Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman
Dates of Service: -
Birth Date: 1783
Death Date: 10/4/1870
Moses Smith was born around 1783.
Smith shipped out aboard Constitution in March 1811, working as a foretopman, and during battle as 1st Sponger, cleaning out the cannon after firing. As an ordinary seaman he earned $10.00 a month.
In 1846, Smith wrote and published a narrative of his life at sea: Naval Scenes in the Last War or Three Years on Board the Frigate Constitution.
Before the war of 1812 began, Smith sailed on Constitution on a diplomatic mission to France and the Netherlands. The transatlantic voyaged proved a rough one, with several severe storms that tested the seaworthiness of Constitution. Smith described one of the gales, “Deeper and higher the waves rolled up around us, till the sea seemed like a boiling pot. It was not a long, high, steady swell, but a foaming cauldron, which defies all description. First our noble craft would pitch headlong into a chasm, and then she would roll over almost upon her beam ends. In a moment she would sink as if into the abyss, and then a clash of meeting waters would make her reel and stagger as if she were coming all to pieces.”
On this same voyage a deadly plague struck the crew, as Smith recounted, “It was an awful time to us, so suddenly were one and another cut down from our number. Frequently they were seized without the slightest warning, and in less than twenty-four hours were in their watery grave. . . At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I spoke to Bill Lang . . . and asked him how he did. He replied that he was well. At 4 o’clock the next morning he was found dead in his hammock! Not much warning this.”
By his own account Smith got along well with his crewmates and was “considered quite a favorite” by Captain Isaac Hull. His narrative describes the great pride the crew took in the ship and in defending the young nation.
Battles and Engagements
Smith was on board during the battle against HMS Guerriere and describes the scene after Constitution’s cannon shot down the enemy ship’s mizzen mast and her main-yard:
“The braces of both ships were now shot off. The Guerriere swung round into our mizzen rigging, so that a part of her laid right over our taffrail. One might see the whites of the eyes, and count the teeth of the enemy. Our stern guns were pouring in upon them, so that we raked the ship fore and aft. Every shot told well. In a few moments the foremast was gone and our prediction was fulfilled. The great Guerriere had become a sloop. Soon after the mainmast followed, rendering her a complete wreck.”
When Captain Hull gave up command of Constitution, Smith, along with several other sailors chose to leave the ship rather than serve under another captain.
In December 1812 he shipped out on the Adams, but while the ship lay in the Potomac, near Washington, DC, Smith met up with a former officer from Constitution, Lieutenant Reed. Against his better judgment, Smith agreed to Reed’s request to join his gunboat, the Scorpion. Experienced sailors, including Smith, regarded the small defensive gunboats as inferior vessels. Although he was promoted to quartermaster, Smith disliked his service aboard Scorpion and soon returned to Adams.
Smith sailed aboard the Adams to Africa and along the coast, as well as during the journeys to and from the continent. The Adams chased several British vessels, and took several of them and their valuable cargo. Smith notes his opinion of Africa in his narrative:
“But alas! the blighting curse of the slave trade rests on all that wretched Continent. Its withering touch has not only crushed the spirit of the inhabitants, turning them against each other through long protracted and most desolating wars, but it has spread itself over the very longs of appetite—making benighted millions willing to subsist on food that would hardly satisfy an American brute. How dreadful is the guilt of civilized nations, with reference to Africa!”
The Adams was finally destroyed by the hand of her captain. Overtaken by several British ships in Penobscot Bay, off the Maine coast, the crew abandoned ship and fought from land, and the captain, Charles Morris, blew up the ship to prevent it falling into enemy hands in October 1814.
Smith died on October 4, 1870 in Quincy at the age of 87. His widow began receiving a pension of $8.00 a month in 1879. She died in 1883 in Boston.