Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 6


Some account has been given of the various divisions into which our
crew was divided; so it may be well to say something of the officers;
who they are, and what are their functions.

Our ship, be it know, was the flag-ship; that is, we sported a
_broad-pennant_, or _bougee_, at the main, in token that we carried a
Commodore--the highest rank of officers recognised in the American
navy. The bougee is not to be confounded with the _long pennant_ or
_coach-whip_, a tapering serpentine streamer worn by all men-of-war.

Owing to certain vague, republican scruples, about creating great
officers of the navy, America has thus far had no admirals; though,
as her ships of war increase, they may become indispensable. This
will assuredly be the case, should she ever have occasion to employ
large fleets; when she must adopt something like the English plan,
and introduce three or four grades of flag-officers, above a
Commodore--Admirals, Vice-Admirals, and Rear-Admirals of Squadrons;
distinguished by the color of their flags,--red, white, and blue,
corresponding to the centre, van, and rear. These rank respectively
with Generals, Lieutenant-Generals, and Major-Generals in the army;
just as Commodore takes rank with a Brigadier-General. So that the
same prejudice which prevents the American Government from creating
Admirals should have precluded the creation of all army officers
above a Brigadier.

An American Commodore, like an English Commodore, or the French _Chef
d'Escadre_, is but a senior Captain, temporarily commanding a small
number of ships, detached for any special purpose. He has no permanent
rank, recognised by Government, above his captaincy; though once employed
as a Commodore, usage and courtesy unite in continuing the title.

Our Commodore was a gallant old man, who had seen service in his time.
When a lieutenant, he served in the late war with England; and in the
gun-boat actions on the Lakes near New Orleans, just previous to the
grand land engagements, received a musket-ball in his shoulder; which,
with the two balls in his eyes, he carries about with him to this day.

Often, when I looked at the venerable old warrior, doubled up from the
effect of his wound, I thought what a curious, as well as painful
sensation, it must be, to have one's shoulder a lead-mine; though,
sooth to say, so many of us civilised mortals convert our mouths into

On account of this wound in his shoulder, our Commodore had a
body-servant's pay allowed him, in addition to his regular salary.
I cannot say a great deal, personally, of the Commodore; he never
sought my company at all, never extended any gentlemanly courtesies.

But though I cannot say much of him personally, I can mention
something of him in his general character, as a flag-officer. In the
first place, then, I have serious doubts, whether for the most part,
he was not dumb; for in my hearing, he seldom or never uttered a
word. And not only did he seem dumb himself, but his presence
possessed the strange power of making other people dumb for the time.
His appearance on the Quarter-deck seemed to give every officer the

Another phenomenon about him was the strange manner in which everyone
shunned him. At the first sign of those epaulets of his on the
weather side of the poop, the officers there congregated invariably
shrunk over to leeward, and left him alone. Perhaps he had an evil
eye; may be he was the Wandering Jew afloat. The real reason probably
was, that like all high functionaries, he deemed it indispensable
religiously to sustain his dignity; one of the most troublesome
things in the world, and one calling for the greatest self-denial.
And the constant watch, and many-sided guardedness, which this
sustaining of a Commodore's dignity requires, plainly enough shows
that, apart from the common dignity of manhood, Commodores, in
general possess no real dignity at all. True, it is expedient for
crowned heads, generalissimos, Lord-high-admirals, and Commodores, to
carry themselves straight, and beware of the spinal complaint; but it
is not the less veritable, that it is a piece of assumption, exceedingly
uncomfortable to themselves, and ridiculous to an enlightened generation.

Now, how many rare good fellows there were among us main-top-men, who,
invited into his cabin over a social bottle or two, would have rejoiced
our old Commodore's heart, and caused that ancient wound of his to heal
up at once.

Come, come, Commodore don't look so sour, old boy; step up aloft here
into the _top_, and we'll spin you a sociable yarn.

Truly, I thought myself much happier in that white jacket of mine,
than our old Commodore in his dignified epaulets.

