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October 26, 2010

Mauling Live Oak
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:18 PM *

It’s time for great moments in now-obscure American military history; the foundation of the US Navy, and our war against France.

One day I was traveling - I happened to think,
“My pockets are empty, I can’t buy a drink.
I am an old bummer, completely dead broke,
And there’s nothing to do but go mauling live oak.”

cho: Derry down, down, down, derry down.

Since 1777 the Continental Congress had operated under the Articles of Confederation, a marvelous document. The Articles had many virtues, but one thing that they lacked was the power to tax. And while the Continental Congress could make decisions it lacked the power to enforce them.

Since armies and navies are expensive, once the Revolution was over and the immediate threat of British arms was alleviated, and since the Congress relied on voluntary contributions from the states for the militaries’ continued operation, both dwindled. The Continental Army went down to about 700 soldiers. The Continental Navy sold its last warship, the frigate Alliance (John Barry, commanding), in 1785 and was disbanded. The sailors returned to civilian life.

British troops refused to leave the frontier forts on US soil, in violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the revolution. Formerly, American vessels had sailed under the protection of the British crown. After the Revolution, not so much, and in 1785 the Barbary States began taking American ships and holding their passengers and crews captive.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were broken. Enter the Constitutional Convention called by President St. Clair. The new Constitution (ratified 1787, taking effect 4 March 1789) allowed the Federal government “To provide and maintain a Navy,” and did so by granting that “the Congress shall have power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” (Article 1 Section 8) Still, up until 1793, the only Naval service of the United States was the Revenue Cutter Service (which later became the US Coast Guard).

What happened in 1793 was the beginning of the wars between Britain and France surrounding the French Revolution. British ships began taking neutral American ships trading with France, while French ships began taking neutral American ships trading with Britain. Worse for American shipping, in 1793 the Dey of Algiers signed a treaty with the Portuguese that allowed Algerian corsairs to move out through Gibraltar into the Atlantic. By the end of the year over 100 US sailors were being held by the Barbary States.

In early January of 1794 the House of Representatives resolved “that a naval force adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States, against the Algerine corsairs, ought to be provided.”

By the end of the month a resolution authorizing the construction of ships passed, with votes in the affirmative coming mainly from coastal regions, the east, and the north, and opposition coming from rural areas, the south, and the frontier. It was signed by President Washington in March of 1794. Construction on six frigates, built from their keels up to be superior to any ship in Europe of the same class, commenced in 1795. They had long, narrow hulls and raked masts, designed both for speed and to carry an impressive broadside. Where European frigates might have hull planking eighteen inches thick, these frigates’ hulls were twenty-four. The ships were to be built in six different yards from Virginia to New Hampshire, in order to spread the economic benefits and reward those who had voted for their construction.

Also in 1794, the US signed Jay’s Treaty between the US and Britain (which fixed the problem of those frontier forts left over from 1783 and regularized trade between the two countries). The French were outraged: They saw Jay’s Treaty as violating the 1778 Treaty of Alliance between France and the US. (The Treaty of Alliance with France may well have been what President Washington was alluding to when he warned, in his Farewell Address, against “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.”)

Construction of the new frigates proceeded slowly, partly because of the specification (included to get votes from Southern congressmen) that the ships were to be constructed of live oak that only grew in Southern forests.

The frigates had hardly been framed, however, when disaster struck the program. The act authorizing the construction of the fleet called for the halt of construction in the event of peace with Algiers. In early 1796 the United States reached a negotiated settlement with the Dey of Algiers; the return of the captive American seamen in return for a ransom of one million dollars and the construction of a thirty-two gun frigate, Crescent, for the Dey’s fleet.

President Washington argued for continuing construction of the vessels. Congress, however, could only be persuaded to authorize funds for the three that were closest to completion. One of Washington’s final acts in office was to commission John Barry, the last officer of the Continental Navy, as the first officer of the United States Navy with lineal number 1 (and with his date of rank backdated to 4 June 1794). So it was that the frigates United States (James Barry, commanding), Constellation (Thomas Truxtun, commanding), and Constitution (Samuel Nicholson, commanding) were launched in 1797, soon after the inauguration of President John Adams.

The Barbary States were no longer a problem. But summer of 1797 saw the French intensifying operations against neutral vessels trading with Britain and the British forbidding all neutral trade with the French West Indies. Congress voted to furnish the three frigates with fittings, sailors, and supplies.

