Saturday, November 28, 2020

Covington Family Linked To Old Ironsides Ship

An intriguing article about a Covington family who were related to the designer and builder of the warship U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) was written by Polly Morris in 1976.

Here is the text and photos from that article that was published in the News Banner on June 16 of that year.

USS Constitution Has Covington Cousins

By Polly Morris

The man stood alone on the deck of the warship. A sharp icy wind whipped his great cloak against his buckled knee-britches and tugged at his frilled shirt front. Now that all the workmen had departed for the last time, the ship was strangely silent.

There was only the sound of creaking ropes, the wind whistling eerily through the rigging; and the lap-lap of wavelets against the live oak sides of the ship. The man removed his tricorner hat and held it against his heart almost in reverence. The job was finished.

The USS Constitution - "Old Ironsides"

He leaned against the strong salty wind as he squinted up at the main mast that rose over 187 feet above the water line. The main yard arm was over  twice the length of the beam of the vessel. He dreamed of how she would look under full sail, flaunting the new flag of the new Republic . . . defying the enemies of his adopted country.

"Aye," he whispered to himself. "The bonnie lass is worth everything I put into her."

The Dreamer

Colonel George Cleghorn was a dreamer who spent most of his handsome fortune to make his dreams came true. But never did he dream that Cleghorn descendants would some day sit in a semi-tropical patio in Covington, Louisiana, and tell of when he was in charge of building Old Ironsides,  the most famous ship In American history.

For when he was striding the deck of the U.S.S. Frigate Constitution, supervising the workmen, there was no Covington, or no St. Tammany. There was only a sparsely settled wilderness that was the West Florida which had been tossed nonchalantly between France, England, and Spain.

There would be no way that he could imagine this vast area he civilized... that a Mrs. Bryan D. Burns of Covington would treasure a trove of old newspaper clippings, photos, books, and letters about Old Ironsides and George Cleghorn. That she could easily trace her ancestry back to the Cleghorn family, and say that if George Cleghorn was the father of Old Ironsides, she was a far-removed cousin.
The old ship builder of long ago was the great-great grand-uncle of Mrs. Burns' father, Louis Clarence Smith Sr. Smith had come South from Michigan, married a Louisiana girl, and for 10 years was a pharmacist for Oliver Hebert's Drug Store in Covington. 

The 1932 New Orleans Visit

When Old Ironsides came to New Orleans in 1932, Mrs. Burns went aboard the ship with her father, her mother, (the former Elizabeth Nash Cropper) her brother, Louis Jr.. and little daughter Dorothy Vivian Burns (Mrs. Dorothy Stroble of Covington.)

Throughout the years Mrs. Burns has kept documents and letters that tell a stirring story about a man, a ship, and a country that fought for freedom, each In their own way.

The Ancestors

A genealogy compiled in  1912 mentions "the Baronetcy of Scotland of Cleghorn, A. D.1203. Lanarkshire." The ancient Celtic was known as early  as 800 A.D.
George Cleghorn was born into this family in 1748. There was much unrest in Scotland, and many Scotsmen migrated to the Colonies In America. The Cleghorn family settled in Massachusetts. George had a fine farm in New Bedford, and his brother James located in Martha's Vineyard.

During the American Revolution, merchant ships were outfitted as privateers for there was no real Navy as yet. After the war was over, there was a desperate need for fighting ships to defend the little United States of America, which was also a very poor little country, unable to finance the building of a Navy.

However there were wealthy colonists that had amassed fortunes, and these men knew that everything they had gained could be lost if a defenseless county fell to an enemy. George Cleghorn was one of these men.

Deeds Followed Dreams

George Clegborn was sorely worried about his adopted country. He went to the Navy yard at Charleston, Massachusetts and asked about the costs of building fighting ships. A fully equipped frigate would be at least $300,000, a staggering sum in 1794. He returned to New Bedford and talked with his son James, a draftsman. They decided to sacrifice the family fortune for the United States.

