Born in Philadelphia in 1778, Charles Stewart grew up in America’s largest city at the time. It was not only our new country’s capital but was a shipping nexus that propelled its center of trade. The maritime character of the city heavily influenced Stewart’s life. His father was a shipmaster that passed away when Stewart was three years of age. His mother remarried and his stepfather was a prominent ship owner that taught him how to observe and maintain such finely-crafted sailing vessels. At the age of twelve, his stepfather got him a job as a cabin boy aboard a ship that he owned. Known as the Loraine, the young lad was constantly in motion repairing any rigging and sails, cleaning the deck, and ensuring that the integrity of the wooden hull was devoid of leaks. This knowledge as well as business and math classes at the Episcopal Academy provided the necessary means in learning about the maritime trade.
In March of 1798, one month before the US Congress established the Department of the Navy, nineteen-year-old Stewart received a naval appointment as fourth lieutenant on the forty-four gun frigate, the USS United States. This was one of six frigates authorized by Congress in 1794 to be constructed for naval warfare. The other vessels were President, Chesapeake, Congress, Constellation and Constitution.
Serving under the command of Senior Captain John Barry, the United States participated in an undeclared war known as the Quasi War in which American merchant ships were frequently attacked and raided by French privateers. Ordered to patrol islands along the West Indies, the frigate and crew weren’t intimidated with any major altercations. This display of exemplary leadership led Stewart to assume command of his first warship two years later with the schooner USS Experiment.
While operating in the Caribbean, the ship encountered and captured the eight-gun French privateer les Deux Amis and the armed French schooner Diane. These naval feats garnered attention among his contemporaries to the point that he was retained on the active service list during the Barbary Wars.
Following the command of another frigate, the USS Chesapeake, Stewart earned a commission as captain. At this juncture, he left the service in order to pursue business opportunities in the maritime trade. Almost every voyage that he set on, he would arrive in port with a small fortune. However, these endeavors did not last long and he returned to duty in 1812 to fight against British aggression during the Second War of American Independence. Within the year, he took to the sea to command the USS Argus and USS Hornet off the Atlantic coast and then was ordered to step aboard the USS Constellation to defend the riverfront harbor of Norwalk, Virginia and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. However, Stewart restrained from taking any course of military action as he was greeted by a flotilla of enemy frigates blocking the harbor.
In May of 1813, he was directed to take charge of the USS Constitution which was being fitted in her home port of Boston. This armed warship was like no other and was constructed for speed that would enable her to outmaneuver any opponent on the open waters. She was known as “Old Ironsides” after an 1812 battle on the high seas in which shot fired from her opponent, the HMS Guerriere, bounced off her sides as if they were made of iron. Her hull was protected by more than 20 inches of live oak planking while treenails fashioned from locust were driven into the mighty timbers of her frame. Her length was 204 feet and displaced 2,200 tons. Thirty six sails made of flax covered an area of 42,720 square feet. Over two miles of hemp rope facilitated the complexity of the rigging and sails. Her impressive speed sliced through water like a knife at thirteen and a half knots.
As the Constitution spent many months in dry dock, Stewart was introduced to a Boston socialite by the name of Delia Tudor. Known for her lavish lifestyle, Delia quickly latched onto the gallant officer as a way to maintain her status in society. Although Stewart received great nautical training, female companionship was an art that he never mastered. In spite of their personality rifts, they were married on November 25, 1813 at Trinity Church in Boston.
By 1814, Stewart was relieved to set sail. Picking up the westerly blowing trade winds, the Constitution with a crew of 451 men, traveled along the South American coast. After chasing several British ships, it followed a northern direction through Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Bermuda before turning east to Portugal. Despite its commerce-raiding patrols that year, the frigate witnessed few engagements.
