May 21

Consequences of Carelessness: 1803-1804

Friday, May 21, 2010 6:15 AM


“Fire!” At ten o’clock on the morning of 14 February 1804 as U.S. frigate Constitution lay at anchor off Syracuse, Italy, the cry called the crew to their firefighting stations. Not two hours later, a second cry, “All hands to witness punishment,” called the crew to assemble at the gangway. Commodore Edward Preble and the frigate’s other commissioned officers gathered on the starboard side of the quarterdeck, and an armed Marine guard drew up on the larboard side. Master-at-arms John Burchard then escorted James Wallace, ship’s corporal, to the gangway, where Boatswain John Newton Cannon’s crew stripped the shirt from Wallace’s back and secured his hands and feet between the hammock rail and grating on deck. Surgeon James Wells stood by, ready to interrupt the punishment if the offender passed out during the flogging. On signal, one of Cannon’s mates removed the cat-o-nine-tails from its canvas bag. At Preble’s command, “Boatswain’s mate, do your duty,” the punishment began, and it did not end until Cannon had counted out thirty-six strokes of the cat across Wallace’s bare back.

Wallace’s offence was to have jeopardized the ship by fumigating one of the officers’ cabins with smoldering rope yarns. Naval regulations allowed a commanding officer to order a punishment of a maximum of twelve lashes without a court-martial. Preble rationalized ordering three times that number by finding three crimes in the culprit’s offense: fumigating a part of the ship without orders, neglect of duty, and “suffering the rope Yarns to blaze.” Wallace’s rapid and severe punishment no doubt drove home among the ship’s company the vital lesson that carelessness with fire endangered the ship and every life on board.

Nine months earlier, in another ship of the U.S. Mediterranean squadron, carelessness with fire caused the deaths of four men and barely missed destroying the ship in a spectacular explosion. Gunner Richard Morrell in U.S. frigate New York found that his mate, John Staines, had left a candle burning in the gunner’s storeroom. After coming on deck and reprimanding Staines, Morrell returned to the storeroom to make sure that all was in order. When he lifted some sheepskins, sparks fell out into a bucket of damaged gunpowder. The damaged powder exploded, causing some powder horns hanging above the bucket to explode in turn. The blasts burst down the door to the marines’ storeroom, where nearly 450 blank cartridges also exploded. In the disaster nine men were badly burned, four, including Morrell, mortally. Midshipman Henry Wadsworth ruminated on the peril to which the entire ship’s company had been exposed:

We were in the utmost danger of blowing up as the door opening to the Magazine passage was bursted. In the Wardroom there is a scuttle for the purpose of passing up cartridges in time of action, this scuttle was lifted & another passage opened by the explosion, otherwise it is the opinion of all that we should have been lost, for the explosion would have burst the only remaining door into the filling room: here there are always an hundred or two of cartridges ready filled: This explosion would momentarily have been followed by the magazine & then adieu.

As the cases of Ship’s Corporal James Wallace and Gunner’s Mate John Staines illustrate, petty officers are charged with crucially important duties, and catastrophic results can follow when they fail to fulfill them responsibly.

  • Jim Valle

    The problem of open flame useage below decks on a wooden ship had one of its most spectacular manifestations when the brand new steam frigate Missouri burned for a total loss at Gibraltar in 1843. It seems a member of the crew accidentally broke a glass jug of turpentine while rumaging in a storeroom located above the engine room. Down below the engineers were overhauling the main engines. They had wrapped some of the parts they were working on in felt to prevent them from being damaged. The turpentine seeped below through cracks in the storeroom floor and impregnated the felt which was then set alight by an open flame lamp the engineers were using. A court of inquiry established that the ship’s storekeeper had violated regulations by accepting turpentine in a glass jug and the engineers had also flouted the rules by using an open flame lamp. Eventually the ship’s captain, John T. Newton was court martialled and cashiered, creating the naval tradition that the Captain is responsible for everything that happens on his ship even if he is not directly involved or guilty of any personal error. A tough standard that Preble may have been anticipating when he came down so hard on his erring crewman.