THE MAIN-TOP AT NIGHT.
The whole of our run from Rio to the Line was one delightful yachting,
so far as fine weather and the ship's sailing were concerned. It was
especially pleasant when our quarter-watch lounged in the main-top,
diverting ourselves in many agreeable ways. Removed from the immediate
presence of the officers, we there harmlessly enjoyed ourselves, more
than in any other part of the ship. By day, many of us were very
industrious, making hats or mending our clothes. But by night we
became more romantically inclined.
Often Jack Chase, an enthusiastic admirer of sea-scenery, would
direct our attention to the moonlight on the waves, by fine
snatches from his catalogue of poets. I shall never forget the
lyric air with which, one morning, at dawn of day, when all the
East was flushed with red and gold, he stood leaning against the
top-mast shrouds, and stretching his bold hand over the sea,
exclaimed, "Here comes Aurora: top-mates, see!" And, in a liquid,
long-lingering tone, he recited the lines,
"With gentle hand, as seeming oft to pause,
The purple curtains of the morn she draws."
From our lofty perch, of a moonlight night, the frigate itself
was a glorious sight. She was going large before the wind, her
stun'-sails set on both sides, so that the canvas on the main-
mast and fore-mast presented the appearance of majestic, tapering
pyramids, more than a hundred feet broad at the base, and
terminating in the clouds with the light copestone of the royals.
That immense area of snow-white canvas sliding along the sea was
indeed a magnificent spectacle. The three shrouded masts looked
like the apparitions of three gigantic Turkish Emirs striding
over the ocean.
Nor, at times, was the sound of music wanting, to augment the
poetry of the scene. The whole band would be assembled on the
poop, regaling the officers, and incidentally ourselves, with
their fine old airs. To these, some of us would occasionally
dance in the _top_, which was almost as large as an ordinary
sized parlour. When the instrumental melody of the band was not
to be had, our nightingales mustered their voices, and gave us a
Upon these occasions Jack Chase was often called out, and regaled
us, in his own free and noble style, with the "_Spanish Ladies_"--
a favourite thing with British man-of-war's-men--and many other
salt-sea ballads and ditties, including,
"Sir Patrick Spens was the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea."
"And three times around spun our gallant ship;
Three times around spun she;
Three times around spun our gallant ship,
And she went to the bottom of the sea--
The sea, the sea, the sea,
And she went to the bottom of the sea!"
There was an old negro, who went by the name of Tawney, a sheet-
anchor-man, whom we often invited into our top of tranquil
nights, to hear him discourse. He was a staid and sober seaman,
very intelligent, with a fine, frank bearing, one of the best men
in the ship, and held in high estimation by every one.
It seems that, during the last war between England and America,
he had, with several others, been "impressed" upon the high seas,
out of a New England merchantman. The ship that impressed him was
an English frigate, the Macedonian, afterward taken by the
Neversink, the ship in which we were sailing.
It was the holy Sabbath, according to Tawney, and, as the Briton
bore down on the American--her men at their quarters--Tawney and
his countrymen, who happened to be stationed at the quarter-deck
battery, respectfully accosted the captain--an old man by the
name of Cardan--as he passed them, in his rapid promenade, his
spy-glass under his arm. Again they assured him that they were
not Englishmen, and that it was a most bitter thing to lift their
hands against the flag of that country which harboured the
mothers that bore them. They conjured him to release them from
their guns, and allow them to remain neutral during the conflict.
But when a ship of any nation is running into action, it is no
time for argument, small time for justice, and not much time for
humanity. Snatching a pistol from the belt of a boarder standing
by, the Captain levelled it at the heads of the three sailors,
and commanded them instantly to their quarters, under penalty of
being shot on the spot. So, side by side with his country's foes,
Tawney and his companions toiled at the guns, and fought out the
fight to the last; with the exception of one of them, who was
killed at his post by one of his own country's balls.
At length, having lost her fore and main-top-masts, and her
mizzen-mast having been shot away to the deck, and her fore-yard
lying in two pieces on her shattered forecastle, and in a hundred
places having been _hulled_ with round shot, the English frigate
was reduced to the last extremity. Captain Cardan ordered his
signal quarter-master to strike the flag.
Tawney was one of those who, at last, helped pull him on board
the Neversink. As he touched the deck, Cardan saluted Decatur,
the hostile commander, and offered his sword; but it was
courteously declined. Perhaps the victor remembered the dinner
parties that he and the Englishman had enjoyed together in
Norfolk, just previous to the breaking out of hostilities--and
while both were in command of the very frigates now crippled on
the sea. The Macedonian, it seems, had gone into Norfolk with
dispatches. _Then_ they had laughed and joked over their wine,
and a wager of a beaver hat was said to have been made between
them upon the event of the hostile meeting of their ships.