The French had been the noble allies of the United States during the Revolution, supplying money, men, and military aid. (In the mid-1980s, at the US SOUTHCOM headquarters at Quarry Heights in Panama, a painting of the Battle of the Virginia Capes hung in the lobby, labeled “French Interference in the Internal Affairs of Great Britain.”) Now there was a falling out between revolutionary governments. The United States felt that French commerce raiding on American shipping was out-of-bounds.

The French had grievances of their own. Rather than side with their revolutionary brothers in their conflict with their mutual enemy Great Britain, the US had declared neutrality. Jay’s Treaty continued to rankle. The US had also decided to stop repayment of the debts incurred during the Revolution on the grounds that those debts were owed to the French crown, and the French crown was no more. (The US had already used a similar argument to abrogate its treaties with the Native Americans of the Northwest Territories, on the grounds that their treaties had been made with the British crown, not with the US. The natives had had much the same reaction as the French: “Quel merde!” The difference being that the French had a world-class army and navy, while the Native Americans did not.)

In March of 1798, at the request of Secretary of War James McHenry (after whom a famous fort would be named) Congress created the Department of the Navy, split off from the War Department, under the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddart.

Then came the XYZ Affair (so-called because the intermediaries involved were referred to in dispatches as Monsieur X, Monsieur Y, and Monsieur Z). The French refused to recognize the US Minister to France, and demanded major concessions, a personal bribe to Talleyrand, and a formal apology from President John Adams just in order to continue negotiations. (This, not the Barbary wars, was what gave us the saying, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!”)

Congress, when it learned of the XYZ Affair in April 1798, voted to allowed public vessels of the United States to capture armed French vessels hovering off the coast of the USA. Congress also approved the purchase and outfitting of vessels to be converted into warships. On 24 May 1798, the Ganges (Richard Dale, commanding), formerly a merchantman of Philadelphia, put to sea as the first armed vessel of the United States Navy.

On 30 June 1798 Congress gave the president the power to accept the loan of private vessels in return for interest-bearing government bonds. On 7 July Congress unilaterally rescinded the Treaty of Alliance with France. (It would be a hundred and fifty years before the US again entered an alliance with another nation.) On that same day came a single-ship engagement of USS Delaware (a converted merchantman, Stephen Decatur, Sr., commanding) against La Croyable*, a French privateer, off the coast of New Jersey. Then on 9 July Congress expanded the new-minted Navy’s authorization to capture armed French vessels from US coastal waters to anywhere on the high seas and allowed the Secretary of the Navy to issue privateering licenses. On 11 July 1798 the president signed an act authorizing the creation of the United States Marine Corps. And on 16 July Congress appropriated funds to finish construction and equip the remaining three frigates.

The United States was, for all that it lacked a declaration, at war with France.

The Back Story is now complete.

We are now going to tell of the first engagement between a US Navy warship and a warship of another nation.

We will leave USS Constitution patrolling the east coast of the United States between New York and New Hampshire, and Commodore Barry cruising the West Indies in United States, to follow the adventures of Thomas Truxtun aboard Constellation.

The name Constellation referred to the flag of the United States, as defined by the Continental Congress: “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternating red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Truxtun himself was a Long Island man who had gone to sea at the age of twelve, rising to command of his own vessel by the age of twenty. Still in his early twenties he became an undefeated privateer captain on the Continental side during the Revolution. After the Revolution he continued as a merchant captain, where he was one of the first Americans to join the China trade.

With the creation of the US Navy, Truxtun accepted a commission as one of its first six officers. He oversaw the construction of Constellation at Baltimore.

The quasi-war with France started in July 1798 and the US Navy had great success against French privateers. The Navy had not, however, come up against a French (or any other) naval warship. That was due to change on 9 February 1799.

On 9 February, off the island of Nevis in the Lesser Antilles, around noon, Truxtun sighted a frigate flying American colors. He turned toward to investigate. Unknown to him, the vessel was the French frigate L’Insurgente (Michel-Pierre Barreaut, commanding), reputedly the fastest ship in the French fleet.

