In the early years of the U.S. Navy, foreign nationals who retained their citizenship were often recruited for service. Immigrants to the United States, coming from around the world, also served on U.S. naval vessels. During the War of 1812, the lines between foreign nationals and immigrants became a central point of conflict as English and Irish-born sailors joined USS Constitution in the fight against Great Britain. Irish-born sailors in particular played significant roles on USS Constitution, from Marine private to surgeon, during the War of 1812.
Some Irish sailors had immigrated to the United States as children and became naturalized long before entering the service, while others arrived to their new country as adults. In both cases, however, their allegiance could be called into question by the British if they had the misfortune of being captured. Even if they considered themselves Americans, Irish-born sailors in the U.S. Navy, like English-born sailors, faced the prospect of impressment or trial for treason if captured by the British during the war, regardless of whether they claimed U.S. citizenship.
As a result, many sought to conceal their birthplace when enlisting in the U.S. Navy. According to ship’s muster rolls and later pension applications, 27 crew members identified themselves as being born in Ireland, though the real number was probably higher.
Of the 27 who did divulge their heritage, 17 served in the Marines Corps. Among those was Private Francis Mullen (or Mullins), who was wounded in the ankle by an enemy musket ball while he was firing from Constitution’s mizzen top during the battle with HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. Another, a former blacksmith turned Marine private named William Holmes, received a disabling wound in the hand during the battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on February 20, 1815.
Among the seamen and others on the crew who hailed from Ireland, several had particularly notable careers, both on Constitution and later:
Daniel Hogan served two consecutive two-year tours on Constitution from 1811 to 1815. As such, he was one of the few sailors on board for all three of Constitution‘s major victories during the War of 1812. But it is unclear when he arrived in the United States from Ireland.
During the battle with HMS Guerriere in August 1812, Hogan performed a heroic feat, which resulted in the Secretary of the Navy awarding him an extra month’s pay as reward. His shipmate Moses Smith described Hogan’s courageous act:
“Our fore-royal truck was shot away, with two pair of halyards; the flag was hanging down tangled on the shivered mast in the presence of the enemy. This sight inspired one of our men, familiarly called Dan Hogan, to the daring feat of nailing the standard to the mast. He was a little Irish chap, but brim-full of courage. 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.”1
Four months later, as Constitution faced HMS Java in battle, Hogan stood at gun no. 9 on the gun deck, serving as a fireman. During the battle, British shot tore away fingers on both of his hands. He was discharged with a pension in March 1813, soon after his terrible injury. But the sea called him back and he returned to Constitution that June, serving during the battle against HMS Cyane and HMS Levant and as part of Cyane’s prize crew.
John Armstrong emigrated from Ireland sometime before 1805. While there is not a lot of information about his early training, he was skilled enough and had sufficient formal education to receive a commission as a surgeon’s mate in May 1812. Being an Irish citizen and subject to the authority of the British Crown, Armstrong wrote often to the Secretary of the Navy requesting to be placed onshore. At sea, he risked capture and possible death for being a traitor to the Crown. The Secretary denied the requests claiming there were no billets onshore for him.
As a result, Armstrong was on board for the battles with HMS Guerriere and HMS Java, and was awarded two Congressional Silver Medals for his actions during the battles.
James Campbell was born in 1786 in Derry, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States at age 4. Campbell served as apprentice sailmaker in Baltimore before enlisting in the U.S. Navy as a sailmaker. He joined Constitution’s crew as a boatswain’s mate on July 4, 1812. Early in 1813, Campbell was reassigned as sailmaker to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who was building a Lake Erie naval squadron at Erie, Pennsylvania. He served as a gunner when Perry’s squadron engaged and defeated the British fleet during the Battle of Lake Erie. After being discharged, he went to work as a privateer commander and merchant captain in Galveston Island, Texas. Later in life, he became a farmer and rancher in Swan Lake, Texas, where he died in 1856.
John Kearney was born in Ireland in 1793, but it’s unclear when he came to the United States. He received a commission as a surgeon’s mate at age 16 and was promoted to surgeon at 20. Kearney served on Constitution from 1814 to 1815, and was on board for the battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant.
Kearney went on to become surgeon of the fleet in the Mediterranean in 1828. He served at several military bases in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico during the 1830s, and died from yellow fever in Salamandina, Mexico in 1847.
George Campbell Read was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States with his parents at an early age. Read served on Constitution three different times in his career. He first joined the ship as a midshipman in February 1809, and was then promoted to lieutenant. After leaving Constitution, he commanded the bomb ketch Vesuvius. In July, 1812, he rejoined Constitution and participated in the ship’s victory over HMS Guerriere. Read went on to command the East India Squadron, hunting Sumatran pirates. He served in several Mediterranean Squadrons on USS Constellation and USS United States. Later in life he served as commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Philadelphia Naval Asylum.
1 Moses Smith, Naval Scenes in the Last War, Or, Three Years on Board the Frigate Constitution and the Adams: Including The Capture of the Guerriere : Being the True Narrative of Moses Smith, a Survivor of the “Old Ironsides” Crew (Gleason’s Pub. Hall, 1846).
Public Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Carl Herzog is the Public Historian at the USS Constitution Museum.