April 14th, 2013

Beyond the Ocean's Edge

An Identity Problem

I know I've fallen off of my routine of posting something at least once a week.  I've been fairly busy, and over the past week or so, haven't felt really good.  Nasty head cold combined with a chest cold.

Anyway, I think I've mentioned that I'm currently reading Ships of Oak: Guns of Iron, by Robert Utt.  It's a detailed history of the War of 1812, and while it covers primarily the war at sea, it also deals with the land campaigns and the naval engagements on the Great Lakes.  A couple of days ago I came across a passage that seems to be indicative of a common misconception regarding the warships participating in that conflict.

At this point, I don't remember what vessel the author was talking about, but he says that the ship (a smaller sloop or commerce raider) disguised itself as a British vessel by painting its white gun port stripe yellow.  I also remember reading someplace that prior to the battle with HMS Levant and HMS Cyane, USS Constitution also marauded as a British man-of-war by having a yellow stripe.  However, other sources, including Howard Chappelle's History of the American Sailing Navy tell me that yellow was the common color for gun port stripes at that time.  The most telling difference between the two services was in how the gun port lids were painted.  British ships commonly had the lids painted a contrasting color, black or dark red, giving rise to the familiar Nelson "checkerboard" affect.  US ships usually painted the lids the same color as the stripe, so that when ports were closed there would be a continuous length of yellow along the hull.  According to Chappelle, the yellow became lighter over the years, and by 1830 or so, US ships now had white stripes.  It may well be that Royal Navy ships also came to have white stripes as the 19th century progressed.

I wonder if some of this idea that American ships had white stripes and British ships had yellow might stem from the current paint schemes employed on those iconic vessels that survive from those times.  Today, USS Constitution's outer hull is basically black and white.  The black of the hull is offset by a white gun port stripe, and even head timbers and other decorative features are highlighted in white.  HMS Victory sports the black and yellow scheme popularly associated with the Royal Navy at that time.

There also may have been more variety in the way ships of the time were painted within each of the services than one would expect today.  Captains had a bigger say in how their ships were decorated and often followed personal tastes and used personal resources in  painting the vessels they were assigned to.