Thomas John Chew
Dates of Service: 6/1/1812 - 9/26/1812
Birth Date: 1776
Death Date: 7/22/1846
Thomas Chew was born on January 28, 1777 in New London, Connecticut.
Chew entered the US Navy in 1799 for service in the Quasi-War with France. He resigned in 1802, but in 1809 he was reappointed. In 1812, the Navy altered the purser’s position from a warrant officer to commissioned officer rank. Chew’s commission was confirmed by the Senate in the spring of 1812.
Chew reported aboard Constitution on June 1, 1812.
The purser was the ship’s business agent, paymaster, grocer, and shopkeeper rolled into one. His duties, which required him to be highly organized and exercise good business sense, included keeping the ship’s pay and muster rolls and paying the officers and men. He was in charge of procuring and issuing provisions to the crew. In addition, the purser ran a ship’s store from which the men could buy clothing, toiletries, utensils, knives, ribbon, needles, thread, mustard, chocolate, coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco. To keep track of all this, navy regulations required the purser to keep detailed account books. During battle, the purser was stationed in the cockpit to help the surgeon dress the wounded. Purser’s received $40.00 per month and two rations per day. But it was not the purser’s salary that was so enticing; beyond the purser’s annual compensation he could realize great gains selling clothing and supplies to the crew while at sea. With no competition and a captive market of 450 men and boys aboard a frigate, there was room for extraordinary profiteering.
Battles and Engagements
Chew was aboard the Constitution in action with Guerriere on August 19, 1812. He was awarded a Congressional Silver Medal for his actions and service and shared with the crew $50,000 in prize money.
Chew departed Constitution on September 26, 1812. After acting as purser of the Boston Navy Yard for a time, he transferred to USS Chesapeake. He was on board that vessel during the battle against the HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813. According to some accounts, Chew supported the mortally wounded Captain James Lawrence as he uttered his famous last command: “Don’t give up the ship.” Chew was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia as a Prisoner of War after the battle, but was quickly exchanged. We went on to serve as purser on board several other US Navy ships as well as for the New York Navy Yard. He resigned from the Navy on March 12, 1821.
He died in 1846.