Essay I by Susan Louise Darnell
1808 Cutlass: short sword
Connecticut’s infamous Cutlass Swords by Starr Mfg. Co.
We had no official Navy until 1798 when the Navy Department was formed under our second President, John Adams. The time had come to seriously ramp up production of gunboats and warships. July 1779, Connecticut ports were attacked by British warships. Their militia and sailors destroyed public stores, supply houses, ships, private homes, churches, and other public buildings. American sailors that would soon man our warships needed weaponry. Besides pistols and muskets, which could only be fired once and then the sailor had to spend time reloading, the third, next best weapon was the mighty cutlass. All warships carried cannons.
The cutlass was shorter than a sword, longer than a knife and could thrash, thrust, slice, and terminate. The American cutlasses were obtained through small contracts with private companies that could make deals with the government, usually for one ship at a time. In 1799, the Navy’s first contract was made with Starr Mfg. Co. Nathan Starr Sr. provided cutlasses for the Sloop Warship named “Connecticut.” Crudely forged out of steel, the cutlass was a shorter sword and could be manufactured quickly. It had a straight blade, 29 ½ inches long, and was sharpened only on one side. There was no hand-guard with early models. This allowed the thumbs to go onto the area in front of the handle called the ricasso which was not sharpened. This thumb move gave more bearing and strength to a swing.
In 1808, the Navy Commodore John Rodgers of the Brooklyn Navy Yard awarded Nathan Starr another contract for 2,000 more cutlasses at $2.50 each. This time they came with a handguard. The handle was often made of maple wood and to protect the hand the cutlasses had cup guards made of sheet iron. The handguard was made of iron, beaten to concavity and lacquered black. The groove on the side of the short cutlass sword is called a fuller and was meant to strengthen the blow and lighten the weight of the sword. When a groove is present on a cutlass it runs most of the length of the blade up to the last few inches of the sword where the ricasso begins. The 1808 Starr cutlasses were engraved with N. Starr, an American eagle, and US on the ricasso. The last of the 1808 cutlass was completed and inspected by Capt. Isaac Hull on Aug. 14, 1808.
Starr’s next contract was in 1816 and called for 3,000 swords at $3.00 each. They were inspected by Lt. Thomas H. Stevens. No scabbards were called for in either the 1808 or 1816 model. Cutlasses were carried in racks.
In 1826, Nathan Starr filled his next and last order for 2,000 cutlasses with a scabbard (cover) at $4.25 per piece. US Inspector Elisha Tobey was happy with the work and closed the contract with Starr. No scabbards were called for in the original contract, but, as they are listed on the receipt at time of delivery, they were apparently added later.
Sailors used their cutlass for practical purposes as well as for imminent attack but they were handed out to the men on an as needs basis. For example, they needed to hack off heavy-duty sail ropes, chop wood, cut strong canvas and even whack a fish head. Two warring ships sometimes had to get next to each other. In that case, the sailor was armed with his cutlass and could jump from one ship deck to another: or, he could swing from a high place on the mast and cut the rope rigging and swing onto another ship. Usable in close quarters such as on a crowded ship deck or down below inside the ship, the cutlasses didn’t get caught on things as much as a long sword and it was excellent for stabbing the many ship raiders. The flat portion of the blade was good for intimidation and smacking.
Connecticut’s Nathan Starr, Sr., (1755-1821) started the Starr Mfg. Co. in Hartford sometime around 1787. In 1799 he moved to Middle Haddam. About 1812 he moved to Middletown and operated out of the factory at the Starr Mill Pond. All that remains of Starr’s 1813 portion of the mill is the brownstone foundation. His son, Nathan Starr, Jr. (1784-1852) worked at the mill. His son, Elihu William Nathan Starr, (1812-1891) participated in the mill notably around 1837 and onward. But, in large part, E. W. N. Starr participated in name only. His stamp on the weaponry reads E. W. N. Starr. Because of his military education, he was far more interested in the militia, enjoyed training soldiers, had a voice in the temperance movement and participated in town organizations. He rose in rank to General E. W. N. Starr.
In the hands of New England seamen, these cutlasses felled thousands of Britons during bloody ship wars when sailors would board the enemies ship.
