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Chapter One: Gentlemanly Demeanor
Low scud filled the sky in the pale light of a late spring afternoon in 1849 as a fierce westerly gale ripped the tops off the waves of the North Atlantic one thousand miles from the nearest land. Spray blew eastward toward Europe on the heels of the wind. It flew through the air onto the backs of the breakers and formed thick layers of foam that ran in streaks across the black surface of the water before the force of the storm toppled the waves into the troughs twenty to thirty feet below. The howl of the wind and the rumble of the sea drowned out the curses of the sailors shivering at their sail stations on the deck of the Red Star packet Constellation. The men stood ready for yet one more struggle in a cycle of brute will and brawn required to sail the big square-rigged ship home against the prevailing gales of winter.
Aft on the poop deck, Captain James C. Luce scanned the ocean with the practiced eye of a seasoned mariner familiar with the hazards of the transatlantic trade. He was a tall, strongly built man with a rakish mustache, which made him look more like a cavalry officer accustomed to the pleasures of the drawing room than a typical Yankee captain with a bushy full beard and weather-beaten skin. Luce watched the seas, searching for a smooth stretch between sets of the larger waves roaring toward his vessel off the right side of the bow. Fishermen around the port of New York, his destination, called such smooths a slatch. It was a word for the order within the chaos that always existed, but it had to be discerned. The timing of his next move, turning the ship's stern through the eye of the wind, was crucial in such severe conditions. Luce was a patient captain fully aware of the danger a lapse of judgment might mean to his ship, the crew, and the hundreds of Irish, German, and French immigrants locked below in the packet's stinking hold. He intended to make no rash decisions.
Luce found the right moment for action. He shouted orders to his first officer, who moved forward along the lifelines strung fore and aft on the weather deck and signaled the second mate at his post near the foremast. The packet eased off the wind, bringing it from hard on the bow back toward the stern as the ship turned. At the same time, the sailors adjusted the yards supporting the straining sails bellied out under the press of the storm. When the wind blew directly behind the ship, the sails on the mainmast formed a lee, a protective wall that decreased the strength of the gale on the sails forward. The crew quickly turned the yards for the new tack, pivoting them on the mast with considerable difficulty. As the sails filled, the foremast bent and appeared ready to crash to the deck. But the ship kept turning, and soon she was safely on a port tack. The wind now screamed hard on the left side of the bow.
Throughout the preceding five days, all hands had been on deck most of the time, under the watchful stares of Captain Luce and his officers. The Yankee captain drove on in a gale no British master would consider fighting, true to the tradition of the New York packets. Every stitch of canvas that Constellation could set was up, reduced in size through a process known as reefing, but up and drawing just the same. The ship labored hard as she sailed a zigzag course against the wind. Solid water weighing tons swept the deck. It drowned some of the chickens, pigs, and sheep in their pens near the deckhouse and carried away anything not lashed down tight. It threatened to pitch unwary crewmen overboard to certain death.
The immigrants below had eaten no hot food for days because of the storm, and while Luce felt compassion for them, their hardship amounted to nothing more than the way of life at sea when sailing on a schedule. The entire ship's company suffered from exhaustion, hunger, and the cold. Ice coated the rigging and decks, adding to the danger and misery of this voyage, Constellation's first of three for 1849, taking her from New York to Liverpool and back on a regular schedule regardless of the season, the weather, and the amount of freight, human or otherwise, lodged in the hold.
A packet sailed when the schedule promised and reached port as close to the advertised arrival date as possible. It was up to the captain to ensure she did not falter on the way for any reason. Not every ship was called a packet. Only those that kept a schedule enjoyed that burgeoning distinction of the steam era. Ships that sailed when the weather was fair and holds filled with cargo were called regular traders, and they were far less profitable for both their owners and the masters who commanded them.
It had been so ever since the Black Ball Line of sailing ships went into service in 1818 and became the first packet line in the United States, when Luce was just a boy of thirteen. Sailing on a schedule back then represented something new and innovative, and uniquely American. Most shipowners and captains preferred good weather and full holds prior to embarking on ocean voyages, and they did not depart until the requisite conditions prevailed. Delays for merchants waiting for their commodities and delays for passengers waiting to reach their destinations were considered part of doing business. Ships seldom sailed in winter because of the risk of potential disaster, reducing the trading season and diminishing profits. These traditional practices struck Yankee traders as timid and inefficient.