One thing, perhaps, that more than anything else helped to make our
Commodore so melancholy and forlorn, was the fact of his having so
little to do. For as the frigate had a captain; of course, so far as
_she_ was concerned, our Commodore was a supernumerary. What abundance
of leisure he must have had, during a three years' cruise; how
indefinitely he might have been improving his mind!

But as everyone knows that idleness is the hardest work in the world,
so our Commodore was specially provided with a gentleman to assist
him. This gentleman was called the _Commodore's secretary_. He was a
remarkably urbane and polished man; with a very graceful exterior, and
looked much like an Ambassador Extraordinary from Versailles. He messed
with the Lieutenants in the Ward-room, where he had a state-room,
elegantly furnished as the private cabinet of Pelham. His cot-boy used
to entertain the sailors with all manner of stories about the
silver-keyed flutes and flageolets, fine oil paintings, morocco bound
volumes, Chinese chess-men, gold shirt-buttons, enamelled pencil cases,
extraordinary fine French boots with soles no thicker than a sheet of
scented note-paper, embroidered vests, incense-burning sealing-wax,
alabaster statuettes of Venus and Adonis, tortoise-shell snuff-boxes,
inlaid toilet-cases, ivory-handled hair-brushes and mother-of-pearl
combs, and a hundred other luxurious appendages scattered about this
magnificent secretary's state-room.

I was a long time in finding out what this secretary's duties
comprised. But it seemed, he wrote the Commodore's dispatches for
Washington, and also was his general amanuensis. Nor was this a very
light duty, at times; for some commodores, though they do not _say_ a
great deal on board ship, yet they have a vast deal to write. Very often,
the regimental orderly, stationed at our Commodore's cabin-door, would
touch his hat to the First Lieutenant, and with a mysterious air hand
him a note. I always thought these notes must contain most important
matters of state; until one day, seeing a slip of wet, torn paper in a
scupper-hole, I read the following:

"Sir, you will give the people pickles to-day with their
fresh meat.
"To Lieutenant Bridewell.
"By command of the Commodore;
"Adolphus Dashman, Priv. Sec."

This was a new revelation; for, from his almost immutable reserve, I
had supposed that the Commodore never meddled immediately with the
concerns of the ship, but left all that to the captain. But the
longer we live, the more we learn of commodores.

Turn we now to the second officer in rank, almost supreme, however,
in the internal affairs of his ship. Captain Claret was a large,
portly man, a Harry the Eighth afloat, bluff and hearty; and as
kingly in his cabin as Harry on his throne. For a ship is a bit of
terra firma cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the
captain is its king.

It is no limited monarchy, where the sturdy Commons have a right to
petition, and snarl if they please; but almost a despotism like the
Grand Turk's. The captain's word is law; he never speaks but in the
imperative mood. When he stands on his Quarter-deck at sea, he
absolutely commands as far as eye can reach. Only the moon and stars
are beyond his jurisdiction. He is lord and master of the sun.

It is not twelve o'clock till he says so. For when the sailing-master,
whose duty it is to take the regular observation at noon, touches his
hat, and reports twelve o'clock to the officer of the deck; that
functionary orders a midshipman to repair to the captain's cabin, and
humbly inform him of the respectful suggestion of the sailing-master.

"Twelve o'clock reported, sir," says the middy.

"_Make_ it so," replies the captain.

And the bell is struck eight by the messenger-boy, and twelve o'clock
it is.

As in the case of the Commodore, when the captain visits the deck,
his subordinate officers generally beat a retreat to the other side
and, as a general rule, would no more think of addressing him, except
concerning the ship, than a lackey would think of hailing the Czar of
Russia on his throne, and inviting him to tea. Perhaps no mortal man
has more reason to feel such an intense sense of his own personal
consequence, as the captain of a man-of-war at sea.

