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Chapter 16


To a quiet, contemplative character, averse to uproar, undue
exercise of his bodily members, and all kind of useless
confusion, nothing can be more distressing than a proceeding in
all men-of-war called "_general quarters_." And well may it be so
called, since it amounts to a general drawing and quartering of
all the parties concerned.

As the specific object for which a man-of-war is built and put into
commission is to fight and fire off cannon, it is, of course, deemed
indispensable that the crew should be duly instructed in the art and
mystery involved. Hence these "general quarters," which is a mustering
of all hands to their stations at the guns on the several decks, and a
sort of sham-fight with an imaginary foe.

The summons is given by the ship's drummer, who strikes a peculiar
beat--short, broken, rolling, shuffling--like the sound made by the
march into battle of iron-heeled grenadiers. It is a regular tune,
with a fine song composed to it; the words of the chorus, being most
artistically arranged, may give some idea of the air:

"Hearts of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,
We always are ready, steady, boys, steady,
To fight and to conquer, again and again."

In warm weather this pastime at the guns is exceedingly unpleasant,
to say the least, and throws a quiet man into a violent passion and
perspiration. For one, I ever abominated it.

I have a heart like Julius Caesar, and upon occasions would fight
like Caius Marcius Coriolanus. If my beloved and for ever glorious
country should be ever in jeopardy from invaders, let Congress put
me on a war-horse, in the van-guard, and _then_ see how I will acquit
myself. But to toil and sweat in a fictitious encounter; to squander
the precious breath of my precious body in a ridiculous fight of shams
and pretensions; to hurry about the decks, pretending to carry the
killed and wounded below; to be told that I must consider the ship
blowing up, in order to exercise myself in presence of mind, and
prepare for a real explosion; all this I despise, as beneath a true
tar and man of valour.

These were my sentiments at the time, and these remain my sentiments
still; but as, while on board the frigate, my liberty of thought did
not extend to liberty of expression, I was obliged to keep these
sentiments to myself; though, indeed, I had some thoughts of addressing
a letter, marked _Private and Confidential_, to his Honour the Commodore,
on the subject.

My station at the batteries was at one of the thirty-two-pound
carronades, on the starboard side of the quarter-deck.[1]

[Footnote-1] For the benefit of a Quaker reader here and there, a
word or two in explanation of a carronade may not be amiss. The
carronade is a gun comparatively short and light for its calibre.
A carronade throwing a thirty-two-pound shot weighs considerably
less than a long-gun only throwing a twenty-four-pound shot. It
further differs from a long-gun, in working with a joint and bolt
underneath, instead of the short arms or _trunnions_ at the
sides. Its _carriage_, likewise, is quite different from that of
a long-gun, having a sort of sliding apparatus, something like an
extension dining-table; the goose on it, however, is a tough one,
and villainously stuffed with most indigestible dumplings. Point-
blank, the range of a carronade does not exceed one hundred and
fifty yards, much less than the range of a long-gun. When of
large calibre, however, it throws within that limit, Paixhan
shot, all manner of shells and combustibles, with great effect,
being a very destructive engine at close quarters. This piece is
now very generally found mounted in the batteries of the English
and American navies. The quarter-deck armaments of most modern
frigates wholly consist of carronades. The name is derived from
the village of Carron, in Scotland, at whose celebrated founderies
this iron Attila was first cast.


I did not fancy this station at all; for it is well known on
shipboard that, in time of action, the quarter-deck is one of the
most dangerous posts of a man-of-war. The reason is, that the
officers of the highest rank are there stationed; and the enemy
have an ungentlemanly way of target-shooting at their buttons. If
we should chance to engage a ship, then, who could tell but some
bungling small-arm marks-man in the enemy's tops might put a
bullet through _me_ instead of the Commodore? If they hit _him_,
no doubt he would not feel it much, for he was used to that sort
of thing, and, indeed, had a bullet in him already. Whereas, _I_
was altogether unaccustomed to having blue pills playing round my
head in such an indiscriminate way. Besides, ours was a flag-
ship; and every one knows what a peculiarly dangerous predicament
the quarter-deck of Nelson's flag-ship was in at the battle of
Trafalgar; how the lofty tops of the enemy were full of soldiers,
peppering away at the English Admiral and his officers. Many a
poor sailor, at the guns of that quarter-deck, must have received
a bullet intended for some wearer of an epaulet.

