Every year on December 29, we commemorate the battle between Constitution and HMS Java. Constitution prevailed, of course, and gained yet another laurel to her name. The victory also made her famous (or infamous) among British seamen, and there was hardly a man in the Royal Navy who didn’t dream of capturing her.
Josiah Cobb, a young sailor from Boston, witnessed the effect of the American frigate’s victory on the morale of the British fleet. He made his decision to go to sea in a privateer not long after Constitution’s capture of Guerriere. “My imagination was fired beyond endurance,” he recalled, “especially after I had been on board of her, and minutely examined the shot holes and other marks of the battle. I looked upon every man belonging to her as a hero, and only wished I was like even unto the least.”1
Unfortunately, Cobb’s first voyage ended in disaster when HMS Leander captured his ship. After the British boarding parties took possession of the vessel, they shuttled the American prisoners back to their frigate.
I did not leave the brig till the second trip of the boats…. I took a conspicuous seat by the side of the lieutenant commanding, who commenced many inquiries concerning the old Constitution frigate, for which they had been cruising, since they received information of her sailing by a coaster, the day after she left port, until falling in sight of the brig. My knowledge of this frigate enabled me to answer his several questions more satisfactorily than any other at his side. Through the agency of an acquaintance, who was a midshipman belonging to the Constitution at the time, I had been much on board of her, not only after her celebrated escape from an enemy’s squadron, in the early part of the war, but also, at each of the several entrances into port, after she had gained the two victories over the Guerriere and Java frigates of the enemy. During these visits I had examined minutely the remaining marks and effects of the contest, when pointed out, with a curiosity only engendered by a patriotism youths of my age generally.
This inquisitive lieutenant was very particular to learn the effect of the round shot upon the Constitution; and when told that many of them did not penetrate her sides sufficiently to lodge, but merely indenting the wood some three inches, and then fell harmlessly to the water, he appeared much amazed, and would scarcely believe me, until assuring him I had been around her in a boat, and had been particular in examining for myself, being alike doubtful of its truth with others, when reading the account in the newspapers of the time. I had her dimensions nearly to exactness then, for I took no little interest with the different vessels of war, as they came into port from their outward cruisings, which now was like to be of signal advantage, by helping me into the good graces of the first lieutenant of marines, of his Britannic majesty’s frigate Leander. Our acquaintance lasted with uninterrupted enjoyment, till we reached—the ship.2
British naval officers were not the only ones to exhibit curiosity about Constitution. For the enlisted men, hunting the big American frigate was a sort of deadly sport:
As a stimulant for the men to keep a sharp look-out, on the mainmast of the frigate was a placard, which I noticed when first mounting the deck, offering a “reward of £100 to the man who shall first descry the American frigate Constitution, provided she can be brought-to,” with a smaller reward should they not be enabled to come up with her. Every one was eager in his inquiries about this far-famed frigate, and most of the men appeared anxious to fall in with her; she being a constant theme of conversation, speculation, and curiosity.
There were, however, two seamen and a marine (one of whom had had his shin sadly shattered from one of her grape-shot,) who were in the Java frigate when she was captured; these I have often heard to say, in return to their shipmates’ boastings, “if you had seen as much of the Constitution as we have, you would give her a wide berth, for she throws her shot almighty careless, fires quick, aims low, and is altogether an ugly customer.”3
1 Josiah Cobb, A Green Hands First Cruise, Roughed out from the Log-book of Memory, of Twenty-five Year’s Standing (Boston: Otis, Broaders and Co., 1841), 17.
2 Ibid., 119.
3 Ibid., 135.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.