The morning watch
June 6, 1801
Before he went to sea, Bliven Putnam had wondered why men personify ships, name them, ascribe temperaments to them, refer to them in the feminine. It took only one day at sea in a stiff blow to understand it. When the sails of the Enterprise bellied out and the masts bent before the wind, when the ship buried herself in a trough and then vaulted to surmount a swell, she took on the life of the most spirited filly. A ship at sea—you ask things of her, sometimes difficult things, tricky things, and she responds, although not always in the affirmative. She becomes your home and your safety—your only safety—in the middle of an ocean. And she not only crosses that ocean, but does so with a grace and touch that is nothing if not feminine. To seamen this relationship with their vessel becomes embedded in their nature. Those who do not go to sea cannot understand it; they accept it readily enough, and they mimic the sailors’ reference to a ship as “she,” but they do not comprehend it, really. That is the seamen’s bond alone.
And who can understand an ocean who has not crossed one? A body of water so vast that months peel from a calendar as one dares to traverse it, so mysterious that antediluvian creatures yet to be discovered swim in it, a sea so primal and so powerful that when it rises up in its fury, the tallest and proudest ship is at its mercy—no wonder, he thought, that ancient peoples worshipped sea gods.
Probationary Midshipman Bliven Putnam was fourteen by the calendar, but he appeared and acted years older. The wind was following, lifting the curly, sandy-brown hair on the back of his head, his three-inch standing collar keeping the morning chill off his neck. He was already as tall as many men and as broad in the chest, with a square set to his jaw, his blue-gray eyes conveying determination and quick intelligence.
He stood his trick at the wheel, his fourth, as he would note with pride in the diary he was required to keep and lay open for Lieutenant Porter, who oversaw his and the other midshipman’s schooling. This was the first watch that Bliven had stood alone, the morning watch, the coldest and darkest, with the sparest number of men to watch over the vessel while most of the crew slept. It frightened him badly at first, the responsibility, not having an officer observing him, but in the peace of the wee hours he came to appreciate how little attention a vessel in a good wind requires. He stood with his feet just wider apart than his shoulders, as Lieutenant Porter had shown him, and was aware that he was learning to trust his ship. She was easy to guide, but if he had to force her into a turn it would take all his strength. Five bells brought first light; at six bells the bosun’s mate clattered below to light a fire in the galley. The partially stove-in old jack-tar who served them as cook had been on the ship since she was commissioned. He had been an able seaman until a wrench of his back in taking a French privateer had left him with a permanent list to his gait. Thus he had been given the lighter duty as cook and in three years had acquired a skill at it. Seamen valued a cook who could prepare edible food from stores that became progressively more foul the longer they were at sea, and those in the morning watch were content to allow him an extra half-hour’s sleep by firing up the camboose for him.
From his stance at the wheel, Bliven watched the ship come to life. The day bid fair, and crewmen and marines who had been piped awake filed onto the deck, blankets wrapped in their hammocks to be stowed in the netting. The bosun, Josiah Merrick, quietly inspected the sheets and shrouds for any adjustments and directed a detail to set up the elm-tree pump with which they clack-clock, clack-clocked the night’s accumulation of water up from the bilges and out the scuppers. Merrick was a small man, but wiry, with auburn hair that tended to fly wild and whiskers that he often had to be reminded, after twelve years of merchant service, were not permitted in the navy. He, too, had been on the Enterprise since her commissioning. He was efficient and even-tempered, a good buffer between the sailors, who were often inexperienced, bewildered, and hostile, and their often irascible officers. His too was the office of schooling the midshipmen in practical seamanship and boat handling.
With the sun up and obliquely in his eyes, Bliven understood anew that the Enterprise was a small ship, and they would feel every slap and lurch of the ocean more keenly than they would in a larger vessel. Thus naturally they would cling tighter to her for their safety, but the larger the ship and the greater her reputation, the more intense was her sailors’ devotion. That was central to understanding seamen, and with Bliven’s ambition it took little for him to imagine his future at the helm of a mighty man-of-war.
A majestic ship of the battle line, seventy-four guns that spread over three decks, masts that tower course on course of sail up to topgallants and royals and then even skysails—and, especially when she is girded for fighting, her pennants snapping, guns rolled out, marines in her fighting tops priming their muskets even as they lean against the swell, she inspired a near reverence among her sailors. It is a love that could ignite tavern duels if a ship’s worth or virtue were in the least part questioned.
But now embarked on his first cruise, Midshipman Putnam was assigned to the Enterprise. Smaller even than the twenty-gun sloops, she was a mere schooner of 165 tons, the smallest class of warship in the American navy. She had only one-tenth the displacement of their flagship, the forty-four-gun frigate President. Enterprise’s single-stick masts had just been rerigged as a jackass brig, and she mounted only a dozen guns, little six-pounders. She was eighty-five feet long and seemed barely capable of sheltering a crew of ninety officers and men. There had never been so many, but they had taken on an entire company of marines. The orders that sent them to the Mediterranean were to show the flag and escort American commercial vessels, but no man on board doubted that they were sailing into a war.
For a decade, the United States had been paying an annual “tribute,” as it was disgracefully called, to the four Berber states of North Africa: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. They were collectively known as the Barbary states. Piracy on the open sea had been the mainstay of their national economies for some three centuries. In that time they had taken hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, European Christians captive, held them for ransom, and if they were not ransomed sold them into slavery. They apportioned the women among the warlords’ harems to spend their youth in sexual bondage, and after that consigned them to drudgery. This the Berbers justified by their religion: Mohammedanism, known also as Islam. Its adherents were called Musselmen in America, from confusion over the correct name of Moslem. Boldly they proclaimed that their Prophet had given them, the faithful, the right to capture infidels as they pleased, and use them—enslave them, kill them—as they pleased. In the West, piracy was the criminal act of desperate bands of outlaws; on the Mediterranean, it was the state policy of the Mohammedan countries that claimed the right, exceptional from all other nations, to mastery over the lives and liberty of other nations.