Once in sight of one another, Truxtun hauled up a Royal Navy recognition signal, to discover if the vessel he was pursuing was British. At that period, flying false colors was a common ruse of war and, as long as the vessel showed her true colors before firing the first cannon, perfectly legal. The US Navy and the Royal Navy did not operate together at that time, although the British were selling naval stores and munitions to the Americans, and they were both patrolling the same waters with the same objective. They had, however, devised a set of private signals to avoid unfortunate mistaken-identity episodes.

For his part, Captain Barreaut thought that the vessel approaching him was a British corvette. He had no interest in getting involved in a ship-to-ship duel with anyone; he was out doing commerce raiding against United States merchantmen. He turned east and attempted to break off. Constellation pursued.

At this point a squall blew up. Constellation came through undamaged; L’Insurgente lost her main top mast, limiting her speed. Truxtun hauled up another private signal, this time to determine if the vessel he was approaching was American. Again, L’Insurgente did not know the proper response.

Around 1500 (3:00 pm) Constellation came up under L’Insurgente’s port quarter. At this point L’Insurgente broke French colors and attempted to hail Constellation to arrange a parley. Truxtun had loaded his guns with double shot and, instead of parleying, responded with a broadside at the range of a pistol-shot, into L’Insurgente’s quarterdeck.

You must understand that while L’Insurgente carried more cannon than Constellation, they were lighter guns. The Frenchman mounted primarily 12-pounders in her main battery, while the American primarily mounted long-24s. Force being mass times acceleration, and the acceleration of black-powder muzzle-loaders being roughly the same, the vessel with the higher throw-weight is able to exert greater force on the other.

L’Insurgente attempted to close and board; Constellation maneuvered away, and passed up L’Insurgente’s port side, exchanging broadsides with her the whole way. Once forward of L’Insurgente, Truxtun came hard right and crossed in front of Barreaut. As he crossed ahead, he caught her in a bow rake.

A rake is this: When one vessel passes ahead of or astern of another, all of the crossing vessel’s guns can bear on the vessel being crossed, while none of that vessel’s guns can reply. Also, while bearing is easy to figure in naval gunnery, range (determined by elevation of the gun) is a bit more tricky. A shot that falls short, or one that falls long, are both misses. But with a rake, short and long shots are still hits, and a single ball can travel the length of the deck, doing damage the whole way. If you’re in a sea fight, you want to take a raking position. You want to do whatever you can to avoid being raked.

Constellation was now on L’Insurgente’s starboard quarter. She came left, and passed up L’Insurgente’s starboard side, again exchanging broadsides the whole way. Then, coming left and sailing close into the wind, Truxtun came across the other frigate’s bow and raked Barreaut again.

To picture this: The wind was out of the north. L’Insurgente was headed east with the wind on her port beam (i.e. left side). Constellation was essentially doing a sine wave around her as she ran along the X axis.

This put Constellation back on L’Insurgente’s port quarter. Again she ran forward, exchanging broadsides, and was setting up to rake L’Insurgente a third time when Barreaut struck his colors.

This was the correct decision. He was being out-sailed by a vessel with significantly heavier guns. His hull had been holed, his 18-pounders were out of service, he had suffered heavy casualties (29 dead, 41 wounded), and his rigging was significantly damaged.

The significance was that in its first engagement with a vessel of the same class from a major European navy, the US Navy had won. The entire engagement from first shot to Barreaut striking his colors had taken about an hour and a half.

It was only when Truxtun sent over a longboat to board the other frigate that he found out who he had been fighting. The story that the exchange went like this:

Barreaut: “But sir! Our countries are not at war!”
Truxtun: “By G_d, sir, they should be!”

is almost certainly false. For one thing, Barreaut was the one who had recaptured the luckless La Croyable under her new name USS Retaliation a month and a half before, which should have been a clue.

To conclude briefly: The quasi-war continued. The US Navy took over 80 French vessels, with the loss of only one of their own, the above-mentioned Retaliation. For their part, though, the French had taken over two-thousand US merchant ships. The matter sputtered out with what could only be termed relief by both sides in 1800, ended by the Treaty of Mortefontaine. The US sent a new Minister to France, who was received without the necessity of paying a bribe to Talleyrand.

Truxtun’s victory was celebrated by a song, Brave Yankee Boys, which begins:

Come all you Yankee sailors, with swords and pikes advance
‘Tis time to try your courage and humble haughty France
The sons of France our seas invade, destroy our commerce and our trade
‘Tis time the reckoning should be paid to brave Yankee boys

and ends

Now here’s a health to Truxtun, who did not fear the sight,
And all those Yankee sailors who for their country fight
John Adams in full bumpers toast, George Washington, Columbia’s boast
And here’s to the girls that we love most, my brave Yankee boys.

