Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman
Dates of Service: 04/1811 - 9/10/1813
Birth Date: 1782
Death Date: 9/10/1813
James Bennett, a free African American, was born in Duck Creek Crossroads, Delaware, around 1782. He had at least one sister named Mary.
On September 3, 1810, 28-year-old Bennett, along with his sister Mary Williams, appeared before a Philadelphia City Alderman to obtain a seaman’s protection certificate to provide written proof of his citizenship.
Bennett joined Constitution’s crew in April 1811 and sailed on a diplomatic voyage to France and Holland. He remained aboard for the first two cruises of the War of 1812 and was drafted to another ship 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 crew members who were responsible for working aloft on the masts and yards.
Battles and Engagements
During the victorious battles over HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812 and HMS Java on December 29, 1812, 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 received a portion of the $100,000 in prize money awarded to the crew.
After 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, he reversed his opinion after the Battle of Lake Erie. 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, Bennett suffered a mortal wound on September 10, 1813 during the Battle of Lake Erie. 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.