Who Was the “Average” Sailor or Marine in 1812?
Thanks to nearly ten years of detailed research, we can create a composite picture of the “typical” seaman on board Constitution during the War of 1812. Chances are, he would have been born in Essex County, Massachusetts around the year 1787. He most likely worked prior to the war as a mariner and brought the skills learned in the merchant service to the navy. Spurred by patriotic fervor or economic necessity, he enlisted for Constitution in Boston. For many, the steady pay offered by the government proved a real incentive, and judging from the number of men who allotted money to dependants, this was a consideration that could not be ignored. As skilled in the arts of the sailor as he might have been, it is likely that he could not read or write his own name. Assuming he did not desert the ship, there was a very good chance that he would serve out his two year enlistment and return home safe and sound – and with some prize money to supplement his pay!
The “typical” Marine might have had a slightly different experience. He too would have been born in Essex County, Massachusetts around the year 1786. Growing up on a diet of meat and corn, he would have grown to the height of 5 ft 7 1/4 in. by time he was of enlistment age. He would have blue eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion. Before joining the Corps, he worked as an apprentice to some artisan or tradesman, perhaps a shoemaker or blacksmith. One day, while walking by the waterfront in Boston, his attention was arrested by a brave looking recruiting sergeant, who inspired him to enlist. He might at some point have become dissatisfied with his lot and attempted to desert the service. Despite seeing combat on three occasions, he probably never suffered so much as a scratch. After returning to Boston at the close of hostilities, he served out the remainder of his five year enlistment, and then went home to his friends and relations, fading back again into the civilian population, but forever remembering the days when he sailed on “Old Ironsides.”
This is the common experience, but it doesn’t really even begin to tell the full story. Numbers have an unfortunate habit of obscuring individuality, and behind the statistics are the faces of those who we are just beginning to see more clearly. As research continues, we hope that we will have the chance to refine both the collective and the individual stories of the men who served on board America’s frigate.