Nautical Terminology: Learning a New Language at the War Department

November 20th, 2012

Before the formation of the Department of the Navy in 1798, naval affairs came under the direction of the War Department.   Among Washington’s Cabinet members, former bookseller, Continental artillery officer and staunch Federalist, Secretary of War Henry Knox was the most vigorous proponent for the development of an American Navy.  Against the objections of many Anti-Federalists, Congress nevertheless passed the Naval Act of 1794, approving expenditures of $688,888 for the construction of six frigates.  A contemporary living along America’s coast might catch a glimpse of the new American navy -beginning with the laying of the keel-at one of six shipyards: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Gosport,  Virginia,  and Baltimore. Paid an annual salary of $2000, “naval constructors” were professional shipbuilders-a couple of the better known  were the Philadelphia Quakers Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox.   “Superintendents” were the Navy Captains who were expected to command the ships.  These included notables such as John Barry, Thomas Truxtun and Samuel Nicholson.  “Naval agents” such as Henry Jackson of Boston worked with the War Department to procure men and materials for the ships.  Shipyard clerks oversaw the day to day operations of the yard and kept track of expenditures.  With the building of a naval organization came a unique and confusing lexicon of nautical terminology.  Here are definitions for some of the terms found in this letter forwarded by Knox to the Secretary of Treasury containing Joshua Humphreys’ recommendations and estimates on the costs of procuring white oak timber and planking.

A frigate was a sailing warship with a single continuous gun deck, typically used for patrolling, blockading, etc., but not in line of battle.  (The American frigates were built to be fast enough to get away from a ship of the line, but heavy enough to overpower the typical, lighter European frigates.)

Beam is the width of a vessel at the widest point, or a point alongside the ship at the midpoint of its length.

The bilge is the compartment at the bottom of a ship where the water collects.

Futtocks are pieces of timber that make up the transverse frame or the ribs of the ship.

The gun deck is designed for the mounting of cannon to be fired in broadsides.

The hold is usually a storage space inside the ship’s hull for cargo.

The keel is the central structure of the hull.

Knees connect two parts roughly at right angles.

Here are a couple of  websites that might prove useful to anyone interested in learning more about nautical jargon.