Introduction to Afloat and Ashore (1844)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: Afloat and Ashore Cooper’s first “autobiographical” style of novel; Cooper’s boyhood familiarity with the Hudson River and Long Island; Revolutionary war engagement between the Trumbull and the Watt [quotation]; Afloat and Ashore truthfully depicts maritime life in the 1790s; meeting of the Tigris and the Ganges, the first American man-of-war after the Revolution; novel ends with the hero apparently drowning.

Household Edition, p. [ix]

A SERIES of Naval Biographies wore written during the years 1842, 1843, and 1844, or within the same period that produced the “Two Admirals,” “Wing and Wing,” and “Wyandotté,” a pioneer tale of the West.

“Afloat and Ashore” was written in 1844. It was an autobiography, and the first attempt at that form of narrative, by the same pen. The interest of these volumes flows from the series of sketches connected with the earliest years of the country in its existence as an independent nation, both afloat and ashore. The scene opens on a farm, lying on the western bank of the Hudson, and belonging to Ulster County, in the year 1794, at a day when the ripe grain and fragrant swathes of grass fell before long rows of reapers and mowers, slowly treading the fields at a rhythmic pace; when foaming waters moved the mill wheel; when milk-maids were seen in barn-yards; a period, in short, preceding the unpicturesque modern era of the mowing machine, the steam-mill, and the cheese factory. The few touches of farm life given in the autobiography were such as the author had been familiar with in his own youth. He knew the older counties in the State of New York, as well as the new region around Lake Otsego. Those older counties were few indeed, in the writer’s boyhood; in the year 1794 there were just a score of counties, all told; today it requires a severe lesson in geography to name and bound all the sixty counties of the State. With the noble banks of the Hudson, the pleasant homes of Westchester, and the [x] level fields of Long Island, the author was familiar; and it was an amusement to recall a state of things very different, in many respects, from that which existed when he sat st his writing-table in the library of Otsego Hall, some fifty years later.

But from the Ulster County farm we are soon taken to sea, We follow young Wallingford, his friend Rupert, and the negro Ned, on hoard an Indiaman, the John. We are no longer “ashore.” And once “afloat,” we have no lack of stirring adventures, all tinged with the marine coloring of the period, and all interesting from their variety.

From the opening page of the book we learn that young Wallingford’s father had seen service at sea in the years of the Revolution. He had been, we are told, in the action of the Trumbull and the Watt. We are, many of us, growing sadly forgetful of the naval battles of the Revolution, with the exception of the brilliant victory won on the decks of the Bonhomme Richard, which can never be forgotten. But Mr. Cooper calls the battle of the Trumbull with the Watt the hardest fought naval combat of the war. Let us look at his record of the struggle, taken from the “History of the Navy.”

“The first action of moment that occurred this year — 1780 — between any United States vessel and the enemy, has the reputation of having been one of the most hotly and obstinately contested combats of the war. June 2, 1750, the Trumbull 28, then under the command of Captain James Nicholson, the senior officer of the navy, while cruising in latitude 35° 54’, longitude 66° W., made a strange sail to windward from the mast-heads, The Trumbull immediately furled all her canvas, in the hope of drawing the stranger down upon her before she should he seen. At eleven, the stranger was made out to he a large ship, steering for the Trumbull’s quarter; hut soon hauling more astern, sail was got on the American ship to close. After some manoeuvring, in order to try the rate of sailing and to get a view of the stranger’s broadside, the Trumbull took [xi] in her light sails, hauled up her courses, the chase all this time betraying no desire to avoid an action, but standing directly for her adversary. When near enough the Trumbull filled, and, outsailing the stranger, she easily fetched to windward of her. The chase now fired three guns, showed English colors, and edged away, under short sail, evidently with an intention to pursue her course.

“Captain Nicholson harangued his men, and then made sail to bring his ship up with the enemy. When about a hundred yards distant the English ship fired a broadside, and the action began in good earnest. For two hours and a half the vessels lay nearly abeam of each other, giving and receiving broadsides without intermission. At no time were they half a cable’s length asunder, and more than once the yards nearly interlocked. Twice was the Trumbull set on fire by the wads of the enemy, and once the enemy suffered in the same way. At last the fire of the Englishman slackened sensibly, until it nearly ceased.

“Captain Nicholson now felt satisfied he should make a prize of his antagonist, and was encouraging his people with that hope, when a report was brought to him that the main-mast was tottering, and that if it went while near the enemy his ship would probably be the sacrifice. Anxious to secure the spar, sail was made and the Trumbull shot ahead again, her superiority in sailing being very decided. She was soon clear of her adversary, who made no effort to molest her. The vessels, however, were scarcely musket-shot apart, when the main and mitten topmasts of the Trumbull went over the side, and, in spite of every effort to secure them, spar after spar came down, until nothing was left but the foremast. Under such circumstances, the enemy, who manifested no desire to profit by her advantage, went off on her proper course. Before she was out of sight her main topmast also was seen to fall.