Cleghorn sold his beautiful farm and moved to a more modest location in Rhode Island. When it was time to lay the keel for one of the first large ships to be built by the United States, George Cleghorn was put in charge of building the US Frigate Constitution. During this time his brother James was serving in the Colonial Army.

When the U.S.S. Constitution was launched in 1797 George Cleghorn's job was finished, but his interest in the ship continued, for her job had just begun.

42 Victories

George Cleghorn had dreamed of his gallant ship performing almost-miracles, and she did not disappoint him. As the news came back to him, he could almost envision himself on board her, watching the action.He knew every part of the Constitution, from the bolts that Paul Revere put into the copper-sheathed bottom to the vast expanse of canvas that sent her 264 feet length scurrying through the water at 12 1/2 knots per hour.

He thrilled when the U.S.S. Constitution was victorious over the French privateers and when she bombarded the pirate forts at Tripoli. His heart leaped at her narrow escape from the British fleet. The Constitution was within firing range when the wind died down, leaving her becalmed. But men in small boats risked their lives and towed her to safety. He rejoiced when she returned with all flags flying after defeating the British Frigate "Guerriere" in a brilliant and brave battle.

He could picture the British shot repelled by her sides of hard live-oak, and agreed that Old Ironsides was a fitting name for the ship he had built.

By the time Claghorn died, in 1834, Old Ironsides was dear to the hearts of all Americans. She had been in forty-two battles, but never had known defeat.
George Cleghorn had great dreams, but there was much that was beyond even his Imagination.

His brother James had fathered seventeen children, so when one of the daughters married a Joseph Beal, he probably thought little of it although the Beal family had come to the Colonies a hundred years before be was born. And when little Martha Beal was born in "the West," he may have been barely aware of the blessed event for she was only one of ten children.

Moreover she was sixteen years old when he died, and not married yet.   

The Descendants

Martha Beal would have been the least likely to have carried on the Cleghorn and Beal families, in the logic of those times. She was a spinster of 23 years before the married Americus Smith, but she lost no time in giving him an heir. Sylvester Beal Smith arrived only a month and 5 days before Martha's first wedding anniversary.

Sylvester had only three children, but his last was born when he was forty years old, and it was this son Louis Clarence Smith that was to come South to the Crescent City and to Covington. He would be the one to stand on the deck of Old Ironsides, where once his great great granduncle had stood.

Old Ironsides Family

It was almost like history repeating itself, for even Nature conspired to re-create the long ago. The mild 1932 New Orleans winter had turned uncommonly cold, even for February. When Louis C. Smith took his family to see the famous old ship that was on tour, he put on a top coat. He did not wear buckled knee-britches or a frilled shirt, but it was as though George Cleghorn himself had returned through his far-removed nephew.

There was the sound of the creaking ropes, the wind whistling through the rigging, and the lap-lap of wavelets against the live oak sides of the ship. He leaned against the strong salty wind as he squinted up at the main mast. He too dreamed, but of the past. When Old Ironsides was under full sail, flaunting the flag of a new nation    defying the enemy.

Standing beside Louis C Smith Sr. on a deck that once ran red with patriot's blood, was his wife, his son Louis Jr., and his daughter Lois ( Mrs. Bryan Burns ) and his granddaughter Dorothy Vivian Burns.

They all shared feelings with the long-dead ship. Pride. achievement. And a touch of reverence. This was the valiant ship that had served under every President of the United States ... that had been saved from destruction by a poem... that had been restored by the thousands of pennies of school children.

Old ironsides is still afloat in Boston Harbor, but she has not changed much in appearance. The symbol of bravery and freedom is still an inspiration, and if old George Cleghorn were alive today, he would still say, "Aye, the bonnie lass is worth everything I put into her."



A resident of Bush was second in command of the USS Constitution in 1976 

See also:

Video Documentary on Old Ironsides

Aerial Video of Old Ironsides On the Water