- A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution
An icon of the early U.S. sailing navy, Charles Stewart is best known as the captain of the frigate Constitution, although his naval career spanned more than sixty years. It is thus quite surprising that this is the first published biography of Stewart. Fortunately for those interested in the period, it is a splendid book.
Stewart was born in Philadelphia on 28 July 1778. His father and stepfather both made their living from the sea and his close boyhood friends were future naval luminaries Stephen Decatur, Jr., and Richard Somers. Stewart joined the merchant marine as a cabin boy at age twelve, but in March 1798 at nineteen he secured a commission as a lieutenant in the new U.S. Navy. After a stint on the frigate United States, in 1800 during the Quasi War (1798–1800), while commanding the sloop Experiment, he took two French privateers and also recovered a number of U.S. merchant ships. [End Page 510]
Stewart's fine record led to his retention in the downsized peacetime naval establishment. He participated in the war with Tripoli (1801–5) and took part in Lieutenant Stephen Decatur's expedition to destroy the captured frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor in February 1804. Advanced to captain in 1806, Stewart spent several years overseeing gunboat construction.
Following several furloughs with the merchant marine, Stewart returned to the navy just before the War of 1812 and took a number of prizes in the brig Argus. He then assumed command of the frigate Constellation at Norfolk. Unable to escape the British blockade, he was transferred to the Constitution at Boston and in December 1813 got to sea and captured several prizes. In December 1814 he again ran the blockade. Off Madeira on 20 February 1815, the Constitution encountered the British 32-gun frigate Cyane and the 20-gun sloop Levant. Skillfully maneuvering his own heavier vessel, Stewart was able to rake both British ships without ever exposing the Constitution's bow or stern. Within an hour both his opponents had struck, although a pursuing British squadron subsequently retook the Levant. Returning to New York in May, Stewart was hailed as a national hero and voted a gold medal by Congress.
After the war, Stewart held various commands ashore and afloat. In 1830 he served on the Board of Naval Commissioners and also commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard between 1838 and 1841 and again between 1854 and 1860, then advised President Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War. Stewart died at Bordentown, New Jersey, on 6 November 1869. Fittingly, his headstone reads simply, "Charles Stewart, U.S.N."
Authors Claude Berube and John A. Rodgaard are to be highly commended for this splendid book tracing Stewart's life and accomplishments. It is both thoroughly researched and engagingly presented. Both men have contributed articles to Naval History but this is their first book, and it is a major accomplishment. Its great strength lies in the authors' ability to present a clear picture of Stewart's public and private lives within a grander setting. Alas, the foresight that served Stewart so well professionally did not carry over to his personal life. Desperate for marriage, he chose badly and it ended in divorce. He was, however, devoted to his five children, three of whom were by his mistress.
The authors do a fine job of setting the surroundings. Thus there are descriptions of the Philadelphia of Stewart's youth and discussions of the formation of the U.S. Navy and the background of the wars of the period, as well as of the sea fights, which the authors handle deftly. Stewart also made major contributions in other areas, which the authors detail.
An important addition to the literature of the U.S. age of sail, A Call to the Sea will appeal to all those with an...