“It was afterward ascertained that the ship engaged by the Trumbull was a letter of marque called the Watt, Captain Coulthard, a vessel of size that had been expressly [xii] equipped to fight her way. Her force is not mentioned in the English accounts, but her commander, in his narrative of the affair, in which he claims the victory, admits his loss to have been 92 men, in killed and wounded. Captain Nicholson estimates her force at 34 or 36 guns, mostly twelve-pounders; and he states that of the Trumbull to have been 24 twelve-pounders, and 6 sixes, with 199 souls on board when the action commenced. The Trumbull lost 39 in killed and wounded, among the former of whom were two lieutenants. In the way of a regular cannonade, this combat is generally thought to have been the severest that was fought at sea in the war of the Revolution. There is no question of the superiority of the Watt in everything but sailing, she having been essentially the largest and strongest ship, besides carrying more guns and men than her opponent. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining seamen, which has been so often mentioned, the Trumbull’s crew was composed, in a great degree, of raw hands, and Captain Nicholson states particularly that many of his people were suffering under sea-sickness when they went to their guns.” [James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839), Vol. I, Chapter 11, pp. 218-220]

Sea-sick while preparing for such a fierce struggle! To use a word, unworthy, perhaps, but for which just now we have no better substitute, there was pluck, — whatever be the word expressing the quality itself, in that quality Americans have never yet been wanting, — not even when sea-sick, as it mould appear from history!

The pictures of marine life in “Afloat and Ashore” were truthfully sketched, and tinged with the peculiar coloring of the period, in accordance with facts which his own memory recalled, or from incidents related to him by older seamen, who had been either in the navy or in the merchant service during those critical years. It was indeed a period of peculiar naval activity. The development of our own merchant service was very rapid, from the moment the Republic had secured a flag of its own to sail under. The general convulsions in Europe, especially the naval warfare between [xiii] France and England, connected with the facts of the number of American merchantmen already at sea, and the want of a navy to protect them, led, of course, to gross abuses of power on the part of the two chief belligerents, as regarded the youngest of all the maritime nations of the century. Powerful, and one may say tyrannical, hostile fleets were cruising in every known sea; privateers and letters of marque, both English and French, mere scattered over the ocean, hovering about every coast in search of prey; Barbary pirates were working their lawless will on the African and Spanish coasts; corsairs and pirates only a degree more lawless were numerous in the Indies, East and West, and amid all these perils young Wallingford steers his may with a simple, manly, unpretending gallantry which commands our respect and our sympathy for the hero of “Afloat and Ashore.” Many, and very varied in character, are his adventures.

The interest in this sea tale does not centre on one or two vessels, as in the “Pilot,” the “Red Rover,” the “Water-Witch,” or “Wing-and-Wing.” A dozen different crafts are named, and we are led to follow the manoeuvres of each, with more or less of sympathy, as they pass to and fro over half the seas of the globe; now cast away, like the John, on the coast of Madagascar; now in the hands of the savages on the northwest coast, like the Crisis; now in the Pretty Polly, pearl fishing; now in the Dawn in the Dardanelles; now in the Tigris, meeting by a happy chance the first man-of-war that was ever sent to sea under the American flag after the Revolution.

The Tigris had reached the capes of Virginia on her return voyage. Here she fell in with a large vessel, looking strangely like the Ganges, a well-known Indiaman, belonging to the port of Philadelphia, a sister craft of her own; and yet to the experienced eye of the captain of the Tigris she showed many signs of change. The stranger threw a shot under the fore-foot of the Tigris, and hoisted the American pennant and ensign. It was now seen that she was a [xiv] man-of-war, and an American. A few months earlier there had been not one vessel of war bearing the American flag at sea.

“Is not that the Tigris?” demanded a voice through a trumpet.

“Aye, aye! What ship is that?”

“The United States ship Ganges, Captain Dale; from the capes of the Delaware, bound on a cruise.”

 [James Fenimore Cooper, Afloat and Ashore [1844] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861), Chapter 6, p. 104]

Here was the explanation; the Ganges, recently an Indiaman, had been adopted into the navy, armed and manned, and was actually the first man-of-war of the newly organized American navy that carried the flag of the country to sea. Her commander was the brave Captain Dale, so well-known at a later day as Commodore Dale. She first put to sea, May 22, 1798. The principal facts of the incident are a part of history, however much of fiction may have been connected with the cruise of the Tigris.

After wandering over half the seas on the globe in safety, our friend Miles Wallingford is left, at the close of the first part of the narrative, sinking in the waters of the Hudson, — almost within sight of his own farm, and sinking for the third time, too, — after a manly effort to save the life of a rival in love.