Gazing upon the heavy batteries before him, Cardan said to
Decatur, "This is a seventy-four, not a frigate; no wonder the
day is yours!"
This remark was founded upon the Neversink's superiority in guns.
The Neversink's main-deck-batteries then consisted, as now, of
twenty-four-pounders; the Macedonian's of only eighteens. In all, the
Neversink numbered fifty-four guns and four hundred and fifty men; the
Macedonian, forty-nine guns and three hundred men; a very great
disparity, which, united to the other circumstances of this action,
deprives the victory of all claims to glory beyond those that might
be set up by a river-horse getting the better of a seal.
But if Tawney spoke truth--and he was a truth-telling man this
fact seemed counterbalanced by a circumstance he related. When
the guns of the Englishman were examined, after the engagement,
in more than one instance the wad was found rammed against the
cartridge, without intercepting the ball. And though, in a
frantic sea-fight, such a thing might be imputed to hurry and
remissness, yet Tawney, a stickler for his tribe, always ascribed
it to quite a different and less honourable cause. But, even
granting the cause he assigned to have been the true one, it does
not involve anything inimical to the general valour displayed by
the British crew. Yet, from all that may be learned from candid
persons who have been in sea-fights, there can be but little
doubt that on board of all ships, of whatever nation, in time of
action, no very small number of the men are exceedingly nervous,
to say the least, at the guns; ramming and sponging at a venture.
And what special patriotic interest could an impressed man, for
instance, take in a fight, into which he had been dragged from
the arms of his wife? Or is it to be wondered at that impressed
English seamen have not scrupled, in time of war, to cripple the
arm that has enslaved them?
During the same general war which prevailed at and previous to
the period of the frigate-action here spoken of, a British flag-
officer, in writing to the Admiralty, said, "Everything appears
to be quiet in the fleet; but, in preparing for battle last week,
several of the guns in the after part of the ship were found to
be spiked;" that is to say, rendered useless. Who had spiked
them? The dissatisfied seamen. Is it altogether improbable, then,
that the guns to which Tawney referred were manned by men who
purposely refrained from making them tell on the foe; that, in
this one action, the victory America gained was partly won for
her by the sulky insubordination of the enemy himself?
During this same period of general war, it was frequently the
case that the guns of English armed ships were found in the
mornings with their breechings cut over night. This maiming of
the guns, and for the time incapacitating them, was only to be
imputed to that secret spirit of hatred to the service which
induced the spiking above referred to. But even in cases where no
deep-seated dissatisfaction was presumed to prevail among the
crew, and where a seaman, in time of action, impelled by pure
fear, "shirked from his gun;" it seems but flying in the face of
Him who made such a seaman what he constitutionally was, to sew
_coward_ upon his back, and degrade and agonise the already
trembling wretch in numberless other ways. Nor seems it a
practice warranted by the Sermon on the Mount, for the officer of
a battery, in time of battle, to stand over the men with his
drawn sword (as was done in the Macedonian), and run through on
the spot the first seaman who showed a semblance of fear. Tawney
told me that he distinctly heard this order given by the English
Captain to his officers of divisions. Were the secret history of
all sea-fights written, the laurels of sea-heroes would turn to
ashes on their brows.
And how nationally disgraceful, in every conceivable point of view,
is the IV. of our American Articles of War: "If any person in the Navy
shall pusillanimously cry for quarter, he shall suffer death." Thus,
with death before his face from the foe, and death behind his back from
his countrymen, the best valour of a man-of-war's-man can never assume
the merit of a noble spontaneousness. In this, as in every other case,
the Articles of War hold out no reward for good conduct, but only
compel the sailor to fight, like a hired murderer, for his pay, by
digging his grave before his eyes if he hesitates.
But this Article IV. is open to still graver objections. Courage
is the most common and vulgar of the virtues; the only one shared
with us by the beasts of the field; the one most apt, by excess,
to run into viciousness. And since Nature generally takes away with
one hand to counter-balance her gifts with the other, excessive
animal courage, in many cases, only finds room in a character vacated
of loftier things. But in a naval officer, animal courage is exalted
to the loftiest merit, and often procures him a distinguished command.
Hence, if some brainless bravo be Captain of a frigate in action,
he may fight her against invincible odds, and seek to crown
himself with the glory of the shambles, by permitting his
hopeless crew to be butchered before his eyes, while at the same
time that crew must consent to be slaughtered by the foe, under
penalty of being murdered by the law. Look at the engagement
between the American frigate Essex with the two English cruisers,
the Phoebe and Cherub, off the Bay of Valparaiso, during the late
war. It is admitted on all hands that the American Captain
continued to fight his crippled ship against a greatly superior
force; and when, at last, it became physically impossible that he
could ever be otherwise than vanquished in the end; and when,
from peculiarly unfortunate circumstances, his men merely stood
up to their nearly useless batteries to be dismembered and blown
to pieces by the incessant fire of the enemy's long guns. Nor, by
thus continuing to fight, did this American frigate, one iota,
promote the true interests of her country. I seek not to
underrate any reputation which the American Captain may have
gained by this battle. He was a brave man; _that_ no sailor will
deny. But the whole world is made up of brave men. Yet I would
not be at all understood as impugning his special good name.
