Truxton's Victory

DESCRIPTION: "Come all you Yankee sailors With swords and pikes advance"; the "Brave Yankee Boys" are urged to battle against France. Truxton with the Constellation defeat l'Insurgente and haul her into St.Kitts. The singer toasts Truxton
AUTHOR: Credited to "Mrs. Rowson of Boston"
EARLIEST DATE: 1799 (printed by Thomas & Andrews)
KEYWORDS: ship battle
Feb 9, 1799 - Battle between the Constellation and L'Insurgente
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Lawrence, p. 153, "Truxton's Victory" (1 text, a copy of the original broadside)
NOTES [1447 words]: Obviously not a traditional song, but The Boarding Party recording may have made it well-known enough to deserve documentation. Thanks to Dolores Nichols for digging up the source.
Dichter/Shapiro, p. 25, lists details about the original publication. It was published by Thomas & Andrews of Boston in 1799, and sold for a rather excessive 25 cents. The music is titled "Truxton's Victory. A Naval Patriotic Song. Sung by Mr. Hodgkinson. Written by Mrs. Rowson of Boston."
The setting is during the Quasi-War with France. France, still lurching back and forth politically in the aftermath of the revolution, with Napoleon gradually gaining power, had little respect for neutral rights, especially when the neutrals were trading with Britain. This naturally incensed the Americans. In November 1796, France suspended diplomatic relations. Soon after, they rejected the credentials of new ambassador Charles C. Pinckney. In May 1797, president John Adams appoints a commission (Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry) to try to smooth things out. At the end of the month, the U. S. government reports 300 ships taken by the French.
On October 18, the American commissioners suffer the humiliation of the "XYZ affair" -- three nameless Frenchmen who demand a "loan" (read: tribute) from the Americans plus a large bribe to French foreign minister Tallyrand (Jameson, pp. 728-729; Morison, pp. 349-350). This was not as unreasonable a demand as some would declare it -- the Americans were paying bribes to the Barbary States at this time; the French could see no reason they shouldn't get a share of the loot.
But the United States was also, for the first time, building a genuine (if small) navy. Pinckney allegedly told the French, "Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute."
On May 28, 1798, Congress authorized the Navy to go after French vessels engaged in commerce-raiding. On July 7, Congress formally abrogated the treaty of alliance that went back to the Revolution. As Bryant puts it on, p. 124, "The two republics were now thoroughly enmeshed in an undeclated war in the best monarchist manner."
The American navy was small, but the quality was very high. Designed Joshua Humphries, knowing that only a handful of ships would be available, created a new class of super-frigates -- rather comparable to the battle cruisers of a century later: Fast enough to outrun any line-of-battle ship, heavy enough to destroy any ordinary frigate. (It tells you a good bit about naval thinking that the American frigates were considered excellent, but the battle crusier was quickly discarded. The reason for the failure of the latter was more bad tactics than anything else.)
In the end, six ships were built -- United States, Constitution, Constellation, President, Congress, and Chesapeake -- of which only the first three were ready for war. The Constellation (called the "Yankee Race Horse") was the first to see action. She met the French L'Insurgente, reportedly the fastest sailing frigate in the world (Pratt, p. 61), but in terms of broadside just an ordinary frigate with a weight of broadside only about three-fourths that of the Constellation, in the Carribean.
The French ship was badly under-manned, and her captain Barreault was not aware he was at war with the United States. She was flying an American flag, but an exchange of signals showed she was not an American ship. The Constellation closed in for the kill, much as described in this song; between the American ship's higher quality and her fuller crew, there wasn't much doubt about the outcome (though no one in Europe yet realized how strong the new American frigates were; this would not become clear until 1812 and the Constitution/Guerriere battle). Pratt, p. 61, reports that Truxton had only three casualties, compared to seventy on the French ship.
The result was a sensation. There had been sea battles in the Revolutionary War, but the American ships were almost all privateers or purchased in Europe. This was the first battle ever fought by an American "regular navy" ship.
