Thomas C. Byron’s Narrative of the Cruises of the U.S. Frigate Constitution
Thomas C. Byron, of Maryland, composed this narrative in 1861 as an older man, looking back on USS Constitution‘s actions during the War of 1812. Byron served as a Marine fifer and was present for Constitution’s three major battles. His station on the quarter deck enabled him to “see and hear all that was said or done on board during the whole war.” The narrative covers 1812 to 1815 and recounts Byron’s experiences on the ship, including descriptions of battles, storms, visits to foreign ports, brief political commentaries, and his opinion of “Old Ironsides” and his shipmates:
“There was not a Ship we took that was half a nug [sic] for old [sic] Ironsides and she could take another like her in one hour after as she never lost any of her spars and but about 12 or 15 men in any fight she had, and her crew was the smartest and her men the most capable ever known in the annals of history. Many of her men had been brought up on the sea, some had been masters of vessels both as sailors and marines and they were as united as brothers.”
Life aboard Constitution was dangerous and difficult even when not engaged in battle. Byron describes a voyage when fresh water ran scarce. The ship couldn’t resupply in port for fear of being blockaded, and their six month supply of water and food were diminished by prisoners taken aboard:
“Now I will state our sufferings on the night we crossed the equinoctial line, that night all hands came near dying for want of water. A number were dipping up with tin pots the water that had fallen from a small shower into the boats on deck and mixed with the salt water that had flew [sic] over the side into it also old tobacco chews which the men had thrown into the boats and they had to drink it. About daylight it began to rain as it generally does in crossing the line and we were very glad but was not allowed to catch a drop for our messes untill [sic] it was all over, but had to get up casks and spread sails over the deck and fill them and strike them down into the hole [sic]. This was the way we had to live. Every [rain] shower the men would run with their pots and cans and stop the scupper holes up to catch the water that fell on deck, dirty as it was they had to use it and sometimes it was so tarry that they could hardly swallow it others running & catching a little here and there upon the painted hamms [sic: hammocks] or some other place which would be so painty that it was almost impossible to use it.”
At the narrative’s conclusion, Byron offers some corrections of “things stated in the naval history concerning the proceedings of the chasings and maneuvering of the British Squadron.” He provides further details of Constitution’s battles against HMS Guerriere and HMS Java, pointing out where he thought the historical accounts erred and providing information as he witnessed it. Several pages at the end feature pencil illustrations of USS Constitution’s activities, including her engagements with HMS Guerriere, HMS Java, HMS Cyane, and HMS Levant.
Byron died sometime after 1861, just after completing this narrative account.