RANSOME’S CROSSING: I Love a Man in Uniform
Of course, we can’t have any action taking place aboard a ship without knowing something about the men crewing it. As with the modern military, there were commissioned and non-commissioned officers, as well as the general rank-and-file sailors—most of whom, until just before Ransome’s Honor opened, were “pressed” (or forced/conscripted) into service. Press gangs would literally go into towns and round up the men who were young/strong/healthy enough to serve. Remember that in 1814 (until Bonaparte was exiled to Elba in April), England was fighting two wars—the Napoleonic War and the War of 1812 with America. By this time, England had been in an almost constant state of war since the American Revolutionary War—mostly with France, but a pretty good chunk of that was with America as well. So volunteers for service were scarce.
(Be warned—this is going to be a LONG post)
For a commissioned officer, there was a very clear path of advancement:
Volunteer—(boys as young as 7 or 8 years old, up to about 11—for families without connections, though the ages could vary if these were servants and not aspiring officers). These were the “powder monkeys”—they had the extremely dangerous job of running the gun powder from the magazine to the gun crews during drill or battle. They might also serve as cabin boy for the captain, who was allowed 4 servants for every 100 men on his ship; if the captain was knighted, as Julia’s father was, his allotment was doubled. Servant posts were granted to lieutenants and masters—which meant they could use those positions to get their own sons/nephews/godsons/etc. aboard to enter the service. Volunteers in training to become midshipmen wore midshipmen’s uniforms; the rest wore the more random clothing allowed for the common sailors.
Midshipman—(boys ages 12–18*—a young man could begin as a midshipman with patronage**) The senior midshipman (the oldest with the most years of service) was the captain of the watch and stationed on the quarterdeck, the rest of the midshipman worked under his command (the number depended on the size of the ship and if they were split into two or three watches). Their duties included using the flags to signal other ships, recording soundings, marking the ship’s log board, running messages between the lieutenants and captain, and, occasionally, commanding the ship’s boats. At midday, using sextants or quadrants, they took observations to mark the ship’s position and determine noon. They had to record everything—as the captain reviewed their log books daily. During action (battle, drill, or making adjustments to the sails), midshipmen were needed aloft at each mast to relay orders from the deck to the sailors who lined the yardarms working with the sails. Each midshipman oversaw and commanded one or two gun crews (depending on the size of the ship). This involved ensuring that the men in his division had sufficient clean clothing, that those who were sick reported were on the sick list, that all gunnery equipment and powder cartridges were at hand and that the guns under his charge were ready for action. When not on duty, midshipmen spent most of their downtime studying: navigation, higher math (trigonometry), and seamanship—as well as filling out their log books.
- *Midshipmen could range up to thirty or forty years old, or older, if they couldn’t pass the examination for lieutenancy.
**Patronage meant the family had connections with a superior officer, usually a captain or higher, who could place the boy on a ship as a midshipman without his having to go as a volunteer at a younger age. In the Ransome series, William and his brothers entered the Royal Navy as midshipmen at the age of twelve because of their father’s long service in the navy and his good relationship with three captains he’d served under, including Julia’s father, then-Captain Edward Witherington. Patronage was important through all the steps of promotion and in getting a “good” ship.
In this image from Master & Commander, you can clearly see the midshipmen’s uniforms—tall round hat, indigo coat with white patches on the collar and brass buttons at the cuff, ivory waistcoat, white ruffled blouse with black neckcloth, belt with scabbard for a cutlass, and pants—obviously that’s where the rules ended. Behind them, you see the varying dress of the common sailors—and one marine in a red coat.
Lieutenant—At age 19 and with at least six years of service (though with patronage, some boys were allowed to take the examination earlier), a midshipman could stand for the lieutenancy examination—an oral exam in front of a board of three senior captains. After reviewing the candidate’s log books (journals) and certificates of service, they questioned him on seamanship, including duties when under sail as well as his knowledge of the technicalities of being on board ship—like splicing lines and reefing sails. He was tested on navigation, dead reckoning, calculating compass variations, understanding of tides, and sun/moon observations. His disciplinary record was also considered. If the candidate passed (or knew someone on the board who could get him through even if he didn’t actually pass), he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant; however, this depended on there being a vacant spot for a lieutenant available. Until he could get a post as a lieutenant on a ship, he would remain a midshipman, drawing a midshipman’s pay and continuing doing a midshipman’s duty and living in the midshipmen’s berth, until he got a position on his or another ship. That’s why patronage was so important.
Lieutenants were ranked on a ship in order of their commission date—the date they passed their examination. The first lieutenant was the one with the most seniority. There was no age limit for first lieutenants—sometimes, they were decades older than their captains if they never distinguished themselves in any way and didn’t have patronage and thus could not secure promotion and their own command. The larger the ship, the more lieutenants she needed (in the Ransome series, Alexandra, a 74-gun, 3rd rate ship, has six lieutenants; Audacious, a 64-gun, 3rd rate ship, has five). Lieutenants ensured the ship maintained its correct bearing; saw to the disposition of the sails; made sure the midshipmen, mates, and seamen under his command were attending to their duties and not slacking off; determined when the captain should be called on deck in case of any problems, unusual occurrences, ship sightings, or sudden changes in weather. The first lieutenant was directly responsible to the captain for overseeing the ship and its crew. He determined the watches and battle stations; he drew up the berthing chart. He was responsible for the cleanliness of the ship as well as maintaining discipline. He did not keep a watch, as the rest of the lieutenants did. And, most importantly, if the captain fell in battle, he instantly assumed command of the vessel.
