An African-American Sailor-Musician during the War of 1812Information culled from sources below
Cyrus Tiffany symbolized the courage and resolve of early African-American Navy Sailor Musicians.
During the War of 1812, African-American sailors comprised 10 to 20 percent of the total US Navy force. These brave men stood toe-to-toe with their fellow sailors in defense of independence. When asked about the quality of sailor that was being sent to the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Isaac Chauncey echoed the sentiment of the Navy toward all when he said, “I have yet to learn that the color of skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications.
”During the Battle of Lake Erie, one Navy music pioneer distinguished himself. Cyrus Tiffany (1738-1818) was said to be a close confidant to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and was listed in ship’s logs as a “fifer,” “musician,” or “seaman.”
It is presumed that Silas or Cyrus Tiffany, an African American, was the son of Nathan Tiffany and Sarah Harvey and was born in 1738. Little is known of Cyrus Tiffany’s early life. Historic references show that Tiffany was a Revolutionary War Fifer, perhaps as one of the members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment where enlistment provided complete freedom to those formerly enslaved.
Census documents place Tiffany in Taunton, Bristol County, Massachusetts in 1790 and there again in 1810 and show that he collected a Revolutionary War pension. Charles Atwood writes of Cyrus being a “notable and respected resident of Taunton” who “owned and resided in a small cottage in Town with a wife and son.”
At the beginning of the War of 1812, both British and American forces fought for control of the Great Lakes. The first major engagement in that campaign came at Put-In-Bay, Ohio on September 10, 1813. There the United States Lake Erie Squadron of nine vessels commanded by Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry confronted a much larger British naval force led by Commander Robert H. Barclay. Perry’s flagship was the USS Lawrence, a Niagara Class Brig.
During the battle, Commodore Perry positioned Tiffany at the Lawrence’s berth deck with a musket and a bayonet. He was instructed to allow no one to retreat below. He held this post until the defense of their ship became futile. After the Lawrence was lost, Tiffany escaped on the same boat as Commodore Perry. In the famous Martyl Schweig painting, Tiffany is seen with his hands holding tight to the commodore, ensuring his safety.
The USS Lawrence sustained irreparable damage and—with over 80% of her crew injured from British cannon—began to sink. Perry abandoned his flagship, transferring his flag and command to the USS Niagara, the only other brig in the flotilla. He chose four trusted sailors to row across the half-mile distance to the Niagara from his damaged flagship. Tiffany used his body to protect Perry from the heavy, sustained gunfire and musketry of nearby British vessels. Once on the USS Niagara Perry rallied his men and defeated the British naval forces. In doing so he became a hero of the War of 1812. This battle was the first time in history that an entire British naval squadron had surrendered.
Cyrus Tiffany accompanied Oliver Perry in his triumphant post-victory tour around New England and the Mid-Atlantic States. After the War of 1812 ended Tiffany continued to sail with Perry. He died aboard the Perry-commanded USS Java in 1818 and was buried at sea. His wife died in 1830; his son in 1821. Their graves are found in Taunton, Massachusetts.
A fife believed to have been played onboard the USS Lawrence is at the Erie Maritime Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
CYRUS TIFFANY (1738-1818)
Navy Music Pioneers: A History of Social Change in the Navy MUCS Mike Bayes