“Truxton's Victory”


"Come all you Yankee sailors With swords and pikes advance"; the "Brave Yankee Boys" are urged to battle against France. Truxton with the Constellation defeat l'Insurgente and haul her into St.Kitts. The singer toasts Truxton


Obviously not a traditional song, but The Boarding Party recording may have made it well-known enough to deserve documentation. Thanks to Dolores Nichols for digging up the source.

The setting is during the Quasi-War with France. France, still lurching back and forth politically in the aftermath of the revolution, with Napoleon gradually gaining power, had little respect for neutral rights, especially when the neutrals were trading with Britain. This naturally incensed the Americans. In November 1796, France suspended diplomatic relations. Soon after, they rejected the credentials of new ambassador Charles C. Pinckney. In May 1797, president John Adams appoints a commission (Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry) to try to smooth things out. At the end of the month, the U. S. government reports 300 ships taken by the French.

On October 18, the American commissioners suffer the humiliation of the "XYZ affair" -- three nameless Frenchmen who demand a "loan" (read: tribute) from the Americans plus a large bribe to French foreign minister Tallyrand. This was not as unreasonable as some would present it -- the Americans were paying bribes to the Barbary States at this time.

But the United States was also, for the first time, building a genuine (if small) navy. Pinckney allegedly told the French, "Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute."

On May 28, 1798, Congress authorized the Navy to go after French vessels engaged in commerce-raiding. On July 7, Congress formally abrogated the treaty of alliance that went back to the Revolution. As Samuel W. Bryant puts it in _The Sea and the States, A Maritime History of the United States_, p. 124, "The two republics were now thoroughly enmeshed in an undeclated war in the best monarchist manner."

The American navy was small, but the quality was very high. Designed Joshua Humphries, knowing that only a handful of ships would be available, created a new class of super-frigates -- rather comparable to the battle cruisers of a century later: Fast enough to outrun any line-of-battle ship, heavy enough to destroy any ordinary frigate. (It tells you a good bit about naval thinking that the American frigates were considered excellent, but the battle crusier was quickly discarded. The reason for the failure of the latter was more bad tactics than anything else.)

In the end, six ships were built -- _United States_, _Constitution_, _Constellation_, _President_, _Congress_, and _Chesapeake_ -- of which only the first three were ready for war. The _Constellation_ (called the "Yankee Race Horse") was the first to see action. She met the French _L'Insurgente_, reportedly the fastest sailing frigate in the world (see Fletcher Pratt, _A Compact History of the United States Navy_, p. 61), but in terms of broadside just an ordinary frigate with a weight of broadside only about three-fourths that of the _Constellation_, in the Carribean.

The French ship was badly under-manned, and her captain Barreault was not aware he was at war with the United States. She was flying an American flag, but an exchange of signals showed she was not an American ship. The _Constellation_ closed in for the kill, much as described in this song; between the American ship's higher quality and her fuller crew, there wasn't much doubt about the outcome (though no one in Europe yet realized how strong the new American frigates were; this would not become clear until 1812 and the _Constitution_/_Guerriere_ battle). Pratt, p. 61, reports that Truxton had only three casualties, compared to seventy on the French ship.

The result was a sensation. There had been sea battles in the Revolutionary War, but the American ships were almost all privateers or purchased in Europe. This was the first battle ever fought by an American "regular navy" ship.

It was also the highlight of the _Constellation's_ career. She would fight one more battle in the Quasi-War: On February 1, 1800, she would meet the _Vengeance_, a much heavier ship than the _L'Insurgente_ though slower than the _Constellation_. _Constellation_ could be considered the tactical victor, killing about 50 and wounding over 100 men on the French ship, which barely stayed afloat and had lost two of three masts (Pratt, p. 62). But the _Constellation_ lost 25 killed and 14 wounded (a strange ratio, that), and lost her mainmast; _Vengeance_ escaped, making the battle a strategic draw. Captain Thomas Truxton would be awarded a gold medal anyway. (Bryant, p. 130).

Peace with France was concluded two days later. It would be a while before the ships at sea knew it, of course, but the _Constellation's_ part was finished.She would serve for a while in the contest with the Barbary pirates, without any major engagements, and spent almost the entire War of 1812 blockaded in her home port of Norfolk (see Walter R. Borneman, _1812: The War That Forged a Nation_, p. 175; John K. Mahon, _The War of 1812_, p. 122). Thus Truxton was the only commander to lead her in a real battle.

In 1854, the _Constellation_ was broken up. Much of the surviving wood was used to make a new _Constellation_, and this is often listed as the same ship. This was a fairly common trick for the U. S. Navy in the nineteenth century: Congress didn't like new defence spending, but would pay to maintain old ships, so the Navy would request money for repairs, then build a new ship with the money plus some timber from the old. But the new _Constellation_ was 12 feet longer than the old, and her hold was half again as deep (19.3 feet for the new, 13.5 feet for the old); it was clearly a new ship. (Sez I. This apparently caused quite a literature to spring up; the bibliography in Lincoln P. Paine, _Ships of the World_, p. 120, lists five writings on this subject).

This wasn't her only major rebuild. Howard I. Chapelle, _The History of American Sailing Ships_, Bonanza Books, 1935, pp. 91-92, writes, ?The _Constellation_ had a long and distinguished career and is still afloat, though it must be admitted that there is little or nothing of the original ship left. She has been completely rebuilt a number of times, from the keel up, as in 1805-1812 when the was widened 14 inches and again in 1854 when she was lengthened and cut down one deck, each time her lines being altered to some extent."

Thomas Truxton himself (1755-1822) was probably the most important American naval figure between John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur; according to Pratt p. 58, he was "the real prize drawn by the nascent navy... its fifth-ranking captain...." He had served on various privateers in the Revolutionary War (he was a lieutenant in the _Congress_ in 1776, commanded the _Independence_ in 1777, then took charge of the _St. James_ from 1781). He became a regular navy captain from 1794, and acted as commodore during the Quasi-War. According to Pratt, ?even before putting to sea, [he] drew up a long series of letters to his officers and petty officers laying down the duties of each in the most minute manner, which letter would be the foundation of definitive navy regulations."

He was also a firm disciplinarian. Pratt describes, e.g., how when a water cask sprung a leak, he put his entire crew on reduced water rations until discipline met his standards (p. 58) -- though he preferred thought it better to set an example than use the lash (accoring to _Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection_, United States Naval Institute, 1992 [I use the 2002 Berkley edition], p. 87, he once said, "Discipline is to be effected by a particular deportment much easier than great severity"). His strict methods also caused at least two of his officers to resign (Pratt, p. 59).

He himself ended up resigning early in the nineteenth century in a dispute over authority: Instructed to lead the assault against the Barbary Pirates, he was not promoted to (rear) admiral (the navy did not officially establish ranks above Captain until the Civil War), and so would be simply senior captain commanding the squadron, and still responsible for his own ship. This apparently caused him to quit in a fit of pique (Pratt, p. 65).

There is at least one fairly recent biography, Eugene S. Ferguson, _Truxton of the Constellation, The Life of Commodore Thomas Truxton, U. S. Navy, 1755-1822_. - RBW

Historical references

  • Feb 9, 1799 - Battle between the Constellation and L'Insurgente


  1. ADDITIONAL: Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents - Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years, "Truxton's Victory" (a copy of the original broadside)
  2. BI, BrdTruxt


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1975 (Lawrence), reportedly written March 1799
Keywords: ship battle