Gold Medals All Around
In the early republic, there is was no extensive system of military awards such as exists today. When some form of national recognition was thought warranted, the Congress would enact a resolution requesting the President reward designated persons with an official "thanks of Congress," extra pay, or cause the creation and presentation of medals and/or commemorative swords, or some combination of such awards. For successful ship actions, it became customary to have a gold medal slightly over 2 1/2 inches in diameter presented to the commander, silver versions of the same to his commissioned officers, and an amount of money to be divided among the victors. The design on the medal's surfaces and its legends usually were in accordance with the wishes of the principal recipient. In the United States Navy, USS Constitution remains unique as the only ship ever to have had four of her commanders so honored for actions while commanding her.
Commodore Edward Preble commanded the frigate from May 1803 until October 1804, and during the summer of the latter year led a series of generally successful attacks against the Barbary pirates at Tripoli, in modern Libya. By the time he, himself, returned home, his reports already had been forwarded to the Congress and action begun to recognize his exemplary performance of duty. On 3 March 1805, a resolution was approved requesting the President to express the thanks of Congress to the Commodore and all hands. A gold medal was to be struck for Preble, "emblematical of the attacks on the town, batteries, and naval force of Tripoli," and swords were to be presented to each commissioned officer and midshipman distinguishing himself in these operations. A month's pay was awarded each sailor and marine.
Preble was at Washington when the resolution was passed, and on the way north to his home at Falmouth, Maine, some two weeks later, he stopped at Philadelphia and had his portrait drawn by Rembrandt Peale for use on the face of his medal. Surrounding the bust of Preble on the obverse of the medal is the legend "Edwardo Preble Duci Strenuo" and "Comitia Americana." On the reverse, above a scene of the squadron attacking Tripoli, is the legend "Vindici Commercii Americana," and below it "Anti Tripoli MDCCCIV." Engraved by John Reich, the medal was delivered to the commodore in 1806.
On 19 August 1812, some 600 miles east of Boston, Captain Isaac Hull in Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere in an action that electrified the nation. As events transpired, his was but the first of a series of rapid victories scored by the tiny U. S. Navy over units of the vaunted Royal Navy in the heady opening months of the War of 1812. On 29 January 1813, the Congress resolved that the President present gold medals to Hull, to Captain Stephen Decatur for his victory over HMS Macedonian, and to Captain Jacob Jones for his victory over HMS Frolic. Their commissioned officers were to receive silver versions of their captains' medals.
The Congress in February 1813 was considering awarding Constitution's crew $100,000 for their work, and another amount for Captain Jacob Jones and his crew in USS Wasp for their destruction of HMS Frolic, when Constitution returned from her second war cruise with the news that HMS Java had fallen victim to her guns off Brazil. Elated by the news, but sobered by the potential cost of their proposed generosity, the Congressmen settled for a "package" of a total of $125,000 to be divided $50,000 each to Hull's and Bainbridge's crews (largely one and the same), and $25,000 to Jones'. This was approved on 3 March 1813, the same day another resolution requested the President to present a gold medal to Bainbridge and silver copies of it to his commissioned officers.
The last of Constitution's wartime victories was two years in coming. Off the northwest coast of Africa, nearly 200 miles from Madeira, on 20 February 1815 the big frigate, then under command of Captain Charles Stewart, took on HMS Cyane and HMS Levant in a twi-night action of unsurpassed maneuver and tactical skill. She finally returned home on May of that year, and after some delay in the war's aftermath, on 22 February 1816, the Congress authorized Stewart his gold medal and his officers silver copies. Cyane was taken into the Navy and on 26 April the Congress also provided $25,000 reward for taking Levant, which had been recaptured by the British in a neutral port after the war had ended, so the Constitutions again had money to share.
War's end also had an effect on the promptness with which the authorized medals were delivered. Secretary of the Navy William Jones was in office from January 1813 until December 1814, but in the press of wartime concerns never got around to implementing the creation of the medals in the President's name. Benjamin Crowninshield, who succeeded him, apparently was not briefed on this matter when he took office and so things languished. With regard to those few medals with which this article is concerned, it wasn't until June 1817 that Captain Stewart, then commanding the Mediterranean Squadron, was requested to provide his profile for the obverse of his medal, and in the following December Commodore Bainbridge at Boston was asked to forward "a perfect representation" of his action with Java for the reverse of his. Naval Agent George Harrison at Philadelphia had the responsibility for their production and Moritz Furst of that city for engraving the designs.
