Opus number: op. 89

Title: David and Old Ironsides

Text: Connie Leeds

Text: click here 

This is the unfinished story of David DeBias, one of the youngest sailors to serve on USS Constitution, the glorious ship known as Old Ironsides.

David was born in 1806 to a free black family on the North Slope of Boston’s Beacon Hill. Many blacks were slaves, even in the North. But on the North Slope of Beacon Hill they were free. Still, it was hard to find work.  America had been at war with the British since 1812. Jobs were scarce, and few would hire a Black man.

Some worked at the harbor’s docks.

Some went to sea.

“I remember one morning. Papa found work and was gone before the sun.

“Momma asked me to take him his dinner. I was only eight but still the fastest runner on Belknap Street.

“I ran down the hill, along the Charles River to the harbor.

“The docks were piled with colorful silks and barrels of sweet-smelling molasses. Chickens clucked. I saw sailors with parrots feathered in red and blue and green.

“Papa was unloading grain sacks as big as me.

“He talked of the ships and the sailors. How brave they were because sometimes the British captured American ships, stealing the cargo and forcing our sailors to work in their navy. But being a sailor was a good steady job. Because of the war, the Navy needed men, even Black men.

“We talked about my favorite ship. Everyone’s favorite: USS Constitution. After she returned victorious against two British frigates last year Papa took me to Long Wharf for the celebration–parades and bands and flags everywhere.

“Everyone calls her Old Ironsides. Her wooden hull is so strong, cannon balls bounce off. Like she was made of iron.

“’Would you like to sail on the best ship of all?’ Papa asked. “He signed me up on Constitution.

“I was young but fast and strong. I’d sleep and eat and work on the ship. They would pay me six dollars a month, a mighty good wage.

“I’ll be a Boy on Old Ironsides. Boy is my rank. No matter your age, Boy is where you start on a ship. A Boy keeps the ship scrubbed and polished and painted.

“And when battles are fought, it’s the Boys who keep the guns in powder.”

[whistle] With a sad farewell to his parents, David boarded Constitution. A shrill whistle signaled the crew to their jobs, and Old Ironsides set sail.

By first day’s end, a star-filled sky met the sea, and David breathed the cold salty air. He was too tired to be anything but brave.

The ship, commanded by Captain Charles Stewart, headed east through calm seas and rough.

When gales hit, Constitution tossed and bobbed. Water sloshed over her decks, soaking everyone and everything.

“We shipped out in December 1814. Crossed the wide Atlantic. I might have been one of the youngest on board, but we all felt small on the great big sea.

“Days and days, we had no ships to take.

“Only Lieutenant Ballard’s smart little dog kept us smiling. “Everyone said the sole reason that dog didn’t talk was ‘cause if he did, they’d have put him to work.

“One morning Lieutenant’s dog starts barking wildly.

“There in the distance was a great big ship!

“Because of that little dog, we captured Susannah, filled with wonders from Argentina.

“Best of all were two baby jaguars we took on board.

“Only days later, I fought in my first battle. It was like this. One evening in February, off the West African coast, the watch called out. Two British ships were gliding across the horizon.

[whistle] “A whistle signaled silence.

“My heart beat so hard I thought they would tell me to keep quiet.

“I was ready to run for powder.

“Old Ironsides was cutting fast and quietly through the water. Then the order was given. ‘Hoist the Colors!’

“Then, ‘Fire!’

“Our guns let loose a broadside. Noise so loud I thought my head would crack open. I kept running with the sacks of powder, scrambling from the hatch to the guns.

“Old Ironsides was hit! Wood splinters flew. We went flying, sliding into the guns, into each other. Back on our feet, we loaded and fired again.

“Both sides were firing at once. A British ship on each side of us.

“But Constitution was the strongest ship ever built. Nothing hurt us bad. We all cheered as H.M.S. Cyane on our starboard surrendered.

“Captain Stewart turned our guns on H.M.S. Levant, and she went on the run. With our bow chaser guns blasting, we chased her. Smoke filled the sky.

“I was near deaf from the noise of the guns. But not too deaf to hear another cheer. Levant surrendered. Two ships in one night!

“Captain Stewart was the best sailor in the Navy. In any navy.

“In the morning they sent me on Levant. She was our ship now. Her deck was bloody with the wounded and dead, her sails shredded and her rigging destroyed. After patching her and fixing the wounded, we sailed for Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands. I was sure the fighting was over.

“I was wrong.

“We met three British ships: Leader, Newcastle, and Acasta. Captain Stewart was outmatched so he ran with Cyane and left us to fight, but we were lost. The British took back Levant.

“Now I was a prisoner of war.

“They shipped us without enough water or food to the Island of Barbados. Luckily, the war soon ended. I sailed to Baltimore. There everyone was singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ a marvelous song about a nearby battle. I boarded Constitution, bound for Boston. I was glad to be home. America won the war, and I was part of the winning. Me, David DeBias, a Boy aboard USS Constitution.”

At sixteen David DeBias again enlisted as a Boy on Old Ironsides.

It was 1821 and peacetime as the ship sailed to the Mediterranean.

On the Fourth of July the city of Genoa, Italy, welcomed Constitution. We cruised the Mediterranean from the cliffs of Gibraltar to the Straights of Messina.

“I saw the ruins of ancient Rome in Turkey and the casbahs of Algeria. I visited an Arabic fortress and the grand palaces of Malta. I have been to Syracuse in Sicily and to Tunis and Tripoli.

“I touched the earth of Africa that my soul knew was home.

“But my heart knew I was American.

“I was as good as most and better than many, but without a war, the Navy needed fewer men.

“When we returned to Boston, I collected my pay from the purser and returned to the North Slope. I had done well for my family and for myself.

“I loved Old Ironsides.

“Papa was right. On a ship, if you do your job well, you are a man. No one troubles you. I am sixteen years old. I have crossed the ocean again and again. I have served my country in war and been part of her victory.

“I am a sailor. I am an American.”

After those two voyages on USS Constitution, David never again sailed on a Navy vessel. He sailed on private merchant ships bringing cargos across the seas and along the great rivers. It was hard time to be a Black man, and it was dangerous for a free Black man to travel in the South.

In 1838 David DeBias of Boston, Massachusetts, was captured as a slave in the state of Mississippi.

His ship docked in Mobile, Alabama. Because he was Black, the law said he was a slave unless he could prove he was free.

Judge Thomas Falconer of Winchester, Mississippi, wrote the Navy for proof that David DeBias was a freeman. Falconer believed David’s story. Unless the Navy sent proof, David was doomed to be a slave in the harsh Mississippi cotton fields.

Did David DeBias end his days in freedom or slavery? The records disappeared in a fire. David’s fate is a mystery.

The story of David DeBias is remarkable, but unfinished. We celebrate him, a young sailor on the most famous ship in America. He served in a great victory, one of the finest moments in the nation’s naval history.

“America won the war, and I was part of the winning. Me, David DeBias, a Boy aboard Old Ironsides.”


Instrumentation: narrator and orchestra  1-1-1-1, 2-1-1-0, Perc., Strings

Commissioned: Commissioned by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra

Dedication:  Fay Chandler

Date written: 2007

Length: 25 minutes

Premiere performance: June 2007, Charles Ansbacher, conductor, Landmarks Orchestra, Taj Hotel.

Subsequent performances: July 2007, Hatch Shell on Esplanade, Charles Ansbacher, conductor, Landmarks Orchestra. four performances in local Boston parks in July 2007

Program Notes: David and Old Ironsides, Op. 89, was commissioned and dedicated to Fay Chandler and the Landmarks Orchestra. The work was designed around a text written by Constance Leeds that tells the story of a young black man’s journey through the war of 1812 (between Britain and the United States). This work for narrator and orchestra was performed many times during the summer of 2007, including the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade and at the historic site of Old Ironsides in Charlestown, MA.

Recording: Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Charles Ansbacher, conductor; Robert Honeysucker, narrator. Landmarks Recordings, CD