Truxtun retired from Naval service and sat out the Barbary War. USS Constellation was broken up in 1853; her timbers and fittings were used to build a sloop of war also named USS Constellation, which currently sits in Baltimore’s inner harbor.

So ends the story.

* La Croyable was renamed USS Retaliation (William Bainbridge, commanding). USS Retaliation was recaptured by the French (L’Insurgente and Volontaire), who re-renamed her Magicienne. Magicienne was re-recaptured by USS Merrimack, (Moses Brown, commanding). At this point the schooner drops out of naval history.
Comments on Mauling Live Oak:
#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2010, 11:00 PM:

Ah, that's why 'crossing the T' is important.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2010, 11:11 PM:

You can hear Brave Yankee Boys (under the title "Truxton's Victory") streaming here:

#4 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 12:06 AM:

It is a form of crossing the "T", yes. It wasn't a coinage from that period, though. The sailors of 1800 would have thought of it as stated in Mr Macdonald's terms - a "rake".

The phrase "crossing the T" dates, I believe, more from the pre-dreadnaught era, post-1870, and refers more to line-ahead formations of battleships than to single ships. That is, it's a rake on a larger scale, but with the additional feature that the fire from the line crossing the other's "T" can all be concentrated on the lead ships of the line that has been crossed.

(/military geekness)

Carry on.

#5 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 02:48 AM:

"The ships were to be built in six different yards from Virginia to New Hampshire, in order to spread the economic benefits and reward those who had voted for their construction."

It's fascinating to learn that Congressional pork-barreling began as early as 1794. I wonder if our current defense contractors know how far back the tradition goes.

#6 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 07:29 AM:

I find it interesting that the material for the ships was chosen for purely political reasons.

#7 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 08:09 AM:

Crossing the T fell out of favour again in the dreadnought era, because gunnery ranges increased, and it became very difficult to correct the fall of shot when several ships were firing at the same target. There were partial answers, such as using dye to colour the shell splashes, and keeping track of the timing of salvoes, but there was also the problem that it was harder to get accurate range measurements. The target's range was changing, and, while the range rate was linked to the target's speed, it took time to pin it down through a forest of error-bars.

Meanwhile, the target knew its own speed, and most of the change it was trying to measure was the bearing rate.

Both sides had to deal with estimating the enemy's relative heading (this is why dazzle painting was worthwhile), but once you started getting reliable range measurements with radar, these estimates were less critical.

Incidentally, one of the big advantages US submarines had in the Pacific was the TDC, a mechanical analogue computer which took range and bearing measurements, and estimates of target speed and heading, to calculate the firing solution for torpedoes.

(It was awkward that it took so long for the torpedo experts to believe the submariners about their infernal engines not going bang. I recall an article on a Geocities web-page which explained some of the weaknesses. Not just the poorly-designed pistol, but tests of the torpedo that didn't allow for the effects of water flow on the apparent water pressure used to set running depth.)

#8 ::: FA Hurley ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 08:45 AM:

(military geekiness)

Dave is correct. Roughly speaking, raking fire occurs when you're dealing with sailing ships that have fixed guns pointing out of gun ports in the side. (Compare/contrast broadside fire.) Crossing the T is what happens when you have guns in turrets, which means the guns can rotate, so that you can concentrate your fire on the line of the T and fire all your guns at the same time, rather than having to point the ship's side to aim the guns.

Interesting - I never thought of it this way before, but ship-to-ship combat increased in intensity when the guns could be aimed separately from the ship, while one of the first innovations in plane-to-plane combat was eliminating a separate gunner and having the pilot fire directly along the axis of the plane. (Then you get fighters, and bombers, and you get some of each configuration, and once whatever you're firing starts aiming itself, it gets all confusing, but hey.)

(/military geekiness)

Thank you, Jim! This is as skillful an exposition as I've ever seen of this material, and I'm a grad student in military history, although I don't do American stuff much.

#9 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 08:47 AM:

"T" crossing was current up until the end of the Second World War, between gun battle lines, anyway. It was still being sought by battlewagon admirals as late as the Battle of Surigao Strait, October 24, 1944.

