It is a story that seems to have made the rounds of everyone’s e-mail inbox and appeared on countless listserves. It never dies, but reappears with astounding regularity. Perhaps you’ve seen it yourself:
“The U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides), as a combat vessel, carried 48,600 gallons of fresh water for her crew of 475 officers and men. This was sufficient to last six months of sustained operations at sea. She carried no evaporators (i.e. fresh water distillers). However, let it be noted that according to her ship’s log, “On July 27, 1798, the U.S.S. Constitution sailed from Boston with a full complement of 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of fresh water; 7,400 cannon sot; 11,600 pounds of black powder and 79,400 gallons of rum.” Her mission: “To destroy and harass English shipping.” Making Jamaica on 6 October, she took on 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum.
Then she headed for the Azores, arriving there 12 November. She provisioned with 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine.
On 18 November, she set sail for England. In the ensuing days she defeated five British men-of-war and captured and scuttled 12 English merchant ships, salvaging only the rum aboard each.
By 26 January, her powder and shot were exhausted. Nevertheless, although unarmed she made a night raid up the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. Her landing party captured a whisky distillery and transferred 40,000 gallons of single malt Scotch aboard by dawn. Then she headed home.
The U.S.S. Constitution arrived in Boston on 20 February 1799, with no cannon shot, no food, no powder, no rum, no wine, no whisky, and 38,600 gallons of water.”
For some reason, this always ends with an enthusiastic “Go Navy!” It would be better to end with an admonition to “go read a book!”
Where to begin? Even those unfamiliar with the capacity of a warship’s hold (or a sailor’s belly) should understand that the United States was not at war with Great Britain in 1798 or 1799. On the contrary, we were engaged in a “quasi-war” with the French Republic, a naval conflict with an epicenter in the Caribbean. To have “destroyed and harassed” English shipping at that time would have been a good way to end one’s career and might possibly have precipitated a war that no one in President John Adams’ administration wanted.
The story is completely at odds with the ship’s operational history during this period. Constitution sailed from Boston on the evening of July 22, 1798, with orders to cruise between Cape Henry, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. On October 6, the ship was at Hampton Roads, Virginia, very far away from Jamaica. (Jamaica, by the way, was the headquarters of the British West India squadron, a strange place to steer for if one were at war with them). By November 12, Constitution lay at anchor in Boston Harbor, having just returned from a largely uninteresting first cruise. The ship was still there on the 18th, but finally sailed again for the Caribbean on December 29. On January 26, 1799, Constitution was heading for Prince Rupert’s Bay, Dominica, to repair the injured foremast–not launching a foray into the Firth of Clyde. On February 20, Captain Samuel Nicholson and his crew were patrolling the waters off Guadeloupe, not enjoying a happy homecoming.1
So much for the ship’s ramblings during this period. What of the volumes involved in the story? In 1814 (when the United States was at war with Britain), a Court of Inquiry forced Captain Charles Stewart to explain why he had curtailed his late cruise. Helpfully, part of the testimony included a list of all the provisions taken on board Constitution for a six month cruise. These “load out” figures included 9,546 gallons of spirits and 47,265 gallons of water (this last number was the amount on board when the ship sailed, not the maximum amount that could be carried). In 1799, a Navy Department estimate of provisions for a 44-gun frigate included 8,650 gallons of rum (at a dollar per gallon).
The truth is, we don’t know if the ship had “evaporators”–or condensers, as they were known–on its stove. The British certainly carried them as part of their Brodie stoves, and since Constitution‘s first galley stove came from England, it is entirely possible that it was outfitted with a condenser. Whatever the case, these apparatus could only make a relatively small amount of fresh water each day. Most water had to be obtained from rivers or wells on shore. In Boston there was even a pumping facility on the end of T Wharf for filling water casks.
So far, the 48,000 gallons of water mentioned in the story is not far off the mark, but the 79,400 gallons of rum on board at sailing is some eight times more than the ship ever carried! Besides the extreme expense of so much rum, there was simply not room in the ship’s hold for the barrels, puncheons, hogsheads, and butts needed to contain it all.
For Constitution to have returned home with a hold emptied of alcohol, the crew would have had to consume at least 187,700 gallons of spirits (not counting the untallied rum from the captured merchant vessels) and 64,300 gallons of wine in about seven months (209 days to be exact). Let’s forget the wine for a moment. With 475 men on board (in fact, since the muster rolls for the first crew are missing, we don’t know the exact number of people this ship had on board when it sailed in 1798–according to the Naval Armament Act of 1797, a 44-gun frigate was authorized to carry 364 officers and men), each of them would have had to consume 395 gallons during the cruise, or about 1.8 gallons each day. If you’ve ever tried consuming nearly two gallons of spirits in a day, you’d probably not be around to read this. When blood alcohol concentrations reach .30 percent, most people pass out. At .40 or .50 percent, it’s lethal. The U.S. Navy rum was purchased significantly over proof in those days, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it was 80 proof (that is, 40 percent alcohol by volume). By the story’s reckoning, these men were consuming about 230 ounces of liquor or 184 ounces of ethyl alcohol per day ( 1.25 ounces of 80 proof liquor equals .50 ounces of ethyl alcohol). After about 5 ounces in one hour, a 140-pound man’s blood alcohol concentration reaches .25 percent. After 10 ounces he’d be dead. But who cares about operational efficiency. The actual regulation navy ration included 1/2 pint of spirits each day, which works out to 8 ounces or 6.4 ounces of ethyl alcohol. This is more than enough to inebriate a man, but the ration was served as “grog,” rum mixed with one, two, or three parts water. In addition, the men received their ration in two portions, one at noon and another at about 4:30 in the afternoon. It made the men happy, but prevented them from falling down drunk.
Then there is the question of powder and shot. Constitution defeated five British warships during the War of 1812 (thought one of them, HM schooner Pictou, was hardly worth of the name). Thanks to a helpful note from Seaman Richard Dunn, we know that in the first battle (against HMS Guerriere) Constitution used 2,379 pounds of gunpowder to fire 953 shot at the enemy. The guns were fired double-shotted for some of the action, but nevertheless, this represents a small portion of what the ship probably had on board. The 11,600 pounds of powder mentioned in the story represents slightly less than a third of what was actually carried in wartime. The “7,400 cannon shot,” on the other hand, overestimates. Constitution probably carried about 6,190 shot (including round, canister, grape, and double-headed shot) in wartime.2
So much for the accuracy of this “remarkable tidbit of American History.” The Museum has tried to track down the origins of this fable, but the farthest back we have traced it is to the National Park curator and author Harold Peterson in the 1950s. And yet, given Peterson’s impeccable reputation as a careful scholar, it seems improbably that he invented the story. While we’ll probably never discover where this all started, we hope this post will work like a “best bower anchor” and keep it from sailing on and on and on.
1 The ship’s operational history may be traced in the ship’s logs and officers’ journals, including the Journal of Midshipman James Pity, 23 July 1798 to 11 May 1799, in “Logbooks and Journals. of the USS Constitution in 1798-1844,” National Archives and Records Administration, M1030, Roll 16.
2 These numbers come from estimates made by Commander Tyrone G. Martin, based on comments from Captain Thomas Tingey to the Secretary of the Navy in 1813, ratios in the 1809 American Artillerist’s Companion, and an 1837 gunner’s notebook.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.