It was also the highlight of the Constellation's career. She would fight one more battle in the Quasi-War: On February 1, 1800, she would meet the Vengeance, a much heavier ship than the L'Insurgente though slower than the Constellation. Constellation could be considered the tactical victor, killing about 50 and wounding over 100 men on the French ship, which barely stayed afloat and had lost two of three masts (Pratt, p. 62). But the Constellation lost 25 killed and 14 wounded (a strange ratio, that), and lost her mainmast; Vengeance escaped, making the battle a strategic draw. Captain Thomas Truxton would be awarded a gold medal anyway. (Bryant, p. 130).
Peace with France was concluded two days later. It would be a while before the ships at sea knew it, of course, but the Constellation's part was finished.She would serve for a while in the contest with the Barbary pirates, without any major engagements, and spent almost the entire War of 1812 blockaded in her home port of Norfolk (see Borneman, p. 175; Mahon, p. 122). Thus Truxton was the only commander to lead her in a real battle.
In 1854, the Constellation was broken up. Much of the surviving wood was used to make a new Constellation, and this is often listed as the same ship. This was a fairly common trick for the U. S. Navy in the nineteenth century: Congress didn't like new defence spending, but would pay to maintain old ships, so the Navy would request money for repairs, then build a new ship with the money plus some timber from the old. But the new Constellation was 12 feet longer than the old, and her hold was half again as deep (19.3 feet for the new, 13.5 feet for the old); it was clearly a new ship. (Sez I. This apparently caused quite a literature to spring up; Paine, p. 120, lists five writings on this subject).
This wasn't her only major rebuild. Chapelle, pp. 91-92, writes, "The Constellation had a long and distinguished career and is still afloat, though it must be admitted that there is little or nothing of the original ship left. She has been completely rebuilt a number of times, from the keel up, as in 1805-1812 when the was widened 14 inches and again in 1854 when she was lengthened and cut down one deck, each time her lines being altered to some extent."
Thomas Truxton himself (1755-1822) was probably the most important American naval figure between John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur; according to Pratt p. 58, he was "the real prize drawn by the nascent navy... its fifth-ranking captain...." He had served on various privateers in the Revolutionary War (he was a lieutenant in the Congress in 1776, commanded the Independence in 1777, then took charge of the St. James from 1781). He became a regular navy captain from 1794, and acted as commodore during the Quasi-War. According to Pratt, "even before putting to sea, [he] drew up a long series of letters to his officers and petty officers laying down the duties of each in the most minute manner, which letter would be the foundation of definitive navy regulations."
He was also a firm disciplinarian. Pratt describes, e.g., how when a water cask sprung a leak, he put his entire crew on reduced water rations until discipline met his standards (p. 58) -- though he thought it better to set an example than use the lash (according to Guttridge, p. 87, he once said, "Discipline is to be effected by a particular deportment much easier than great severity"). His strict methods also caused at least two of his officers to resign (Pratt, p. 59).
He himself ended up resigning early in the nineteenth century in a dispute over authority: Instructed to lead the assault against the Barbary Pirates, he was not promoted to (rear) admiral (the navy did not officially establish ranks above Captain until the Civil War), and so would be simply senior captain commanding the squadron, and still responsible for his own ship. This apparently caused him to quit in a fit of pique (Pratt, p. 65).
There is at least one fairly recent biography, Eugene S. Ferguson, Truxton of the Constellation, The Life of Commodore Thomas Truxton, U. S. Navy, 1755-1822.
A World War I-era destroyer was named after Truxton, according to Parkin, p. 7. Launched on September 20, 1920, she was "sponsored" by Isabelle Truxton Brumbly, Thomas Truxton's great-great-granddaughter. She was wrecked on the coast of Newfoundland on February 18, 1942 (Parkin, pp. 14-15); Parkin considers her to have been the second United States destroyer lost in the second world war (following her sister ship the Reuben James). - RBW
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