The lieutenants berthed in the wardroom, as discussed in Tuesday’s post.
In this image from one of the Hornblower films, we see an image of the lieutenant’s uniform. Notice the white piping around the lapels, the cut-away (tailed), double-breasted design, and the bicorn hat—worn fore-and-aft, rather than athwartsship (side to side) as they were at the turn of the century. In this image, which is from a film set several years before the Ransome series takes place, Hornblower has an epaulette on his left shoulder as a commander; in 1812, the uniform regulations changed so that lieutenants wore an unornamented epaulette on their right shoulders as the mark of their rank. As with the midshipmen’s uniforms, the style and color of pants was determined by the officer.
Commander—The rank of commander was a temporary rank (the commander still held the commission of lieutenant and drew a lieutenant’s pay) but, as the title suggests, this was an officer who was now in command of a vessel—one of the smallest frigates or sloops in the Royal Navy—likely one small enough to necessitate only one or two lieutenants and a half dozen or so midshipmen. He had his own cabin and, aboard his ship, had all the privileges of rank, including being called “captain.” (By 1830, the rank of “commander” had replaced the rank of “first lieutenant”; thus a commander was the first officer serving on a ship under a captain.) In 1812, the uniform of a commander was the same as a captain, but with only one epaulette, now on the left shoulder.
On the right is an example of a commander’s uniform—with the epaulette on the left shoulder. Note the slight differences between the commander’s uniform (Hornblower) and the lieutenant’s (just imagine an epaulette on Bush’s right shoulder).
Post Captain—Most post captains held the position of commander before being promoted to the rank of post captain, though it wasn’t unheard of for first lieutenants to be promoted to this rank if he greatly distinguished himself in battle or had good patronage (or his captain died—in which case, he basically was serving as commander until his promotion was confirmed). Pay for a captain was directly proportional to the size of his ship—the bigger the ship, the more he got paid (creating quite a bit of competition for patronage and upward mobility in the fleet). He also got a much larger percentage of the prize money from any vessels they captured in battle. He was answerable only to his squadron commander—a commodore or admiral—he held total supremacy over everything that happened on his ship.
Captains had two uniforms—undress and dress. The “undress” uniform was the daily-wear uniform, which, technically, were only supposed to be worn on duty (they were supposed to wear civilian clothing when not on duty), but Ciaran Hinds looked so good in the uniform as my favorite Austen hero, Frederick Wentworth, I can forgive the filmmakers for overlooking that rule:
Here you see quite a difference between the “undress” and the “dress” uniform. Notice the gold braiding along the lapels, collar, cuffs, and even the rim of the hat.
Commodore—Like commander, commodore was a temporary rank. A commodore held the rank (and drew the pay) of post captain but had been put in charge of a small squadron or on-shore division/post. The commodore had his own pendant (pennant) that he flew from his mast, its color referencing the senior admiral to whom he reported. He was able to give commands to the captains of the ships in his group; they, in turn, had to carry them out, irrespective of their own seniority (this was the only time that a captain of fewer years’ experience could give a more experienced captain orders). The rank of commodore was important, especially during war time, when an admiral needed reconnaissance or needed an attack made that didn’t require his entire fleet. Or, as in William’s case, if the admiral needed a captain to escort a large convoy of supply ships somewhere.
In addition to more command responsibility and superior officer status over the captains attached to him, the commodore was allowed to wear an admiral’s uniform. Here’s an example of the commodore/admiral’s undress (frock) coat:
The main difference between an admiral’s undress uniform and the captain’s undress uniform is that the captain merely has the row of brass buttons around the cuff and the commodore/admiral has gold braid on the sleeve as well. As this is a picture of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s frock, it carries the ornamentation (badges) of all of his titles and orders.
Admiral—There was a hierarchical structure for admirals—three divisions with three ranks in each. The entire naval fleet was divided into three squadrons, each assigned a color: blue, white, or red. Admirals were divided into three ranks: rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral. The admiral had overall command of the squadron, vice admiral his second in command, and the rear admiral . . . well, he brought up the rear. In the Ransome series, Julia’s father, Admiral Sir Edward Witherington, holds the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue, the lowest rank amongst the admirals. The seniority was as follows (from lowest to highest):
Rear Admiral of the Blue
Rear Admiral of the White
Rear Admiral of the Red
Vice Admiral of the Blue
Vice Admiral of the White
Vice Admiral of the Red
Admiral of the Blue
Admiral of the White
Admiral of the Red
Admiral of the Fleet
Talk about your gold braid! Here, Hornblower’s Admiral Pellew (a.k.a. Admiral Sir Edward Witherington) displays a full admiral’s regalia—complete with the insignia of his knighthood (the red sash and starburst-like emblem on his chest).