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Jesse Williams

Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman

Dates of Service: 8/2/1812 -

Birth Date: 1772

Early Life

Jesse Williams was born in Pennsylvania, possibly in 1772 or 1789.

Early Experience

Williams entered the service on June 26, 1812 at Boston, Massachusetts where he served for a time on gunboat 81. Williams was a stoutly-built African American man standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with a round face, dark brown eyes and black hair.

Jesse Williams was transferred to Constitution ’s crew on August 2, 1812. As an ordinary seaman, Williams would have been paid $10 a month.

Battles and Engagements

At his battle station as first sponger for the no. 3 long gun on the gun deck, Williams’ job was to wipe out the cannon’s bore with a wet sponge after firing to extinguish any remaining sparks or smoldering bits of powder bag. He was on board for the battles with HMS Guerriere and HMS Java , and received a portion of the prize money.

The Navy transferred Williams to the Great Lakes in April 1813, where he served aboard USS Lawrence. In September that year he fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, where he was slightly wounded, but received $214.89 in prize money. Williams was later captured by the British from the ship Scorpion and sent to Dartmoor Prison. Released at the end of the war, Williams made able seaman in December 1814 and left the Navy the following year. In 1820 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded Williams a silver medal for his service during the Battle of Lake Erie.

Pennsylvania lawyer Peter Sprout wrote the following letter regarding Williams’ medal:

To his Excellency the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg or the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Phila. July 4th, 1820.

I enclose you the Letter of Attorney of Jesse Williams (a colored man) and one of the crew of the Lawrence in the Squadron commanded by Commodore Oliver H. Perry on Lake Erie at the memorable battle of the September 10th 1813 for to obtain the prize medal designed and ready kept to be presented as one of the brave victors of Lake Erie by the generous and patriotic State of Pennsylvania.

With sentiments of esteem I am your most Obedient ver humble Serv’t
Peter H. Sprout

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