Thus, the founders of the Black Ball Line took the initiative. They established regular sailing schedules and stuck to them even if it meant losing money in the short term. To set their ships apart from the regular traders, every vessel in the line sported an enormous black cannonball painted on the fore topsail. The distinctive markings presented quite a sight as a Black Baller hove into view over the horizon. The Black Ball Line quickly prospered, and other wealthy men, mostly from New York, followed the company's example and started lines of their own. The Red Star and Swallowtail lines began operating in 1822. Business boomed as Great Britain and the United States started trading again after the War of 1812, engaging in a bloodless rivalry that remained intense. In 1825, there were thirty-two American oceangoing packets. That number had jumped to fifty-two during Luce's nearly three decades at sea.
Since those early days of the packet service, with its promise of departures on a specific day and hour, the U.S. merchant marine had shown the rest of the world what it meant to sail fast and well. The packets of the Black Ball, Red Star, Swallowtail, Dramatic, and New Line were the pride of the nation, besting the British for three decades. These Yankee ships crossed the Atlantic from New York on an average of eighteen to twenty-eight days, covering the 3,137 nautical miles between that port and Liverpool at a speed of six to eight knots, and sometimes swifter than that. In 1847, the packet Isaac Wright made the eastbound passage to Liverpool in just thirteen days, the equivalent speed of a steamship. However, the westbound passages against the prevailing winds took an average of thirty-three days. The steamers always did better than that, even the plodders.
But the supremacy of the American merchant marine had been fading since the inauguration in 1840 of the steamships of the British-backed Samuel Cunard. Heavily subsidized with funds from the British Admiralty, Cunard's steamers were the first to offer efficient, reliable service between the Old and New Worlds. As regular as clockwork, Cunard liners traveled from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then on to Boston before heading back to England. An average crossing took about thirteen days. Cunard expanded his line to offer service direct from Liverpool to New York in 1848, and the British annual subsidy increased to #145,000 sterling to help finance the operation of a fleet of ten oceangoing steamships. American attempts to establish a similarly efficient, reliable line of steamships failed throughout the 1840s, much to the great embarrassment of the American public and, in particular, Congress. The failures resulted in part because Congress was slow to provide the money needed to compete against the British.
Speaking of the Cunard liners in Congress in the early 1840s, Senator James Asheton Bayard said, "America will soon become tired of being informed now of British maritime supremacy. I suggest cost must not be considered [in establishing U.S. steamship lines subsidized by the government]. I suggest, too, that Congress grant a carefully selected American shipping expert a completely free hand to proceed with the absolute conquest of this man Cunard." Support for such an enterprise increased, and in 1845 Congress agreed to subsidize American steamship companies. The initial results were far from satisfactory.
Prior to the emergence of the transatlantic steamship, which began in earnest in the late 1830s due to British backing of the new technology, Luce had witnessed the rise of American packets. He had prospered from his service in the most elite branch of the merchant marine, only to see his fortunes on the ebb in the few years preceding his voyage on Constellation in 1849. The packets lost the contracts to carry mail between Europe and the United States, and the merchants shifted the fine freight and shipments of gold and silver coins to the Cunard line of steamships. The first-class passengers who once filled the cabins on the westbound passages had decreased from hundreds to a mere handful, though many still chose the New York packets for the eastbound crossings. These wise travelers rightfully thought the luxury accommodations available on the best of the New York sailing packets outdid the spartan cabins and awful food of a Cunard steamer, which were often called "smoke boxes." A swift packet headed east before the prevailing westerlies sailed nearly as fast as a Cunarder. Comfort won out over speed in these cases.