Even aircraft used a version of it, but with the boot on the other foot, so to speak. Torpedo-bombers would ideally attack in waves from both sides, 45 degrees off the bow, so that no matter which way the target turned, he crossed the T - of the tinfish.

#10 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 09:36 AM:

Fragano@6: I find it interesting that the material for the ships was chosen for purely political reasons.

It didn't hurt that live oak was an impressively good material for the job. Under normal circumstances, though, shipyards would probably have used local wood instead of hauling oak logs all the way up from Georgia.

When the Constitution underwent a major refit and restoration back in the early '90s, the timber came from historic live oaks in the city of Charleston that had been blown down by Hurricane Hugo. We visited the Constitution in Boston Harbor around that time, and saw the logs piled up on the pier . . . honking great pieces of wood, they were.

#11 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 10:23 AM:

What became of L'Insurgente: She was taken into the American fleet as USS Insurgent. In 1800 she sailed from Hampton Roads and was never heard from again.

Presumably she went down with all hands. In pre-radio days this was a distressingly common event.

(Even in post-radio days... the MOVREP system wasn't instituted until after the loss of USS Indianapolis near the end of WWII.)

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 10:28 AM:

Debra Doyle #10: Live oaks get to be huge, that's true. I think of them as the ornamental trees lining the streets of Savannah, covered with Spanish moss.

Still, the politics of the matter, it seems to me, are interesting in themselves.

#13 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 10:54 AM:

Among the many fascinations of live oaks is they genetically evolved in a difference from their other relatives to survive periods of standing in salt water.

Love, C.

#14 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 10:55 AM:

Surigao Strait

By the time the gun action started, the Japanese force comprised one battleship, one heavy cruiser, and one destroyer. The USS West Virginia, using radar, made contact at a range of 42,000 yards, had a firing solution at a range of 30,000 yards, and opened fire at a range of 22,800 yards, getting a hit with the first salvo.

There's a fairly detailed analysis of the engagement at this page, taking into account the differences between the Mark 3 and the Mark 8 radar. On the same site, gives more detail of the fire control system.

And all done with mechanical analogue computing.

#15 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 11:01 AM:

I thought we had live oaks in our yard in southeast Virginia, and a USGS map seems to confirm this. Every fall, they started dumping their leaves before any other tree on the block, and we'd be done raking while other trees in our neighborhood hadn't fully turned color yet. Oh, I miss them.

(Just as I was reading about them here, my other screen background had changed to a shot of family members paddling small boats on Winan's Creek, near Bandera, TX, with a big live oak in the foreground. I miss Winan's Creek, too.)

#16 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 11:18 AM:

The opening broadside in this clip from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World has Acheron taking HMS Surprise in a bow rake.

Do you recall the scene from Master and Commander when one of the sailors shows Jack the rib model that's supposedly of the French frigate? That's actually a model of USS Constitution.

(And Constitution could have totally cleaned Aubrey's clock, under almost any of her captains.)

Speaking of Constitution, after her simultaneous victories over HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, Captains Douglas and Falcon, having been taken aboard Constitution, fell to quarreling over which of them had lost the battle. Captain Decatur listened for a while, then allegedly said, "Gentlemen, if you wish, I can put you back on your ships and we can try again."

#17 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 11:27 AM:

Fragano@12: Still, the politics of the matter, it seems to me, are interesting in themselves.

Oh, yeah. The pork barrel is as old as the republic, if not older. On the featurish side of the bug, though, it does provide a crude but effective method of insuring that governmental functions and largesse aren't concentrated in a single area.

The other thing about live oaks is that it takes about 200 years for one to grow big enough to be used in building a ship the size of Constitution.

#18 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 11:48 AM:

Aubrey is onboard the HMS Java (and is captured) when the Constitution cleans its clock in The Fortunes of War.

#19 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 12:04 PM:

Niall@18: Aubrey is onboard the HMS Java (and is captured) when the Constitution cleans its clock in The Fortunes of War.

