By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
The main difference between an old sailing warship’s crew and a small town was the absence of women. The crew otherwise was as varied as the citizenry ashore, a mix of races, nationalities, ages, and skills.
The senior officer aboard was an officer in the rank of Captain. The Captain had the total responsibility for the ship, her crew, all equipage on board, and everything they did or had happen to them. And in line with his great burdens, the Captain also had virtually the power of life and death over every other person in the ship, be they assigned member of the crew or merely a passenger or visitor. He was, and is, the closest thing to a dictator we have in our democratic society. Generally in his late thirties or early forties and with fifteen or more years of sea time behind him, he was the most experienced officer on board the ship.
Next in line was the First Lieutenant, the senior of the four to six lieutenants assigned. His duty was to carry out the policies and orders of the Captain, and like the Captain he stood no watches (duty periods), but nearly always was “available.” He saw to the organization and operation of daily or periodic routines, insured the cleanliness of the ship, oversaw its maintenance, and reported conditions regularly to the Captain. All others in the ship reported to him, or through him to the Captain. During special evolutions, such as coming to anchor or getting under way, the First Lieutenant maneuvered the ship. In battle, he took charge of fighting fires and repairing damage. In sum, the comfort and well-being of everyone aboard, together with their duty assignments and training, were his responsibility. It has been said that a “Number One” who gets a full night’s sleep isn’t doing his job.
The other lieutenants were the watch standers, relieving one another in an endless rotation at sea and in port, ensuring that the Captain’s orders and ship’s routine were carried out precisely and on time. They also were the division officers, and when not standing watches were responsible for the activities and welfare of a portion of the crew, for their direction in battle, and for the maintenance of particular sections of the ship and at least one of the ship’s boats. In the early years of our Navy, most of these men had spent at least ten years at sea and some had been masters in the merchant marine.
The next senior officer was the Sailing Master, another man of considerable experience, who saw to the safe navigation of the ship and her proper loading so that she was trimmed to sail to best advantage. His determination of where the ship was on the high seas was limited largely to keeping track of all course changes and making estimates of the ship’s speed each hour (called “dead reckoning,” a corruption of “deduced reckoning”), and confirming the latitude by “shooting” the sun (determining its angle above the horizon) with a quadrant or sextant at high noon. He also oversaw the important task of keeping time at sea (using a sand glass) and taught the midshipmen navigational skills.
The Purser, the Surgeon and his Mates, the Chaplain, and the one or two Marine officers aboard were called “idlers” because they didn’t stand watches as did the “sea officers.” The Purser had charge of the ship’s accounts and supplies, which he dispensed in accordance with the Captain’s orders. Inventories and ledgers very nearly were his whole life. The Surgeon and his Mates held “sick call” almost every day to attend the minor health complaints of the crew. The Surgeon also advised the Captain on precautionary and dietary measures that might be taken to keep the crew as healthy as possible. He lived in the Wardroom with the sea officers and other idlers, but his Mates lived in an area called the cockpit, which served as the operating room for wounded in battle. The Chaplain was present primarily to attend to the spiritual needs of the crew, but he often functioned as secretary to the Captain, taught the three R’s to the ship’s boys and perhaps mathematics and languages to the midshipmen. (In the early days, it was not unusual for a Chaplain to become the Purser when the need arose.) The Marine officers, of course, had charge of the readiness, discipline, and performance of the Marine Guard. The senior Marine officer was in an unusual position in that he coordinated the “operational” activities of his unit with the Captain, but administratively was responsible directly to the Marine Corps Commandant.
Junior to the idlers (and often said to be senior only to the ship’s cat — if there was one) were the midshipmen. Eight to twelve of these teenage student officers were the usual complement for Constitution, but in the years after the War of 1812 and before the founding of the Naval Academy in 1845, as many as two dozen of the “young gentlemen” were aboard. They generally came from the “better” families and had a smattering of education, but that was no guarantor of even adequate performance. They stood watches, practiced navigation with the Sailing Master, relayed orders from the quarterdeck to their assigned battle stations, and, presumably, prepared themselves for promotion to lieutenant by examination after several years at sea. They were required to keep journals largely patterned on the ship’s log which the Captain regularly reviewed. In port, they were employed as boat officers, supervisors of watering parties, or sent to help apprehend deserters.
The warrant officers, next in the ship’s hierarchy, provided the technical expertise in their fields. Traditionally, they ranked in order: Boatswain, Gunner, Sailmaker, and Carpenter, and were “warranted” by the Captain from among the most experienced members of the crew. The Boatswain was responsible for the rigging and seeing to it that everything aloft was properly maintained; he traditionally carried a silver call (or “pipe”) on a lanyard around his neck as his badge of office with which he sounded the calls directing the crew in major seamanship activities. In battle, he took station on the forecastle to oversee the handling of the critically important headsails and foremast. The Gunner supervised the maintenance of all weapons on board and the powder magazines. In battle, he was in charge of the main powder magazine and saw to the distribution of powder charges to the great guns. The Carpenter, obviously, was the man in charge of all woodworking, large and small, in the ship. And the Sailmaker not only concerned himself with maintaining the ship’s sails, but had charge of making windscreens, awnings, hammocks, and wind funnels. Every day, conditions permitting, the Boatswain, Carpenter, and Sailmaker together inspected masts, spars, and hoisted sails to be sure the ship was ready to maneuver and respond to the Captain’s every command.
