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USS Constellation on the Dismal Coast: Willie Leonard’s Journal, 1859-1861

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USS Constellation on the Dismal Coast: Willie Leonard’s Journal, 1859-1861

Edited by C. Herbert Gilliland

Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2013

6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xii + 413 pages

Illustrations, diagrams, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95

ISBN: 9781611172898


Willie Leonard’s journal, carefully and skillfully edited by Gilliland, is a rare account of life aboard ship a nineteenth-century sloop-of-war in the United States Navy. Even more unusual is the fact that Willie Leonard was a common seaman, just one of 304 hands serving aboard the last sail vessel commissioned by the. Navy (in 1854) and dispatched as flagship of the Africa Squadron. Both the Royal Navy and American Navy patrolled the West African coast for illegal slavers, and Leonard describes many meetings and interactions between the American and English vessels. His description of the routine of life aboard ship are speckled with intermittent bouts of excitement in pursuing slave ships, and the expected humorous events of sailors trying to pass the time either between watches or ashore.


Gilliland first describes his editing method, noting that nothing has been left out, but that he chose to paragraph the journal entries, providing commentary and context in italics as he sees necessary for the reader. He continues with a brief prologue on young Leonard’s previous experience at sea and his present state when signing papers at the age of twenty-one years. From there the reader has access to each subsequent day in the service, the chapters organized by month. Included are drawings of the ship based on 1859 drawings, two maps portraying the patrol area assigned the Africa Squadron (primarily from the Cape Verde Islands to the Congo River), and more than twenty illustrations or figures of various historic persons, ports, and vessels—all remarked up on by seaman Leonard. Gilliland is careful to correct historical errors made by Leonard when they occur, but these are usually a matter of what ship departed or arrived when and where, the issue usual a matter of a few days.


As is always the case when reading primary documents, the reader is often surprised by what historical details can be gleaned. For example, a less informed reader of American naval history might not know what a flag officer was, or that in 1859 it was the highest rank an officer could achieve, effectively being a squadron’s commodore. Both entertaining and surprising is Leonard’s list and description of the forty “kroomen,” all of a local Liberian ethnic group, brought on as temporary hands, paid as ship’s boys, and used to man the boats in the hotter equatorial waters. Multiple such examples abound, from the process of court martial, leave ashore, daily routines of the watch, and of course, “splicing the main brace”.


Overall, the work is very well organized by the editor, the modern spelling and paragraphing make it accessible to any reader interested in nineteenth-century naval history, particularly the daily life and observations of a common seaman in the United States Navy. Leonard decommissioned in October 1861, and though we learn of his reenlistment three years later, this account was the only journal he kept of his time at sea. Very insightful, Gilliland’s remarks are informative, though the entries are at times a bit repetitive (life at sea was endless routine) they are also at times very entertaining. At just over 400 pages, it is certainly well worth a read.


Daniel M. Brown

University of South Carolina


Member, Nautical Research Guild

Co-Webmaster, NRG Website

Developer of NRG and Seaways Publishing back issue digital archives

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Got it. Just started reading it last night, and it is really informative on 19th century US Navy life. Several gems so far. Mostly about life on board ship, and very little about the exotic flora and fauna of ports ashore - unlike most journals of the time.


The Constellation contacts the school-ship USS Plymouth off the Azores on her 1859 training cruise, and she is crewed by 400 Annapolis midshipmen! Had she wrecked, there would have been no Civil War Navies!


A fun read.

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