The account by Constitution's captain of that action makes for brisk and interesting reading:

At 2.10. P.M, Commenced The Action within good grape and Canister distance. The enemy to windward (but much farther than I wished).
At 2,30. P.M, our wheel was shot entirely away
At 2.40. determined to close with the Enemy, notwithstanding her rakeing, set the Fore sail & Luff'd up close to him.
At 2,50, The Enemies Jib boom got foul of our Mizen Rigging
At 3 The Head of the enemies Bowsprit & Jib boom shot away by us
At 3.5 Shot away the enemies foremast by the board
At 3.15 Shot away The enemies Main Top mast just above the Cap
At 3.40 Shot away Gafft and Spunker boom
At 3.55 Shot his mizen mast nearly by the board
At 4.5 Having silenced the fire of the enemy completely and his colours in main Rigging being [down] Supposed he had Struck, Then hawl'd about the Courses to shoot ahead to repair our rigging, which was extremely cut, leaving the enemy a complete wreck, soon after discovered that The enemies flag was still flying hove too to repair Some of our damages.
At 4.20. The Enemies Main Mast went by the board.
At 4.50 [Wore] ship and stood for the Enemy
At 5.25 Got very close to the enemy in a very [effective] rakeing position, athwart his bows & was at the very instance of rakeing him, when he most prudently Struck his Flag.

Clearly, Bainbridge had a flair for narrative as well as for shiphandling.

#20 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 12:06 PM:

Debra Doyle #17: Not to mention providing a guarantee of mutual backscratching among the representatives of the different states.

Live oaks are quite impressive trees, especially when festooned with old man's beard.

#21 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 12:17 PM:

HMS Shannon. Bite that, Brother Jonathan!

#22 ::: Mags ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 02:01 PM:

*applause* Tell us another story, Uncle Jim!

Seriously, thanks for whiling away my lunch hour so delightfully today.

As for the live oaks, I was in Mystic Seaport last month and live oaks felled in Galveston during Hurricane Ike were donated to be used in the restoration of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan.

#23 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 02:45 PM:

alex #21: Brother Jonathan might get bitten by a shark

#24 ::: foolserrand ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 03:01 PM:

Debra Doyle #17, about oaks growth, from Wikipedia:
Dudley Pope relates an aspect of Collingwood at the beginning of chapter three of his Life in Nelson's Navy: "Captain Cuthbert Collingwood, later to become an admiral and Nelson's second in command at Trafalgar, had his home at Morpeth, in Northumberland, and when he was there on half pay or on leave he loved to walk over the hills with his dog Bounce. He always started off with a handful of acorns in his pockets, and as he walked he would press an acorn into the soil whenever he saw a good place for an oak tree to grow. Some of the oaks he planted are probably still growing more than a century and a half later ready to be cut to build ships of the line at a time when nuclear submarines are patrolling the seas, because Collingwood's purpose was to make sure that the Navy would never want for oaks to build the fighting ships upon which the country's safety depended."

#25 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 05:22 PM:

Ah, yes, Chesapeake v. Shannon. I do intend to write about that at some point, since it involves (in the fullness of things), cross-dressing, a blatantly unjust courts-martial, the establishment of institutional racism in the US Navy, and (eventually) Robert Heinlein.

#26 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 06:06 PM:

Never knew live oaks were used for shipbuilding. Hunh.

I grew up with them - there's one in my parents' yard that's still young, though it was sturdy enough to climb twenty or thirty years ago (we guessed it at perhaps thirty or forty years old then - about fifteen inches diameter at the base; the house and its surrounding suburb were built in the early 60's and the tree was likely planted then.)

The ones at New Orleans' Audubon Zoo, though, they were majestic, as were the ones lining the parade ground on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. And some of them probably still are, hurricanes notwithstanding. The zoo had trees a good five feet thick at the base, their crowns breaking low, ten or twelve feet up, great limbs thicker than the thickest trunks of any other tree I'd seen.

Live oaks are not tall trees, maybe forty feet, but broad and spreading; their limbs arch up and then back down again, all the way to the ground, then rising at the tips - they grow like great slow vines, up and down and up, in centuries not seasons, and the space beneath them is cool and dark in the heat of summer, like a cave, or a cathedral.

There are amazing things in other places, but nothing quite like live oaks.

#27 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 06:42 PM:

James D. Macdonald #25: Er, "a blatantly unjust courts-martial", Jim?

#28 ::: foolserrand ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 07:26 PM:

Thena #26
Live oaks are used for compass timber, curved members such as the ribs of a ship's frame. While planks can be bent by steaming, naturally curved beams are stronger.

#29 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 07:37 PM:

@28 And here I spent decades thinking all they were good for was inspiring awe :-)

#30 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 08:14 PM:

Er, "a blatantly unjust courts-martial", Jim?

