Before Joining USS Constitution
James Bennett, an African American, was born a free man in Duck Creek Crossroads, Delaware, about 1782. He had at least one sister named Mary.
On September 3, 1810, 28-year-old James Bennett, along with his sister Mary Williams, appeared before a Philadelphia City Alderman to obtain a seaman’s protection certificate, written proof of his citizenship.
James Bennett married Sarah Bennett sometime before the War of 1812.
Although we know almost nothing about Bennett’s life before signing up with Constitution, he seems to have endured some physical hardships, as evidenced by the scars and injuries in a description of Bennett at age 28: “Negroe, born free — five feet 11 7/8 inches high, with his shoes, Black complexion, Black hair, 28 years of age, marked scar over his right eye brow, mark of inoculation on his left arm, mark by a burn on his right elbow, mark on the palm of his left hand by being laid open, left knee crooked.”
Life Aboard USS Constitution
Among the enlisted men, ordinary seamen stood in the middle of the lower-deck hierarchy. These men had typically sailed one or two voyages and knew basic seamanship. Like the able seamen, they too could “hand, reef, and steer,” but some of the more complicated maneuvers were foreign to them. Many ordinary seamen would have been numbered among the topmen, the young and agile crewmembers who were responsible for working aloft on the masts and yards.
Bennett joined Constitution’s crew in April 1811 and sailed during a diplomatic voyage to France and Holland. He remained on board for the first two cruises of the war and was drafted to other ships in February 1813.
As an ordinary seaman, Bennett would have been paid $10 a month.
Battles and Engagements
During the victorious battles over HMS Guerriere, on August 19, 1812 and HMS Java on December 29, 1812, Bennett, with the rest of the carpenter’s crew, labored deep in the ship’s hold to plug holes made by enemy shot. For his effort he shared in $100,000 worth of prize money with the crew.
After Constitution returned to Boston Harbor, the Navy transferred Bennett to the Great Lakes, where he served under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. While Perry was initially biased against the service of black sailors on his ship, after the Battle of Lake Erie, he reversed his opinion. According to Commander Isaac Chauncey, “Perry speaks highly of the bravery and good conduct of the Negroes, who formed a considerable part of his crew.”
Unfortunately, James Bennett suffered a mortal wound during the Battle of Lake Erie, on September 10, 1813.
His widow, Sarah Bennett, petitioned Congress for a pension and for any prize money due her husband, but according to the Senate Journal, her petition was rejected.
How Typical Were Black Sailors on USS Constitution?
The U.S. Navy officially forbid recruiting officers to enlist black or mulatto sailors, yet this order was not strictly enforced. Black sailors certainly served on naval vessels, especially during the War of 1812, but since muster rolls did not record race, exact numbers are not known. Best estimates conclude that, on average, 7%-15% of navy crews were black. Some served as ordinary or able seaman, indicating that they were experienced sailors. Others, however, worked as servants, stewards or cooks. A life at sea offered skill-building opportunities and steady pay to black men—advantages that were hard to come by on shore.