Theodore Roosevelt.

The naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; online

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M. Leon Guerin, in his voluminous but exceedingly
prejudiced and one-sided work,^ makes the differ-
ence even greater. At any rate, the English vessel
was vastly the superior in force, and was captured
by boarding, after a long and bloody conflict in
which she lost 46, and her antagonist over 50,
men. During all the wars waged with the Repub-
lic and the Empire, no English vessel captured a
French one as much superior to itself as the Am-
buscade was to the Bayonnaise, precisely as in the
War of 181 2 no American vessel captured a British
opponent as much superior to itself as the Chesa-

' Histoire des Marins Frangais sous la Republique, par
Charles Rouvier, Lieutenant de Vaisseau, Paris, 1868.

^ Batailles Na'jales.

3 Histoire Maritime de France (par Leon Guerin, Historien
titulaire de la Marine, Membre de la Legion d'Honneur), vi.,
142 (Paris, 1S52).

238 Naval War of 181 2

peake was to the Shannon. Yet no sensible man
can help acknowledging, in spite of these and a
few other isolated instances, that at that time the
French were inferior to the English, and the latter
to the Americans.

It is amusing to compare the French histories of
the English with the English histories of the
Americans, and to notice the similarity of the ar-
guments they use to detract from their opponents'
fame. Of course I do not allude to such writers as
Lord Howard Douglass or Admiral de la Graviere,
but to men like William James and Leon Guerin,
or even O. Troude. James is always recounting
how American ships ran away from British ones,
and Guerin tells as many anecdotes of British ships
who fled from French foes. James reproaches the
Americans for adopting a "Parthian" mode of
warfare, instead of "bringing to in a bold and be-
coming manner." Precisely the same reproaches
are used by the French writers, who assert that the
English would not fight "fairly," but acquired an
advantage by manoeuvring. James lays great
stress on the American long guns ; so does Lieuten-
ant Rouvier on the British carronades. James
always tells how the Americans avoided the British
ships, when the crews of the latter demanded to
be led aboard; Troude says the British always
kept at long shot, while the French sailors "de-
manderent a grands cris, I'abordage. ' ' James says

Naval War of 1812 239

the Americans "hesitated to grapple" with their
foes " unless they possessed a twofold superiority " ;
Guerin that the English "never dared attack" ex-
cept when they possessed "une superiorite enor-
me." The British sneer at the "mighty dollar";
the French at the "eternal guinea." The former
consider Decatur's name as " sunk" to the level of
Porter's or Bainbridge's ; the latter assert that the
" presumptuous Nelson " was inferior to any of the
French admirals of the time preceding the Repub-
lic. Says James : " The Americans only fight well
when they have the superiority of force on their
side" ; and Lieutenant Rouvier: " Never have the
English vanquished us with an undoubted in-
feriority of force."

On June 12, 1813, the small cutter Surveyor, of
six 1 2 -pound carronades, was lying in York River,
in the Chesapeake, under the command of Mr. Wil-
liam S. Travis; her crew consisted of but 15 men.'
At nightfall she was attacked by the boats of the
Narcissus frigate, containing about 50 men, under
the command of Lieutenant John Creerie.^ None
of the carronades could be used ; but Mr. Travis
made every preparation that he could for defence.
The Americans waited till the British were within
pistol-shot before they opened their fire ; the latter

* Letter of W. S. Travis, June i6, 1813.
2 James, vi., 334.

^40 Naval War of 1812

dashed gallantly on, however, and at once carried
the cutter. But, though brief, the struggle was
bloody ; 5 of the Americans were wounded, and of
the British 3 were killed and 7 wounded. Lieu-
tenant Creerie considered his opponents to have
shown so much bravery that he returned Mr.
Travis his sword, with a letter as complimentary
to him as it was creditable to the writer.'

As has been already mentioned, the Americans
possessed a large force of gunboats at the begin-
ning of the war. Some of these were fairly sea-
worthy vessels, of 90 tons burden, sloop or
schooner-rigged, and armed with one or two long,
heavy guns, and sometimes with several light
carronades to repel boarders. => Gunboats of this

' The letter, dated June 13th, is as follows: "Your gallant
and desperate attempt to defend your vessel against more
than double your number, on the night of the 12th instant,
excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I
have seldom witnessed, and induced me to return you the
sword you had so nobly used, in testimony of mine. Our
poor fellows have suffered severely, occasioned chiefly, if not
solely, by the precautions you had taken to prevent surprise.
In short, I am at a loss which to admire most, the previous
arrangement aboard the Surveyor, or the determined manner
in which her deck was disputed inch by inch. I am, sir," etc.