Yeah. You find it surprising that there might be one?

In this case, the senior officer on the courts-martial board tried to recuse himself on the grounds that he was irreconcilably prejudiced against the defendant, but the convening authority refused to allow him to stand aside. And the chief witness for the prosecution was obviously lying, and obviously stood to benefit from the conviction that his testimony supported.

The reaction from everyone who hears about the verdict in case is, universally, "Say what?!" or words to that effect.

It was, in short, a mess.

The court martial of Midshipman Cox. I may expand on this someday.

#31 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 08:47 PM:

James D. Macdonald (30): I thought Fragano was reacting to the singular plural mismatch: "a blatantly unjust courts-martial"

#32 ::: Rick York ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 09:17 PM:

It's interesting that a Caribbean island, St. Eustatius, was also the place where the first international recognition of the United States occurred.

It is commemorated in the great Barbara Tuchman's very last book "The First Salute".

Patricia, in light your obvious love of US Naval history, you might want to read it.

Also, if you haven't read any other Tuchman books, I commend them all to you.

Rick York (LTJG, USN Retired - in 1969)

#33 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 11:24 PM:

"On 30 June 1798 Congress gave the president the power to accept the loan of private vessels in return for interest-bearing government bonds."
Cash in your ships?

#34 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2010, 03:24 AM:

Erik @ #33, Groan!

#35 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2010, 03:58 AM:

Being a character in a historical novel, Aubrey was aboard the HMS Shannon (captained by his cousin, Philip Broke,) when the USS Chesapeake had its chronometer cleaned, too.

Sharpe was sorry he missed that gig, but his 95th Rifles were on tour in Spain.

#36 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2010, 07:46 AM:

James B. Macdonald #30: Jim, I've no doubt that miscarriages of justice can occur, especially in military courts (who was it said "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music"?). I was, however, as Mary Aileen correctly noted, pointing out the mismatch of singular and plural.

#37 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2010, 05:24 AM:

Can't wait for Shannon v. Chesapeake.

The boat had not reached the shore when the Chesapeake was seen underway, sailing out of the harbour. She was flying three American ensigns and a large white flag at the foremast inscribed 'Free Trade and Sailor's Rights'...Observing the Chesapeake’s many flags, a sailor had questioned Broke: "Mayn't we have three ensigns, sir, like she has?" "No," said Broke, "we've always been an unassuming ship."

#38 ::: Quercus ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2010, 10:05 AM:

> Aubrey is onboard the HMS Java (and is captured)
> when the Constitution cleans its clock in The
> Fortunes of War.

> The account by Constitution's captain of that
> action makes for brisk and interesting reading:

Fascinating. The Aubrey&Maturin companion/glossary A Sea of Words includes the account of the Java's captain. Which as I recall is slightly more detailed, but pretty similar.

#39 ::: Richard Hershberger ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2010, 04:44 PM:

There is a coda to the fate of the Constellation. At the time it was broken up, the Navy did not have funding for new ships. It did, however, have funding for major repairs to existing ships. So officially, the ship now moored in Baltimore's inner harbor is the same as that commanded by Truxton. It just went through really major repairs.

There is a faction that holds that it really is the same ship. There is a book on the subject, which I have not read, making this claim. My guess is that they mean it has the same keel, or some such.

They give a nice tour. I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Baltimore with a couple of hours to spare.

#40 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2010, 01:23 AM:

#38: wasn't there a thing in some Greek philosophy discourse about something like that?

#41 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2010, 12:48 PM:

Niall McAuley: Being a character in a historical novel, Aubrey was aboard the HMS Shannon...when the USS Chesapeake had its chronometer cleaned, too.

Sharpe was sorry he missed that gig, but his 95th Rifles were on tour in Spain.

Clearly Flashman weaseled out and Jack Crabb was Out West.

#42 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2010, 08:36 AM:

Bruce Durocher II #41

Flashman had to weasel out, he was two generations later.

#43 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2010, 06:45 PM:

what does mauling mean in this context?

#44 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2010, 08:06 PM:

"Mauling" in this context refers to splitting logs using a maul.

