Monday, January 28, 2013

People: The Face of a Hero

I don't know many people who are involved in the business of history, if such it can be called, that are particularly interested in what the people whose era they are focusing on looked like. I have read many an unfortunately dry history book that treats the people it is allegedly informing us about like faceless automatons. It is an unfortunate problem that, I personally believe, contributes to the overt hatred of history that so many students suffer from.

For writers of historical fiction, artists and true lovers of particular historical figures, what our ancestors looked like is not only necessary to know, it can become an obsession. That's why this brief but wonderfully informative post over at Face 2 Face, the blog of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, fascinates the heck out of me.

The tale of Commodore William Bainbridge, one of the first fighting captains in the U.S. Navy, is full of dizzying highs and claustrophobic lows. Bainbridge commanded the schooner Retaliation when she became the first ship lost to an enemy by the U.S. during the Quasi-War with France. He bore the ignominy of having to fly the Algerian flag at the masthead of the frigate George Washington while transporting the Dey of that country. Finally, back on Barbary shores once again, his ship Philadelphia grounded in Tripoli harbor and the Commodore and his men were taken prisoner and enslaved for a brief but no doubt brutal time.

After each incident, Bainbridge was exonerated by the navy board. It is a sure thing, however, that his own conscience was not so easily cleared. Finally, after a stint captaining merchant vessels, Bainbridge was given command of USS Constitution shortly after the start of the War of 1812. Taking her out of Boston, Bainbridge had the good fortune to encounter, engage and capture HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. Those who are familiar with Patrick O'Brian will remember his skillful description of the engagement - which Jack Aubrey witnesses as a passenger aboard Java - in The Fortunes of War.

This brilliant victory turned Bainbridge into a celebrity, something he honestly loved. As noted in the post, Bainbridge wrote to a friend the "the applause of my countrymen has for me greater charms than all the gold that glitters."

All that said, the most striking things about Matthew Brenckle's discussion of the Commodore are - at least for me - the startlingly immediate portrait above and this contemporary description of Bainbridge:

[He] was six feet in height, and had a finely molded and muscular frame, which enabled him to endure any amount of fatigue. His complexion was rather fair, his beard dark and strong, his eyes black, animated, and expressive. His deportment was commanding, his dress always neat; his temperament was ardent and somewhat impetuous, though he could quality it with the greatest courtesy and the most attractive amenity.

Those two put together describe a true American hero who succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 61 calling for his sword in readiness to board the enemy.

Update: for more on portraiture in the U.S. during this era, see this post over at Log Lines regarding the Nation Portrait Gallery's current exhibit "1812: A Nation Emerges."

Header: Commodore William Bainbridge by Rembrandt Peale


Calliope Street said...

Thankee, P. What a great post. I got very interested in the "USS Philadelphia" story lately after encountering two fine portraits of early 19th C. naval heroes in our own collection who were involved in the re-capture attempt. I'll send jpegs tomorrow via e-mail. Maybe grist for a future post on that fabulous era.

I am shamefully overdue in thanking you for the "Sea Rover's Practice," which arrived beautifully wrapped and bookmarked. I was pleased as well to see that the author is a fellow Tulane alum. It's now tops on my bedside book pile and soon I will go a-roving. You are so kind to your loyal readers. Many thanks! A.

Timmy! said...

Huzzah! for Commodore Bainbridge, Pauline!

Pauline said...

Arthur: One of my favorite U.S. Navy men of all time, Commodore David Porter (Jr.), was a Lieutenant aboard USS Philadelphia when she was captured by the Tripolitans. During the crew's captivity, Bainbridge put Porter in charge of the midshipmen who were at risk of particular abuse. Porter did this duty so thoroughly that he became a target of the Tripolitans hatred and was beaten severely on regular occasions.

Porter later went on to serve as the first Commodore of the New Orleans Naval Station and a hero of the War of 1812. Perhaps ironically, he died while serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

But enough rambling. I'm so pleased to know that you received the book in good shape. I hope you enjoy it; Mr. Little is a favorite author, as I've said before.

Timmy!: The Commodore knew better fortune later in life. I hope both you and I will be able to say that, too.