By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Only rarely are we given a glimpse of the “ordinary” people involved in the drama and often firey consequences of historic events. Thus, it was with great delight that research concerning “Old Ironsides” brought me face-to-face with William Bryant, ship’s boy.
Will Bryant was born in Sandwich (or Ipswich), Massachusetts, on 5 January 1781. At the age of 13, he came to Boston apprenticed to Edward B. Walker, a hatter.
Through the winter of 1797-98, Captain Samuel Nicholson, Constitution’s prospective commander, worked to outfit the new frigate for war service, the nation then drifting into an undeclared “quasi” war with revolutionary France. Early in May 1798, Nicholson received orders from the Secretary of War, William McHenry, “to lose no Time in completing, equipping, and manning her for Sea.” He was to engage 150 able seamen and 103 midshipmen and ordinary seamen “all certified healthy by the Surgeon, for twelve Months unless sooner discharged,” the enlistments to commence on the day the ship first got underway.
Nicholson’s advertisement for recruits appeared in the Columbian Centinel on 12 May. Will Bryant later wrote, “I was in the boat with the first recruits that ever went on board of that ship. I signed articles A.M. & went on board P M 5th day of may [sic] 1798 — no officers on board ai ihalt time but petty officers.” The teenager was rated “boy” and assigned duties as a steward’s helper in the wardroom where someone with a closed mouth and open ears could learn much about the ship’s leadership.
Constitution’s initial set of officers was, indeed, a group about which much was said — most of it, bad.
During June, Stephen Higginson, the Naval Agent in Boston, made the following observations about some of these men:
“Capt. N: is in my estimation a rough blustering Tar merely, he is a good seaman probably & is no doubt acquainted with many or most parts of his duty … but he wants points much more important as a commander in my view, prudence, judgment & reflection are no traits in his character, nor will be ever improve…”
“Mr. Cordis the second Lt… possesses none of the requisites, he is deficient in every point, essential to a good officer, he is said to be intemperate… ”
“Mr. Beale who is appointed 3rd Lt. is a smart young man, & will be a good officer… … the Surgeon, Read, is the opposite of what he ought to be… There is not a man in this Town who would trust the life of a dog in his hands… ”
Will Bryant had a somewhat different view of Nicholson and has left us a reason for this difference, as well:
“The Commodore was one of the most humane commanders in our navy, was always willing to hear the complaints of his men and would often reprimand his officers for any ill treatment.”
Any ship with so many mavericks and malcontents in its leadership cannot operate effectively for very long, andConstitution was no exception. She went to sea for the first time in July 1798. The differences between Nicholson and his officers came to a head early in December. Will later recorded the turmoil and Nicholson’s subsequent actions thusly:
“… During that time we got … a very great change in our officers. Our Sailingmaster [sic] Mr. Swain (Charles Swain) had to leave & John Hancock took his place, these two officers had to leave the ship, but the cause I need not mention… Then came the contest between the Commodore and three of his Lieuts, viz, Mr Russell (Charles C. Russell, First Lieutenant], Mr John Cordass (John Blake Cordis] the 2nd Lieut, and Mr Emery (William Amory] Lieut of Marines[.] The cause of the difficulty was (as I heard Mr Debloys [James Smith Deblois] our purser say) by the commodor [sic] withholding their commissions, the whole three resentd [sic] it immediately and cauld (@ic] for their baggge (sic] and got on board the boat in a very few moments, and as soon as they left the ship, we gave them three cheers & they returned the complement (sic]. There we were destitute of the complement of officers which the service required and the ship to sail the next day. Then the commodore took the responsibility to give the ship her complement of officers by promotion of the officers then on board, as follows — Mr Beal the third Lieut promoted to the first. The Late commodore Isaac Hull 4th Lieut promoted to 2d Lieut. Mr Thayer (Cotton Thayer?] Sergeant of Marines, promoted Lieut of marines [sic] in place of Mr. Emery. Mr Story our gunner and Mr Jarvis [Midshipman Philip Jarvis] appointed to one watch together as Lieut. This Mr Jarvis had never taken any part in ships duty, but had always remained in the cabbin [sic] with the commodore untill (sic] the appointment here referd [sic] to…”
Official records for this period indicate that Boatswain Connell was discharged for fighting with Lieutenant Cordis. Sailing Master Swain left when Nicholson refused to deliver his warrant. Lieutenants Russell and Amory likewise left when the Captain also withheld their commissions, on the grounds they “wanted” experience. (The Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, shortly thereafter issued orders to Russell to take command of ship Herald; Amory was reinstated in Constitutionwhen Nicholson was detached six months later.) Lieutenant Cordis was discharged by Nicholson “for oppression and disobedience of orders,” sent ashore to await court-martial.
