Beekman Verplanck Hoffman
Dates of Service: -
Birth Date: 11/28/1789
Death Date: 8/10/1834
Hoffman was born 28 November 1789 at Poughkeepsie, New York, son of the Honorable Anthony A. Hoffman and Gertrude Verplank.
Hoffman received his midshipman’s warrant on 4 July 1805 and in a few days was ordered to report to USS Hornet outfitting for a cruise at New York. He later served with Captain Trippe on board the Argus. During one of his cruises the ship stopped in Havana, Cuba and every man but eight contracted or died from yellow fever.
On 19 March 1812 Hoffman joined Constitution’s crew as an acting lieutenant. By July he was fourth lieutenant and had moved up to second lieutenant until displaced back to third by the transfer of Lieutenant Ballard to the ship on 1 January 1813. Hoffman remained with Constitution until Captain Stewart made him prize master of HMS Cyane after the battle of 20 February 1815.
The junior lieutenants each had command of a watch. The men in the watch were under the lieutenant’s care and command. He was to keep a list of all the officers and men in his watch. When mustered, he examined the men to make sure they were well clothed, clean, and sober. He regularly visited the lower decks to make sure the sentries were at their posts, that no tobacco was smoked between decks, and that there were no unenclosed candles lit. While at sea, a junior lieutenant was not to change the ship’s course without the captain’s permission, unless it was to prevent a collision or other accident. In battle, the lieutenants were stationed with their divisions on the spar deck or gun deck. As Fourth Lieutenant, Hoffman was responsible for maintenance of the after third of the gun deck and commanded the ten 24-pounders there in battle. The youngest lieutenant exercised the men with small arms and in battle oversaw their use. In addition, all lieutenants were required to keep a journal or log, a copy of which was to be delivered to the Navy Department at the end of a voyage.
A story about Hoffman’s pet dog also features in many stories of Constitution’s final war cruise. According to Chaplain Assheton Humphreys,
“A terrier dog (named Guerriere) belonging to Lieut. Hoffman, from the very great sagacity with which he was gifted had become a great favourite with all hands officers and man [sic]. So a display of almost natural faculties did he exhibit that many were of the opinion that he would talk were it not that he feared he should be set to work, be the talking part as it may, he frequently did work, for whenever all hands were called to about ship he was sure to pay his respects to the Captain of the mast who placing the end of the weather fore brace in his mouth he would lead it along in as perfect order as any two legged sea dog and perform various little duties about the mast full as well. Never would the drum beat to quarters but with every token of the greatest satisfaction he would repair to the taffrel [sic], and there remain until it again beat for boarders, firemen, &c when he would always go with them and when they returned to their quarters or guns he would return to his former station. On this day his sagacity appeared preeminent. ‘Twas about 4 o’clock P.M. Lieut. Ballard and myself were walking the weather side of the quarter deck lamenting our hard luck in not falling in with an Enemys [sic] ship altho’ we had almost bearded the lion in his den, and all unconscious of any craft being near us. Guerriere who was playing about the heels of Lieut Ballard appeared uncommonly frisky and was rather troublesome, at length becoming an incumbrance he attracted the particular attention of the Lieut, perceiving which he jumped upon the hammock clothes and stretching his head to windward began to bark most vehemently;‑ upon looking to discover what attracted his notice lo! and behold! there was a large frigate standing down before the wind under a press of sail, which the gentlemen at the mast head had not yet discovered, fearing perhaps to look to windward lest “the winds should visit their cheeks too unduly” as my friend Hamlet the dane [sic], says.”
The ship turned out to be Portuguese frigate and no threat to the American ship. Unfortunately poor Guerriere drowned in the harbor of Porto Praya while trying to swim back from Cyane, where Hoffman had taken him when he assumed command of the vessel.
Thomas Byron, fifer on the ship during the last cruise, wrote in his memoirs about an incident that demonstrated Hoffman’s sense of humor. One day, as the ship sailed along with a strong wind, a man was thrown from the rigging into the sea. Luckily he was a strong swimmer and a hastily lowered boat picked him up. The sailor was unharmed by the experience and was helping to bail the boat with his hat as it came alongside the ship. Hoffman looked at him sternly and said, “I have a great mind to give you a dozen [lashes] for attempting to run away.” Then turning away and laughing he said, “Purser Steward, give Smoky half a pint of whiskey.”
Battles and Engagements
Hoffman enjoyed the singular distinction of being the only officer to serve on board Constitution for all three of her major victories. He was there during the action with HMS Guerriere, 19 August 1812, with Java, 29 December 1812, and with Cyane and Levant, 20 February 1815. He was made prize master of Cyane, to which he transferred at sea on 20 February 1815 and successfully brought her into New York.
During the engagement with Guerriere, the vessel struck Constitution abeam with her bows and the guns of the enemy exploded almost against the sides of the Constitution, setting the cabin on fire. This would have proved a serious event but for the presence of mind of Lieutenant Hoffman, who extinguished it.
After the War of 1812, he was promoted successively to Master Commandant on 5 March 1817, then Captain on 7 March 1829, commanding first the Tom Bowline, and afterwards the sloop-of-war Boston. The last ship returned to the US in July 1829 after a cruise to South America lasting three years and three months, and Hoffman went home to his family on Long Island.
He died at the age of 45 on 10 December 1834 in Jamaica, Long Island, New York of “dropsy in the chest,” “regretted by his brother officers and an extensive circle of friends and relatives.”