Apr 21

‘Subdue, Seize, and Take . . .’

Thursday, April 21, 2016 2:59 PM


On 9 February 1799, the U.S. frigate CONSTELLATION was cruising in Caribbean waters when a lookout reported an unidentified ship just over the horizon. Captain Thomas Truxtun ordered his ship to come about, then went below to record in his log: “At noon saw a sail standing to westward, gave chase. I take her for a ship of war.”
The pursuit continued for about an hour with the CONSTELLATION gradually gaining. Drawing closer, it became apparent that the other ship was a heavily armed frigate. A lesser captain with a lesser crew might have decided to look for an easier conquest to carry out Congress’ recent edict to “subdue, seize, and take any armed French vessel” in this so-called Quasi-War with France, but Truxtun was not lacking in courage, and he knew that the CONSTELLATION’s crew were well trained and ready for a fight.

NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER Captain Thomas Truxtun set the precedent for a young U.S. Navy by capturing the French frigate L’INSURGENTE during the Quasi-War with France.

Captain Thomas Truxtun set the precedent for a young U.S. Navy by capturing the French frigate L’INSURGENTE during the Quasi-War with France.

On his orders, a Marine drummer beat to quarters and all hands took up their stations. Sailors put out the galley fires, removed furniture in the captain’s cabin, opened scuttles to the magazine and shot locker, laid out the surgeon’s dreaded instruments, and sanded down the decks for better traction. Young boys called “powder monkeys” ran back and forth from the gun decks to the powder magazines, the two best quartermasters manned the helm, carpenters made ready their stocks of plugs and oakum for quick hull repairs, and Marines armed with muskets positioned themselves in the rigging and at the rails.
Two hours into the chase, a serious squall arose and within minutes both ships had a common enemy in the gale-force winds. The CONSTELLATION fared better, having let go her sheets and braces in time to avoid serious damage, but the French frigate lost her mainmast to a violent gust.
As the squall subsided, the CONSTELLATION continued to close and soon was ranging up on the French ship’s lee quarter. When they were close enough for the American sailors to see the faces of their counterparts peering out the other ship’s gun ports, they at last heard the long-awaited order, and a great roar echoed across the sea as the 24-pounders fired at the French frigate. The heavy balls crashed through the enemy’s side and careened across her deck, inflicting great damage to men and matériel.
Almost immediately, the enemy answered the CONSTELLATION’s broadside with one of her own, and wood splinters flew about like snowflakes in a winter flurry. There was a tearing sound and then a loud crash as a boom fell to the deck trailing a tangle of lines behind it.
The American gun crews continued servicing their weapons as the confused sea frequently doused them with wind-driven spray, causing clouds of steam to rise from the cannons’ heated barrels. The noise was deafening, the smell of burning powder and running perspiration filled the air, and musket balls and deadly wooden shards—some of them several feet long—flew about, threatening to tear off limbs or snuff out young lives in an instant.
At last, with the French ship’s rigging a shambles, her crew decimated and in disorder, her rails shattered, and her hull pierced in many places, her captain struck his flag in surrender.
In one of the earliest battles in U.S. naval history, the CONSTELLATION had captured L’INSURGENTE, having lost only four men compared to more than 100 dead on the French ship. Truxtun had unquestionably set the bar high for the fledgling U.S. Navy. His precedent would not go ignored as men like Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, and Oliver Hazard Perry would soon follow his example.

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