Mr. President Adams, whom Bliven’s father had voted for, supported this policy of tribute and appeasement, with a mind to protect American trade for less cost than building and maintaining a seagoing navy. Thomas Jefferson had been the first to advocate resistance, some fifteen years ago, but his threats were idle, for there was no fleet. The Revolution had been fought at sea almost entirely relying on the French, aided by our own privateers and small warships belonging to the several states. With the federal government created by the 1787 Constitution came the possibility of a national navy, but it was only in response to the Berber pirates, who began attacking American ships at about that time, that the Congress passed the Naval Act in 1794. It provided for the construction of six heavy frigates, with the acquisition also of support vessels. With governmental wavering over the cost, it took years, but now that Mr. Jefferson was president, the pirate states were demanding higher tributes and ransoms, and the United States had drawn a line.
The Enterprise had left Baltimore on Tuesday, the second of June, 1801, after a delay in fitting the new masts. They were bound for Gibraltar with the most impressive squadron that their young nation had ever put to sea—and that alone said a great deal for the United States, that they could deploy three frigates together so soon after having none. They showed well together, and this was a brilliant morning, the sea reflecting all the interior blues of a sapphire, laced with rolling whitecaps.
Once the June sun got higher he knew he would be happier not to wear the coat, but now that they had a navy, the officers were keen to display all the polish and discipline of the European fleets. Respect they had already won, when their new ships and green crews mauled the French in the recent battles that they called the “Undeclared War,” the “Quasi-War.” This present sortie would be America’s first into a theater of action in another part of the world, and the Barbary pirate states were the first enemies they would face that were not of a familiar culture. Stories of American fighting prowess must necessarily precede them, and running a tight ship—being seen to run a tight ship—would be indispensable in compelling the deference of the renegade Moorish states.
The Enterprise’s lieutenant commandant, Andrew Sterett, had given him the course, southeast by east, and only occasionally did Bliven glance at the compass to ascertain that he had not veered more than a point or two before boxing back to the proper heading. Like all midshipmen, he had a tendency to overcorrect, but the one time this was pointed out to him he learned to steer more conservatively, nudging back to course with the merest suggestive tugs at the wheel. Lieutenant Sterett had marked what a quick study he was, and without being aware of it accorded him a place advanced from his other midshipman. Enterprise’s action this morning was lively, invigorating, but not dangerous—an ideal time for a probationary midshipman to turn his trick at the wheel. Sterett was careful to keep out of sight and not make him feel too closely hovered over.
Only fourteen he may have been, but this was far from exceptional. Many boys went to sea when only twelve, and if they persevered they could expect to be commissioned lieutenants at fifteen. Bliven heard steps mounting the single ladder, and saw Sterett’s fiery red hair appear, for he did not secure his bicorne hat snugly to his head until he was clear of the hatch. “How are you faring, Mr. Putnam?”
Sterett had a penetrating voice, and Bliven started at the sound of it. “Very well, sir. I think.” Standing his first watch alone at the wheel, it would have been pointless to try to sound confident. Since coming aboard he had paid the strictest attention to the operation of the ship, committing to memory as fast as he could the nautical vocabulary that was the sailors’ daily language, but which to those on land might as well have been Greek. The best he could appear to be was game to learn, and that at least was accurate.
Lieutenant Commandant Sterett was a spare man, and slim-waisted. He had a reddish mop of hair, wavy and unkempt no matter how much vanity he expended on it, and bushy combs of red—brilliant, almost to orange—whiskers, worn straight down the sides of his face in front of his ears, down to his jawline. He had an arcing, beaked nose, a noticeable overbite, and a receding chin—an avian countenance not helped by his tendency to move in starts and jerks. There was nothing lacking in his courage, however. Among the crew it was quietly spoken that Sterett, when his blood was up, drew near to madness in his ferocity. During the late Quasi-War with France, when Sterett was serving on board the famed frigate Constellation, he had killed one of his own gun crew, run him through with his sword, when the man flinched from his gun while receiving fire.
It was no thing to boast of, and Sterett was not the only American officer to have ever done so. The crew of the Enterprise, more than half of them new to the sea, spoke of it somberly, in the manner of an admonition. Their gameness for battle had better match his, or their lives would be equally forfeit. For this summary deed Sterett was savaged in the newspapers, and he was compared to French and even British officers who governed their crews by terror. The journalists found his conduct inconsistent with the principles that led to the revolt against those British. The American navy itself shared this revulsion of the Royal Navy, to the degree that in their own service they determined to recognize no rank higher than that of captain. To have to address anyone as admiral conjured up too many memories of British outrages committed by Admiral Lord This One or That One.
Lieutenant Commandant Sterett sailed above this storm concerning his conduct. Indeed, he assured one newspaper with perfect equanimity that on his ship, “We put men to death for even looking pale.” The crew of the Enterprise feared that he meant it, and Bliven knew that the navy would sustain him if he did it again. The day he received his provisional appointment, he also received a pamphlet of the navy regulations, and before reading even beyond the first page he learned that cowardice was a capital offense—for officers as well as for the lowly jack-tars.