Today, the Constellation Copper Medal remembers the ship’s first real naval battle, which she handily won 217 years ago.
In the book Twelve Naval Captains, published in 1897, Molly Elliot Seawell included Thomas Truxton, the captain of the Constellation that day.
When the United States began to create a navy in 1784, Truxtun was given a captain’s commission.
Trouble had been brewing with France for some time, and in 1797 the government determined to build several frigates in case of war, and this year saw the launching of the two noble ships, the Constitution and the Constellation, which were both destined to win immortal fame.
Truxtun was appointed to command the Constellation, and also to superintend the building. She was laid down at Baltimore in the summer of 1797, and few ships ever took the water more quickly than the glorious Constellation.
She had a very remarkable launch on the 7th of September, 1797.
Nearly all her guns and stores were on board, and seven days after she kissed the water she was ready to sail. She had been coppered in ten hours.
The Constellation was a beautiful frigate, very fast and weatherly, and carrying thirty-eight guns.
She was finely officered and manned, and Captain Truxtun sailed on his first cruise with every advantage in his favor, — a ship that could both fight and run, and a company worthy of the ship.
He cruised for some time without meeting with any extraordinary adventures; but the next year four other smaller vessels were put under his command, and the squadron went to the West Indies.
This was directly in harm’s way, as the West India islands were full of French ships of war, and France and the United States were on the eve of a quasi-war, so that Captain Truxtun sailed with the hope of getting a whack at a Frenchman, and this came about in February, 1799.
As the old song has it,
“Twas in the month of February, off Montserrat we lay,
When there we spied the Insurgente — ”
This was considered to be the fastest frigate in the world, and was commanded by a crack French captain, Barreault.
She carried forty twelve- pounders in her batteries, and the Constellation carried thirty-eight twenty-four pounders, making the Constellation much the stronger ship; yet Captain Truxtun showed, in the fight which followed, that he could have whipped a heavier ship than L’Insurgente, which made a very smart fight too.
Captain Barreault knew that the Constellation was the heavier, but he did not on that account refuse the battle, but showed a manly willingness to fight.
The Constellation sighted L’Insurgente in the forenoon of February 9, 1799, and immediately made for her.
As soon as she got near enough, the French ship hoisted American colors, in order to draw her on and give the French ship time to find out something about the stranger.
Captain Truxtun then showed the private signal, which Captain Barreault was unable to answer.
L’Insurgente then threw off every disguise, and, setting the French ensign, ran off and fired a gun to windward, which meant, in sailor language, that he was ready for a yardarm to yardarm fight.
Captain Truxtun set an American ensign at every masthead and came on, the Frenchman waiting on an easy bowline, for his enemy.
The Americans, both officers and men, showed the most cheerful ardor to engage, and the two ships went at it with equal spirit.
When within hailing distance the Frenchman hailed; but disregarding this, Captain Truxtun came on until he was abeam of his adversary.
Then he let fly his broadside, and the Frenchman answered him promptly.
Captain Truxtun discovered that he had no fool to play with in Captain Barreault, and for an hour the Frenchman gave the Constellation all she could do. But by that time the superior metal of the Constellation began to tell.
The Frenchman aimed at the spars and rigging, and the foretopmast of the Constellation was badly wounded.
The officer in the foretop was Midshipman David Porter, afterward the celebrated captain, and, seeing that the foretopmast was likely to fall, with all the men in the hamper, he hailed the deck to report the damage.
So furious was the cannonade, though, that his voice could not be heard.
He therefore gave orders on his own account to cut away the stoppers and lower the topsail yard, and by his promptness the spar as well as the men in the top were saved.
The Americans aimed at the hull, and in an hour L’Insurgente was riddled like a sieve.
The Constellation then shot ahead, and, luffing across the Frenchman’s bows, was ready with every gun to rake him, when Captain Barreault, seeing his hopeless condition, struck his colors.
The captured frigate was sent into St. Kitts with only two midshipmen, Porter and Rodgers, and eleven men, to keep one hundred and seventy three Frenchmen below the hatches.
This they did, besides managing the ship in a hard gale, and took her in triumph to St. Kitts within four days.
The Constellation Copper Medal shows below images of a medal from Congress honoring Thomas Truxton.