Charles Stewart (1778–1869)
Charles Stewart (28 July 1778 – 6 November 1869) was an officer in the United States Navy who commanded a number of US Navy ships, including the USS Constitution. He saw service during the Quasi War and both Barbary Wars in Mediterranean along North Africa and the War of 1812. He later commanded the navy yard in Philadelphia and was the promoted to become the Navy's first flag officer shortly before retiring. He was promoted to rear admiral after he retired from the Navy. He lived a long life and was the last surviving Navy captain who had served in the War of 1812.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Stewart attended Dr. Abercrombie's Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia where he met Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers. He went to sea at the age of thirteen as a cabin boy and rose through the grades to become master of a merchantman. In 1798, at age 19, he was commissioned in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant.
During the Quasi-War with France, Stewart was one of the first officers in the rebirth of the United States Navy. He was commissioned a lieutenant on 9 March 1798 and joined the frigate United States, under the command of John Barry, as fourth lieutenant for a cruise in the West Indies. Stewart was in charge of the ship's outfitting and recruiting of crew.
After brief command of Chesapeake in 1801 and service in Constellation in 1802, Stewart sailed to the Mediterranean in command of the brig Syren. He was promoted to master-commandant on 19 May 1804. There, he participated in the destruction of Philadelphia after her capture by Tripoli, helped to maintain the blockade of Tripoli, and distinguished himself in assaults on the enemy in August and September 1804. After the First Barbary War, he participated in a show of force at Tunis and returned home in 1806. He was promoted to captain on April 22 of the same year, and would hold that rank for over 50 years.
During the War of 1812, Stewart commanded, successively, Argus, Hornet, and Constellation. Since Constellation was closely blockaded in Norfolk by the British, he took command of Constitution at Boston in 1813. He made two brilliant cruises in her between 1813 and 1815.
Under Stewart's command, the Constitution captured HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on 20 February 1815. The Treaty of Paris, ending the War of 1812, had been signed earlier that month but both sides in the battle were unaware of that event. By capturing two British warships with a single ship of his own, Stewart became a national hero and was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal on 22 February 1816. He was also admitted as an honorary member of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati in the same year.
In 1836 Stewart saw service in the West Indies and commanded a vessel that captured a Portuguese slaver ship as it came into Havana. Before Stewart's boarding crew took control of the ship the commander of the vessel jumped overboard, swam ashore and escaped. On board the captured ship were 250 surviving negro children, many others having died from lack of water during the voyage. Outraged at the conditions and health of the children Stewart informed British commissioner Kennedy in Havana of the dire situation.
In the later years of his career, Stewart commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard from 1838 to 1841, in 1846, and again from 1853 to 1861.
By a bill passed on 2 March 1859, Congress made Stewart “senior flag officer” on 22 April 1859, a rank created for him in recognition of his distinguished and meritorious service. He was placed on the retired list on 21 December 1861 after serving 63 years in the Navy. His age at the time of his retirement was 83 years, 4 months and 24 days – making him the oldest officer on active duty in the history of the U.S. Navy. He was promoted to rear admiral on the retired list on 16 July 1862.
Shortly before his death, Stewart was elected a companion of the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. He was assigned insignia number 1119.
Several of Stewart's nephews served in the Navy, including Commodore Charles Stewart McCauley.
His grandson, Charles Stewart Parnell, was a prominent Irish political leader who fought for Irish home rule until his death in 1891.
Dates of Rank
- Lieutenant, USN – 9 March 1798
- Captain, USN – 22 April 1806
- Senior Flag Officer, USN – 2 March 1859
- Retired List – 21 December 1861
- Rear Admiral, USN (Retired) – 16 July 1862
- Died – 6 November 1869
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