“Beat to Quarters!”

As any fan of C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian knows, the moment aboard a sailing ship when the captain orders all hands to prepare for action and to “beat to quarters” is a dramatic and pulse-quickening event. The fifes play a lively tune, the drums roll, and everyone on board springs into action. The guns are loaded and run out, galley fires put out, cartridges laid out in the magazine, and small arms distributed. It’s an exciting moment, and a little fearsome.

But what did beating to quarters sound like? In the British Royal Navy of the late 18th and 19th centuries, it became traditional to play “Hearts of Oak” on the fife and drum, and it probably sounded something like this:

While the American Navy adopted many of its standard practices and traditions from the British, the use of “Hearts of Oak” to beat to quarters was not one of them. After all, the tune celebrates British naval victories, which wouldn’t really be appropriate for the new Republic.

In 1812, U.S. Marine Drum Major Charles Stewart Ashworth published a small book called A New, Useful, and Complete System of Drum Beating, intended particularly for the United States Army and Navy. Matthew Brenckle, former Research Historian at the USS CONSTITUTION Museum, suggests that Ashworth’s score for “To Arms!” was the tune used aboard U.S. Navy ships at the time. As a Marine, Ashworth was probably more familiar with shipboard practice than in the Army ashore. And thanks Ashworth, we have an idea what “beat to quarters” sounded like aboard a U.S. Navy vessel during the War of 1812, as performed by Jim Krause.

So does this tell us anything about how “beat to quarters” was handled in the Texian Navy in the 1830s and 40s? Probably so. The Texian Navy modeled itself very consciously after the American Navy, and several of its senior officers — including Commodores Charles Hawkins and Edwin Moore — had themselves served under the Stars and Stripes. Although there’s no concrete evidence of exactly what “beat to quarters” sounded like in Texian service, there’s every reason to believe the tune and practice was carried over from the U.S. Navy.

I think I’ve mentioned before the odd fact that the crews of both INVINCIBLE and BRUTUS on their Yucatecan cruise in the summer of 1837, as reconstructed by historian John Powers, did not include Marines on their muster rolls. I don’t know what explanation there would be for that, as other Texian naval vessels did carry them. But INVINCIBLE, the larger of the two schooners and by then flagship of the Texian Navy, carried both a fifer, T.A. Davis, and a drummer, A. Girginian. I’d bet those two knew and played the same “beat to quarters” that Drum Major Ashworth recorded a generation before.


See Matt Brenckle’s original post here: