Loading the USS Jamestown with food for Ireland

March 17, 1847 – Loading the USS Jamestown with food for Ireland

(modified excerpt from Voyage of Mercy)

As dusk crept across the piers and a chill wind blew from the harbor, Robert Bennet Forbes marveled at the first-day progress of the longshoremen who had spent hours bowing their backs and loading food and provisions aboard the Jamestown.

It was a “happy coincidence,” Forbes noted, that the men—members of the Boston Laborers’ Aid Society—were almost entirely of Irish descent and that their work commenced on St. Patrick’s Day. In a letter of thanks to the society for offering its workers’ services free of charge, Forbes had wished “that all good saints may bless the enterprise and quicken your exertions,” and on this day the saints had obliged.

The crews had stowed more than 1,000 barrels of food, one-eighth of Jamestown’s full load, as well as more than twenty barrels of clothing. Working for no wages, the men nonetheless were toiling without delay, knowing full well that speed and efficiency in Charlestown could save lives in their beloved Ireland.

 While Forbes admired the first-day progress, he was not surprised by it. This whole endeavor had occurred with whirlwind speed: securing congressional and White House approval for an unprecedented mission; his agreeing to lead it; notifying Irish and British government officials and receiving their endorsement; finding and retrofitting a ship and enlisting a crew; obtaining contributions and now loading cargo aboard a warship about to embark on a mission of peace.

For the past eight weeks, since the first ships of 1847 had arrived in the United States from Great Britain and passengers and crews revealed the full horror of the hunger besetting Ireland, Boston and America could not have moved with greater swiftness and urgency if their own country had been imperiled.

Forbes, whose life credo was defined by doing his duty, often in the toughest of circumstances, summed up the gravity of the emergency that had prompted such a rapid response: “It is not an everyday matter,” he wrote, “to see a nation starving.”


Surveying activity around the Navy Yard, Forbes again was reminded of the improbability of assuming command of an American warship for humanitarian purposes while his country was at war. Every place he looked reminded him that the navy was on a war footing; sailors, stevedores, dockworkers, and tradesmen were busy improving and enlarging the Navy Yard or ensuring the seaworthiness of the warships moored there. Workers had completed a new wharf and pier on the west side of the yard, and crews were readying the grounds for construction of another wharf, a brick barn, a plumbers’ shop, and a carpentry shop, and were planning to reconstruct a third wharf in need of repairs—all authorized by a recent Naval Appropriations Act and overseen by Commodore Foxhall A. Parker, who had become the Navy Yard’s commandant just two years earlier.

The warship USS Vermont, still in dry dock, finally was nearing completion thirty years after it had been laid down, and the USS Constitution—“Old Ironsides”—was undergoing minor repairs after a long stint at sea; Forbes had actually inspected the Constitution for the mission to Ireland but found she could not be “made ready to sail” within the quick time frame he envisioned.

The Charlestown yard, more than forty years old, was now a jewel in the navy’s crown—President James K. Polk was scheduled to visit in June to inspect the progress and improvements—and its strategic importance as a wartime base had grown after Congress declared war on Mexico on April 23, 1846.

And yet it was the Jamestown—carrying “corn not cannon,” in the words of one Irish newspaper after twenty of her twenty-two deck guns were removed to make room for food—that was the talk of the Navy Yard, New England, and much of the United States. The enthusiasm among Americans for her peaceful mission was the capstone of nearly two months of national support for Ireland that was nothing short of extraordinary; it seemed people were anxious to rally around a cause that transcended both politics and U.S. borders. Many Americans were frustrated by the polarizing Mexican War and the ongoing acerbic North-South debates about slavery, and perhaps found in Ireland’s woes both a cause for unity and a release of tensions. Some said assistance to Ireland would improve long-strained Anglo-American relations, easing acrimony left over from both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

Others—and Forbes was among these—expressed the belief that God had bestowed great abundance and blessings upon the United States that should be shared with the less fortunate.