Of pikes, cutlass and bearskin caps
Some 202 years ago this week, a 10-ship squadron of the newly established U.S. Navy under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur was taking the fight to the Barbary Coast pirates.
Sailing from New York in May, on 18 June they captured the Algerian frigate Mashuda of 46 guns, then the next day bagged the 22-gun brig Estedio.
The below uniform plate shows seamen and officers as they appeared in the most peculiar ship-to-ship fighting attire of the campaign.
Although the uniform instructions of 1813 had provided for the dress of officers of the United States Navy, no provisions were included for clothing the enlisted personnel. However, the dress of the men was reasonably standard, for all ships carried clothing in “slop stores” under control of the purser. Clothing was procured under contract at the Navy Yards, stored and issued to the vessels. The invitations to bid on clothing contracts listed blue and white trousers, shirts, vests, jackets and glazed hats. This clothing is shown in paintings and sketches of the period and was very much like that worn by the Royal Navy.
The standard arms of seamen were the pike and cutlass shown in the painting. The weapons were stored aboard ship in racks on deck so they were readily available to the men in time of combat. The pike corresponded basically to the musket and bayonet of the Marines attached to the ship for close fighting. The boarding helmets are typical of the period which were described in Samuel Leech’s Thirty Years from Home, or a Voice from the Main Deck, published in Boston in 1843. Leech was a British seaman, captured on board the Macedonian in 1812, who later enlisted in the United States Navy. When he signed on the brig Syren June 1813, he noted that all hands were supplied with “stout leather caps, something like those used by firemen. These were crossed by two strips of iron, covered with bearskins, and were designed to defend the head, in boarding an enemy’s ship, from the stroke of a cutlass. Strips of bearskin were likewise used to fasten them on, serving the purpose of false whiskers, and causing us to look as fierce as hungry wolves.”
The officer shown is a warrant, wearing the short blue coat, with a rolling collar, prescribed for boatswains, gunners, carpenters and sailmakers under the 1813 uniform order. The straw hat is the warm weather version of the black round hat specified for the forward warrant officers in full dress. The round hat was also worn by commissioned officers in undress and many contemporary portraits of the War of 1812 show this headgear along with the short jacket. This was a more suitable garb for shipboard duty than the undress coat of the 1813 order which was a tail coat like that of full dress, but with a rolling cape or turndown collar instead of the formal standing one. While commissioned officers were directed to wear white trousers in full dress, the warrants wore blue trousers. However, it had been the practice for some time to wear white trousers in undress or service dress in tropical climates even though they were not covered by the regulations.