Charge the Can Cheerily
DESCRIPTION: "Now coil up your nonsense 'bout England's great Navy, And take in your slack about oak-hearted Tars, For frigates as stout, and as gallant crews have we." The singer boasts of the successes of the War of 1812
EARLIEST DATE: 1813 (The Port Folio, according to Lawrence)
KEYWORDS: navy bragging ship battle
Aug 19, 1812 - the 44-gun U.S.S. Constitution defeats and captures the 38-gun H.M.S. Guerriere in the north Atlantic
Oct 25, 1812 - the 44-gun U. S. S. United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur, defeats the 38-gun H. M. S. Macedonian in the mid-Atlantic
Dec 29, 1812 - U. S. S. Constitution defeats the 38-gun H. M. S. Java off Bahia, Brazil
Feb 24, 1813 - U. S. S. Hornet defeats H. M. S. Peacock
FOUND IN: US(NE)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Lawrence, p. 197, "Naval Song[:] Charge the Can Cheerily" (1 text)
Shay-SeaSongs, pp. 167-169, "Charge the Can Cheerily" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "Ye Parliament of England (I)" (theme, ships)
NOTES: This is about as accurate as the German claim to have won the Battle of Jutland based on tonnage sunk: It's true -- and completely ignores the broader facts. The American frigates of the United States class (which included among others the Constitution) were much stronger and heavier (and more expensive) than the standard British 38-gun frigate (Pratt, pp. 55-57). Thus they won most of the ship-to-ship battles they fought. (Most, but not all; Hickey, p. 216, notes how the President ran aground and lost her speed, and not even Stephen Decatur could save her from the Endymion, the Pomone, and the Tenedos, which captured her on January 15, 1815. Hickey, p. 217, also notes the defeat of three smaller American ships -- Frolic, Syren, and Rattlesnake -- and the disappearance, for unknown reasons, of the Wasp).
Good as the American frigates were, they were not ships of the line, and survived the war only by fleeing when a major British battleship came in sight (or failed to flee and were defeated, as in the case of the Wasp in another context). By the end of the War of 1812, nearly every American ship was blockaded in port (Mahon, p. 122, gives a catalog). They had hurt the British about as much as a stinging fly -- and, if the war had kept on, the British (with Napoleon safely on Saint Helena) would doubtless have turned and swatted them.
The Americans could perhaps console themselves with the fact that they made the British merchant fleet miserable; Hickey, p. 218, notes that American privateers caused a spike in insurance rates for ships sailing between Britain and Ireland; according to one paper at the time, the rates were three times higher than during the Napoleonic Wars!
The song itself quotes "of Lawrence the spirit, 'Disdaining to strike while a stick is left standing.'" The dying captain James Lawrence said, "Don't give up the ship!" Why did he say it? Because H. M. S. Shannon was blowing Lawrence's Chesapeake to fragments -- something the poet fails to note. (For details, see the various "Chesapeake and Shannon" songs, especially "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]. For additional background on the naval aspects of the War of 1812, see also "The Constitution and the Guerriere" [Laws A6].)
Among the people mentioned in the song:
Dacres - James R. Dacres (1788-1853), commander of the Guerriere. His defeat was not held against him; he later commanded the Tiber, which captured the Leo (Jameson, p. 181) and he eventually rose to the rank of vice admiral (Heidler/Heidler, p. 141)
Carden - John Surman Carden, commander of the Macedonian. Like Dacres, the British accepted his explanation for his defeat, and he eventually became an admiral (Heidler/Heidler, p. 82).
Hull - Isaac Hull, commander of the Constitution in the fight against the Guerriere (Jameson, p. 318; see also "The Constitution and the Guerriere" [Laws A6]).
Decatur - Perhaps the greatest American naval hero of the early part of the century; he commanded the United States against the Macedonian (Paine, pp. 538-539).
Jones - John Paul Jones, America's first significant naval captain, dead 20 years by the time of the War of 1812 (Jameson, p. 341).
Lawrence - James Lawrence, who commanded the Hornet when she beat the Peacock (Paine, p. 251), but then led the Chesapeake to destruction against the Shannon (again, see "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]).
Bainbridge: Evidently the poet couldn't think of any other naval heroes, so he stuck in a disaster. William Bainbridge (1774-1833) had his ship Retaliation captured during the Quasi-war with France -- the first U. S. Navy officer to surrender his ship (Heidler/Heidler, p. 30). He also commanded the Philadelphia when she was captured by the Barbary Pirates (Pratt, p. 67, declares, "It was an accident, and William Bainbridge who commanded the frigate was never blamed for it." But why wasn't he taking soundings?). He at least proved his courage in the War of 1812, being commander of the Constitution when she beat the Java; he was twice wounded in that action -- but the ship had been badly handled and suffered far more damage than in its other battles and had to return to port for repairs. And that lone victory of his was sort of an accident; according to Hickey, p. 216, he had tried to trade the Constitution for the President in 1814, even offering $5000 for the right to command the latter ship. Lucky for him Captain John Rogers turned him down. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.5
- Heidler/Heidler: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, 1997 (I use the 2004 Naval Institute Press edition)
- Hickey: Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, University of Illinois Press, 1989, 1995
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Mahon: John K. Mahon, The War of 1812, 1972 (I used the undated Da Capo paperback edition)
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
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