#45 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2010, 02:03 PM:

Seeing as we're not long past Trafalgar Day, its hard to resist pointing out that Nelson and Collingwood astonished the French and Spanish by sailing straight at them, more or less volunteering to be raked. Their theory was that British gunnery and seamanship was so much superior to French that the Royal Navy ships of the line could survive the first raking broadside from they recieved, move through the line and rake the French more effectively, then turn sharply and lay themselves alongside an enemy ship and pound them from a short distance. It worked.

Those ships of the line were inherently astonishing though. Up to a thousand men packed into a space less than 60 by 15 metres - many of them actually slightly shorter than the Constitution, Constellation and Chesapeake were, though higher out of the water - and perhaps 100 or more guns. And they lived on them for years at sea. Nelson himself once went for two years without setting foot on land at all.

And then someone shoots cannon at you for four hours from a range of less than 10 metres while you have to shoot back.

#46 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2010, 02:31 PM:

Building the six frigates in different yards meant they were all built to slightly different specifications. Constellation and Constitution were undoubtedly the best of the group. Congress was by all accounts a dog of a sailing ship, as was United States.

Also, while the thick live oak planking of Constitution's hull was useful, what was far more valuable was the highly trained and motivated crew. In her various battles with RN ships, Constitution's crew consistently outfought and outshot their opponent time and time again.

Live oaks, by the 1800's, were becoming so scarce that the US Government made them federal resources, perhaps the first instance of a government protecting a plant from overuse.

#47 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 02, 2010, 04:48 PM:

I'd like to point out... there is no single, "Live Oak". The tree (of impressive visual stature) in Calif. which goes by that name is all but worthless; as a supply of lumber. It is very good at making acorns, adorning a hillside, and as fuel for ovens (many of which make bread and pizza and other yummy things).

#48 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: November 03, 2010, 03:27 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 38
This one?

Of all the variants of the idea that wikipedia lists, I think I like Locke's socks the best.

(Incidentally, English philosophers appear to be obsessed with socks)

#49 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 03, 2010, 05:40 PM:

The advisor on ships and costume etc. for the film of Master and Commander was here for this past Deeprigging Weekend.

I also heard accounts of how the ships that were here this past weekend were used in that film, as well as in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Back to the War of 1812 now and the state's accountancy of Baltimore built and state licensed privateers 8though this isn't really the mission for da Book, but still, how can I resist? It's all right here.

Love, C.

#50 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 03, 2010, 08:20 PM:

Constance #49: Deeprigging Weekend

So, how does a ship get prigged in the first place? It's not as if you could just slip it in your rucksack and scurry off on a moonless night.

#51 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2010, 02:13 AM:

Constance @49:

though this isn't really the mission for da Book, but still, how can I resist? It's all right here.

It's like handing a knitter an "all you can grab" certificate in a yarn store, isn't it? Or letting me into Xopher's kitchen when he's been confectionizing.

(I'm envious. SAIL Amsterdam was too crowded, and too much in Dutch, and (in my case) too accompanied by children for me to do that kind of thing. But I certainly felt the call.)

#52 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2010, 10:46 AM:

One usually de-prigs a ship with a combination of custard pies and banana peels.

BTW, the "Captain Swift" referred to in "Mauling Live Oak" (the song) may likely be Captain Frank Swift of Camden, Maine.

#53 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2010, 11:37 AM:

abi @ 51... It's like handing a knitter an "all you can grab" certificate in a yarn store, isn't it?

I have this vision of TexAnne in such a situation, wielding her knitting needles against the competing yarn grabbers as if she were a ninja.

#54 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 05:34 PM:

When you sew holes in your old sock sir
Until you've sewn up the whole old sock sir
Until the old sock is a new, sir
The new sock is the old sock, too sir
Do you see that, Mr. Knox, sir?

I can't grasp it, Mr. Locke, sir.
This sock can not be the same, sir!
Send it back to whence it came, sir!

#55 ::: Jennifer ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 07:52 PM:

Did not know all this information for live oaks. I just know they are big beautiful trees. I have a few in my yard which are being used for shade and the kids to climb!

[Link and email removed. If Jennifer is real, she can post again. Perhaps with a nice triolet about 18th century navies. -- JDM]

#56 ::: Rymenhild suspects spammish shenanigans ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2010, 08:00 PM:

The comment about trees has very little to do with the military history conversation (despite the page header's mention of live oaks, and various mentions of ships made out of live oak) and the poster's name links to a tree farm that happens to sell live oaks.

#57 ::: spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2011, 11:52 PM:

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