^ According to a letter from Captain Hvigh G. Campbell (in
the Naval Archives, Captains' Letters, 1812, vol. ii., Nos. 21
and 192), the crews were distributed as follows: ten men and
a boy to a long 32, seven men and a boy to a long q, and five
men and a boy to a carronade, exclusive of petty officers.
Captain Campbell complains of the scarcity of men, and

Naval War of 1 812 241

kind, together with the few small cutters owned by
the Government, were serviceable enough. They
were employed all along the shores of Georgia and
the Carolinas, and in Long Island Sound, in pro-
tecting the coasting trade by convoying parties of
small vessels from one port to another, and pre-
venting them from being molested by the boats of
any of the British frigates. They also acted as
checks upon the latter in their descents upon the
towns and plantations, occasionally capturing
their boats and tenders, and forcing them to be
very cautious in their operations. They were very
useful in keeping privateers off the coast, and
capturing them when they came too far in. The
exploits of those on the southern coast will be
mentioned as they occurred. Those in Long Island
Sound never came into collision with the foe, ex-
cept for a couple of slight skirmishes at very long
range; but in convoying little fleets of coasters,
and keeping at bay the man-of-war boats sent to
molest them, they were invaluable ; and they also
kept the Sound clear of hostile privateers.

Many of the gunboats were much smaller than
those just mentioned, trusting mainly to their
sweeps for motive power, and each relying for
offence on one long pivot gun, a 12- or i8-pounder.

rather naively remarks that he is glad the marines have been
withdrawn from the gunboats, as this may make the com-
manders of the latter keep a brighter lookout than formerly,

VOL. I.— 16.

242 Naval War of 1 812

In the Chesapeake there was quite a large number
of these small gallies, with a few of the larger kind,
and here it was thought that, by acting together
in flotillas, the gunboats might in fine weather do
considerable damage to the enemy's fleet by de-
stroying detached vessels, instead of confining
themselves to the more humble tasks in which
their brethren elsewhere were fairly successful. At
this period Denmark, having lost all her larger ships
of war, was confining herself purely to gun-brigs.
These were stout little crafts, with heavy guns,
which, acting together, and being handled with
spirit and skill, had on several occasions in calm
weather captured small British sloops, and had
twice so injured frigates as to make their return to
Great Britain necessary; while they themselves
had frequently been the object of successful cut-
ting-out expeditions. Congress hoped that our
gunboats would do as well as the Danish ; but for
a variety of reasons they failed utterly in every
serious attack that they made on a man-of-war,
and were worse than useless for all but the various
subordinate employments above mentioned. The
main reason for this failure was in the gunboats
themselves. They were utterly useless except in
perfectly calm weather, for in any wind the heavy
guns caused them to careen over so as to make it
difficult to keep them right side up, and impossible
to fire. Even in smooth water they could not be

Naval War of 1812 243

fought at anchor; requiring to be kept in position
by means of sweeps ; and they were very unstable,
the recoil of the guns causing them to roll so as to
make it difficult to aim with any accuracy after the
first discharge, while a single shot hitting one put
it hors de combat. This last event rarely happened,
however, for they were not often handled with any
approach to temerity, and, on the contrary, usu-
ally made their attacks at a range that rendered it
as impossible to inflict as to receive harm. It does
not seem as if they were very well managed ; but
they were such ill-conditioned craft that the best
officers might be pardoned for feeling uncomfort-
able in them. Their operations throughout the
war offer a painfully ludicrous commentary on
Jefferson's remarkable project of having our navy
composed exclusively of such craft.

The first aggressive attempt made with the gun-
boats was characteristically futile. On June 20th,
15 of them, under Captain Tarbell, attacked the
Junon, 38, Captain Sanders, then lying becalmed
in Hampton Roads, with the Barossa, 36, and
Laurestiniis, 24, near her. The gunboats, while
still at very long range, anchored, and promptly
drifted round so that they could n't shoot. Then
they got under way, and began gradually to draw
nearer to the Junon. Her defence was very
feeble; after some hasty and ill-directed volleys
she endeavored to beat out of the way. But

244 Naval War of 1 812

meanwhile, a slight breeze having sprung up, the
Barossa, Captain Sherriff, approached near enough
to take a hand in the affair, and at once made it
evident that she was a more dangerous foe than
the Junon, though a lighter ship. As soon as they
felt the effects of the breeze the gunboats became
almost useless, and, the Barossa s fire being ani-
mated and well aimed, they withdrew. They had
suffered nothing from the Junon, but during the
short period she was engaged, the Barossa had
crippled one boat and slightly damaged another;
one man was killed and two wounded. The
Barossa escaped unscathed and the Junon was
but slightly injured. Of the combatants, the
Barossa was the only one that came off with
credit, the Junon behaving, if anything, rather
worse than the gunboats. There was no longer
any doubt as to the amount of reliance to be
placed on the latter.'