Next in rank comes the First or Senior Lieutenant, the chief executive
officer. I have no reason to love the particular gentleman who filled
that post aboard our frigate, for it was he who refused my petition for
as much black paint as would render water-proof that white-jacket of
mine. All my soakings and drenchings lie at his state-room door. I
hardly think I shall ever forgive him; every twinge of the rheumatism,
which I still occasionally feel, is directly referable to him. The
Immortals have a reputation for clemency; and _they_ may pardon him;
but he must not dun me to be merciful. But my personal feelings toward
the man shall not prevent me from here doing him justice. In most
things he was an excellent seaman; prompt, loud, and to the point; and
as such was well fitted for his station. The First Lieutenancy of a
frigate demands a good disciplinarian, and, every way, an energetic man.
By the captain he is held responsible for everything; by that magnate,
indeed, he is supposed to be omnipresent; down in the hold, and up
aloft, at one and the same time.

He presides at the head of the Ward-room officers' table, who are so
called from their messing together in a part of the ship thus designated.
In a frigate it comprises the after part of the berth-deck. Sometimes it
goes by the name of the Gun-room, but oftener is called the Ward-room.
Within, this Ward-room much resembles a long, wide corridor in a large
hotel; numerous doors opening on both hands to the private apartments
of the officers. I never had a good interior look at it but once; and
then the Chaplain was seated at the table in the centre, playing chess
with the Lieutenant of Marines. It was mid-day, but the place was
lighted by lamps.

Besides the First Lieutenant, the Ward-room officers include the junior
lieutenants, in a frigate six or seven in number, the Sailing-master,
Purser, Chaplain, Surgeon, Marine officers, and Midshipmen's Schoolmaster,
or "the Professor." They generally form a very agreeable club of good
fellows; from their diversity of character, admirably calculated to form
an agreeable social whole. The Lieutenants discuss sea-fights, and tell
anecdotes of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton; the Marine officers talk of
storming fortresses, and the siege of Gibraltar; the Purser steadies
this wild conversation by occasional allusions to the rule of three; the
Professor is always charged with a scholarly reflection, or an apt line
from the classics, generally Ovid; the Surgeon's stories of the
amputation-table judiciously serve to suggest the mortality of the whole
party as men; while the good chaplain stands ready at all times to give
them pious counsel and consolation.

Of course these gentlemen all associate on a footing of perfect
social equality.

Next in order come the Warrant or Forward officers, consisting of the
Boatswain, Gunner, Carpenter, and Sailmaker. Though these worthies
sport long coats and wear the anchor-button; yet, in the estimation
of the Ward-room officers, they are not, technically speaking, rated
gentlemen. The First Lieutenant, Chaplain, or Surgeon, for example,
would never dream of inviting them to dinner, In sea parlance, "they
come in at the hawse holes;" they have hard hands; and the carpenter
and sail-maker practically understand the duties which they are called
upon to superintend. They mess by themselves. Invariably four in number,
they never have need to play whist with a dummy.

In this part of the category now come the "reefers," otherwise "middies"
or midshipmen. These boys are sent to sea, for the purpose of making
commodores; and in order to become commodores, many of them deem it
indispensable forthwith to commence chewing tobacco, drinking brandy
and water, and swearing at the sailors. As they are only placed on board
a sea-going ship to go to school and learn the duty of a Lieutenant; and
until qualified to act as such, have few or no special functions to
attend to; they are little more, while midshipmen, than supernumeraries
on board. Hence, in a crowded frigate, they are so everlastingly crossing
the path of both men and officers, that in the navy it has become a
proverb, that a useless fellow is "_as much in the way as a reefer_."

In a gale of wind, when all hands are called and the deck swarms with
men, the little "middies" running about distracted and having nothing
particular to do, make it up in vociferous swearing; exploding all
about under foot like torpedoes. Some of them are terrible little
boys, cocking their cups at alarming angles, and looking fierce as
young roosters. They are generally great consumers of Macassar oil
and the Balm of Columbia; they thirst and rage after whiskers; and
sometimes, applying their ointments, lay themselves out in the sun,
to promote the fertility of their chins.

As the only way to learn to command, is to learn to obey, the usage
of a ship of war is such that the midshipmen are constantly being
ordered about by the Lieutenants; though, without having assigned
them their particular destinations, they are always going somewhere,
and never arriving. In some things, they almost have a harder time of
it than the seamen themselves. They are messengers and errand-boys to
their superiors.