The United States sloop-ship, the Wasp, was built for war. The Wasps’ victory over His Majesties Ship the Reindeer in 1814 was one of the fiercest cutlass-fights in the Navy records. The commander was Master Commandant Johnston Blakely, and the crew consisted of 173 hand-picked New Englanders. Blakely was ordered to raid British commerce in the mouth of the English Channel. Over several weeks, Blakely captured seven merchant vessels. Legally and illegally, French privateers and cruisers took cargo from merchant vessels of every nation, perhaps the United States more than any other. At least 6,479 US legal claims involving more than 2,300 vessels were filed. Between 1799 and 1845, the Starr enterprise manufactured at least 7,000 cutlasses.
Nathan Starr will always be remembered as the man who made “The cutlass that fought the War of 1812.” That war lasted until 1815. The photograph above illustrates the 1808 Naval Cutlass by Nathan Starr. It was distributed to sailors in 1808 and used during various ship attacks but is most famous for its use in the War of 1812 and the Barbary Pirate War through 1816.
1816-1825 – The above photograph illustrates the 1816 Naval Cutlass by Nathan Starr. While it was very similar to the 1808 model, the main exceptions were the shorter and heavier blade, the flared edges of the cup guard, a slight bulge in the middle of the turned maple grip, and the stamped “N STARR, US, and Eagle” located on the ricasso. This sword measures 25.75 inches. It was used during the Barbary Pirate War from 1816 through 1826.
The above cutlass is another excellent example of the 1826 Nathan Starr Naval Cutlass with a rare metal scabbard (sword cover). Starr’s 1826 Navy cutlasses had a pronounced curve to the blade and a much more elaborate handle than Starr’s earlier work. The scabbard was included in the contract with the Navy for an additional $1.25 each.
1826-1840. The above cutlass illustrates the US Navy’s cutlass of 1836 by Nathan Starr. It was used in relative peacetime from 1826 through 1840.
The leading sword maker in America from 1798 to 1830 was Connecticut’s Starr Family. Besides the cutlasses, featured in this essay, hefty cavalry sabers were a no-nonsense enlisted man’s edged weapon and Starr Mfg. Co. made over 5,000 such pieces between 1812-1813.
What is Wrong?
When countries have starving people, they are motivated to go to war and steal. America was trying to solve some of the problems of starvation overseas but their naval ships and merchant ships were being attacked and robbed at sea. Because food and the ships were stolen so frequently, our Navy had to weaponize.
Congress addressed this problem of ship theft for its citizens who crafted objects and food to sell abroad. They weren’t making money if the entire ship was taken. France’s people were starving. In the early 1800s and years before, just like in the 21st century, the extremely wealthy people did not take care of the people who couldn’t make ends meet properly. Every person wanted to secure good health, good education, good medical care, an honest lawyers service, a homemaker’s repairs. The streets of the poor, littered with debris, made a lifestyle of squalor. Infectious disease was easy to catch. The grains of the farmer could be wiped out in one bad rain, a natural fire, an enemies fire. France, to name one country, had wealth for the few and dire standards for the rest. Isn’t a country always wealthy for a few and dire in some way for most of its people? What matters the country? It’s an issue of standards for citizens, greed, hoarding, and money for the few in the late medieval times right up to and through the nineteenth century and beyond. In that sense, the responsible people who aim to balance some of this kind of typical cultural phenomena are the soldiers.
1. Williams, Greg H. The French Assault on American Shipping, 1793-1813: A History and Comprehensive Record of Merchant Marine Losses. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
2. https://connecticutmills.org/find/details/russell-mfg.-co.-starr-mill. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
3. Smithsonian. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_417057. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
4. Thesis internet site: Temperance in Antebellum Middletown by Scott Perry DeAmicis Class of 2008 Wesleyan.
5. https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/collections/art-and-artifacts/arms/cutlass/. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
6. http://www.thepirateslair.com/9-m1826-cutlass-scabbard-3.html. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
7. https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/collections/art-and-artifacts/arms/cutlass/. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
8. Merkel, Richard. JO2, USNR, US Naval Air Station. Olathe, Kansas: Swords – The Cutlass Carved its Niche in Our Navy’s Annals. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/uniforms-usnavy/swords.html. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
9. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/246035. (Museum of Fine Arts Boston). Accessed June 1-15 2019.
10. https://www.1812privateers.org/NAVAL/reindeer.html. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
11. http://americansocietyofarmscollectors.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/B012_Hammer.pdf. Accessed June 1-15 2019.
By essayist Susan Louise Darnell firstname.lastname@example.org Connecticut 2019