Oct 7

A Good Boatswain Is Hard to Find

Thursday, October 7, 2010 12:01 AM


The available pool of qualified warrant and petty officers fell well short of the needs of the navy during the Tripolitan War (1801-1805). Commodore Edward Preble complained that “wages are so high in the merchant service that the best men will not ship with us.” Still, the navy recruited many worthy men to serve as warrant and petty officers, including some excellent boatswains. Boatswain’s Mate John McFate, appointed acting boatswain in Constitution on 25 April 1805 to replace another one found incompetent, received his warrant on 2 January 1806. Master Commandant John Dent believed McFate to be one of the navy’s best and requested him for his command, for “the service on which we are going makes it proper if not necessary to have the best Officers of the kind our Navy possesses.” Boatswain Evan Jenkyns, of Gunboat No. 6, while in the Mediterranean, proved his mettle by proposing stout resistance to a British boarding party in search of British sailors to press. Jenkyns implored the midshipman in temporary command, “he hoped he would not suffer the Men to go and said if he was in his place he would not. There were plenty of Boarding Pikes and Cutlasses at hand and could have Kept the boat off with ease.” Because of gallant conduct in the attack on Tripoli Harbor of 27 August 1804, gunner’s mate Edmund P. Kennedy earned a midshipman’s warrant. “It is with regret I have to inform you of the loss of No. 8, which was blown up by a hot shot from the enemy,” Captain Stephen Decatur, wrote in his report of the action.

After the smoke cleared off, I found all abaft the mast was under water; the gun and bow being the only part out. Mr. Spence, midshipman, was the officer superintending the gun, who, at the time of the explosion, was in the act of loading her: after which accident, he, and the brave fellows left, completed the loading of the gun before she sunk, and then swam to the nearest boat, where they assisted during the engagement.

Conspicuous among those firing the last shot as the gunboat sank below the waves was the gun’s captain, Edmund P. Kennedy. Kennedy eventually rose to captain, the highest naval rank attainable in his lifetime.

  • Jim Valle

    In the days of the sailing navy the key artistans, the Boatswain, gunner, sailmaker, carpenter and master-at-arms were often given warrants and even allowed to take their wives to sea, a priviledge not even granted to commissioned officers. Other leading hands were given unofficial ranks and titles such as captain of the maintop, captain of the hold, quarter gunner, quartermaster and even captain of the head. These men were the ones the crew looked to for training and leadership within the ranks and they were dubbed the “forty-two pounders” ( i.e. the “big guns” among the crew ) and had their own mess. Today we would refer to such men as the water king or the oil king, etc. In that era such petty officers and even the common seamen were not considered to be in the Navy, per se, but only belonged to their ship for the duration of a commission, usually three years. Skilled petty officers simply made a career out of the Navy by reenlisting for one cruise after another until they had a reputation within the service.