Writing in the mid-1870s in his four-volume collection, History of Merchant Shipping and Ancient Commerce, British merchant W. S. Lindsay described the good management and prosperity of the Yankee packet captain:
Thus young men of good position and talent were led to enter the American merchant service, and had much greater inducements than they would then have had in Great Britain to take a zealous interest in the economy, discipline, and success of the ship they commanded; and this, not merely from the fact that they were well recommended, but from the confidential and courteous treatment they received from their employers. Captains of the larger class of packets or merchant-ships, therefore, could not only afford to live as gentlemen, but, if men of good character and fair manners (which they generally were), they were received into the best mercantile circles on shore. They were also allowed, besides their fixed salary, a percentage (usually 2.5 percent) on all freights, and by various other privileges (particularly in relation to passengers [who routinely gave their favored captains large bonuses]), they were thus enabled to save money and to become, in time, merchants and shipowners on their own account, a custom which prevailed, to a large extent, in the New England States.
At its height in the mid-1830s, prior to the early emergence of the transatlantic steamship, captains such as Luce earned annual salaries of approximately $3,000 per year, the equivalent of $54,000 in U.S. currency today. Added to this fixed income was a master's fee from the mails, amounting to $1,500 per year, plus his percentage on the freight and any "gifts" from the passengers. The captain often owned an interest in his vessel, which added further to his net worth. The life was hard, but it was rewarding. It still was, at least for the upper crust of the masters serving aboard the packets.
As the 1840s drew near to a close, Luce now saw the plum position of the Yankee packet captain threatened by economic pressures from England and, more specifically, from the ships of Samuel Cunard. Standing on the deck of Constellation in a storm in early 1849, he was smart enough to see that the future did not appear economically bright for the packets. The presence of poor immigrants aboard evidenced this. The owners of New York packets once shunned the immigrant trade, leaving it to the regular traders. They now solicited it with cheap fares at $20 a head just to ensure a profit for the return trip home. Profits from the immigrants went directly to shipowners; the master received nothing extra for the trouble of tending his human freight. On the regular traders, it stank below deck. Even on Constellation, with a compassionate, diligent, and civil captain, conditions were poor.
Captain Luce satisfied himself that all was in order on deck. He peered through the gale's scudding spray to check the trim of the sails. Two men at the wheel struggled to keep the ship on course. Luce sent half the crew off watch below. He left the poop deck in the charge of his first officer and went below himself, retiring to the confines of his private cabin, where he stripped off his oilskins and the wet clothes beneath them and changed into his last dry wool pantaloons and shirt. The weather was too rough to light the cabin stove, but the change of clothes revived his spirits somewhat. It was, after all, a privilege to be dry.
Luce settled into the upholstered chair behind the oak desk in his cabin. He smoothed his thick brown hair back and listlessly watched the dim light of the lantern suspended from the beam above him swing wildly as the ship pitched and yawed. He listened to the explosive reports when the bow slammed into a wave larger than most others. The creak and groan of wood mingled with the sounds of the storm outside. These long voyages for so many years had begun to wear him out. At the age of forty-three, with his birthday in April soon to make him yet another year older, the bashes across the Atlantic Ocean and back without time for much else had lost their luster.
During those hard days at sea he missed his second wife, Elizabeth, and his two sons, Robert, the elder, and Willie, a boy of just six. His first wife had died in labor back in 1836, after just three years of marriage, leaving him to raise Robert alone, until he met and married Elizabeth Fearing two years later. Elizabeth was from Wareham, Massachusetts, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. She was well educated and kind. His love for her grew strong as the years passed, and their marriage of convenience became one of devotion. Six years earlier, Elizabeth gave birth to Willie.
Willie suffered from chronic pain due to an unknown ailment that left him crippled. He needed constant attention, and Luce had hired a manservant to tend to the boy's needs while he was gone, in addition to servants to help Elizabeth keep house. Willie made a brave effort to hide his discomfort, but the illness robbed him of even the simple pleasure of walking without assistance. He could not play with the other children he went to school with near their comfortable home out in the countryside of Yonkers, far from the bustle of Lower Manhattan. Luce missed his boy.