* Though the flotilla men did nothing in the boats, they
acted with the most stubborn bravery at the battle of Bla-
densburg. The British Lieutenant Graig, himself a spectator,
thus writes of their deeds on that occasion (Campaign at
Washington, p. 119). "Of the sailors, however, it would be
injustice not to speak in the terms which their conduct merits.
They were employed as gunners, and not only did they serve
their guns with a quickness and precision which astonished
their assailants, but they stood till some of them were actually
bayoneted with fuses in their hands; nor was it till their
leader was wounded and taken, and they saw themselves
deserted on all sides by the soldiers, that they quitted the

Naval War of 1 812 245

On June 20, 18 13, a British force of three 74's,
one 64, four frigates, two sloops, and- three trans-
ports was anchored off Craney Island. On the
northwest side of this island was a battery of 18-
pounders, to take charge of which Captain Cassin,
commanding the naval forces at Norfolk, sent
ashore 100 sailors of the Constellation, under the
command of Lieutenants Neale, Shubrick, and
Saunders, and fifty marines under Lieutenant
Breckenridge.' On the morning of the 2 2d they
were attacked by a division of 1 5 boats, containing
700 men,^ seamen, marines, chasseurs, and soldiers
of the i02d regiment, the whole under the com-
mand of Captain Pechell, of the San Domingo, 74.
Captain Hanchett led the attack in the Diadem's
launch. The battery's guns were not fired till the
British were close in, when they opened with de-
structive effect. While still some seventy yards
from the guns the Diadem's launch grounded, and
the attack was checked. Three of the boats were
now sunk by shot, but the water was so shallow
that they remained above water; and while the
fighting was still at its height, some of the Con-
stellation's crew, headed by Midshipman Tatnall,

field." Certainly such men could not be accused of lack of
courage. Something else is needed to account for the failure
of the gun-boat system.

' Letter of Captain John Cassin, June 23, 1813.

* James, vi., 337.

246 Naval War of 181 2

waded out and took possession of them.' A few of
their crew threw away their arms and came ashore
with their captors ; others escaped to the remain-
ing boats, and immediately afterward the flotilla
made off in disorder, having lost 91 men. The
three captured barges were large, strong boats,
one, called the Centipede, being fifty feet long, and
more formidable than many of the American gun
vessels. The Constellation's men deserve great
credit for their defence, but the British certainly
did not attack with their usual obstinacy. When
the foremost boats were sunk, the water was so
shallow and the bottom so good that the Americans
on shore, as just stated, at once waded out to them ;
and if, in the heat of the fight, Tatnall and his sea-
men could get out to the boats, the 700 British ought
to have been able to get in to the battery, whose
150 defenders would then have stood no chance.^
On July 14, 1 81 3, the two small vessels Scorpion

I Lije of Commodore Josiah Tatnall, by Charles C. Jones, Jr.
(Savannah, 1878), p. 17.

^ James comments on this repulse as " a defeat as discredit-
able to those that caused it as honorable to those that suffered
in it." "Unlike most other nations, the Americans in par-
ticular, the British, when engaged in expeditions of this na-
ture, always rest their hopes of success upon valor rather than
on numbers." These comments read particularly well when
it is remembered that the assailants outnumbered the assailed
in the proportion of 5 to i. It is monotonous work to have
to supplement a history by a running commentary on James's
mistakes and inventions; but it is worth while to prove once