By candidly confessing my feelings on this subject, I do by no
means invalidate my claims to being held a man of prodigious
valour. I merely state my invincible repugnance to being shot for
somebody else. If I am shot, be it with the express understanding
in the shooter that I am the identical person intended so to be
served. That Thracian who, with his compliments, sent an arrow
into the King of Macedon, superscribed "_for Philip's right
eye_," set a fine example to all warriors. The hurried, hasty,
indiscriminate, reckless, abandoned manner in which both sailors
and soldiers nowadays fight is really painful to any serious-
minded, methodical old gentleman, especially if he chance to have
systematized his mind as an accountant. There is little or no
skill and bravery about it. Two parties, armed with lead and old
iron, envelop themselves in a cloud of smoke, and pitch their
lead and old iron about in all directions. If you happen to be in
the way, you are hit; possibly, killed; if not, you escape. In
sea-actions, if by good or bad luck, as the case may be, a round
shot, fired at random through the smoke, happens to send
overboard your fore-mast, another to unship your rudder, there
you lie crippled, pretty much at the mercy of your foe: who,
accordingly, pronounces himself victor, though that honour
properly belongs to the Law of Gravitation operating on the
enemy's balls in the smoke. Instead of tossing this old lead and
iron into the air, therefore, it would be much better amicably to
toss up a copper and let heads win.

The carronade at which I was stationed was known as "Gun No. 5,"
on the First Lieutenant's quarter-bill. Among our gun's crew,
however, it was known as _Black Bet_. This name was bestowed by
the captain of the gun--a fine negro--in honour of his
sweetheart, a coloured lady of Philadelphia. Of Black Bet I was
rammer-and-sponger; and ram and sponge I did, like a good fellow.
I have no doubt that, had I and my gun been at the battle of the
Nile, we would mutually have immortalised ourselves; the ramming-
pole would have been hung up in Westminster Abbey; and I,
ennobled by the king, besides receiving the illustrious honour of
an autograph letter from his majesty through the perfumed right
hand of his private secretary.

But it was terrible work to help run in and out of the porthole
that amazing mass of metal, especially as the thing must be clone
in a trice. Then, at the summons of a horrid, rasping rattle,
swayed by the Captain in person, we were made to rush from our
guns, seize pikes and pistols, and repel an imaginary army of
boarders, who, by a fiction of the officers, were supposed to be
assailing all sides of the ship at once. After cutting and
slashing at them a while, we jumped back to our guns, and again
went to jerking our elbows.

Meantime, a loud cry is heard of "Fire! fire! fire!" in the fore-
top; and a regular engine, worked by a set of Bowery-boy tars, is
forthwith set to playing streams of water aloft. And now it is
"Fire! fire! fire!" on the main-deck; and the entire ship is in
as great a commotion as if a whole city ward were in a blaze.

Are our officers of the Navy utterly unacquainted with the laws
of good health? Do they not know that this violent exercise,
taking place just after a hearty dinner, as it generally does, is
eminently calculated to breed the dyspepsia? There was no
satisfaction in dining; the flavour of every mouthful was
destroyed by the thought that the next moment the cannonading
drum might be beating to quarters.

Such a sea-martinet was our Captain, that sometimes we were
roused from our hammocks at night; when a scene would ensue that
it is not in the power of pen and ink to describe. Five hundred
men spring to their feet, dress themselves, take up their
bedding, and run to the nettings and stow it; then he to their
stations--each man jostling his neighbour--some alow, some aloft;
some this way, some that; and in less than five minutes the
frigate is ready for action, and still as the grave; almost every
man precisely where he would be were an enemy actually about to
be engaged. The Gunner, like a Cornwall miner in a cave, is
burrowing down in the magazine under the Ward-room, which is
lighted by battle-lanterns, placed behind glazed glass bull's-
eyes inserted in the bulkhead. The Powder-monkeys, or boys, who
fetch and carry cartridges, are scampering to and fro among the
guns; and the _first and second loaders_ stand ready to receive
their supplies.

These _Powder-monkeys_, as they are called, enact a curious part
in time of action. The entrance to the magazine on the berth-
deck, where they procure their food for the guns, is guarded by a
woollen screen; and a gunner's mate, standing behind it, thrusts
out the cartridges through a small arm-hole in this screen. The
enemy's shot (perhaps red hot) are flying in all directions; and
to protect their cartridges, the powder-monkeys hurriedly wrap
them up in their jackets; and with all haste scramble up the
ladders to their respective guns, like eating-house waiters
hurrying along with hot cakes for breakfast.

At _general quarters_ the shot-boxes are uncovered; showing the
grape-shot--aptly so called, for they precisely resemble bunches
of the fruit; though, to receive a bunch of iron grapes in the
abdomen would be but a sorry dessert; and also showing the
canister-shot--old iron of various sorts, packed in a tin case,
like a tea-caddy.

