Marshall Johnson's USS Constitution probably shows the American frigate after she had eluded a pursuing British squadron on July 19, 1812. (U.S. Naval Academy Museum)
First Frigate Duel of 1812
On August 18, 1812, two warships traded broadsides 800 miles off the American coast. At stake was the prestige of the upstart U.S. Navy as it faced the long-standing supremacy of the Royal Navy -- and, allegedly, a hat.
By A.B. Feuer
Shortly before the War of 1812, according to legend, an American and a British frigate were riding at anchor in a Delaware harbor. The English ship -- the 38-gun Guerriere -- was commanded by Captain James Richard Dacres. The American vessel -- Constitution, carrying 44 cannons -- was skippered by Captain Isaac Hull. Allegedly, the two captains happened to meet ashore in the local tavern and fell into a heated discussion as to the relative merits of their respective navies. Although the tremors of war were already being felt by both nations, each officer was good-natured and witty.
As Hull finished his last tankard of ale and prepared to leave, he flippantly chided the English captain, "Well, you had better take good care of that ship of yours, in case I ever catch up with her in the Constitution."
Dacres laughed and offered to bet a sum of money that, in the event of a conflict, his newfound friend would come out second best. "No," replied Hull, "I'll not bet money on the outcome -- but I'll stake you to a hat that the Constitution comes out the winner." Both men shook hands on the wager and merrily returned to their ships.
The war between the United States and Great Britain was declared on June 18, 1812. Hull and Constitution were in Alexandria, Va., having recently returned from a European cruise.
The Royal Navy, at that time, was at its peak of power, with 219 ships of the line and 296 frigates. The British also bragged that they had the finest naval officers and seamen in the world. In sharp contrast, the U.S. Navy consisted of 17 fighting ships, plus several gunboats and schooners.
The president of the United States, James Madison, was intimidated by the vast disparity between the navies of the two countries. After conferring with his cabinet, Madison prudently decided that all U.S. naval warships would remain in port, with the exception of those vessels already at sea.
Hull Puts Out
Captain Hull happened to be in Washington during the crisis and met with Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton. Hull insisted that even though the British had been victorious at sea over the French, they had not been successful against the U.S. Navy. Impressed by the young naval officer's determination, the secretary immediately arranged an audience with the president. Madison listened intently to Hull's arguments concerning the construction of American warships and the discipline and training of their crews. Hull asserted that in a fair fight -- frigate to frigate -- the Americans would stand a chance of victory. Madison hesitated, but decided to go against the wishes of his cabinet and authorized a squadron of men-of-war to leave port.
Hull quickly took Constitution out of Annapolis, Md., on July 5, intending to meet Commodore John Rodgers' five-ship squadron sailing from New York. Rodgers, however, was racing south to intercept a British convoy of merchantmen reportedly heading from the West Indies to England -- and he neglected to notify Hull.
On the afternoon of July 16, 1812, Constitution was sailing off Egg Harbor, N.J. Hull wrote in his report to the secretary of the Navy: "At two o'clock, four ships were sighted from the masthead, northward and inshore from us. The wind was very light and all sail was made to determine whether they were Rodgers' squadron or enemy vessels.
"Since it became apparent that we would not be able to ascertain the nationality of the ships before dark, I decided to maneuver close enough to make a night signal. At ten in the evening, within eight miles of the vessels, signals were flashed and kept up for an hour. But, after receiving no answer, I concluded that the strangers were enemy. I hauled off to the southeast and waited for daylight to make positive identification.
"Just before daybreak on the 18th, two English frigates were spotted on our lee beam about five miles astern [Belvidera and Aeolus]. About ten miles back was a large man-of-war [Africa], followed by another frigate [Shannon, flagship of Captain Philip Vere Broke, commander of the British blockading squadron] and a schooner [Emulous -- formerly the U.S. brig Nautilus, which had been captured by the British squadron the day before]. The wind died down soon after sunrise. The Constitution would not respond to the wheel and the bow swung toward the two frigates on our lee. I ordered boats put in the water to swing the ship's head around and endeavor to pull us away from the enemy. But the British also hoisted towing boats over the side and continued the chase."
A Merry Chase
So commenced what was arguably the strangest -- certainly the slowest -- pursuit in the annals of naval warfare. "Finding the enemy gaining on us," Hull wrote, "and little chance of getting away, I ordered gangs of sailors with axes to chop out the aft cabin windows. A 24-pounder and an 18-pounder were shoved into the openings. Two additional guns were poked through ports on the aft quarterdeck. At seven o'clock, the ship nearest to us approached directly astern. I directed one of the stern guns fired to see if we could disable her masts. The shot splashed short of its mark."
By that time, Guerriere had joined the British squadron and taken up a position between Belvidera and Shannon. In the next hour, the English frigates continued to close on Constitution.
Captain Hull's report continued: "Lieutenant Richard Morris suggested we try kedging [pulling the ship ahead by carrying out anchors and hauling the vessel up to them]. About 400 fathoms of rope were spliced -- tied to a couple of small anchors -- and towed by boats to the full extent of the line. After the anchors were dropped in the water, and the cable became taut, the crew grabbed the inboard end of the rope and ran aft with the tackle, pulling the ship forward. By the time the first line had been hauled in, the second was ready to be dragged aboard."
The British were surprised to see the American frigate dart rapidly ahead, but Belvidera's Captain Richard Byron spotted the boats hauling anchors, and the British quickly adopted the same tactics. Belvidera stayed close, and about 9 p.m. on July 18, fired her bow guns. Constitution answered with her stern-chasers.
A Clever Ruse
In order to lighten his ship, Hull pumped out 2,335 gallons of valuable drinking water and continued to draw ahead with ropes and anchors. Additional boats of the British squadron had been added to the lines of Belvidera, and the frigate moved ahead at a faster clip. But a light breeze suddenly sprang up, and Constitution was able to maintain her lead.
At 10:35, the breeze became strong enough for the towboats to be hoisted back aboard Constitution, but the English ships remained close. Captain Hull wrote in his report: "At nine in the morning, a strange sail was sighted on our weather beam. The vessel was easily identified as an American merchantman. As soon as she was sighted by the enemy, the English hoisted United States flags -- hoping to decoy her. I immediately raised the British colors and began a vigorous cannonade. The stranger decided that a merchant ship had no business in this arena -- even though American flags appeared to be in the majority. She swung about and made her escape."
Throughout July 19, the wind gradually increased, and Constitution widened the gap between herself and her pursuers. At 6:30 p.m., a rain squall blew in from the east -- dead ahead of the American frigate. Hull was nearer to the storm than the British and could see that it was only a thin gust of rain. Recalling that the British had matched every move he had made up to that time, the U.S. Navy captain resorted to some clever showmanship. He immediately sent all hands to the rigging to cast loose the light sails. The British, noticing the frantic haste of the Americans climbing all over the masts and spars, promptly cut down all their own sails -- except storm canvas -- and prepared for the approaching "heavy gale."
As soon as Constitution entered the concealing screen of rain, all sails were run up and the frigate raced ahead at full speed. By the time the British vessels realized what had happened, Constitution was more than a dozen miles in front of her pursuers.
A Close Call In Boston
At about 8 in the evening, Captain Broke called off the hunt, and his squadron headed north to their blockade stations near the port of New York, except for Guerriere, which pulled into Halifax for repairs.
The pursuit had lasted three nights and two days -- 66 hours in all. The most remarkable feature -- beside the length of the chase -- was that for many of Captain Hull's crew, it was their first cruise on a man-of-war. They had not yet been thoroughly instructed in the duties or discipline demanded of service aboard a warship. In spite of that handicap, the sailors performed their work with the precision of veteran bluejackets.
Since New York was surrounded by the English fleet, Hull set a course for Boston, arriving at the harbor on July 26. While Constitution was at sea, Paul Hamilton issued an order for Hull to relinquish command of his vessel to Captain William Bainbridge. The dispatch, however, was missent to New York. A second message was forwarded to Boston, but by the time both letters reached the correct destination, Constitution was already provisioned and back on the high seas.
The frigate dashed eastward, then proceeded north to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Constitution seized two prizes on August 10 and 11, and on the 15th she recaptured the U.S. brig Adeline. From some of Adeline's British prize crewmen, Hull learned that several British frigates -- from the same squadron he had outrun a few weeks before -- were in the vicinity. Hull then charted a course south, intending to put his ship astride the heavily trafficked merchant lanes between the West Indies and England.
About 9 on the evening of August 17, the sky was overcast and unusually dark. Suddenly the ghostly shadow of a ship was sighted. Silence was ordered as Constitution stalked her prey like a large cat.
The alert stranger spotted the frigate and hauled off in an attempt to escape. After a two-hour chase, the unidentified craft heaved to. Upon sending a boarding party to the ship, Hull discovered that she was the American privateer Decatur. Her captain, William Nichols, informed him that a large British warship had been sighted the day before, heading south. Hull immediately ordered full sail and dashed off in pursuit of the enemy man-of-war.
At 1 on the afternoon of August 18, Constitution was plowing through moderate surf about 800 miles east of Boston at a speed of 10 knots. Suddenly there was an excited cry from the masthead lookout: "Sail ho!" Hull quickly swung his ship in the direction of the sighting and scanned the horizon through his glass. A strange vessel was noticed on a starboard tack. She was under easy sail -- and appeared to be waiting for Constitution to move up.
Within a couple of hours, the American frigate had maneuvered near enough to identify the stranger as a British man-of-war. Hull ordered the drums to beat "to quarters," and the ship cleared for action. Gun crews scurried to their cannons, while a line of powder monkeys formed to pass ammunition. Other men scampered to their posts on the fighting tops. Carpenters hurriedly prepared cloth-covered wedges for plugging holes made by enemy shot. The surgeon and his assistants ran to their stations in the cockpit below the waterline. The gun decks were spread with sand for footing -- and to absorb the inevitable flow of blood. And chains were rigged to protect the crew against falling masts and spars.
At 4:10, the British frigate hoisted her flags. It was Guerriere, whose Captain Dacres -- still in a sporting frame of mind, it would seem -- had allegedly issued a challenge after war broke out to Captain Rodgers' President "or any other American frigate" to meet him for "a few minutes' tète-ê-tète." Now Dacres was about to meet President's sister -- and, if he won the contest, collect on a more specific prewar bet. The warships approached each other like gladiators. They were preparing for a fight promoter's dream match -- a one-on-one fight to the finish.
Next: Frigate Clash
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