Books by willis j. Abbot

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Author of Naval History of the United States, Bluejackets of 1898, etc.

New York Dodd, Mead & Company The Caxton Press New York 1902


Naval History of the United States

Blue Jackets of 1898

Battlefields of '61

Battlefields and Campfires

Battlefields and Victory


In an earlier series of books the present writer told the story of the high achievements of the men of the United States Navy, from the day of Paul Jones to that of Dewey, Schley, and Sampson. It is a record Americans may well regard with pride, for in wars of defense or offense, in wars just or unjust, the American blue jacket has discharged the duty allotted to him cheerfully, gallantly, and efficiently.

But there are triumphs to be won by sea and by land greater than those of war, dangers to be braved, more menacing than the odds of battle. It was a glorious deed to win the battle of Santiago, but Fulton and Ericsson influenced the progress of the world more than all the heroes of history. The daily life of those who go down to the sea in ships is one of constant battle, and the whaler caught in the ice-pack is in more direful case than the blockaded cruiser; while the captain of the ocean liner, guiding through a dense fog his colossal craft freighted with two thousand human lives, has on his mind a weightier load of responsibility than the admiral of the fleet.

In all times and ages, the deeds of the men who sail the deep as its policemen or its soldiery have been sung in praise. It is time for chronicle of the high courage, the reckless daring, and oftentimes the noble self-sacrifice of those who use the Seven Seas to extend the markets of the world, to bring nations nearer together, to advance science, and to cement the world into one great interdependent whole.

WILLIS JOHN ABBOT. Ann Arbor, Mich., May 1, 1902.

American Merchant Ships and Sailors



When the Twentieth Century opened, the American sailor was almost extinct. The nation which, in its early and struggling days, had given to the world a race of seamen as adventurous as the Norse Vikings had, in the days of its greatness and prosperity turned its eyes away from the sea and yielded to other people the mastery of the deep. One living in the past, reading the newspapers, diaries and record-books of the early days of the Nineteenth Century, can hardly understand how an occupation which played so great a part in American life as seafaring could ever be permitted to decline. The dearest ambition of the American boy of our early national era was to command a clipper ship--but how many years it has been since that ambition entered into the mind of young America! In those days the people of all the young commonwealths from Maryland northward found their interests vitally allied with maritime adventure. Without railroads, and with only the most wretched excuses for post-roads, the States were linked together by the sea; and coastwise traffic early began to employ a considerable number of craft and men. Three thousand miles of ocean separated Americans from the market in which they must sell their produce and buy their luxuries. Immediately upon the settlement of the seaboard the Colonists themselves took up this trade, building and manning their own vessels and speedily making their way into every nook and corner of Europe. We, who have seen, in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the American flag the rarest of all ensigns to be met on the water, must regard with equal admiration and wonder the zeal for maritime adventure that made the infant nation of 1800 the second seafaring people in point of number of vessels, and second to none in energy and enterprise.

New England early took the lead in building ships and manning them, and this was but natural since her coasts abounded in harbors; navigable streams ran through forests of trees fit for the ship-builder's adze; her soil was hard and obdurate to the cultivator's efforts; and her people had not, like those who settled the South, been drawn from the agricultural classes. Moreover, as I shall show in other chapters, the sea itself thrust upon the New Englanders its riches for them to gather. The cod-fishery was long pursued within a few miles of Cape Ann, and the New Englanders had become well habituated to it before the growing scarcity of the fish compelled them to seek the teeming waters of Newfoundland banks. The value of the whale was first taught them by great carcasses washed up on the shore of Cape Cod, and for years this gigantic game was pursued in open boats within sight of the coast. From neighborhood seafaring such as this the progress was easy to coasting voyages, and so to Europe and to Asia.

There is some conflict of historians over the time and place of the beginning of ship-building in America. The first vessel of which we have record was the "Virginia," built at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1608, to carry home a discontented English colony at Stage Island. She was a two-master of 30 tons burden. The next American vessel recorded was the Dutch "yacht" "Onrest," built at New York in 1615. Nowadays sailors define a yacht as a vessel that carries no cargo but food and champagne, but the "Onrest" was not a yacht of this type. She was of 16 tons burden, and this small size explains her description.

The first ship built for commercial purposes in New England was "The Blessing of the Bay," a sturdy little sloop of 60 tons. Fate surely designed to give a special significance to this venture, for she was owned by John Winthrop, the first of New England statesmen, and her keel was laid on the Fourth of July, 1631--a day destined after the lapse of one hundred and forty-five years to mean much in the world's calendar. Sixty tons is not an awe-inspiring register. The pleasure yacht of some millionaire stock-jobber to-day will be ten times that size, while 20,000 tons has come to be an every-day register for an ocean vessel; but our pleasure-seeking "Corsairs," and our castellated "City of New York" will never fill so big a place in history as this little sloop, the size of a river lighter, launched at Mistick, and straightway dispatched to the trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam. Long before her time, however, in 1526, the Spanish adventurer, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, losing on the coast of Florida a brigantine out of the squadron of three ships which formed his expedition, built a small craft called a gavarra to replace it.

From that early Fourth of July, for more than two hundred years shipyards multiplied and prospered along the American coast. The Yankees, with their racial adaptability, which long made them jacks of all trades and good at all, combined their shipbuilding with other industries, and to the hurt of neither. Early in 1632, at Richmond Island, off the coast of Maine, was built what was probably the first regular packet between England and America. She carried to the old country lumber, fish, furs, oil, and other colonial products, and brought back guns, ammunition, and liquor--not a fortunate exchange. Of course meanwhile English, Dutch, and Spanish ships were trading to the colonies, and every local essay in shipbuilding meant competition with old and established ship-yards and ship owners. Yet the industry throve, not only in the considerable yards established at Boston and other large towns, but in a small way all along the coast. Special privileges were extended to ship-builders. They were exempt from military and other public duties. In 1636 the "Desire," a vessel of 120 tons, was built at Marblehead, the largest to that time. By 1640 the port records of European ports begin to show the clearings of American-built vessels.

In those days of wooden hulls and tapering masts the forests of New England were the envy of every European monarch ambitious to develop a navy. It was a time, too, of greater naval activity than the world had ever seen--though but trivial in comparison with the present expenditures of Christian nations for guns and floating steel fortresses. England, Spain, Holland, and France were struggling for the control of the deep, and cared little for considerations of humanity, honor, or honesty in the contest. The tall, straight pines of Maine and New Hampshire were a precious possession for England in the work of building that fleet whose sails were yet to whiten the ocean, and whose guns, under Drake and Rodney, were to destroy successfully the maritime prestige of the Dutch and the Spaniards. Sometimes a colony, seeking royal favor, would send to the king a present of these pine timbers, 33 to 35 inches in diameter, and worth £95 to £115 each. Later the royal mark, the "broad arrow," was put on all white pines 24 inches in diameter 3 feet from the ground, that they might be saved for masts. It is, by the way, only about fifteen years since our own United States Government has disposed of its groves of live oaks, that for nearly a century were preserved to furnish oaken knees for navy vessels.

The great number of navigable streams soon led to shipbuilding in the interior. It was obviously cheaper to build the vessel at the edge of the forest, where all the material grew ready to hand, and sail the completed craft to the seaboard, than to first transport the material thither in the rough. But American resourcefulness before long went even further. As the forests receded from the banks of the streams before the woodman's axe, the shipwrights followed. In the depths of the woods, miles perhaps from water, snows, pinnaces, ketches, and sloops were built. When the heavy snows of winter had fallen, and the roads were hard and smooth, runners were laid under the little ships, great teams of oxen--sometimes more than one hundred yoke--were attached, and the craft dragged down to the river, to lie there on the ice until the spring thaw came to gently let it down into its proper element. Many a farmer, too, whose lands sloped down to a small harbor, or stream, set up by the water side the frame of a vessel, and worked patiently at it during the winter days when the flinty soil repelled the plough and farm work was stopped. Stout little craft were thus put together, and sometimes when the vessel was completed the farmer-builder took his place at the helm and steered her to the fishing banks, or took her through Hell Gate to the great and thriving city of New York. The world has never seen a more amphibious populace.


The cost of the little vessels of colonial times we learn from old letters and accounts to have averaged four pounds sterling to the ton. Boston, Charleston, Salem, Ipswich, Salisbury, and Portsmouth were the chief building places in Massachusetts; New London in Connecticut, and Providence in Rhode Island. Vessels of a type not seen to-day made up the greater part of the New England fleet. The ketch, often referred to in early annals, was a two-master, sometimes rigged with lanteen sails, but more often with the foremast square-rigged, like a ship's foremast, and the mainmast like the mizzen of a modern bark, with a square topsail surmounting a fore-and-aft mainsail. The foremast was set very much aft--often nearly amidships. The snow was practically a brig, carrying a fore-and-aft sail on the mainmast, with a square sail directly above it. A pink was rigged like a schooner, but without a bowsprit or jib. For the fisheries a multitude of smaller types were constructed--such as the lugger, the shallop, the sharpie, the bug-eye, the smack. Some of these survive to the present day, and in many cases the name has passed into disuse, while the type itself is now and then to be met with on our coasts.

The importance of ship-building as a factor in the development of New England did not rest merely upon the use of ships by the Americans alone. That was a day when international trade was just beginning to be understood and pushed, and every people wanted ships to carry their goods to foreign lands and bring back coveted articles in exchange. The New England vessel seldom made more than two voyages across the Atlantic without being snapped up by some purchaser beyond seas. The ordinary course was for the new craft to load with masts or spars, always in demand, or with fish; set sail for a promising market, dispose of her cargo, and take freight for England. There she would be sold, her crew making their way home in other ships, and her purchase money expended in articles needed in the colonies. This was the ordinary practice, and with vessels sold abroad so soon after their completion the shipyards must have been active to have fitted out, as the records show, a fleet of fully 280 vessels for Massachusetts alone by 1718. Before this time, too, the American shipwrights had made such progress in the mastery of their craft that they were building ships for the royal navy. The "Falkland," built at Portsmouth about 1690, and carrying 54 guns, was the earliest of these, but after her time corvettes, sloops-of-war, and frigates were launched in New England yards to fight for the king. It was good preparation for building those that at a later date should fight against him.

Looking back over the long record of American maritime progress, one cannot but be impressed with the many and important contributions made by Americans--native or adopted--to marine architecture. To an American citizen, John Ericsson, the world owes the screw propeller. Americans sent the first steamship across the ocean--the "Savannah," in 1819. Americans, engaged in a fratricidal war, invented the ironclad in the "Monitor" and the "Merrimac," and, demonstrating the value of iron ships for warfare, sounded the knell of wooden ships for peaceful trade. An American first demonstrated the commercial possibilities of the steamboat, and if history denies to Fulton entire precedence with his "Clermont," in 1807, it may still be claimed for John Fitch, another American, with his imperfect boat on the Delaware in 1787. But perhaps none of these inventions had more homely utility than the New England schooner, which had its birth and its christening at Gloucester in 1713. The story of its naming is one of the oldest in our marine folk-lore.

"See how she schoons!" cried a bystander, coining a verb to describe the swooping slide of the graceful hull down the ways into the placid water.


"A schooner let her be!" responded the builder, proud of his handiwork, and ready to seize the opportunity to confer a novel title upon his novel creation. Though a combination of old elements, the schooner was in effect a new design. Barks, ketches, snows, and brigantines carried fore-and-aft rigs in connection with square sails on either mast, but now for the first time two masts were rigged fore and aft, and the square sails wholly discarded. The advantages of the new rig were quickly discovered. Vessels carrying it were found to sail closer to the wind, were easier to handle in narrow quarters, and--what in the end proved of prime importance--could be safely manned by smaller crews. With these advantages the schooner made its way to the front in the shipping lists. The New England shipyards began building them, almost to the exclusion of other types. Before their advance brigs, barks, and even the magnificent full-rigged ship itself gave way, until now a square-rigged ship is an unusual spectacle on the ocean. The vitality of the schooner is such that it bids fair to survive both of the crushing blows dealt to old-fashioned marine architecture--the substitution of metal for wood, and of steam for sails. To both the schooner adapted itself. Extending its long, slender hull to carry four, five, and even seven masts, its builders abandoned the stout oak and pine for molded iron and later steel plates, and when it appeared that the huge booms, extending the mighty sails, were difficult for an ordinary crew to handle, one mast, made like the rest of steel, was transformed into a smokestack--still bearing sails--a donkey engine was installed in the hold, and the booms went aloft, or the anchor rose to the peak to the tune of smoky puffing instead of the rhythmical chanty songs of the sailors. So the modern schooner, a very leviathan of sailing craft, plows the seas, electric-lighted, steering by steam, a telephone system connecting all parts of her hull--everything modern about her except her name. Not as dignified, graceful, and picturesque as the ship perhaps--but she lasts, while the ship disappears.

But to return to the colonial shipping. Boston soon became one of the chief building centers, though indeed wherever men were gathered in a seashore village ships were built. Winthrop, one of the pioneers in the industry, writes: "The work was hard to accomplish for want of money, etc., but our shipwrights were content to take such pay as the country could make," and indeed in the old account books of the day we can read of very unusual payments made for labor, as shown, for example, in a contract for building a ship at Newburyport in 1141, by which the owners were bound to pay "£300 in cash, £300 by orders on good shops in Boston; two-thirds money; four hundred pounds by orders up the river for tim'r and plank, ten bbls. flour, 50 pounds weight of loaf sugar, one bagg of cotton wool, one hund. bushels of corn in the spring; one hhd. of Rum, one hundred weight of cheese * * * whole am't of price for vessel £3000 lawful money."

By 1642 they were building good-sized vessels at Boston, and the year following was launched the first full-rigged ship, the "Trial," which went to Malaga, and brought back "wine, fruit, oil, linen and wool, which was a great advantage to the country, and gave encouragement to trade." A year earlier there set out the modest forerunner of our present wholesale spring pilgrimages to Europe. A ship set sail for London from Boston "with many passengers, men of chief rank in the country, and great store of beaver. Their adventure was very great, considering the doubtful estate of affairs of England, but many prayers of the churches went with them and followed after them."

By 1698 Governor Bellomont was able to say of Boston alone, "I believe there are more good vessels belonging to the town of Boston than to all Scotland and Ireland." Thereafter the business rapidly developed, until in a map of about 1730 there are noted sixteen shipyards. Rope walks, too, sprung up to furnish rigging, and presently for these Boston was a centre. Another industry, less commendable, grew up in this as in other shipping centres. Molasses was one of the chief staples brought from the West Indies, and it came in quantities far in excess of any possible demand from the colonial sweet tooth. But it could be made into rum, and in those days rum was held an innocent beverage, dispensed like water at all formal gatherings, and used as a matter of course in the harvest fields, the shop, and on the deck at sea. Moreover, it had been found to have a special value as currency on the west coast of Africa. The negro savages manifested a more than civilized taste for it, and were ready to sell their enemies or their friends, their sons, fathers, wives, or daughters into slavery in exchange for the fiery fluid. So all New England set to turning the good molasses into fiery rum, and while the slave trade throve abroad the rum trade prospered at home.

Of course the rapid advance of the colonies in shipbuilding and in maritime trade was not regarded in England with unqualified pride. The theory of that day--and one not yet wholly abandoned--was that a colony was a mine, to be worked for the sole benefit of the mother country. It was to buy its goods in no other market. It was to use the ships of the home government alone for its trade across seas. It must not presume to manufacture for itself articles which merchants at home desired to sell. England early strove to impress such trade regulations upon the American colonies, and succeeded in embarrassing and handicapping them seriously, although evasions of the navigation laws were notorious, and were winked at by the officers of the crown. The restrictions were sufficiently burdensome, however, to make the ship-owners and sailors of 1770 among those most ready and eager for the revolt against the king.

The close of the Revolution found American shipping in a reasonably prosperous condition. It is true that the peaceful vocation of the seamen had been interrupted, all access to British ports denied them, and their voyages to Continental markets had for six years been attended by the ever-present risk of capture and condemnation. But on the other hand, the war had opened the way for privateering, and out of the ports of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut the privateers swarmed like swallows from a chimney at dawn. To the adventurous and not over-scrupulous men who followed it, privateering was a congenial pursuit--so much so, unhappily, that when the war ended, and a treaty robbed their calling of its guise of lawfulness, too many of them still continued it, braving the penalties of piracy for the sake of its gains. But during the period of the Revolution privateering did the struggling young nation two services--it sorely harassed the enemy, and it kept alive the seafaring zeal and skill of the New Englanders.

For a time it seemed that not all this zeal and skill could replace the maritime interests where they were when the Revolution began. For most people in the colonies independence meant a broader scope of activity--to the shipowner and sailor it meant new and serious limitations. England was still engaged in the effort to monopolize ocean traffic by the operation of tariffs and navigation laws. New England having become a foreign nation, her ships were denied admittance to the ports of the British West Indies, with which for years a nourishing trade had been conducted. Lumber, corn, fish, live stock, and farm produce had been sent to the islands, and coffee, sugar, cotton, rum, and indigo brought back. This commerce, which had come to equal £3,500,000 a year, was shut off by the British after American independence, despite the protest of Pitt, who saw clearly that the West Indians would suffer even more than the Americans. Time showed his wisdom. Terrible sufferings came upon the West Indies for lack of the supplies they had been accustomed to import, and between 1780 and 1787 as many as 15,000 slaves perished from starvation.

Another cause held the American merchant marine in check for several years succeeding the declaration of peace. If there be one interest which must have behind it a well-organized, coherent national government, able to protect it and to enforce its rights in foreign lands, it is the shipping interest. But American ships, after the Treaty of Paris, hailed from thirteen independent but puny States. They had behind them the shadow of a confederacy, but no substance. The flags they carried were not only not respected in foreign countries--they were not known. Moreover, the States were jealous of each other, possessing no true community of interest, and each seeking advantage at the expense of its neighbors. They were already beginning to adopt among themselves the very tactics of harassing and crippling navigation laws which caused the protest against Great Britain. This "Critical Period of American History," as Professor Fiske calls it, was indeed a critical period for American shipping.

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