On April 15, 1814, Commodore Joshua Barney again wrote to Secretary of the Navy William Jones describing Captain Robert T. Spence’s resistance to transferring his men to the Chesapeake Flotilla. Barney was even more upset when the men finally arrived but were so drunk he had to “[put] the most of them in Irons” and send seventeen others to the hospital.
Writing for the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in Feeding a Frigate, Commander Tyrone G. Martin describes how the United States Navy inherited the tradition of a twice daily “spirit ration” from the British Navy. Since the 1740s, British sailors had enjoyed a serving of rum mixed with an equal share of water. By mixing alcohol and water, Rear Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon (credited with inventing the unusual cocktail) hoped to discourage binge drinking since the water made the rum unpalatable in a short time so sailors could not save up rations for later.
Around 1801, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith experimented with substituting American sour mash bourbon for the traditional West Indies rum. Around the War of 1812, a Navy sailor would typically receive half their ration at noon and the remainder in the late afternoon after a meal. Sailors who passed on their ration for the day were credited with four cents on their account. Evidently, the sailors recruited by Captain Spence in Fell’s Point the exercised no such restraint.
On April 4, 1814, Commodore Joshua Barney wrote from Baltimore to Secretary of the Navy William Jones with a sense of satisfaction. After numerous requests for additional sailors for the Chesapeake Flotilla, Barney was “extremely happy” to hear from Jones that the Flotilla would soon receive most of the crew from the USS Ontario which had been trapped in the Baltimore harbor by the British blockade (and the lackluster recruitment efforts of Captain Robert T. Spence). Barney’s letter reads as follows:
Baltimore April 4th 1814
I had the honor of receiving your letter of the 29th and shall be extremely happy in having the number of my men increased. The two Barges from Washington arrived this day, I had sent the Look-out boat to meet them with 30 additional hands for their assistance, four of the new barges from the Eastern-shore are here, and Col. Spencer the builder, will be here, (if the Weather permits,) with four more this week. The Armament for them is nearly ready, but I have been most cruelly disappointed in the delivery of the Guns (light 18 pounders) by Mr. Dorsey. He has trifled with us from the first, with promises from day to day, and it was but four days ago I was able to get from him the Guns; in fact, no dependence can be put, on his word. I believe Mr. Beatty has much reason to complain. I have heard that Capt. Spence has received orders to transfer some men to the flotilla, (say 18) but I have not seen him.
I have just heard from Mr. Frazier. He complains that men cannot be procured on the Eastern-shore for that both parties discourage enlistments, each wishing to keep the men, for the next Elections, as they are so equally divided, that the loss of a few Votes would throw the balance into the hands of the other party, I have given Assurances that all the Demos. shall be there on the 1st of October next to Vote, which I hope will have some effect.
It would appear we have about 30 men to come over, which I shall order here next week; We were doing very well in procuring men, until the news of raising the Embargo arrived, but I fear that will put a total stop to it, everything that can sail fast, will now be fitted out, and the Cupidity of our Merchants is such, that they care not, how much the City is threatened so that they can get a vessel to sea—
I am Sir with respect your Obt. Servt
On February 7, 1814, Secretary of the Navy William Jones sent a reply to Master Commandant Spence in Fell’s Point, firmly rejecting his request to recruit in New York to find sailors for the USS Ontario:
Robert T. Spence Esquire
U.S. Navy Baltimore.
February 7th. 1814
I have received your letter of yesterday. The reiteration of your request to recruit in New York is superfluous, you were explicitly informed, that it was inadmissible. The recruiting for the Lake service at New York will require all that can be obtained there. A surgeon will be ordered to the Ontario in a few days.—
I am respectfully your Obedt. Servant
I beg leave to trespass on your time a moment, to request permission, to have the sails of the Ontario, made at this place; as I understand they have not yet commenced at Washington.
I have also to ask leave, to open a Rendezvous at New York, as Captain Ridgely having nearly completed his compliment, is about to close at that place. Seamen are easily obtaind there tho’ they are scarce, both here, and at Philadelphia.— I have the honor to be, with great respect your Obt Servt.
In reporting to you the advancement of my ship I have the honor to state, that we got our topmasts on end to day—that our lower rigging is rattled down, and catharping’d in.
The Hold is nearly stowed.— and I intend our yards shall be across next week. I shall stand in need of my sails from Washington.
Had I my compliment of men, I could be ready for sea in three weeks.—
My residing within a hundred yards of my ship since appointed to her, and giving personal attention to every little thing will account to you for my rapid progress.— The “Erie” has more men, but in other respects the “Ontario” is equally advanced. Indeed we have little the start! With great respect your very Obt. Servant
On March 3, 1813, the United States Congress authorized the construction of six sloops-of-war. Naval architect William Doughty designed three of the six ships and directly supervised the construction of the USS Argus at the Washington, DC shipyards. In Baltimore, Thomas Kemp took Doughty’s designs and began work on the remaining two, the USS Ontario and USS Erie, at his Fell’s Point shipyard.
The Erie launched from the shipyard on November 3, 1813 and The Ontario followed on November 28, 1813. Master Commandant Robert T. Spence, commander of the USS Ontario, spent the winter months of 1814 struggling to recruit enough men to set sail—a delay that ultimately kept the Ontario stuck in Baltimore behind the British blockade of the Chesapeake through the end of the war.