Before Joining USS Constitution
Henry Gilliam was born around 1790 in Georgia, to parents Peter and Mary Gilliam of Lincoln County.
While we don’t know the details of Gilliam’s upbringing, his family was well off, and judging from the quality of letters written to his uncle, he enjoyed a comprehensive education. Congressman William W. Bibb and Senator John Milledge of Georgia used their influence to secure a midshipman’s warrant for Gilliam in 1809. Prior to his transfer to Constitution, Gilliam served aboard USS President.
Life Aboard USS Constitution
Midshipman Gilliam, age 22, joined Constitution in the middle of June, 1810, while the ship lay at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
In addition to other duties, which could vary from standing watch to co-commanding a division in battle, midshipmen were required to keep journals of each voyage. Gilliam may have drawn on his journals for the series of letters he wrote to his uncle William Jones during his service aboard President and Constitution. While the letters paint dramatic pictures of political debates and the horrors of war, they also contain pleas for money (he made only $19 per month) and other assistance from home.
Battles and Engagements
Gilliam was on board for what is called the “Great Chase” of July 16 to 19, 1812 , and vividly described it to his uncle:
“You have no doubt heard of the Frigate’s [Constitution] been chased off New York by the English Squadron, and the truly able manner with which she was manoeuvred for seventy hours; all hands were kept a Quarters, expecting every moment to have an Englishman along side of us, but by superior sailing and seamanship, we escaped a conflict, pregnant with the most fatal consequences to our gallant ship.”
Gilliam also saw action in the battles against HMS Guerriere, on August 19, 1812 and HMS Java on December 29, 1812.
Of the former he said,
“We plied him [the Guerriere] so warmly that in the space of five minutes his mizzen mast was shot away, upon which we gave him three chears [sic]. She then attempted to get under our stern for the purpose of raking us, but in this he was compleatly [sic] foiled, for we returned him the complement which he intended for us, with great success. . . [After the Guerriere’s defeated captain came on board] . . . He told our Captn. that we were a set of Tigers, for we had killed and wounded about one hundred of his men. Our loss as seven killed & seven wounded . . . ”
Gilliam was transferred from Constitution to the sloop of war Frolic in October 1813, where he served as an acting lieutenant. In 1815, having received his lieutenant’s commission, he moved on to the brig Flambeau. Gilliam requested an extended leave to attend to his deceased father’s estate, and did not return to service until six years later in 1822. He reported for duty with the West India Squadron in 1823 but died on Thompson’s Island (now Key West) on September 5, 1823.