Nevertheless, it is not to be doubted, that if there were any
common-sense sailors at the guns of the Essex, however valiant
they may have been, those common-sense sailors must have greatly
preferred to strike their flag, when they saw the day was fairly
lost, than postpone that inevitable act till there were few
American arms left to assist in hauling it down. Yet had these
men, under these circumstances, "pusillanimously cried for quarter,"
by the IV. Article of War they might have been legally hung.
According to the negro, Tawney, when the Captain of the
Macedonian--seeing that the Neversink had his vessel completely
in her power--gave the word to strike the flag, one of his
officers, a man hated by the seamen for his tyranny, howled out
the most terrific remonstrances, swearing that, for his part, he
would not give up, but was for sinking the Macedonian alongside
the enemy. Had he been Captain, doubtless he would have done so;
thereby gaining the name of a hero in this world;--but what would
they have called him in the next?
But as the whole matter of war is a thing that smites common-sense
and Christianity in the face; so everything connected with it is
utterly foolish, unchristian, barbarous, brutal, and savouring of
the Feejee Islands, cannibalism, saltpetre, and the devil.
It is generally the case in a man-of-war when she strikes her
flag that all discipline is at an end, and the men for a time are
ungovernable. This was so on board of the English frigate. The
spirit-room was broken open, and buckets of grog were passed
along the decks, where many of the wounded were lying between the
guns. These mariners seized the buckets, and, spite of all
remonstrances, gulped down the burning spirits, till, as Tawney
said, the blood suddenly spirted out of their wounds, and they
fell dead to the deck.
The negro had many more stories to tell of this fight; and
frequently he would escort me along our main-deck batteries--
still mounting the same guns used in the battle--pointing out
their ineffaceable indentations and scars. Coated over with the
accumulated paint of more than thirty years, they were almost
invisible to a casual eye; but Tawney knew them all by heart; for
he had returned home in the Neversink, and had beheld these scars
shortly after the engagement.
One afternoon, I was walking with him along the gun-deck, when he
paused abreast of the main-mast. "This part of the ship," said
he, "we called the _slaughter-house_ on board the Macedonian.
Here the men fell, five and six at a time. An enemy always
directs its shot here, in order to hurl over the mast, if
possible. The beams and carlines overhead in the Macedonian
_slaughter-house_ were spattered with blood and brains. About the
hatchways it looked like a butcher's stall; bits of human flesh
sticking in the ring-bolts. A pig that ran about the decks
escaped unharmed, but his hide was so clotted with blood, from
rooting among the pools of gore, that when the ship struck the
sailors hove the animal overboard, swearing that it would be rank
cannibalism to eat him."
Another quadruped, a goat, lost its fore legs in this fight.
The sailors who were killed--according to the usual custom--were
ordered to be thrown overboard as soon as they fell; no doubt, as
the negro said, that the sight of so many corpses lying around
might not appall the survivors at the guns. Among other
instances, he related the following. A shot entering one of the
port-holes, dashed dead two thirds of a gun's crew. The captain
of the next gun, dropping his lock-string, which he had just
pulled, turned over the heap of bodies to see who they were;
when, perceiving an old messmate, who had sailed with him in many
cruises, he burst into tears, and, taking the corpse up in his
arms, and going with it to the side, held it over the water a
moment, and eying it, cried, "Oh God! Tom!"--"D----n your
prayers over that thing! overboard with it, and down to your
gun!" roared a wounded Lieutenant. The order was obeyed, and the
heart-stricken sailor returned to his post.
Tawney's recitals were enough to snap this man-of-war world's
sword in its scabbard. And thinking of all the cruel carnal glory
wrought out by naval heroes in scenes like these, I asked myself
whether, indeed, that was a glorious coffin in which Lord Nelson
was entombed--a coffin presented to him, during life, by Captain
Hallowell; it had been dug out of the main-most of the French
line-of-battle ship L'Orient, which, burning up with British
fire, destroyed hundreds of Frenchmen at the battle of the Nile.
Peace to Lord Nelson where he sleeps in his mouldering mast! but
rather would I be urned in the trunk of some green tree, and even
in death have the vital sap circulating round me, giving of my
dead body to the living foliage that shaded my peaceful tomb.
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