So many of the details of life in the early U.S. Navy remain elusive. As we dig ever deeper into archival sources, we begin to gain a better understanding of the minutiae of life at sea in the period. And yet some details of that world were so commonplace to the men who lived them every day that no one bothered to record them for posterity.

We received an inquiry wondering about the tune used to call the crew to their “quarters” or battle stations. Most early nineteenth century accounts of battle simply mentioned that a ship “beat to quarters.” This, of course, implies that a drum was used–other instruments don’t “beat,” after all.

Several sources provide confirmation. In the wake of the USS Chesapeake’s ignominious encounter with HMS Leopard in 1807, the American ship’s officers appeared as witnesses at the court martial of Commodore James Barron, whose indecision resulted in the British forcibly removing several seamen from the American ship. Part of the proceedings focused on Barron’s failure to call his men to their battle stations. The court addressed Lieutenant John Orde Creighton, Chesapeake’s fourth lieutenant at the time of the incident, with the following question: “What was the usual mode of getting the crew to quarters in this ship before this period? And what has been the manner generally practiced [sic] in the American navy, as far as you have observed in it?”

Creighton answered: “The usual way on board this ship and all others where I have been, has been to beat to quarters. If they have no drum however, or the drummer is incapable of doing his duty, the boatswain pipes all hands to quarters.”1

As late as 1852, the U.S. Navy’s manual for preparing ships for battle agreed: “A ship’s company may be called to quarters by beat of drum, or by call of the Boatswain and his Mates; but the first mode is to be always used when practicable.”2

A modern illustration of a new contingent of Marines drilling on board ship. Note the drummer on the right. Marine musicians wore uniforms the reverse of the privates–red with blue cuffs and collars. [USS Constitution Museum Collection. © 2010 Stephen Biesty]
In the British Royal Navy, the tune played by the drummer when beating to quarters was “Heart of Oak,” the famous song written in 1795 by William Boyce and David Garrick. Generally, the American Navy copied British protocol, but in this instance, that does not seem to be true. Why, after all, would the U.S. Navy use a tune that celebrated mid-eighteenth century British naval victories?Nearly every period source agrees: a drummer beat his drum to call the men to quarters. But what did this sound like? Everything in the navy operated under some sort of system, so surely the drummer didn’t play his drum as he pleased.

Luckily, the answer comes in the form of a book by U.S. Marine Drum Major Charles Stewart Ashworth.

We don’t know much about Ashworth’s life, but he was evidently a skilled musician and instructor. In January 1812, he published a book called A New, Useful, and Complete System of Drum Beating… intended particularly for the United States Army and Navy. Since the musicians on board ship were in fact Marines, it stands to reason that the call he notated in his book was the one in current use.

A page from Ashworth’s book, showing the notation for “To Arms.” [Courtesy]

Music historian James Krause has recorded what this would have sounded like when accompanied by a fife–and all the American frigates carried a Marine drummer and fifer.

1 Navy Department, Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron (James Gideon, 1822), 70.
2 Navy Department, Instructions in Relation to the Preparation of Vessels of War for Battle (Washington: C. Alexander, 1852), 32.

The Author(s)

Matthew Brenckle
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum

Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.