Politics & Policy

Wooden Ships and Iron Men

Timeless virtues.

On the grounds of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, stands a weathered, white marble monument, intricately executed, and recently refurbished. It was carved in Italy by the sculptor Micali, and erected in 1808 at the Washington Navy Yard by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the Capitol. It was the first and for over three decades the only public monument in Washington, D.C. When the British burned the Navy Yard in 1814 the monument was moved to the Capitol grounds, and in 1860 was relocated to Annapolis. It features a rostral column, topped by an American eagle, and flanked by statues symbolizing history, commerce, and America. On one side are carved names of six American sailors and Marines who died in America’s first war on terror over 200 years ago. The monument is called “Tripoli,” and the men it honors were killed fighting the pirate states in the Mediterranean in 1804. This conflict is one of the subjects of A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution, by Claude Berube and John Rodgaard (Potomac Books, 2005), a biography of one of the longest-serving navy officers in U.S. history. Stewart joined the Navy at age 19 in 1798, during the undeclared naval war with France, and served until the beginning of the Civil War. He got a taste for the adventure of the sea as a boy when he accompanied a mission to Haiti, then in the grip of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution. He was nearly skewered after he accidentally insulted the dignity of one of L’Ouverture’s thuggish generals, later the self-proclaimed King Henri I.

Stewart was a self-described “plucky, rude, erratic little fellow” when he entered Dr. Abercrombie’s Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. One of his classmates of Stephen Decatur Jr., son of a Revolutionary War ship’s captain, who would figure prominently in the Tripoli War and War of 1812, before having his career cut short in 1820, killed in a duel with a brother officer. Stewart and Decatur led parallel lives, though the latter seemed always in the spotlight. Stewart was with Decatur in a support role when he executed the daring raid into Tripoli harbor in 1804 to burn the captured US frigate Philadelphia, an operation that Lord Admiral Nelson described as “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Later, Stewart was the primary proponent of an offensive naval strategy in the War of 1812, and spent so much time lobbying President Madison that he almost lost the chance to actually fight. Again, his friend Decatur had the jump, and at a Washington ball honoring Stewart, who was just readying to set out to sea, a package arrived from Decatur containing the flag of the HMS Macedonian, which he had captured. (There is also a monument to this feat at Annapolis.)

Stewart eventually made it to sea, in command of “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution. In perhaps his most important blue-water victory Stewart simultaneously engaged and defeated the HMS Cyane and HMS Levant in February 1815, weeks after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. Shades of Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans, except unlike Old Hickory, Stewart knew about the peace treaty. He reasoned that there could be an expected grace period as news of the cease fire filtered out, and that he was still within it; and besides, he had not heard the treaty had been ratified by Congress (it in fact had been days earlier). This exercise in rationalization presented Stewart with an opportunity for greatness that he masterfully exploited; his overtime victory was “among the most brilliant maneuvering in naval annals,” according to early naval historian and novelist James Fennimore Cooper.

Stewart may have had another motivation than simply serving his country. Before going to sea the young captain had promised his new bride that he would bring back two frigates, and their story forms an interesting backdrop to the tale of arms. Stewart, who was young, handsome and who had made a modest fortune as a merchantman between wars, was a rather eligible bachelor. He unsuccessfully courted the famous Virginia belle Maria Mayo, along with apparently most of the early 19th Century American gentry. She was eventually won by General Winfield Scott, and the two developed a famously frosty relationship. Stewart then turned his attention to Delia Tudor, an ambitious Boston socialite known for her matchless ability to spend other people’s money. The two had a blowout argument on their wedding night and it was downhill after that. In order to mitigate Delia’s propensity to splurge, Charles placed her on a 225 acre estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, safely distant from both New York and Philadelphia. While he was at sea, she was busy selling the furniture. She was rumored to be romantically involved with their neighbor, Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon and deposed King of Spain. Bonaparte was not the last man to whom she would be linked.

When Stewart was made Commodore of the first Pacific Squadron, a three year tour, he took Delia with him rather than let her continue her quest to bankrupt the family. He had his ship specially outfitted to accommodate her, and it included the first ship-board library, with 1500 volumes. Despite these precautions, Delia found ways to get into trouble, borrowing money from officers with no intention of repayment, and entering into questionable relationships with foreigners at various South American ports of call. One such dalliance, with a reputed Spanish spy named “Madrid,” led to Stewart’s court martial; he was acquitted, but thoroughly embarrassed.

The life of a Navy officer in the early years of the Republic comes across as highly political, particularly in the periods between wars, with the customary rivalries, feuds, duels, intrigues in Washington, and conflicts with diplomats ashore (not to mention showing the flag, second-guessing the Europeans and having the odd skirmish with pirates). The pettiness of some of the charges that landed men in courts martial — e.g., storing salted meat not in the traditional barrels but in equally effective stowage tanks — leads one to conclude that in these matters trivialities and personalities often outweighed duty, professionalism and commitment to the defense of the country. How little times have changed.

The book makes no apologies to land-lubbers for using nautical expressions, so it helps if you are comfortable with that. For example here is a passage describing Stewart on the USS Syren avoiding a collision with the USS New York: “In this critical moment the Syren seemed doomed, but Stewart acted quickly and ordered the brig’s helm put up and shiver the after sails. This well-timed maneuver saved Syren, but she lost her jib boom, spritsail yard, portside cathead, and bow anchor.” I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I am told by my Navy friends it was a gutsy maneuver.

It is interesting to read an account of the days when the United States did not have command of the sea, and to see the attitude of an up-and-coming power, i.e., the kind of pugnaciousness we face from countries like Iran, Venezuela, China, and others. These were the days when U.S. ports could be blockaded; when Stewart took the USS Constitution to sea on New Year’s Eve 1814, the mere fact that he slipped out into open waters was seen as an accomplishment. The occasional victories we won against British warships were mere annoyances from the perspective of the Royal Navy, but historic feats of valor for the young American sea service. In our contests with the emerging powers of the world, we ignore this perception asymmetry at our peril.

The Barbary pirates were a threat we took seriously, and one we could with effort overcome. The Bashaw of Triploi’s justification for war on American trading ships, according to Thomas Jefferson as explained by their ambassador, was that “it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.” John Adams sagely noted, “we ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.” Men like Stewart won our first victories in that part of the world, through courage, creativity, resourcefulness, and an unwavering belief in the rightness of his cause. These are timeless qualities of the successful warfighter, on sea or ashore; let’s hope they do not go out of style.

– James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point, and an NRO contributor.

James S. Robbins — James S. Robbins is a political commentator for National Review and USA Today and is senior fellow for national security affairs on the American Foreign Policy Council. He is a ...

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