Naval War of 1812 247

and Asp, the latter commanded by Mr. Sigourney,
got under way from out of the Yeocomico Creek/
and at 10 a.m. discovered in chase the British
brig-sloops Contest, Captain James Rattray, and
Mohawk, Captain Henry D. Byng.' The Scorpion
beat up the Chesapeake, but the dull-sailing Asp
had to re-enter the creek ; the two brigs anchored
off the bar and hoisted out their boats, under the
command of Lieutenant Rodger C. Curry; where-
upon the Asp cut her cable and ran up the creek
some distance. Here she was attacked by three
boats, which Mr. Sigourney and his crew of twenty
men, with two light guns, beat off; but they were
joined by two others, and the five carried the Asp,
giving no quarter. Mr. Sigourney and 10 of his
men were killed or wounded, while the British
also suffered heavily, having 4 killed and 7 (includ-
ing Lieutenant Curry) wounded. The surviving
Americans reached the shore, rallied under Mid-
shipman H. McClintock (second in command),
and when the British retired, after setting the Asp
on fire, at once boarded her, put out the flames,

tor all the utter unreliability of the author who is accepted
in Great Britain as the great authority about the war. Still,
James is no worse than his compeers. In the American Cog-
geshall's History of Privateers, the misstatements are as gross
and the sneers in as poor taste— the British, instead of the
Americans, being the objects.

' Letter of Midshipman McClintock, July 15, 18 13.

2 James, vi., 343.

248 Naval War of 181 2

and got her in fighting order; but they were not
again molested.

On July 29th, while the Junon, 38, Captain
Sanders, and Martin, 18, Captain Senhouse, were
in Delaware Bay, the latter grounded on the out-
side of Crow's Shoal ; the frigate anchored within
supporting distance, and while in this position the
two ships were attacked by the American flotilla
in those waters, consisting of eight gunboats,
carrying each 25 men and one long 32, and two
heavier block-sloops,' commanded by Lieutenant
Samuel Angus. The flotilla kept at such a dis-
tance that an hour's cannonading did no damage
whatever to anybody ; and during that time gun-
boat No. 121, Sailing-master Shead, drifted a mile
and a half away from her consorts. Seeing this, the
British made a dash at her in seven boats, contain-
ing 140 men, led by Lieutenant Philip Westphal.
Mr. Shead anchored and made an obstinate defence
but at the first discharge the gun's pintle gave
way, and the next time it was fired the gun-car-
riage was almost torn to pieces. He kept up a
spirited fire of small-arms, in reply to the boat-
carronades and musketry of the assailants; but
the latter advanced steadily and carried the gun-
boat by boarding, 7 of her people being wounded,
while 7 of the British were killed and 13 wounded.^

' Letter of Lieutenant Angus, July 30, 1813.
' Letter of Mr. Shead, August 5, 18 13.

Naval War of 1812 249

The defence of No. 121 was very creditable, but
otherwise the honor of the day was certainly with
the British; whether because the gunboats were
themselves so worthless or because they were not
handled boldly enough, they did no damage, even
to the grounded sloop, that would seem to have
been at their mercy.'

On June i8th, the American brig-sloop Argus,
commanded by Lieutenant William Henry Allen,
late first of the United States, sailed from New York
for France, with Mr. Crawford, minister for that
country, aboard, and reached L'Orient on July
nth, having made one prize on the way. On
July 14th, she again sailed, and cruised in the chops
of the Channel, capturing and burning ship after
ship, and creating the greatest consternation
among the London merchants; she then cruised
along Cornwall and got into St. George's Channel,
where the work of destruction went on. The labor
was very severe and harassing, the men being able
to get very little rest.^ On the night of August

' The explanation possibly lies in the fact that the gun-
boats had worthless powder. In the Naval Archives there is
a letter from Mr. Angus {M asters-C omniandant Letters, 1813,
No. 3; see also No. 91), in which he says that the frigate's
shot passed over them, while theirs could not even reach the
sloop. He also encloses a copy of a paper, signed by the
other gun-boat officers, which runs: "We, the officers of
the vessels comprising the Delaware flotilla, protest against
the powder as being unfit for service."

' Court of Inquiry into loss of Argus, 1815

250 Naval War of 181 2

13th, a brig laden with wine from Oporto was cap-
tured and burnt, and, unluckily, many of the crew
succeeded in getting at some of the cargo. At 5
A.M. on the 14th, a large brig-of-war was discov-
ered standing down under a cloud of canvas.' This
was the British brig-sloop Pelican, Captain John
Fordyce Maples, which, from information received
at Cork three days previous, had been cruising es-
pecially after the Argus, and had at last found
her; St. David's Head bore east five leagues (lat.
52°i5'N. and 5° 50' W.).