Isaac Hull's bust on the obverse of his medal, done by John Reich, is a most flattering one, giving no clue of his rotundity. The legend is "Peritos Arte Superat Jul. MDCCCXII Aug. Certamine Fortes" with "Isaacus Hull" at the bottom. The reverse shows Guerriere with her mainmast collapsing and Constitution across her bows, surrounded by the words "florae Momento Victoria" and "Inter Const. Nav. Amer. Et Guer. Angl." Secretary Crowninshield thought "Momento" should be "Memento," but Hull's version stood.
When asked what verbiage he wished on his medal, Commodore Bainbridge responded that he wished the motto "Patria et Victus Laudatur" on the obverse and the single word "Pugnando' on the back. His "perfect representation" of the action was sent to Harrison on 22 December 1817 and quickly drew strong criticism from Furst. Crowninshield responded to Harrison's report of it on 29 December with "it is not deemed necessary to make any observations in relation to the objections offered by Mr. Furst respecting the representation of the Sea, on the Drawing transmitted to you on the 22nd instant, as it is presumed, that Gentleman has not visited off the Coast of Brazil, where the action was fought ...or he would have known that the surface of the Sea in that part of the Atlantic is perfectly smooth, at least during nine months of the year." While Bainbridge's smooth sea remained, someone corrected his Latin, for the medal as delivered bears the legend "Guilelmus Bainbridge Patria Victorisque Laudatus" on the front. "Pugnando" tops the reverse with "Inter Const. Ameri Nav. et Jav. Nav. Angl. Die XXIX Decem. MDCCCXII" below a scene of a dismasted Java and an almost pristine Constitution.
In May of 1818, Agent Harrison queried the Secretary about the number of medals to be struck of each design. After determining their potential as mementos over an above those specifically awarded by the Congress, Crowninshield at the beginning of August responded that, with regard to the medals for Hull, Bainbridge, Stephen Decatur, Jacob Jones, Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas Macdonough, Stewart, and Johnson Blakeley "let there be fifty extra struck in Silver and one hundred and fifty of each in composition or in Copper. Of the other medals it will not be necessary to have more struck than twenty five of each in Silver, and Seventy five in composition or Copper."
Captain Stewart's medal was the last of those being considered to be completed, probably because he was in command of the Mediterranean Squadron from 1816 to 1820 and correspondence was slow. His sketch for the reverse of the medal was received at Washington in the spring of 1819 and forwarded on to the Secretary, who was then at New York, for approval prior to transmission to Agent Harrison and designer Furst. Stewart apparently did not specify any verbiage, for in July the Secretary approved that suggested by Harrison: "Carolus Stewart Navis Amer: Constitution Dux" for the obverse and "Una Victorian Eripult Ratibus Cinis" for the back.
At long last, on 10 February 1820, recently installed Secretary Smith Thompson issued ten letters directed to officers' grouped according to the ship in which they had once served so gloriously, forwarding their medals. Delivery of medals, not surprisingly, turned out to be more difficult than might have been imagined. Surgeon's Mate Donaldson Yates, who had participated in both the Guerriere and Java fights, died on 29 October 1815. His silver medals finally were delivered to John Donaldson Wetheret, a nephew by marriage, during the summer of 1825. In the case of Marine First Lieutenant William Sharp Bush, killed in the Guerriere fight, it was not until early 1835 that his silver medal was presented to his nearest male relative, one Lewis Bush Jackson, via his Congressman.
In any event, the next captain of Constitution to be decorated was more than a century in the future.
Long, David F., Ready to Hazard (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981.
Martin, Tyrone G., A Most Fortunate Ship (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997).
McKee, Christopher, Edward Preble (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972).
Originally published in Naval History, July / August 1997. Adapted with permission.
A TIMONIER Publication