Despite her many personnel problems, Constitution managed to get to sea and operate reasonably well for a new ship with a green crew. Not long after her first sailing on 22 July 1798, she encountered a squall during which time she “Shipt. much Water Thro’ the ports ….,”frightening many of the crew, and led to a lot of praying. Will recalled one vociferous Irishman in particular who ended his appeal to Heaven with: “And we thank Thee, 0 Lord, that we have only twelve months and a fortnight longer to stay on this ship.”
On 8 September, the frigate met and took her first prize, off Cape Hatteras, a privateer named Niger (“Enigah”, Will wrote) mounting 26 guns. Unfortunately for Nicholson, Niger was an English ship, although her Captain was a Frenchman, an aristocrat displaced by the revolution. This, Nicholson refused to believe, insisting that the claim merely was merely a subterfuge. He took Niger into Norfolk, Virginia, where extended legal and diplomatic maneuvering ultimately led to Niger’s return to the English and the payment of $11,000 in damages.
Following further routine operations and the December upheaval among her officers, Constitution was ordered south to join Commodore John Barry’s squadron operating from Prince Rupert’s Bay, Dominica, in the West Indies. Enroute thence, the ship made its second capture on 15 January 1799. Let Will Bryant recount it:
“We discovered the Ship in the morning; and we had but a little or no wind untill [sic] towards the middle of the day, [sic] As the wind breezed, we made sail; and being to the windward, we were soon satisfied that she was a man of war. She lay by the wind under easy sail untill [sic] about three o’clock. At that time we had a good breeze, and increasing. When she took the hint, and up helm and crowded sail before the wind; and we crowed (sic] all sail in chase. But in the evening it became very squally: and our sailing master (Mr. Harringdon) [Nathaniel Haraden) had the charge of sailing our Ship. He kept a good look out for the squalls and conducted with the greatest caution in taking in and making Sail as circumstances required, untill [sic] about two o’clock in the morning; and at that time we were nearly within gunshot of the frigate, When [sic] a heavy squall struck us and we shortened sail as usual. As the squall abated, we discovered a ship standing by the wind (we running before the wind) and got within musket shot before we discovered her, it being very dark. We supposed her to be the same ship we had been in chase of; we then brought our ship to the wind, fired a gun, lit our battle lanterns, and prepared for action; and after we were prepared, we gave her two or three more guns, as signals. She had shortened sail, and was to the windward, and, we supposed, was preparing for action; but she not showing any lights, nor firing a gun after so long a time, we were suspicious that we had made a mistake in the ship; and we then run along side, and found our suspicion to be a reality. She being an English merchantman, a prize to the Lee-Insurgeon; and by that mistake the Lee insurgeon [sic] enabled to make her escape…”
Bryant’s memory was very good. Actually, two ships were sighted on the 15th: the French frigate L’Insurgente (Will’s “Lee insurgeon”) and her prize, the English Spencer, which had been on passage from Shields, England, to Barbados when taken. In the darkness, Constitution had lost the frigate and stumbled on her prize. Nicholson once again showed his ignorance of orders and existing international law by convincing himself that this was another Niger situation and returning Spencer to a very surprised French prize crew! Navy secretary Stoddert, when he learned of the Commodore’s latest dido, recorded his thoughts as follows:
“… from such parts of his conduct as I have had the opportunity of knowing, I have no confidence in him.— I am afraid to trust him with a separate command.
– and (sic] to keep such a Frigate as his under the command of Barry… is to make of her of no more use or importance than a Ship of 20 Guns.”
“I have … determined therefore, to prevent his going out in her again if possible…”
Unaware of the Secretary’s intentions, Nicholson reported to Commodore John Barry and took up his “watchman” duties off Deseada and Mariegalante Islands. Late in the evening watch on 1 March, there was a flurry of excitement when an unidentified man-of-war was sighted. In the hurlyburly of going to action stations, Acting Boatswain Hancock accidentally was shot in the head by a pistol, killing him. The contact turned out to be HMS Santa Margaretta (frigate, 36 guns), and after securing from quarters Hancock was buried near midnight.