Imagine some midnight craft sailing down on her enemy thus;
twenty-four pounders levelled, matches lighted, and each captain
of his gun at his post!

But if verily going into action, then would the Neversink have
made still further preparations; for however alike in some
things, there is always a vast difference--if you sound them--
between a reality and a sham. Not to speak of the pale sternness
of the men at their guns at such a juncture, and the choked
thoughts at their hearts, the ship itself would here and there
present a far different appearance. Something like that of an
extensive mansion preparing for a grand entertainment, when
folding-doors are withdrawn, chambers converted into drawing-
rooms, and every inch of available space thrown into one
continuous whole. For previous to an action, every bulk-head in a
man-of-war is knocked down; great guns are run out of the
Commodore's parlour windows; nothing separates the ward-room
officers' quarters from those of the men, but an en-sign used for
a curtain. The sailors' mess-chests are tumbled down into the
hold; and the hospital cots--of which all men-of-war carry a
large supply--are dragged forth from the sail-room, and piled
near at hand to receive the wounded; amputation-tables are ranged
in the _cock-pit_ or in the _tiers_, whereon to carve the bodies
of the maimed. The yards are slung in chains; fire-screens
distributed here and there: hillocks of cannon-balls piled
between the guns; shot-plugs suspended within easy reach from the
beams; and solid masses of wads, big as Dutch cheeses, braced to
the cheeks of the gun-carriages.

No small difference, also, would be visible in the wardrobe of
both officers and men. The officers generally fight as dandies
dance, namely, in silk stockings; inasmuch as, in case of being
wounded in the leg, the silk-hose can be more easily drawn off by
the Surgeon; cotton sticks, and works into the wound. An
economical captain, while taking care to case his legs in silk,
might yet see fit to save his best suit, and fight in his old
clothes. For, besides that an old garment might much better be
cut to pieces than a new one, it must be a mighty disagreeable
thing to die in a stiff, tight-breasted coat, not yet worked easy
under the arm-pits. At such times, a man should feel free,
unencumbered, and perfectly at his ease in point of straps and
suspenders. No ill-will concerning his tailor should intrude upon
his thoughts of eternity. Seneca understood this, when he chose
to die naked in a bath. And men-of-war's men understand it, also;
for most of them, in battle, strip to the waist-bands; wearing
nothing but a pair of duck trowsers, and a handkerchief round
their head.

A captain combining a heedful patriotism with economy would
probably "bend" his old topsails before going into battle,
instead of exposing his best canvas to be riddled to pieces; for
it is generally the case that the enemy's shot flies high. Unless
allowance is made for it in pointing the tube, at long-gun
distance, the slightest roll of the ship, at the time of firing,
would send a shot, meant for the hull, high over the top-gallant yards.

But besides these differences between a sham-fight at _general
quarters_ and a real cannonading, the aspect of the ship, at the
beating of the retreat, would, in the latter case, be very
dissimilar to the neatness and uniformity in the former.

_Then_ our bulwarks might look like the walls of the houses in
West Broadway in New York, after being broken into and burned out
by the Negro Mob. Our stout masts and yards might be lying about
decks, like tree boughs after a tornado in a piece of woodland;
our dangling ropes, cut and sundered in all directions, would be
bleeding tar at every yard; and strew with jagged splinters from
our wounded planks, the gun-deck might resemble a carpenter's
shop. _Then_, when all was over, and all hands would be piped to
take down the hammocks from the exposed nettings (where they play
the part of the cotton bales at New Orleans), we might find bits
of broken shot, iron bolts and bullets in our blankets. And,
while smeared with blood like butchers, the surgeon and his mates
would be amputating arms and legs on the berth-deck, an underling
of the carpenter's gang would be new-legging and arming the
broken chairs and tables in the Commodore's cabin; while the rest
of his _squad_ would be _splicing_ and _fishing_ the shattered
masts and yards. The scupper-holes having discharged the last
rivulet of blood, the decks would be washed down; and the galley-
cooks would be going fore and aft, sprinkling them with hot
vinegar, to take out the shambles' smell from the planks; which,
unless some such means are employed, often create a highly
offensive effluvia for weeks after a fight.

_Then_, upon mustering the men, and calling the quarter-bills by
the light of a battle-lantern, many a wounded seaman with his arm
in a sling, would answer for some poor shipmate who could never
more make answer for himself:

"Tom Brown?"

"Killed, sir."

"Jack Jewel?"

"Killed, sir."

"Joe Hardy?"

"Killed, sir."

And opposite all these poor fellows' names, down would go on the
quarter-bills the bloody marks of red ink--a murderer's fluid,
fitly used on these occasions.

Herman Melville