Page 16

The USS

CONSTITUTION: by

A Study in Command

J. William Middendorf, II

It is certainl y fac t that the 44-gun fr igate Constitution was a stout ship whose miss ions and victories d id much to establi sh the traditions and excellence on which our Navy has always prided itself. But what makes her stand out in our memory and di stin gui shes her, even fro m her sistershi ps the President and the United States, is the quality of her captains. And what captains they were ! Their names evoke battles won and enemies put to fl ight. T hey are among the fi nest in the annals of the U nited States Navy. Besides the nation to which they were bound in loyalty and service, these men shared an affinity fo r the sea that was learned in childhood and they had gained the consummate skill s required to properl y handle and fi ght a ship under sa il. In spirit if not in fact, the father of the post-Revolutionary War Ameri can Navy (we had no navy between 1783 and 1798) was Edwa rd Preble, a vetera n of the Revo lution and , during the Quas i War with France, master of the fi rst American naval ship to show the fl ag in the Indian Ocean. During the Barbary Wars, Preble commanded our Med iterranean squadron from 1803 to 1804. By custom as much as anything else, the deys of Morocco , Alg iers, T uni s and Tripo li -led by the latterconsidered themselves entitled to exact tribute fro m nations whose merchantmen sail ed in or near the ir waters. The European powers fo und it strategicall y preferab le to pay the tribute rather than to maintain the naval presence necessary to protect their shipping. No longer British subjects, the Americans were ex pected to pay the ir ow n way. The United States had sent out its first Med iterranean squadron in June 1801 , shortl y after Tripo li 's fo rmal declaration of war. The otherwise ineffectual blockade of Tripoli deterred the corsairs from the capture of Ameri can shipping but achieved little more. Arriving on station in 1803 , Preb le at once set

about negoti atin g with the Briti sh and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fo r the use of their Mediterranean ports as fo rward bases, and fo r the loan of gunboats. Prebl e also brought a sense of order and di sc ipline that was immediately evident and which was to have a profound effect on the yo un g Navy. Although removed and not eas il y impressed , he was indomitable and hi s seamanship evoked the pra ise of Lord Ne lson, who re marked: "There is in the handling of those transatlantic ships a nucleus of trouble fo r the navy o f G reat Britain ." Age may have contri buted to Preble's aloof air. When he fi rst convened hi s j uni or o ffi cers he is said to have exclaimed , ''They have sent me nothin g but boys.'' lt was true; for though himself onl y fo rty, the oldest of Preble's Boys (as they are still kn own ), Isaac Hull , was onl y twenty-eight . William Bainbridge and Charles Stewart , who wo uld also go on to win fa me in the Constitution , were even yo unger. Prebl e's Boys di stingui shed themselves from the outset, with the exception of Bainbridge who had the severe misfortune to run the 38-gun Philadelphia aground in the shoal waters of Tripo li harbor. Fearing that the fri gate might be refl oated and bro ught into the service of the otherwi se aging Tripo litan fl eet, Preble all owed Stephen Decatur (yet another of hi s yo ung lieutenants) to lead an ex pediti on to burn the vessel. The success of the miss ion- the Philadelphia destroyed , several Tripolitans killed or wounded , and not a man lost from Decatur's crew-was reso unding. News of the brilliant feat spread quickl y and the Americans again e licited the highest praise fro m Nelson who proc laimed it " the most bold and daring act of the age ." The Philadelphia incident also marked a turning po int in the conflict. Because it was still winter and Preble 's squadron was underm anned, it was not until the summer that he could

Rembrant Peale's portrait of Edward Preble in 1805 shows him holding a chart of his attacks on Tripoli Harbor.

Below is Gilben Stuart's memorable portrait of Isaac Hull . Each anist has captured on canvas, the traits fo r which these commanders were known: the dourness of Preble and Hull's cheerful brilliance.

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SEA HISTORY , SUMMER 1987

Sea History 044 - Summer 1987  

7 THE OLDEST SHIP IN THE WAR, Ed Dennis • 9 THE SEAPORT EXPERIENCE, Peter Stanford • 11 THE USS CONSTITUTION: REACHING OUT OVER THE HORIZON,...

Sea History 044 - Summer 1987  

7 THE OLDEST SHIP IN THE WAR, Ed Dennis • 9 THE SEAPORT EXPERIENCE, Peter Stanford • 11 THE USS CONSTITUTION: REACHING OUT OVER THE HORIZON,...

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