Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman
Dates of Service: -
Birth Date: 1782
Death Date: 9/13/1813
James Bennett, an African American, was born a free man in Duck Creek Crossroads, Delaware, about 1782. He had at least one sister named Mary.
On September 3, 1810, 28-year-old James Bennett, along with his sister Mary Williams, appeared before a Philadelphia City Alderman to obtain a seaman’s protection certificate, written proof of his citizenship.
Bennett joined Constitution’s crew in April 1811 and sailed in her during a diplomatic voyage to France and Holland. He remained on board for the first two cruises of the war and was drafted to other ships in February 1813. As an ordinary seaman, Bennett would have been paid $10 a month. Among the enlisted men, ordinary seamen stood in the middle of the lower-deck hierarchy. These men had typically sailed one or two voyages and knew basic seamanship. Like the able seamen, they too could “hand, reef, and steer,” but some of the more complicated maneuvers were foreign to them. Many ordinary seamen would have been numbered among the topmen, the young and agile crewmembers who were responsible for working aloft on the masts and yards.
The US Navy officially forbid recruiting officers to enlist black or mulatto sailors, yet this order was not strictly enforced. Black sailors certainly served on naval vessels, especially during the War of 1812, but since muster rolls did not record race, exact numbers are not known. Best estimates conclude that, on average, 7%-15% of navy crews were black. Some served as ordinary or able seaman, indicating that most were experienced sailors. Others, however, worked as servants, stewards or cooks. A life at sea offered skill-building opportunities and steady pay to black men—advantages that were hard to come by on shore.
Battles and Engagements
During the victorious battles over HMS Guerriere on 19 August 1812 and HMS Java on 29 December, Bennett, with the rest of the carpenter’s crew, labored deep in the ship’s hold to plug holes made by enemy shot. For his effort he shared in $100,000 worth of prize money with the crew.
After the Constitution returned to Boston Harbor, the Navy transferred Bennett to the Great Lakes, where he served under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. While Perry was initially biased against the service of black sailors on his ship, after the Battle of Lake Erie, he reversed his opinion. According to Commander Isaac Chauncey, “Perry speaks highly of the bravery and good conduct of the Negroes, who formed a considerable part of his crew.”
Unfortunately, James Bennett suffered a mortal wound during the Battle of Lake Erie, on 10 September 1813. His widow, Sarah Bennett, petitioned Congress for a pension and for any prize money due her husband, but according to the Senate Journal, her petition was rejected.