At nine the next morning, Captain Parker of Santa Margaretta called on Captain Nicholson and they quickly decided on a race to windward to see which had the handier ship. The race began at ten; Lieutenant Isaac Hull had the deck inConstitution. For five hours, the frigates tacked and tacked again, their crews straining to set and reset sail quickly and to best effect. At three, Santa Margaretta fired a lone gun to leeward, a signal to the American frigate hull-down on the horizon that she acknowledged defeat. Something had gone right for a change.
The remaining time Will Bryant had aboard Constitution was spent in humdrum patrolling in the West Indies before returning to Boston in May 1798, and on the last day of that month he set his feet ashore, his enlistment completed.
He seems to have remained generally in Boston for the next 18 years, possibly working as a hatter, and possibly having gone to sea at least once more, this time in the merchant service. He married Lydia Haley on 5 April 1805 and began a family. Daughter Mary was born in 1810 and was followed by another girl, Harriet. (In time, Mary married William Connor and was the mother of Seldon Connor, a Civil War general wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness and Governor of Massachusetts, 1875-78.)
In 1817, Will moved his family to Maine, then still a part of Massachusetts, and settled on a farm not far from Fairfield, where he raised corn. He soon was active in local politics, serving as the area’s representative in the Massachusetts General Court in 1817 and 1819. In 1818, his wife presented him with twins, Cyrus and Susan. A fifth child, Haley, was born in 1823. Cyrus followed his father on the farm, and Susan married a local man of consequence, but Haley struck west on his own and ultimately settled in Australia, his absence much mourned by Will.
Following Maine’s admission as our 23rd State, Will Bryant once again found himself serving in a legislature, being elected to that Maine body in 1826 and 1828. Thereafter, he limited his governmental activities to the local level, and in the next 30 years would be elected Selectman 19 times (heading the Board for 13 years) and serving as Assessor for 18 years.
In 1856-57, Bryant was busy pursuing his claim to the land bounty recently enacted by Congress for veterans of the early wars. Will’s efforts to prove his service were complicated by the loss of many records through the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, and by the passage of time which had removed so many of his compatriots. In one letter, he wrote:
“To the Gentleman Auditors of the united (sic] States pension office. As I dont know of any living person that was on board of the frigate Constitution from the 15th of May 1798, to the 31st day of May 1799, the late commodore Isaac Hull being the last survivor to my knowledge, myself, excepted, who was on board of that ship at that time. I wish to make a further Statement of what took place… ”
Isaac Hull had died in 1843. In a later letter Will lamented:
“… The service was performed so long ago that I dont know of any living person who was on board of that Ship at that time, The [sic] records being all destroyed of both State and nation, that I must fail of obtaining my land warrant provided you cannot think favorable [sic) of my claim.”
But the Pension office was convinced by Will’s representations and granted him his bounty land in a warrant dated 13 June 1857.
Nine months later, Will’s wife of 53 years died after a long illness, and he settled into a life of increasing loneliness. Be that as it may,. on his 80th birthday in 1861, he noted in his diary: “I have not lost a tooth nor had a toothache for over twelve years. My hair is almost as black as when I was young. But I feel weak and not worth much, and am lonesome, so very lonesome.”
Six years later, nearly blind, still he wrote in his diary: “I am 86 years old today. I am not smart, but I saw wood, sleep and eat well.” On 19 January 1867, he penned: “I shall not write much more in this book.” A few weeks later, he was stricken with a “paralysis” and died at daughter Susan’s home in Fairfield on 15 June 1867.
Will Bryant was not a hero, neither did he participate in any memorable event as human achievements are measured, and yet Will Bryant was somebody very special: he was one of the original crewmen in the ship that was to gain lasting fame as “Old Ironsides.11 His time on board was a difficult one of shaking down for the new ship and the new Navy. He was, as sailormen say, a “plank owner.” Furthermore, he seems to have outlived all of his shipmates; to have seen the coming of steamships, of the railroad to Maine, and to have witnessed the effect of the Civil War. Ultimately, he was a proud, lonely old man — the last of Constitution’s plank owners.
Some day, perhaps a picture of him will be discovered so that we may look him in the eye and silently appreciate that once, as he wrote, he, “being young & of good memory & frequently on centry [sic] in the Lieuts wardroom … heard much & stored it up in safe keeping.”
Originally published in Naval History, July / August 1997. Adapted with permission.
Bryant, William, Letterbook (private collection).
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM