Richard Fletcher Dunn
Rank(s): Able Seaman
Dates of Service: -
Birth Date: 1787
Death Date: 2/1/1863
Based on information sworn to in an 1809 Seaman’s Protection Certificate issued to Philadelphia, it was believed that Richard Fletcher Dunn was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787. His pension certificate lists him as a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania. However, the 1843 Navy List of Gunners records Dunn’s place of birth as England. His 1850 census entry confirms this fact, as he did himself in a newspaper interview published in 1860. In the article, Dunn states that he came to the US from England in 1807 at the age of 19, and worked as a copper-plate printer in Philadelphia. When Jefferson’s embargo ended, Dunn shipped as a sailor. He entered the Navy on 17 June 1812, a day before the United States declared war with Great Britain.
Dunn came aboard Constitution in Annapolis, Maryland on June 26, 1812 as an able seaman, earning $12.00 a month.
Battles and Engagements
Just two months after signing up, during the 19 August battle over HMS Guerriere, Dunn was badly wounded in his leg, which required amputation the next day. Crewmate Moses Smith wrote in an account of the event that Dunn “. . . bore the amputation of his leg with a fortitude I shall always bear in mind. ‘You are a hard set of butchers,’ was all he said to the surgeon, as his torn and bleeding limb was severed from his body.”
Dunn received his share of Guerriere’s prize money, $42.62 ½, and a lifetime $6.00 pension for his bravery and injury. He left Constitution on 31 August 1812. According to newspaper reports in early 1813, the officers and crew of the frigate Congress raised $150 for Dunn. He publicly expressed his gratitude in the Boston Patriot, offering his “hearty thanks to capt. [sic] Smith, his officers and crew, for their kind remembrance of him.” Dunn continued, to “assure them, that though he has lost ONE LEG, he is willing to fight on THE OTHER for the liberty of his enslaved brethren, and the honor of his country.”
Constitution’s Captain Hull took a special interest in Dunn after the seaman’s debilitating injury. As Hull traveled after the battle, he asked Purser Thomas Chew to “Let me know how the poor fellow behaves. I feel an interest in him and hope his conduct will be correct.” Hull collected and invested $1,000 for Dunn, who followed the Captain, serving under him at the Boston Navy Yard and the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where he worked as a Steward. When Bainbridge demurred the practice of pensioners drawing a Navy wage as well, Hull responded, “I now have a man in the Yard that lost his leg in the action between the Constitution and Guerriere, acting as Steward; indeed, he does the whole duty as Steward of the gunboats and Navy Yard, and ought no doubt to have the pay of Steward, yet he is only rated as Seaman.”
Dunn even followed Hull back to sea, appearing on the muster roll of USS United States in 1826. At the end of his tour on United States Dunn settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1829 Dunn wrote to the Navy Department requesting that they transfer his pension payments from the US Branch Bank in Boston to Portsmouth, NH, owing to the difficulty of obtaining his money from so far away. According to his newspaper interview, Dunn was appointed Gunner in 1832. He remained on the Navy rolls as a Gunner through 1843. According to the 1853 Navy Register, Dunn was on a “leave of absence” in New Hampshire. He died 1 February 1863 at the age of 76 at Kittery, Maine.
In 1860, a newspaper reporter described Dunn:
Mr. Dunn, in personal appearance, is a pattern of neatness. His animated
countenance and clear blue eye give him a handsome and still youthful appearance.
His wooden limb seems to move as naturally, as surely and as nimbly, as though
invested with life. While others pride themselves in canes made from fragments of
‘Old Ironsides,’ he can more proudly point to his wooden support-‘see here a prop
on which your glory rests.’
Mr. Dunn owns a handsome cottage in Kittery, not far from the Navy Yard,
where at the age of 72, with the partner of his earlier days he is realizing what he
doubtless sung in former times:
‘In the downhill of life when I find I’m declining,
May my lot not less fortunate be,
Than a snug elbow chair for me to recline in,
And a cot that o’erlooks the salt sea.’
According to a 1 May 1891 New York Times article, Dunn’s wooden leg was on display on board Constitution in the Portsmouth Navy Yard for a “colonial party.” Since Dunn’s death, the article attests, the wooden leg “has been one of the cherished relics at this navy yard.” The leg currently resides in the Portsmouth Historical Society’s collection at the John Paul Jones house.