Mingle the sons of Columbia with the sons of Erin and you might create a volatile mixture.  On the other hand, you might create one of the most skilled and brave naval crews to ever sail the seas.  The early US Navy certainly thought that was the case, and USS Constitution’s War of 1812 crew proved the point.

Because the Navy didn’t keep very good records about the birthplace of its sailors, we don’t know the exact number of Irishmen who served on board the ship between 1812 and 1815.  We’ve discussed the problems of foreign seamen before here, but using other sources we can tease out some of the Irish-born in the crew.  Names themselves can be revealing, if not definitive.  There were at least 24 sailors whose names began with “Mc,” and many more whose names suggested Irish origins.

Lieutenant George Campbell Read, though born in Ireland, was fully naturalized by the time he accepted HMS Guerriere’s surrender on August 19, 1812.  During the same battle, Boatswain’s Mate James Campbell, a native of Derry, served as captain of gun no. 13.  Surgeon’s Mate John Armstrong, who had come from Ireland eight years before, tended the wounded after the battle, and later acted in the same capacity for the men injured in the battle with the Java.  When he returned to Boston in 1813, he requested a transfer: “As I am an alien of Gt. Britain I should [be] disagreeably situated should I happen to fall into the hands of the enemy, therefore should be happy to serve the United States in the like capacity on shore…”

In the heat of the engagement with Guerriere, Seaman Daniel Hogan, “a little Irish chap, but brim-full of courage,” scampered aloft to secure a flag that was in danger of being shot away.

Without a word from anyone, he sprang into the rigging and was aloft in a moment.  He was soon seen, under the fire of the enemy, who saw him too, at the topmast height, clinging on with one hand, and with the other making all fast, so that the flag could never come down unless the mast came with it.  The smoke curled around him as he bent to the work; but those who could see him, kept cheering him through the sulphury clouds.  He was soon down again, and at his station in the fight.

A tiny Daniel Hogan, as depicted by Michele Felice Corne.  This is a detail from one of his four epic canvases of the Guerriere battle.  US Navy art collection.

For this act of heroism, the Secretary of the Navy awarded him an extra month’s pay.  In the battle with the Java, he received a severe wound in both hands, and he died penniless in New York in 1818.

Constitution’s Marine Guard probably had an even higher percentage of Irishmen serving in its ranks.  Of the 109 privates and non-commissioned officers who served during the war, eighteen claimed to have been born in Ireland.  Private Francis Mullen (or Mullins) took a musket ball in the ankle while firing from the mizzen top during the Guerriere battle.  Private William Holmes, a former blacksmith, received a disabling wound in the hand during the battle with the Cyane and Levant in 1815.

Last, but not least, there was Sligo-born, black-haired, black-eyed Private John Kilroy.  Like their GI descendents in the 1940s, Constitution’s crew could truthfully say “Kilroy was here!”

Not quite a pot of gold, but gold nonetheless.  This is the reverse of Isaac Hull’s gold Congressional medal, awarded for the victory over HMS Guerriere.  Private collection, on loan to USS Constitution Museum.


The Author(s)

USS Constitution Museum