We’ve spent years ferreting out the stories of the common sailors who served on board Constitution during the first decades of the nineteenth century. We consider it no small victory when we find a brief mention of them in a letter, a pension application, prize money voucher, or some other taciturn government document. Imagine our glee, then, when we find documents that not only give us a glimpse into the life of a particular sailor, but also tell us something of his character and language.
The transcripts of the Navy courts martial trials are full of details like this. The trial of Ordinary Seaman Samuel McClarey and Able Seaman John Loring for “mutinous & seditious language & disrespect to [their] Superiour officer” reads like a true sea story (which it is, of course).1
Loring transferred to Constitution from the President on June 17, 1810, while the two ships lay in Hampton Roads. McClarey came onboard at the same time. On the night of February 5, 1811, Captain Isaac Hull had gone ashore leaving Lt. Octavius A. Page in command of the ship. Around 9 o’clock that evening, Lt. Page “received several reports that the men were riotous on the Birth- Deck.” He went down “for the purpose of quieting them & found them making a great noise, & throwing pieces of wood & iron about the Deck…he then went on Deck & directed the Gunner to get the Battle Lanthorns hung in their places & the Drummer to beat to quarters.”
About twenty men did not respond to the summons to quarters. Page went back down to the berth deck, rounded up as many as he could find, and placed the offenders under the charge of Lt. Thomas Swift of the Marines. Page walked aft to the wardroom to make out a list of the men he had detained, but as he scratched away in the lantern light, a message came from Lt. Swift that he could not keep some of the men quiet. McClarey and Loring were being particularly difficult. McClarey, who was not one of the men detained by the Marine sentries, said to the prisoners, “Huzza my boys, don’t be down hearted, I will see you out,” and continued to act “riotously.”
Loring, who appeared to be drunk, wouldn’t stop talking, and Swift threatened to gag him. Loring retorted, “I know it is more than you dare do without going to your master Capt Hull.” With that, Swift ordered him “to be put in the cage (a place of confinement sometimes made use of on board the ship). While in the Cage he was very noisy and told the witness that if he did not look out for him he’d be damn’d if he did not look out for himself. The prisoner then turn’d to & kicked the cage to pieces, came out & endeavoured to escape from the Sentinel, he was then brought back, and made another attempt to escape. The Deponent then ordered the prisoner in irons, hands & feet.”
According to the testimony of Private Patrick Haley, “Loring was then a prisoner, making a great noise- Lieut. Swift came forward to the Galley & commanded silence. This command the prisoner would not obey, but damn’d Mr. Swift’s Sword, then damn’d himself & then struck his own breast & told Mr. Swift to put his sword there if he chose.”
Lt. Page went forward to the galley where the prisoners had been confined “& ordered McClarey & Loring to be put in the Cole-Hole [literally a space in the hold for holding coal for the galley stove]; when they were going Loring appeared distressed at the idea of being put in the Cole-Hole, & and begged of him [Page] that he might not be put in there; the prisoner [McClarey] then observed to Loring ‘what are you whining & crying about, you damn’d chicken hearted fellow, why don’t you stand it like a man as I do?’”
When Page threatened him with a court martial, McClarey replied, “You may try me by a Court Martial & be damn’d, but damn them if they do try me I hope they will hang me.”
In his defense, McClarey claimed that he had once lived as a clerk with a Mr. Fundy in Albany, NY, but had left his employ after being severely beaten in the head. One of his shipmates, Ordinary Seaman Killian Bogart testified that he’d seen McClarey wandering the streets of Albany “apparently crazy” three years since. When he asked the witness, “do you recollect my ever having told you that on account of a wound in my head, I was subject to fits of Insanity,” Bogart replied, “you have frequently told me, that owing to a wound in your head, you were subject on taking the least liquor to fits of Insanity.” Loring lamely offered nearly the same defense.
Not surprisingly the court (composed of officers Charles Ludlow, Oliver Hazard Perry, Charles Morris, George Cambell Read, and Thomas Gamble), found the prisoners guilty of the charges and sentenced them both to receive 100 lashes on the bare back with a cat-of-nine-tails, a punishment that was carried out on board Constitution at 11 AM on February 25.
Loring stuck around long enough to be discharged at Boston on May 6, but McClarey, hugely disgruntled with the service, deserted on May 13.
1 Records of General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry of the Navy Department, RG 125, National Archives. The trial was held on Feb. 22, 1811 on board USS President in New London, CT.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.