Feb 4

Unsung Petty Officers

Friday, February 4, 2011 12:01 AM

February 1800 found the twelve-gun United States schooner Experiment cruising along the southern coast of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Its mission was the protection of American-flagged merchantmen against depredations of French privateers. On the fourth, there were more than forty prisoners from captured vessels on board the schooner, which, having detached officers and men to the prizes, coasted along short-handed. About eleven that night, off the harbor of Benet, a large unidentified vessel approached Experiment. Lieutenant William Maley, Experiment’s commanding officer, rousted his boatswain, Thomas Tickner, from his sleep to call all hands to quarters. On deck, Tickner repeated Maley’s order to have the flying jib loosed to clear the bow gun for action. No one came forward to do it, so the boatswain himself climbed out onto the jib-boom.

When the strange sail came within musket shot, Maley had the bow gun fired, but instead of coming to, the stranger responded with a volley of musketry and the fire of one or two carriage guns. Maley immediately ordered a broadside, but only six or eight men stood to their quarters, and only three or four of Experiment’s guns were ready for action. Maley’s standing orders were that every night the captain of each gun make sure powder horns, cartridges, and matches were in their proper places and report to the officer of the watch on deck that everything was in order. Those orders had been neglected the evening of 4 February, and several guns were missing their match and powder horns. Quartermaster George Diggs found some powder horns below and handed them up through the skylight.

Carpenter’s Mate Philip Emerick was the only man on board belonging to the aftermost gun on the quarterdeck and on his own could not get his gun to bear on the enemy. Maley, wounded in his right hand, used his left to elevate the gun, and together the two managed to fire the gun twice. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Joshua Blake, at the next gun, took shelter behind a shot locker and gave Seaman George Weaver, who had to search for match, little help in firing their gun. Despite Maley’s repeated orders, Experiment fired altogether only five or six guns. With the enemy returning the schooner’s fire with musketry and cannon shot, Maley ordered Experiment hove about to seek assistance from the officers and crews manning the prize ships. The stranger stood in for the land and escaped into the night.

The U.S. schooner Experiment’s experience in a sudden hostile action on the night of 4 February 1800 illustrates how essential to success were adept and diligent forward and petty officers. While, “in consequence of the neglect of the Gunner,” as Lieutenant Maley later concluded, “the men would not stand to their quarters,” it was the prompt action of boatswain, quartermaster, and carpenter’s mate that avoided an absolute disaster.

Note that the records of this event are colorblind. It is only from an unrelated source that we learn that George Diggs, Experiment’s quartermaster who located the needed powder horns in the sudden night engagement, was “a free man of Color.”