This changed on February 20, 1815 when the Constitution sighted and pursued the 34-gun HMS Cyane and the 20-gun sloop HMS Levant off the Madeira Islands near the northwestern coast of Africa. Originally separated, the ships sailed close to the Constitution for an attack. Broadsides were exchanged but the enemy’s short-range carronades were overpowered by the 30 24-pounder long guns that relentlessly billowed smoke and hammered heavy fire against the hulls. Stewart’s fine execution of ship-handling was the other decisive factor. In the end, Levant was forced to surrender followed by the crippling of Cyane. When the smoke cleared, six American sailors lost their lives as did a total of 19 British sailors. Both parties were unaware that the war officially ended days earlier with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent. A year later, Stewart was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his unwavering leadership.
Following the Constitution’s last wartime assignment, Stewart and Delia settled on a 225-acre farm outside of Bordentown with finances that he accumulated as a merchant seaman. Referring to the estate as “Montpelier,” the home was flanked by towering white pines situated on a bluff overlooking the Delaware River. On the front lawn was an Italian marble bathtub filled with flowers that was a welcoming gift from his fellow town resident, Joseph Bonaparte. Stewart felt akin with his surroundings and understood the ebbs and flows of the changing tides more so than the fundamentals of agriculture or his married life.
The site was chosen due to its proximity to Philadelphia, country air, and offered a safe harbor from Delia’s spending sprees. The birth of their two children on the property brought them great joy but was offset by Delia’s restlessness for attention. Whenever her husband left for long durations, she would sometimes arrange visits to nearby Point Breeze with the intention of cajoling Joseph Bonaparte for a “loan.” Upon discovering these ploys, Stewart insisted on her companionship during his trips out of fear of financial ruin. Simply put, at times she was annoying.
The situation went from bad to worse when Delia decided to smuggle a foreign stowaway board her husband’s vessel, the USS Franklin when it was docked in the Peruvian port of Callao in 1822. Since this was a serious violation of US neutrality laws, Stewart was furious. He knew that he was going to face a court-martial upon his arrival back into the United States. As the trial lasted a year in Washington, DC, his wife and children never visited him. Although the conclusion honorably acquitted Stewart of all charges, the embarrassment broke the bow of their marriage. He retained famed jurist and Bordentown resident Joseph Hopkinson as his divorce lawyer. In 1829, Delia reluctantly accepted the terms whereas their daughter lived with her and their son lived with him in Bordentown. In addition, Stewart supplemented her lifestyle with an annual payment of $800.
It wasn’t long before Stewart married a woman named Margaretta Smith with whom likely he was involved in a relationship during the divorce proceedings. The second family produced two daughters and a son. During this time, Stewart held various capacities on the Board of Navy Commissioners as well as periodically returning to active service.
In 1838, he relieved Commodore James Barron as commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard and held the position until 1841 before assuming authority again in 1846 and then from 1853 until 1861. In 1851, Commodore Barron died, making Stewart the most senior ranking officer in the US Navy. In 1859, a bill was passed by Congress to create the rank of “senior flag officer” specifically for Stewart in recognition of his long and varied career.
Two years later with the unholy fury unleashed with the start of the Civil War, Stewart retired. He was 83 years old and had served 63 years in the Navy. He was the oldest officer on active duty in its history and outlived all of the junior officers from the War of 1812. A year after his retirement, he was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.
Stewart had lived long enough to see the Constitution and the Union endure plights of inhumanity. Despite the fact that his advanced age was slowing his pace, he was humbled to serve as a pallbearer for the funeral of our nation’s first martyred president. When death finally called upon him on November 6, 1869, he was bedridden and quietly slipped away. A naval escort brought his coffin to Independence Hall in Philadelphia where it lay in state for two days. With an outpouring of respect from thousands of Civil War veterans, the funeral held the second largest attendance in the nation after President Lincoln. Laid to rest in nearby Woodlands Cemetery, he was fondly remembered as “Old Ironsides” a name that was eventually passed onto his Bordentown estate. Like the ship, negativity bounced off of him as if he were made of iron. He was proud of his accomplishments and yet was modest regarding any accolades that came with it. Even in death his headstone plainly states “Charles Stewart, U.S.N.”