Luce had grown up in Rochester, Massachusetts. By the time he was nineteen, he had command of a small coastal trader, a young age for a master, even in those days. His quick wit and mild, social manner enabled him to climb the ranks without the usual brutality many of his colleagues employed. His crews respected his quiet reserve because they knew he would brook no laggards. In this, he was a different sort of captain, and he prided himself on it, though he knew some men along the waterfront considered him something of a dandy. While, according to newspapers of the time, he was a "thorough-going seaman," "well respected" and "held in the highest confidence" by his employers, he was far from the typical Yankee captain whom Lindsay described in his History of Merchant Shipping:
As New England was the great storehouse of American seamen, there the best specimens of their seafaring population were to be found. We have seen, even in our time, the puritanical, weatherbeaten, Boston skipper once so famous sharp as a north-easter, dressed in knee-breeches and buckles, with a three-cornered cocked-hat, not forgetting the pigtail, the very personification of our Commodore Trunnion and Piper of a century ago. But, though they may have degenerated since then, the seamen engaged in [the Atlantic trade] are still a remarkably hardy, robust race, and, hence, have succeeded in that branch of maritime enterprise far more than our own adventurers of late years.
Luce's decidedly civilized way of handling his packet crews may have worked well for him in the early days of his career. As Lindsay indicated, the vast majority of sailors hailed from New England and were quasi-literate and modestly upstanding. However, the rapid growth of the U.S. merchant marine in the late 1840s had led to a shortage of good men to serve before the mast. An increasing number of them were ruffians. The toughest of them all went into the transatlantic packet service and, in the 1850s, the clipper trade to California. Reports of discipline problems surfaced with alarming frequency during this period. The acts of brutality on the part of the captains and mates rose as well in a vicious circle that sometimes spun out of control.
One case in 1847, involving the packet Columbia, of the Black Ball Line, illustrates the trouble that sometimes arose when a hardened crew found themselves free of the influence of an officer's iron hand, a belaying pin, or a pistol clasped tight and ready. At the height of a winter gale in midocean, a rogue wave hurled the captain, the first and second officers, and several crewmen overboard. The third mate found himself pinned under the ship's wheel, helpless and in need of assistance. At this point, when they were needed most, a number of the men before the mast chose to mutiny. They terrorized the passengers and robbed the cabins, including the belongings of the captain, before distress signals brought the aid of another packet, whose master sent aboard a mate intimidating enough to restore order and bring the ship safely into port.
One packet captain, Samuel Samuels, quoted in Robert Albion's Square-Riggers on Schedule, wrote about his strong belief that civility had no place aboard a sailing vessel, especially one engaged in the New York-to-Liverpool trade:
The Liverpool packet sailors were not easily demoralized. They were the toughest class of men in all respects. They could stand the worst weather, food, and usage, and put up with less sleep, more rum, and harder knocks than any other sailors. They would not sail in any other trade. They had not the slightest idea of morality or honesty, and gratitude was not in them. The dread of the belaying pin or heaver kept them in subjection. I tried to humanize these brutal natures as much as possible, but the better they were treated the more trouble my officers had with them.
Not all captains believed such tactics were needed, and Luce sided with them. A movement was on to bring law and order and moral decency to the merchant marine in the late 1840s and early 1850s. A chief lobbyist in this respect was the author Richard Henry Dana, Jr. The courts were more prone to listen to the grievances of sailors than ever before. Laws were passed to ensure crews had ample rations. Flogging was outlawed in the U.S. Navy in 1850, and it was illegal aboard merchant ships as well, though some captains did it anyway. The modern age awakening in America brought with it the belief that the base side of humanity should be expunged, that the moral fiber of the nation demanded a better way to behave toward its citizens. Luce was firmly rooted in this modern perception, but he was still in the minority among his colleagues.
As he reclined at his desk, lost in thoughts of the past and of home, he could not know that it was precisely his unique style of command, a combination of intelligence and gentlemanly demeanor, that would win him a chance to leap to the very fore of the U.S. merchant marine in a position coveted by the more than one hundred well-qualified skippers of the packets plying between New York and Great Britain and along the coast from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. Of all these men, four would soon be given the opportunity to take command of a new breed of steamship, stamped with American ingenuity and backed with the might of the U.S. Treasury. These ships were already under construction in New York shipyards on the East River, and their sole purpose, in the words of the popular press, was to "cast this man Cunard from the sea."
Copyright © 2002 by David W. Shaw