When most Irish people hear the name Charles followed by Stewart there is an expectation that ‘Parnell’ must come next.
Parnell was proud of the fact that he was called after his grandfather, Admiral Charles Stewart, who distinguished himself during the war of 1812-1815 against Britain. It was a pride fostered by his mother Delia, the admiral’s daughter.
Charles Stewart was born in Philadelphia on 28 July 1778, the youngest of eight siblings. His parents, Charles and Sarah (née Ford), were emigrants from Belfast. Their American dream was short-lived when Charles died in 1780, leaving Sarah with the four youngest children to rear. Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising she remarried and Commander Britton of George Washington’s personal bodyguard became the children’s stepfather.
Young Charles developed a love of the sea, a career frowned on by his parents, so he ran away at the age of thirteen. When he was brought back, his parents relented and gave their blessing.
Throughout his teens, Charles worked his way up in commercial shipping from cabin boy to captain, but it lacked adventure. So, at nineteen he transferred to the U.S. navy and was commissioned as lieutenant on the frigate USS United States, under the command of Wexfordman John Barry.
This was a time when American ships needed protection from Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean and French naval ships in the Atlantic. Charles was soon given his own command, a promotion he justified within a few months when he captured the French schooner Diana.
Other successes followed, but it was at the siege of Tripoli, which the Barbary pirates used as a base, that he made his name, not only for his courage but also for his diplomatic handling of subsequent talks. President Thomas Jefferson made particular reference to his skill as a negotiator.
Ten years later, when James Madison was president, the United States declared war on Britain because British navy ships were boarding American vessels and taking men from them, accusing them of desertion from the royal navy.
Stewart was given command of the USS Constitution, so sturdy that she had been nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’. Over the next three years, the ship and her commander became so conjoined in the public imagination that the nickname was also applied to Stewart.
It was in November 1813, just as Stewart was enhancing an already respectable reputation, that he married Delia Tudor. Her family had been one of the leading families in Boston society, but in recent years, her parents had severely dented the family finances by their extravagant lifestyle and extended trips to Europe. Although they felt that Stewart was a social inferior, they could no longer afford to give Delia a dowry and reluctantly accepted him as son-in-law.
Within a short time of the wedding, he was back at sea, engaging British warships, running up a remarkable series of victories that made him into a household name.
By February 1815, both sides in the conflict decided the time had come to pursue peace terms. The Treaty of Ghent, in Belgium, brought an end to hostilities, but it would be four months before all combatants could be informed with the result that engagements still took place.
It was on the 19th, two hundred years ago this month, that Stewart’s Constitution attacked the Cyane and the Levant unaware that peace had been agreed. He captured them both. For this engagement he was awarded the freedom of Philadelphia and a gold medal was struck for him, his officers and men.
Now a man of wealth, he bought an estate in New Jersey, but his ex-socialite wife found it boring, especially as he was away for many months at a time, and their marriage was not a happy one. Even his further promotion to commodore did little to please her.
His posting to the Pacific squadron based in Lima was more to her liking and she accompanied him with their daughter Delia. While there she caused a major diplomatic incident for which he was tried by court martial. When called upon to testify in his defence, she refused. The prosecution failed to prove its case, but he never forgave her for not testifying on his behalf. The marriage was over.
Stewart continued to live on his New Jersey estate, which many people now referred to as ‘Old Ironsides’, the nickname now used for the man, his ship and his home. By the time he died on 6 November 1869, he was 91 years old and had risen to Rear-Admiral, the highest ranking in the U.S. It was conferred on him by Abraham Lincoln.
Throughout her life, his estranged daughter Delia idolised him. He approved of her marriage to Wicklow landowner John Henry Parnell, who met her while holidaying in America. She instilled in her children the importance of fighting for a cause, and she was convinced that it was from her father that her son Charles Stewart Parnell inherited his principles, courage and eloquence.
To read more historical articles like this please subscribe to Ireland’s Own