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The Hard-luck Frigate
After a century and a half of misadventure, the Constellation (if she is still the Constellation ) returns home
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
Using a squally wind with all the skill gained in his privateering days. Truxtun swept down on the Insurgente , managed to maneuver across her bow and sent a broadside of cannon balls, spikes and twisted metal screaming the length of her deck. Then a lucky shot from the Insurgente neatly hit Truxtun’s foremast, splitting it so badly that the topmast would undoubtedly go over in a lew minutes. In charge of the foretop was a midshipman named David Porter. He bawled below for orders to lower the yard and ease the strain, but at that point the battle was reaching a crescendo and he could not make himsell heard. Scrambling up to cut the slings himsell, he lowered lhe yard and saved the mast only a lew minutes before it would have crashed over and IeIt the ship partially crippled and at the Insurgente’s mercy.
Despite near panic among the crew, despite freakish squalls and a crippled foretop, Captain Truxtun somehow managed to work his way around the enemy, pouring more broadsides across her deck and up and down lier length. Outgunned, outguessed and outmaneuvered, Captain Barreaut struck his colors. And then, when the prize was within Truxtun’s grasp, it was almost whisked away.
The first lieutenant of the Constellation was John Rodgers; Truxtun selected him and Midshipman Porter to secure the French ship and send the prisoners across to the Constellation’s brig. But as night fell, the wind increased to a gale. There were 173 Frenchmen still aboard the Insurgente , and they had taken advantage of their break. They had thrown all the irons overboard and had even jettisoned the hatch gratings, so there was no way to lock the prisoners below deck. Rodgers and Porter had eleven seamen to control this rebellious crew. Stationing one man at each hatch with a blunderbuss and a pile of loaded muskets, and orders to shoot the first head that popped up, Rodgers directed the clearing of the bodies and wreckage from the decks. All night the storm increased, and by morning the plunging Insurgente , with jury rig and spliced bolt ropes, had been driven out of sight of the Constellation .
For three days, while the storm raged on, Rodgers, Porter and their little band of seamen fought to keep the 173 mutinous prisoners below and sail a ship that required a crew of 300 even in good weather. Finally, bone-weary and sleeping on their feet, they managed to raise St. Kitts. There TruxUm paced the deck of the anchored Constellation , anxiously awaiting news of his prize. For saving the Insurgente despite all these fearsome difficulties, Rodgers was promoted to captain and Porter raised on the spot lrom midshipman to lieutenant at nineteen.
But credit for overcoming so many mishaps must go to Truxtun, and even more credit was to go to him later. Within a year of his battle with the Insurgente , he had sighted the French warship Vengeance to southward of St. Kitts. This time he surmounted even worse handicaps.
The Vengeance was bigger than the Constellation , but her decks were piled high with an overflow of her cargo, hogsheads of sugar bound l’or Martinique. Her skipper was not anxious to get into a fight under those circumstances. He tried to get away, and for twelve hours Truxtun tried to close with the Vengeance , only to have the light wisps of wind die out at the last minute. Finally the wind picked up, just as darkness fell. Truxtun would not wait; lighting battle lanterns, he beat to general quarters and sent the Constellation plunging alongside the heavier-gunned Vengeance .
Yardarm to yardarm they fought for five hours. By withholding fire until it coidd be delivered in concentrated broadsides, Truxtun made his fewer guns more effective than those of the Vengeance . But again a lucky shot from the enemy crippled the Constellation’s maintop. The Vengeance , decimated by the superior marksmanship of Truxtun’s well-trained gunners, struck her colors. As Truxtun tried to bring the Constellation alongside, his mainmast went over the side.
His ship a cripple, Truxtun had to stand by helplessly and watch the Vengeance limp away.
It was not until later that he learned how bad his luck had been. Twice during the battle the Vengeance had tried to surrender; but her signals had gone unnoticed in the din and cannon smoke. If he had got alongside the Vengeance only a lew minutes earlier, he would have made her a prize. As it was, she got away, and the Constellation limped into Port Royal, Jamaica, a week later without a spar or a fathom of rigging on main or mizzen.
Once again Captain Truxtun had overcome what seemed like a jinx on his ship and had won. For accomplishing the seemingly impossible, he was voted a medal by Congress and received ceremonial swords, prize money and a 600-guinea silver plate from Lloyd’s of London.