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James H. Ellis

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Mad Jack Percival: Legend of the Old Navy
by James H. Ellis   

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Books by James H. Ellis
· A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812
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Publisher:  Naval Institute Press ISBN-10:  1557502048 Type: 


Copyright:  Oct 1, 2002 ISBN-13:  9781557502049


Captain John "Mad Jack" Percival, one of the most colorful figures of the Old Navy era, was a legend in his time. Percival's naval caraeer began in 1797 when he was impressed into British naval service aboard the HMS Victory and ended in 1846 after taking the USS Constitution on her only around-the-world cruise. Drawing on many unpublished sources, this book details Percival's adventures in four wars and in between.

Hailing from Cape Cod and recognized by Congress for meritorious action in the War of 1812, Mad Jack Percival fought against the French and British and commanded the Constitution off the coast of Mexico weeks before war with that country broke out.  In between he chased West Indies pirates and whaler mutineers, tussled with South Pacific chieftains, policed distant American whalers and merchantmen, charted unknown waters, quarreled with missionaries, and educated and trained midshipmen.  He also skirmished with local forces in what is now Vietnam, an action considered the first western armed intervention in that region.

Known as a seaman of uncommon ability and fearlessness, he led such an extraordinary life he attracted the attention of famous novelists - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and James Michener to name a few - who used him as a model for some of their characters.  The illustrious Captain Isaac Hull considered his friend "the best sailor I ever saw."

His most memorable command came in 1844-1846, when he first saved the venerable USS Constituion and then sailed her around the world.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. thought "it is required of man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived."  This review of his life demonstrates that Mad Jack met Holmes's test, participating fully in the events of his day.  In a word, Pericival, lived.

Shortly before Percival's ship [USS Cyane] arrived at the British fortress of Gibraltar, some of the officers of the garrison became embroiled in a debate over the character and courage of U.S. military personnel. Several men claimed that Americans were cowards and slackers; one disagreed. The argument became so heated that a challenge was issued and accepted. Early the next morming, the duelists fatally wounded one another, leaving the issue unresolved.

When the Cyane showed up, several of the younger British officers thought their answer was at hand. They boated out to the American man-of-war, sent up their cards, and were received on board. The men were from either the "Bloody Eleventh" of Devonshire or the "Blind Half Hundred," the Royal West Kent regiment. Time and frequent retellings have obscured the outfit's identity. Whoever they were, the officers refused to visit the captain's cabin. When Mad Jack appeared on deck, the senior Briton handed him a note demanding satisfaction - not for personal reasons, but on general grounds. Percival received the message "with his peculiar grim courtesy." Before accepting the challenge, Percival asked the British lieutenant for the names of every officer in his regiment, listed in the order of rank and seniority. The list was put together and handed over. Mad Jack advised his visitors that they would "hear from him shortly" and dismissed them.

He gathered his officers in his cabin and declared that he would not allow the American colors to be insulted or himself to be bullied. Noting that the British had some twenty officers, he growled: "As we have only a captain and four lieutenants, I will give the midshipmen the rank of acting lieutenants, which will give us a sufficient number." The youthful middies shouted their approval, as pleased with the prospect of a scrap as they were with their sudden promotions. A cartel was drawn up and sent on shore under a flag.

The challenge jolted the British regimental commander and many of his officers. Most had been unaware of the challenge issued by their fellows and were "not at all willing to be thus unceremoniously dragged into a duel of other people's making." The foolhardy officers, of course were unaware of the reputation of the American naval officer they had chosen to defy. Fortunately for all involved, the local governor interceded and saved the day. When he got wind of the affair, he immediately placed all of the regiment's officers under house arrest. They remained restricted until the Cyane moved away the next day.

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