"Mr. Pert," cries an officer of the deck, hailing a young gentleman
forward. Mr. Pert advances, touches his hat, and remains in an
attitude of deferential suspense. "Go and tell the boatswain I want
him." And with this perilous errand, the middy hurries away, looking
proud as a king.

The middies live by themselves in the steerage, where, nowadays, they
dine off a table, spread with a cloth. They have a castor at dinner;
they have some other little boys (selected from the ship's company)
to wait upon them; they sometimes drink coffee out of china. But for
all these, their modern refinements, in some instances the affairs of
their club go sadly to rack and ruin. The china is broken; the
japanned coffee-pot dented like a pewter mug in an ale-house; the
pronged forks resemble tooth-picks (for which they are sometimes
used); the table-knives are hacked into hand-saws; and the cloth goes
to the sail-maker to be patched. Indeed, they are something like
collegiate freshmen and sophomores, living in the college buildings,
especially so far as the noise they make in their quarters is
concerned. The steerage buzzes, hums, and swarms like a hive; or like an
infant-school of a hot day, when the school-mistress falls asleep
with a fly on her nose.

In frigates, the ward-room--the retreat of the Lieutenants--
immediately adjoining the steerage, is on the same deck with it.
Frequently, when the middies, waking early of a morning, as most
youngsters do, would be kicking up their heels in their hammocks, or
running about with double-reefed night-gowns, playing tag among the
"clews;" the Senior lieutenant would burst among them with a--"Young
gentlemen, I am astonished. You must stop this sky-larking. Mr. Pert,
what are you doing at the table there, without your pantaloons? To
your hammock, sir. Let me see no more of this. If you disturb the
ward-room again, young gentleman, you shall hear of it." And so
saying, this hoary-headed Senior Lieutenant would retire to his cot
in his state-room, like the father of a numerous family after getting
up in his dressing-gown and slippers, to quiet a daybreak tumult in
his populous nursery.

Having now descended from Commodore to Middy, we come lastly to a set
of nondescripts, forming also a "mess" by themselves, apart from the
seamen. Into this mess, the usage of a man-of-war thrusts various
subordinates--including the master-at-arms, purser's steward, ship's
corporals, marine sergeants, and ship's yeomen, forming the first
aristocracy above the sailors.

The master-at-arms is a sort of high constable and school-master,
wearing citizen's clothes, and known by his official rattan. He it is
whom all sailors hate. His is the universal duty of a universal
informer and hunter-up of delinquents. On the berth-deck he reigns
supreme; spying out all grease-spots made by the various cooks of the
seamen's messes, and driving the laggards up the hatches, when all
hands are called. It is indispensable that he should be a very Vidocq
in vigilance. But as it is a heartless, so is it a thankless office.
Of dark nights, most masters-of-arms keep themselves in readiness to
dodge forty-two pound balls, dropped down the hatchways near them.

The ship's corporals are this worthy's deputies and ushers.

The marine sergeants are generally tall fellows with unyielding
spines and stiff upper lips, and very exclusive in their tastes and

The ship's yeoman is a gentleman who has a sort of counting-room in a
tar-cellar down in the fore-hold. More will be said of him anon.

Except the officers above enumerated, there are none who mess apart
from the seamen. The "_petty officers_," so called; that is, the
Boatswain's, Gunner's, Carpenter's, and Sail-maker's mates, the
Captains of the Tops, of the Forecastle, and of the After-Guard, and
of the Fore and Main holds, and the Quarter-Masters, all mess in
common with the crew, and in the American navy are only distinguished
from the common seamen by their slightly additional pay. But in the
English navy they wear crowns and anchors worked on the sleeves of
their jackets, by way of badges of office. In the French navy they
are known by strips of worsted worn in the same place, like those
designating the Sergeants and Corporals in the army.

Thus it will be seen, that the dinner-table is the criterion of rank
in our man-of-war world. The Commodore dines alone, because he is the
only man of his rank in the ship. So too with the Captain; and the
Ward-room officers, warrant officers, midshipmen, the master-at-arms'
mess, and the common seamen;--all of them, respectively, dine
together, because they are, respectively, on a footing of equality.

Herman Melville