The Life of a Sailor
Learn about the life of a sailor
during the War of 1812
by clicking on a topic below.
| Duties | Activities | Military Ships
Provisions | Clothing
Life of a seaman - Jobs
The jobs of a seaman aboard a schooner were many.
Most merchant schooners carried a Captain or Sailing Master, who was sometimes the owner
of the vessel. The mate was second-in-command, and was usually responsible for a crew of 3
- 4 seamen and a cabin boy. Any one of these people could assume the role of pilot, and
the boy often acted as cook, although some vessels had a full-time cook on board. The
"boy" was just a title - the person could be a grown man or woman.
Life of a Seaman - Duties
The crew's duties required a lot of muscle, for
raising the masts, hoisting the anchor, and manning the winches that loaded cargo on
board. You also would not want to be afraid of heights!
A crew member's day was divided
into watches, with each crew member alternating four hour on and four hours off. The night
watches were taxing on the seamen, who often had trouble staying awake.
A cold, windy night watch on board ship
When they were not sailing, the seamen
had to help maintain the ship. The rigging had to be repaired, and the masts had to be
oiled. The flax sails also had to be repaired and maintained. Every ship, no matter how
well built, still took on water, so the ship had to be pumped every day. And, at least
once a year, the ship was re-caulked, tarred and painted.
Life of a Seaman - Military Ships / Gun Loading
The regular duties
of a seaman were increased if the vessel was in military service. In addition to their
regular positions, some men on military vessels were assigned to a gun. In times of war,
the gun crew spent the night sleeping beside their gun (as did Ned Myers and his guncrew -
click here for the whole story). The Scourge carried
enough men to fire all the guns on one side of the ship. Each gun crew had a captain; on
the night that the Scourge capsized, Ned Myers was a gun crew captain. The gun
captain commanded the crew on where to point the gun and when to fire, with each crew
member being assigned a specific role in the loading and firing sequence. Some of the
steps in this sequence would include:
Loosing the gun from its lashings.
Removing the tompion.
Loading the gun by pushing a flannel bag of gunpowder into the bore, followed by a shot, and finally a wad to prevent the shot from rolling out.
This would be rammed as tightly as possible into the gun.
Gun implements. From top to bottom:
Canister; Gun Worm; Gun Ladle; Another Gun Worm; Rope Rammer;
Chain Shot (bottom left) and Bar Shot (bottom right)
A Loaded Cannon: The first object loaded into the gun is the cartridge, followed
by the ball, and then finally a wad. The touch-hole, or vent, connects
from the outside to the cartridge.
Once loaded, the gun was then
"run out" of the gunport (each cannon could
roll or slide back onto the deck for loading).
The cartridge was pricked by a wire through the
touch-hole on the top of the cannon, and then the touch-hole itself was filled with gun
Once the gun was aimed, the gun's captain fired it
by touching a glowing match to the touch hole, being sure to leap away from the gun to
avoid the recoil after the gun fired.
After firing, the gun was rolled back onto the deck
and "sponged" to extinguish any remaining fire (if fire remained, the gun could
go off before the loading sequence was complete).
Then the gun could be loaded again.
To read about a crew in action,
check out gun captain Ned Myers' account of the sinking of the Scourge. Click here.
Life of a Seaman - Provisions
Captains had to feed and provision their crews. On
March 15, 1812, Commodore Woolsey ordered food for the men
stationed at Sackets Harbor. For a year's worth
of supplies for 120 men, he ordered:
"74 barrels of beef, 70 barrels of pork, 24
barrels of flour, 27500 pounds of bread, 1600 pounds of cheese, 650 pounds of butter, 2064
gallons of whiskey, 286 gallons of vinegar and 72 bushels of beans."
Life of a Seaman - Clothing
The crew of the Hamilton and Scourge had
to purchase their "slops", or working uniforms, from the ship's purser. Many sailors made their own clothes, because the
purser was allowed to mark up the cost of slop clothing and keep the profit for himself. A
contemporary list of slop clothing included:
Common hats, pea jackets, cloth jackets, duck
jackets, cloth and duck trousers, duck frocks, Guernsey frocks, check shirts, shoes,
stockings, blankets, mattresses.
Life of a Seaman - Entertainment and Seasonal Activities
In the winter, when the lake was frozen, sailing
activities were at a standstill. The ships were wintered by dismantling the riggings and
covering the hulls of the ship with planks to keep off the snow and preserve the decks.
According to Ned Myers,
"the winter lasted more than four months, and we made good times of it. We often went
after wood, and occasionally we knocked over a deer. We had a target out on the lake, and
this we practices on, making ourselves rather expert cannoneers. Now and then they rowed
us out on a false alarm, but I know of no serious attempts being made by the enemy to
At other times in the year, there were still moments of
repose and entertainment, but the sailors and commanding officers found that entertaining
in the manner to which they were accustomed was more difficult in this frontier
When the Oneida was launched
on March 31, 1809, a ball was held which exemplifies the problems:
"Building a brig hundreds of miles from a
ship-yard was a trifle compared to the attempt to give a ball in the wilderness.
True, one fiddle and a half a dozen officers were something to open the ball with;
refreshments and a military ball-room might also be hoped for, but where, pray, were the
ladies to come from? The officers declared that they would not dance with each
other. Ladies must be found .... At length, by dint of sending boats miles in one
direction, and carts miles in another, the feat was accomplished; ladies were invited, and
Read Ned Myers' account
of ship duties just before the Sinking
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