The most senior group among the “enlisted men” were the petty officers, men of demonstrated talent and relatively good conduct. The seniormost petty officer was the master-at-arms, who oversaw discipline, controlled prisoners, took charge of clothing and personal items found adrift, ensured peace on the berth deck, and enforced the ship’s internal regulations. He reported directly to the First Lieutenant. The quartermasters were among the most experienced seamen aboard and had charge of signals, keeping a lookout, and steering the ship. They worked for the Sailing Master. Boatswain’s mates, quarter gunners and gunner’s mates, carpenter’s mates, and sailmaker’s mates were the principal assistants to their respective warrant officers. The boatswain’s mates, like their leader, wore silver calls and used them to “pass on” his piped orders. Gunner’s mates normally were assigned one to each of the five divisions responsible for great guns, and quarter gunners worked for them, or with the small arms (muskets, pistols, cutlasses, etc.) or in the magazines.
There also was a group of lesser petty officers whose skills, necessary to the administration of the ship and support of human needs, were not as closely identified with seamanship as the “deck rates.” In this group were the various yeomen who kept inventory records, sickbay attendants, stewards, the cook, tinker (sheet metal worker), cordwainer (leather worker), armorer, cooper (barrel maker), and ship’s corporals (assistants to the master-at-arms). While men like the tinker, cordwainer, and cooper were craftsmen, other positions, like yeoman, were gained through an ability to write, or like the cook, because he was aged or physically unable to be a deck seaman any longer. These were considered desirable positions, however, because their work required odd hours and so they were the enlisted idlers — men who weren’t required to stand watch and could expect a full night’s sleep with some frequency.
Forming the broad base of the crew pyramid were the hundreds of able and ordinary seamen, and several dozen boys. Collectively, they were the ship’s supply of muscle power. The “able” seamen were those sufficiently skilled to perform virtually all basic seamanship jobs with little or no supervision. They were the pool from whom the most able were drawn to be petty officers or even warrant officers. The “ordinary” seamen had some skills, but required fairly close supervision to guide and motivate them. The boys were just that, mostly young teens, some of whom were enlisted to get them out of orphanages, others signed up by fathers to make a place at the family table, and a few who wanted to go to sea.
Constitution’s crew originally was authorized by Congress at 24 officers, 28 petty officers, 253 sailors, and 54 enlisted Marines in 1798. Experience indicated that Congress and the experts had been niggardly in their allowance, and by 1813 the crew had grown to 30 officers, 51 petty officers, 343 sailors, and 57 enlisted Marines. Almost all the officers were Americans, but the proportion and variety of aliens increased — sometimes to a majority — as seniority decreased in the remainder of the crew.
The commissioned officers were men appointed to their ranks by the President with the concurrence of Congress, and they served at the pleasure of that official until retired, cashiered, or resigned. In the early decades of the Navy, pay ranged from $75 a month for a captain to $18 for a midshipman. Warrant officers received their appointments from the ship’s captain and served at his pleasure. Once appointed, a warrant officer could expect to keep his rank upon transfer with a favorable endorsement from his captain. He likewise served until retired, cashiered, or resigned. Pay for all warrant officers was $20 a month.
The rest of the crew were referred to as “enlisted men” because they signed up for a particular ship and for a specific length of time, usually one or two years. Petty officers generally were paid $19 or $20, able seamen got $17 or $18, ordinary seamen received $12 to $14, and the boys, $5 to $8. The ranges of pay noted above reflect the fact that captains often had to be given a little leeway in their recruitment in order to try and compete with merchant marine wages in their home port, or wherever it was they were attempting to add to their crew. (If these pay scales seem unreal, consider the plight of Marines in those days: a sergeant or corporal, who was considered the rank-equivalent of a petty officer, received only $9 a month; a private, no matter how experienced, got just $6!)
Life in Constitution was damp, crowded, noisy, dangerous, smelly, too hot or too cold, and almost constantly in motion. For the officers, it was a profession to which they had been drawn through family tradition, circumstances, or the lure of the sea. And while the lure of the sea certainly attracted some of the enlisted men, the prospect of regular meals and pay, together with escape from harassed lives ashore.
Bell, Frederick J. Room To Swing A Cat. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 1938.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Paullin, Charles Oscar. Paullin’s History Of Naval Administration, 1775-1911. Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute, 1968.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM