Mighty British Navy Meets Its Match

Red-headed Charles Stewart, born 28 July 1778, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was one of the United States Navy’s most decorated officers.

As a young man at the age of thirteen, he filled the position of cabin boy in the merchant service, working through the ranks becoming a master merchantman. On 9 March 1798, he became a commissioned lieutenant serving in United States, 44, and commanded Enterprise, 12. During the Mediterranean Squadron (1803-1804), Stewart was second in command to Preble and awarded a congressional sword for his participation. In 1806, he achieved his captaincy but decided to continue his career in the merchant service.

Not until late 1811 did Stewart decide to return to the combat service. By December 1812, he was given command of the Constellation, 36; however, he was unable to leave Norfolk due to a large British blockade. Soon after, in 1813, he reported to the Constitution, 44, to assume command.

Upon arrival to Constitution, Stewart needed to put all things in order to encounter the superior forces awaiting his departure. Once Constitution was ready for sea, Stewart needed to ensure safe passage through the British blockade of Boston. On 31 December 1813, with fair winds and tides, Stewart weighed anchor and made good for open waters without the enemy in sight. To carry out his orders set forth by Secretary Jones, Stewart headed south by southeast to disrupt British commerce in the West Indian trade.

The first leg of the voyage seemed to be uneasy. Chasing British ships only to have them evade him in the night or escaping in dangerous shoal waters would discourage any crew, but Stewart stayed true to his orders.

The first success to his eventful voyage started with his capture of the British armed merchant ship Lovely Ann. carrying lumber, fish, and flour. Stewart placed a prize crew on board and removed all British sailors. Shortly after, the Pictou was captured and Constitution returned to Lovely Ann. After removing all cargo, the Lovely Ann was loaded with all merchantmen prisoners and sent to Barbados. Pictou was scuttled.

Many engagements later, Stewart and his crew met the ships that would test his supreme seamanship and tactics. The battle, on 20 February 1815 against HMS Cyane, 24, and HMS Levant, 18, was a testament to true naval leadership. Stewart’s ability to captain his crew would eventually lead to his victory against these two British ships.

For Stewart’s efforts in the War of 1812, Congress voted him a gold medal. Prize money from his captures was divided among the crew. The festivities continued for Stewart, and eventually the Constitution returned to Boston.

Stewart and his crew proved to the British and the world that our Navy was equal. Our nation’s morale rose from the stories of the people who fought to protect free trade and sailor’s rights. Without great leaders like Stewart, our Navy would surely not be as great as it is today.

Image of Charles Stewart
Commodore Chs. Stewart - Capture of H.M.ships Cyane & Levant by the U.S. Frigate Constitution Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress From Life on Stone by A. Newsam Peter S. Duval, Lithographer (circa 1841)