The small, fine-lined American cruiser, with her
lofty masts and long spars, could easily have es-
caped from her heavier antagonist; but Captain
Allen had no such intention, and, finding he could
not get the weather-gage, he shortened sail and
ran easily along on the starboard tack, while the
Pelican came down on him with the wind (which
was from the south) nearly aft. At 6 a.m., the
Argus wore and fired her port guns within grape
distance, the Pelican responding with her starboard
battery, and the action began with great spirit on
both sides. ^ At 6.04, a round shot carried off Cap-
tain Allen's leg, inflicting a mortal wound, but he
stayed on deck till he fainted from loss of blood.
Soon the British fire carried away the main braces,

' Letter of Lieutenant Watson, March 2, 1815.
^ Letter of Captain Maples to Admiral Thomborough,
August 14, 1813.

Naval War of 1 812 251

mainspring-stay, gaff, and try-sail mast of the
Argus; the first Heutenant, Mr. Watson, was
wounded in the head by a grape-shot and carried
below; the second lieutenant, Mr. U. H. Allen (no
relation of the captain) , continued to fight the ship
with great skill. The Pelican's fire continued
very heavy, the Argus losing her spritsail-yard and
most of the standing rigging on the port side of the
foremast. At 6.14, Captain Maples bore up to
pass astern of his antagonist, but Lieutenant Allen
luffed into the wind and threw the main-top sail
aback, getting into a beautiful raking position ' ;
had the men at the guns done their duty as well as
those on the quarter-deck did theirs, the issue of
the fight would have been very different; but, as
it was, in spite of her favorable position, the raking
broadside of the Argus did little damage. Two or
three minutes afterward the Argus lost the use of
her after-sails through having her preventer-main-
braces and top sail tie shot away, and fell off be-
fore the wind, when the Pelican at 6.18 passed her
stem, raking her heavily, and then ranged up on
her starboard quarter. In a few minutes the
wheel-ropes and running-rigging of every descrip-
tion were shot away, and the Argus became utterly
unmanageable. The Pelican continued raking her
with perfect impunity, and at 6.35 passed her
broadside and took a position on her starboard
I Letter of Lieutenant Watson.

252 Naval War of 1812

bow, when at 6.45, the brigs fell together, and
the British "were in the act of boarding when
the Argus struck her colors," 'at 6.45 a.m. The
Pelican carried, besides her regular armament,
two long 6's as stern-chasers, and her broadside
weight of metal was thus ^ :


I X 12

8 X 32

or 280 pounds against the Argus's:

I X 12

9 X 24

or, subtracting as usual 7 per cent, for light weight
of metal, 210 pounds. The Pelican's crew con-
sisted of but 116 men, according to the British
account, though the American reports make it
much larger. The Argus had started from New
York with 137 men, but having manned and sent
in several prizes, her crew amounted, as near as
can be ascertained, to 104. Mr. Low, in his Naval
History, published just after the event, makes it
but 99. James makes it 121. As he placed the
crew of the Enterprise at 125, when it was really
102 ; that of the Hornet at 162, instead of 135 ; of

' Letter of Captain Maples.
* James, vi., 320.

Naval War of 1 812 253

the Peacock at 185, instead of 166 ; of the Nautilus
at 106 instead of 95, etc., it is safe to presume
that he has overestimated it by at least 20, which
brings the number pretty near to the American
accounts. The Pelican lost but 2 men killed and
5 wounded. Captain Maples had a narrow escape,
a spent grape-shot striking him in the chest with
some force, and then falling on the deck. One
shot had passed through the boatswain's and one
through the carpenter's cabin ; her sides were filled
with grape-shot, and her rigging and sails much
injured; her foremast, main-topmast, and royal
masts were slightly wounded, and two of her car-
ronades dismounted.

The injuries of the Argus have already been de-
tailed ; her hull and lower masts were also tolerably
well cut up. Of her crew, Captain Allen, two mid-
shipmen, the carpenter, and six seamen were killed
or mortally wounded ; her first lieutenant and 1 3
seamen severely and slightly wounded; total, 10
killed and 14 wounded.

In reckoning the comparative force, I include
the Englishman's 6-pound stem-chaser, which
could not be fired in broadside with the rest of the
guns, because I include the Argus's 12-pound bow-
chaser, which also could not be fired in broadside
as it was crowded into the bridle-port. James, of
course, carefully includes the latter, though leaving
out the former.


Naval War of 1812


Tons No. Guns Metal

Argus 298 10 210

Pelican 467 1 1 280


Argus 82

Pelican i . 00

Men Los£

104 24

116 7

Comparative Loss



I .00


e.00 AM

Of all the single-ship actions fought in the war,
this is the least creditable to the Americans. The