Trophies taken during victories and defeats.
When an enemy vessel surrendered, the victor rushed to take possession. It was during this process that the discipline of a crew could be sorely strained. It would have been tempting to steal objects from the prisoners as their bags and chests were removed, and allegations of misconduct were ever present. Seaman James Durand claimed that when the Guerriere prisoners “called for their bags, the bags were delivered up nearly emptied of their contents.” The Port Folio magazine, however, proudly exclaimed that “every chest, trunk, and box belonging to the officers… was delivered to them without examination. The very trifles which the crew of the Constitution saved from the Guerriere, before she was blown up, were scrupulously restored to the English sailors; no article of private property was touched.”
Three days after taking the Levant and Cyane, Constitution’s Captain Stewart “mustered all hands with their bags, examined and searched every part of the ship for articles complained by the Prisoners to have been taken from them, found a few old coats &c as per the list given in, but nothing of any consequence- some of the articles were given to our men by theirs. Ordered all the Prisoners baggage put into the empty bread room locked up and the key given to the first lieutenant with orders to let none go into it without an officer of the Constitution being present.” A week later Stewart mustered the crew again and made another search of the bags. It was finally ascertained that “after the ships had struck their colours that their men broke into the Spirit and Slop rooms, and Officers apartments, and pillaged all they could.”
Nevertheless, the British officers continued to make shrill accusations, none more so than Capt. Falcon of the Cyane who found that two fowling pieces, one of which belonged to him, had disappeared from the locked bread room. The Americans, under the eyes of the British officers, again conducted a thorough search of the ship, including the officer’s staterooms and Stewart’s own store room, but they found nothing. The looting of a surrendered ship by its own crew seems to have been commonplace. Captain David Porter reported that after HMS Alert struck to the Essex, and the British captain had left the ship, “a scene of pillage and destruction was pursued by her crew, that would have disgraced a corsaire of Barbary- The Spirit room, pursers, and other store rooms were broken or thrown open, nor did the Captains Cabin & private stores escape, and such articles as could not be taken were broken, thrown overboard, and otherwis [sic] wantonly destroyed.”
The British for their part were notorious (in American eyes) for pillaging their enlisted prisoners, and sometimes officers as well. Benjamin Waterhouse wrote an admittedly biased account of what happened when the crew of his Salem privateer surrendered to HMS Tenedos. “When our baggage was brought on board, the master of arms took every portable article from us, not leaving us a jack-knife, pen-knife, or razor. We Americans never conduct so towards British prisoners. We always respect the private articles of the officer and sailor.” Clearly, the British were trying to deprive their prisoners of anything that might be used as a weapon, but they also took essential clothing that would be needed in the cold and damp environment of the Nova Scotian prison where they were sent. When HMS Shannon took the Chesapeake, the British officers allegedly demanded of the American purser the keys to Lawrence’s private storeroom. The purser (Thomas J. Chew) politely declined, for he intended to return the valuable collection of provisions and clothing to the captain’s widow and children. “This request was not merely declined, it was haughtily and superciliously refused” by the victors.
Considering the sailor’s penchant for plundering an enemy vessel, it is little wonder that many museums number “trophies” among their collections. The USS Constitution Museum’s collection includes pieces taken from both American and British warships during the War of 1812. Items taken from HMS Guerriere include a transfer-printed dinner plate and the ship’s bell. A bible, once numbered among the contents of a mess chest on HMS Java, was purloined by one of Constitution’s midshipmen. When the British captured USS President, they removed, among many other objects, a rifle used in the maintop and a bible strapped to the carriage of a gun. Together they represent the sort of small, portable objects that probably made wonderful souvenirs for the folks back home.