; but the next year four other smaller vessels were put under his command, and the squadron went to the west Indies. This was directly in harm's way, as the west India islands were full of French ships of war, and France and the United States were on the eve of a quasi-war, so that Captain Truxtun sailed with the hope of getting a whack at a Frenchman, and this came about in February, 1799. As the old song has it,

"'Twas in the month of February, off Montserrat we lay,

when there we spied the Insurgente—"

This was considered to be the fastest frigate in the world, and was commanded by a crack French captain, Barreault. She carried forty twelve-pounders in her batteries, and the Constellation  carried thirty-eight twenty-four pounders, making the Constellation  much the stronger ship; yet Captain Truxtun showed, in the fight which followed, that he could have whipped a heavier ship than L'Insurgente, which made a very smart fight too. Captain Barreault knew that the Constellation  was the heavier, but he did not on that account refuse the battle, but showed a manly willingness to fight.

The Constellation  sighted L'Insurgente  in the forenoon of February 9, 1799, and immediately made for her. As soon as she got near enough, the French ship hoisted American colors, in order to draw her on and give the French ship time to find out something about the stranger. Captain Truxtun then showed the private signal, which Captain Barreault was unable to answer. L'Insurgente  then threw off every disguise, and, setting the French ensign, ran off and fired a gun to windward, which meant, in sailor language, that he was ready for a yardarm to yardarm fight. Captain Truxtun set an American ensign at every masthead and came on, the Frenchman waiting on an easy bowline, for his enemy. The Americans, both officers and men, showed the most cheerful ardor to engage, and the two ships went at it with equal spirit. When within hailing distance the Frenchman hailed; but disregarding this, Captain Truxtun came on until he was abeam of his adversary. Then he let fly his broadside, and the Frenchman answered him promptly. Captain Truxtun discovered that he had no fool to play with in Captain Barreault, and for an hour the Frenchman gave the Constellation  all she could do. But by that time the superior metal of the Constellation  began to tell. The Frenchman aimed at the spars and rigging, and the foretopmast of the Constellation  was badly wounded.

The officer in the foretop was Midshipman David Porter, afterward the celebrated captain, and, seeing that the fore-topmast was likely to fall, with all the men in the hamper, he hailed the deck to report the damage. So furious was the cannonade, though, that his voice could not be heard. He therefore gave orders on his own account to cut away the stoppers and lower the topsail yard, and by his promptness the spar as well as the men in the top were saved. The Americans aimed at the hull, and in an hour L'Insurgente  was riddled like a sieve. The Constellation  then shot ahead, and, luffing across the Frenchman's bows, was ready with every gun to rake him, when Captain Barreault, seeing his hopeless condition, struck his colors.

The captured frigate was sent into St. Kitts with only two midshipmen, Porter and Rodgers, and eleven men, to keep one hundred and seventy three Frenchmen below the hatches. This they did, besides managing the ship in a hard gale, and took her in triumph to St. Kitts within four days.

The next year Captain Truxtun had a chance to show what he could do against a stronger ship than his own, and on the 1st of February, 1800, being off Guadeloupe, he sighted La Vengeance, one of the great French frigates, mounting fifty-two guns. The Constellation  immediately set her ensign and gave chase, but La Vengeance, having on board a large number of officers of rank and soldiers which she was carrying to France, would rather not have fought, and so took to her heels. The chase continued from the morning of the 1st of February until late in the afternoon of the 2nd, and it was eight o'clock at night before they finally came to close quarters. When La Vengeance  found the Constellation  was bent on a fight, she entered into it with all the bravery of the French character. The official's and soldiers she was carrying as passengers went to quarters with the regular crew, and she came on in grand style, giving her first broadside as soon as the Constellation  was within range. Captain Truxtun, without firing a gun, drew within pistol shot of his enemy, both crews cheering as the two gallant enemies neared each other. When within pistol shot, the Constellation  barked out every gun in broadside, and the fight began in good earnest. Both ships were running free, and during the whole fight, which lasted five hours, the cannonade continued. The crowded condition of the Frenchman's decks made the slaughter dreadful, but she did not take her punishment without giving it back with spirit. The moon had risen in tropic splendor, and a good breeze was blowing, so that both ships could maneuver, and the bright light enabled them to see what they were doing. Toward midnight, though, it was plain that the French ship was getting the worst of it. However, she showed no signs of surrender, and, her guns that could still be worked pounded the mainmast of the Constellation until it was soon seen that it must fall. At this point occurred what is probably the noblest act of young courage in all naval history. The officer of the maintop was a little midshipman, James Jarvis, who was only thirteen years old. When it was seen that nothing could save the mainmast, the topmen leaped and clambered down, and an old sailor begged the little midshipman to save himself. To this young Jarvis answered calmly, "As an officer I cannot leave my station, and if the mast goes, I must go with it." In a few moments the great mast fell with a fearful crash, and this dauntless boy came down with it. He was the only officer on the Constellation  killed.

This accident rendered the Constellation  helpless for a time, and La Vengeance, having still spars enough left to get away, made off, without firing another gun, and was soon lost in the darkness that followed the setting of the moon. Her loss of men was frightful, while that of the Constellation  was comparatively small.

When Captain Truxtun reached home after this brilliant engagement, he was received with acclamations, Congress gave him a gold medal and its thanks, and passed a solemn resolution in honor of young Jarvis, "who gloriously preferred certain death to the abandonment of his post." This is, perhaps, an unprecedented honor for a boy of thirteen, but it cannot be denied that the little midshipman, who deliberately gave his life rather than desert his post, well earned it.

The London merchants of Lloyd's coffee-house sent Captain Truxtun a splendid service of plate worth six hundred guineas, and some years afterward the United States named a smart sloop of war after him, the Truxtun. Captain Truxtun served but a short while in the navy after this. In 1802 he was ordered, as Commodore, to command a squadron, and, finding he was to have no captain on his flag-ship, declined the honor. His letter was misunderstood by the authorities of the Navy Department to mean a resignation from the navy, and was, as such, accepted. Commodore Truxtun, too proud to withdraw it, chose rather to withdraw from the navy,—a course which must ever be regretted. He chose Philadelphia as his home, and became a prominent and important citizen. He was for some time Sheriff of the city. In 1828 his death occurred, and he left behind him an honorable name as a man, and a brilliant reputation as a seaman.