[USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere by Michel Felice Corne 1752-1845, courtesy Wikipedia]
When the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, the Royal Navy had eighty-five vessels in American waters. By contrast, the United States Navy, which was not yet twenty years old, was a frigate navy that had only twenty-two commissioned vessels.
The USS Constitution had been launched on September 20, 1797, and had done service in the Quasi War and the First Barbary War. By early 1812, relations with the United Kingdom had further deteriorated and the US Navy began preparing for war, which was declared June 20.
[Captain Isaac Hull]
Captain Isaac Hull, who had been appointed Constitution’s commanding officer in 1810, put to sea July 12, without orders, to prevent being blockaded in port. His intention was to join the five ships of John Rodgers' squadron.
However, the Constitution was in Annapolis, and Hull was unaware that Rodgers had already set sail for New York.
[Sir Philip Broke]
In Halifax, British Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer dispatched a squadron under Captain Philip Broke to catch Rodgers' squadron. In the British squadron, the ships HMS Shannon, HMS Africa, HMS Aeolus and HMS Belvidera were joined by HMS Guerriere.
Sailing towards New York, Hull saw four ships sailing west, and another one heading straight towards the Constitution. Hull thought the ships could be of Rodgers' squadron, but was cautious. Hull ordered signal lights, and when the incoming ship did not identify herself, Hull ordered for the Constitution to sail away and wait for daylight to assess the situation. However, when daylight came, it was confirmed that the incoming ship was not of Rodgers' squadron, but HMS Guerriere. That day, the Constitution was followed by the British squadron. In an attempt to pull away, Hull ordered ten tons of drinking water to be thrown into the sea. Despite this, the British squadron continued to gain on the Constitution. The Constitution then tried kedging, and with the help of the breeze pulled away from the squadron. Following his escape, the Constitution sailed for Boston.
On August 2, the Constitution sailed from Boston up the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. There she captured and sank two British merchantmen, and then went south towards Bermuda. She soon chased down the American privateer Decatur, and her captain told Hull that he had escaped a British frigate the day before.
The next day, August 19, a ship was sighted from the Constitution. With the wind on her side, the Constitution closed in on the ship, and soon discovered that she was HMS Guerriere. As the Constitution approached, the Captain on the Guerriere, James Richard Dacres, ordered broadside after broadside be fired at the approaching ship. They had little effect, and after one cannon-ball bounced off the side of the Constitution, a crew member is to have yelled "Hurrah, her sides are made of iron."
With the ships 25 yards apart, Hull ordered his crew to fire a broadside both of cannonball, and a canister of grape. The effect of this broadside over and over again proved devastating to the Guerriere. One of the broadsides knocked over her mizzenmast. The mizzenmast acted as a rudder, and had slowed the Guerriere. The Constitution went ahead, and attempted to cross her box, but the manuver was cut too close and the Guerrieres bowspirit became entangled in the rigging of the Constitution's mizzenmast.
On both ships, landing parties were summoned, while rifle and musket fire broke out from each ship. However, the Guerriere's foremast fell over, lost her forward movement, and the Constitution broke away from the grip of Guerriere's bowspirit. The Constitution prepared to fire more broadsides into the Guerriere, but then the Guerriere fired a shot in the opposite direction of the Constitution.
Sensing that the shot in the opposite direction of the Constitution may be an attempt to signal surrender, Hull ordered a Lieutenant over to see if it was. When the Lieutenant walked onto the Guerriere, he asked if it was an attempt to signal surrender. Captain Dacres responded "Well, I don't know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone--I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag."
Captain Dacres was escorted onto the Constitution, and Hull refused to accept Dacres' sword of surrender, saying he could not accept the sword from someone who had defended his ship so gallantly. Hull ordered that Dacres' mother's bible be given to him, and brought the prisoners onto his ship. Hull found on the Guerriere that there were 10 impressed Americans aboard, but Dacres had permitted them to stay belowdecks instead of fighting their countrymen.
Hull had wanted the Guerriere towed in as a prize ship, but when he saw she was in too poor of condition he had ordered her blown up. Hull sailed back to Boston, and reported of his victory. After the battle, the USS Constitution was given the nickname Old Ironsides.
[The Constitution escapes the British Squadron]
Dacres was faced with the court of inquiry. His defense was that the Guerriere was originally built as a French frigate, until she was captured in 1806. He, therefore said, that she wasn't as sturdy as ships in the Royal Navy, and he was not charged. However, his request to command another frigate, was denied.
Research: Wikipedia, The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 by Pierre Berton
Photo Credits: Wikipedia
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