Pardon Mawney Whipple’s Letterbook
When 22-year-old Pardon Mawney Whipple of Providence, Rhode Island received his midshipman’s warrant in December of 1812, the war between America and Britain was well underway. By 1813, USS Constitution had already met and defeated, in separate battles, HMS Guerriere and HMS Java. Whipple was assigned to Constitution, then under the command of Captain Charles Stewart. He began this letterbook with the intention, as he wrote, to “take a copy of my letters which will in some future day afford to myself the gratification of reviewing the scenes of past life.”
Whipple’s letters, written to family and friends, offer a unique and intimate view of the events aboard USS Constitution during the War of 1812. He describes both the excitement and horrors the men felt during battle, as well as the protocols followed after a battle was over. Not every moment was spent fighting other ships, however, and Whipple provides a glimpse into the other activities that occupied Constitution and her crew during these times.
The letterbook begins with a missive written in May 1813, after Constitution spent several months in repair at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Whipple expressed his impatience in the letter to a friend: “…you can well imagine how anxiously I look forward to the moment when we shall unfurl our sails & launch into the bosom of the ocean, after having been kept so long in suspense, it is like emancipation from slavery, to have my name enroled on the list with this gallant crew…”
Once at sea, Constitution captured several ships, including HMS Pictou and the British merchant ship Lovely Ann, the latter of which Whipple was ordered to sail with British prisoners on board to Barbados. Eager for action, Whipple was disappointed by this assignment: “…how fondly I looked forward to the moment when we should meet the enemy…judge, then, what must have been my disappointment when I received orders to take charge of the prisoners & leave the ship at this interesting moment, where I had expected to gain so much; all my hopes were blasted at one dash.” The letterbook includes a copy of the Parole of Honor, an oath taken by prisoners of war to pledge their “word and honor not to bear arms in the service of Great Britain against the United States…until duly discharged.” Whipple carried this copy with him in 1814 while delivering the British prisoners.
Whipple was detained by the British in Barbados for political reasons before making his way back to the United States. Rejoining Constitution in 1815, he was on board during the engagement with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on February 20, 1815, and acted as a boat officer transferring prisoners of war from the former. In a letter written after the battle, he describes the grim realities of war: “…this being the first action I was ever in, you can imagine to yourself what were my feelings to hear the horrid groans of the wounded & dying, & the scene that presented itself the next morning at daylight on board of the Levant, the quarter deck seemed to have the appearance of a slaughter house…the mizenmast for several feet was covered with brains & blood; pieces of bones, fingers, & large pieces of flesh were picked up from off the deck.”
Though he left Constitution on September 10, 1815, Whipple continued to write in his letterbook until 1820, during which time he served on USS Washington, USS Columbus, and USS Spark. Whipple left the Navy on September 30, 1824 due to his declining health. He died at age 37 on May 11, 1827 from tuberculosis.