Nation’s Bicentennial Celebration of the War of 1812 Recalls the USS Constitution’s Free Black Sailors

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A typical outfit for a USS Constitution seamen. Top hats later replaced felt hats for sailors.

A typical outfit for a USS Constitution seamen.

by Frederick H. Lowe
When the USS Constitution set sail to fight in the War of 1812, a conflict that forged the United States as a nation, the ship’s sails were all white, but not its crew.

The war between the United States and British Empire lasted from June 18, 1812, to Feb. 18, 1815, and  82 to 176 or 7 percent to 15 percent of the USS Constitution’s crew during the three-year conflict were free black men and one free black eight-year-old boy, Anne Grimes Rand, president of the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, tells The NorthStar News & Analysis. This year begins the celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812.

The USS Constitution employed a crew of 1,171 men during the War of 1812. About 400 men were members of the ship’s crew at any one time. The vessel was one of six frigates built by the fledgling U.S. Navy, which at the time occupied a floor of a house in Washington, D.C.  Workmen constructed the ship in Boston, and it was commissioned on Oct. 21, 1797.

Slavery was still the law of the land, and Navy personnel ordered the ship’s captains not to hire black men, but the captains ignored the directives and hired free African- American men from seafaring communities that dotted Boston and New Bedford, Mass., areas. The Navy later rescinded its order, Rand said.

USS Constitution in full sail

USS Constitution in full sail

Black sailors were paid the same wages as their white colleagues, which was $6 to $8 a month for Boy, a rank for a young sailor in his late teens or early 20s; $8 to $10 per month for an Ordinary seaman; and $10 to $12 per month for an Able seaman.

Once they signed on with the USS Constitution, they were away at sea for two years. Black sailors, who were called “Black jacks,” were assigned to a 12-man crew that operated the USS Constitution’s 44 guns. Their other duties included shortening the sail, scrubbing the deck and sailing the ship.”If they were a Boy, they would deliver messages,” Rand said.

According to the book, Black Jacks: African Americans in the Age of Sail, seafaring was one of the most significant occupations among both enslaved and free black men between 1740 and 1865. Tens of thousands of black seamen sailed on lofty clippers and modest coasters, writes the author W. Jeffrey Bolster.

The youngest seaman on the USS Constitution was David DeBias, an eight-year-old from “the backside” of Boston’s Beacon Hill.

Another view of the USS Constitution

Another view of the USS Constitution.
Photos are courtesy of the USS
Constitution Museum. Their website is
www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org

Seaman also dressed very differently from today. They wore  high felt hats, navy blue coats with shiny brass buttons, high collars, red vests and shoes, said Lauren McCormack, the museum’s Bicentennial Programs Coordinator. The outfits were called “Slop Clothing,” which were clothing and bedding sold to sailors.

The USS Constitution is most famous for her actions during the War of 1812 against Great Britain, when she captured numerous merchant ships and defeated four British warships: HMS Guerriere, Java, Cyane and Levant. The battle with Guerriere earned her the nickname of “Old Ironsides” and public adoration that has repeatedly saved her from scrapping. The USS Constitution is still on active duty.

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