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

. (page 31 of 42)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Naval War of 1 812 159

four boats belonging to H. M. S. Hehrus, Captain
Palmer, were watering at one of the adjacent
islands.' Lieutenant Lawrence Kearney, with
three barges containing about 75 men, at once
proceeded outside to cut them off, when the
militia drove them away. The frigate was at
anchor out of gunshot, but as soon as she per-
ceived the barges began firing guns as signals.
The British on shore left in such a hurry that they
deserted their launch, which, containing a 12-
pound boat carronade and six swivels, was taken
by the Americans. The other boats — two cut-
ters, and a large tender mounting one long 9 and
carrying 30 men — made for the frigate; but
Lieutenant Kearney laid the tender aboard and
captured her after a sharp brush. The cutters
were only saved by the fire of the Hehrus, which
was very well directed — one of her shot taking off
the head of a man close by Lieutenant Kearney.
The frigate got under way and intercepted Kear-
ney's return, but the Lieutenant then made for
South Edisto, whither he carried his prize in
triumph. This was one of the most daring ex-
ploits of the war, and was achieved at very small
cost. On February 14th, a similar feat was per-
formed. Lieutenant Kearney had manned the

' Letter of Lawrence Kearney of January 30, 18 15 (see in
the Archives at Washington, Captains' Letters, vol. xlii.,
No. 100).

i6o Naval War of 1812

captured launch with 25 men and the 12 -pound
carronade. News was received of another harry-
ing expedition undertaken by the British, and
Captain Dent, with seven boats, put out to attack
them, but was unable to cross the reef. Mean-
while, Kearney's barge had gotten outside, and at-
tacked the schooner Brant, a tender to H. M. S
Severn, mounting an i8-pounder, and with a crew
of two midshipmen and twenty-one marines and
seamen. A running fight began, the Brant evi-
dently fearing that the other boats might get
across the reef and join in the attack; suddenly
she ran aground on a sand-bank, which accident
totally demoralized her crew. Eight of them
escaped, in her boat, to the frigate ; the remaining
fifteen, after firing a few shot, surrendered and
were taken possession of.'

I have had occasion from time to time to speak
of cutting-out expeditions, successful and other-
wise, undertaken by British boats against Amer-
ican privateers ; and twice a small British national
cutter was captured by an overwhelmingly su-

' Letter of Captain Dent, February i6th (in Captains'
Letters, vol. xlii., No. 130). Most American authors, headed
by Cooper, give this exploit a more vivid coloring by increas-
ing the crew of the Brant to forty men, omitting to mention
that she was hard and fast aground, and making no allusion
to the presence of the five other American boats, which un-
doubtedly caused the Brant's flight in the first place.

Naval War of i8i2 i6i

perior American opponent of this class. We now,
for the only time, come across an engagement
between a privateer and a regular cruiser of ap-
proximately equal force. These privateers came
from many different ports and varied greatly in
size. Baltimore produced the largest number; but
New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem were
not far behind ; and Charleston, Bristol, and Ply-
mouth supplied some that were very famous.
Many were merely small pilot-boats with a crew
of 20 to 40 men, intended only to harry the West
Indian trade. Others were large, powerful craft,
unequalled for speed by any vessels of their size,
which penetrated to the remotest corners of the
ocean, from Man to the Spice Islands. When a
privateer started she was overloaded with men,
to enable her to man her prizes; a successful
cruise would reduce her crew to a fifth of its orig-
inal size. The favorite rig was that of a schooner,
but there were many brigs and brigantines. Each
was generally armed with a long 24 or 32 on a
pivot, and a number of light guns in broadside,
either long 9's or short i8's or 12's. Some had no
pivot gun, others had nothing else. The largest
of them carried seventeen guns (a pivotal 32 and
sixteen long 12's in broadside) with a crew of 150.
Such a vessel ought to have been a match, at her
own distance, for a British brig-sloop, but we
never hear of any such engagements, and there

VOL. 11. — II

1 62 Naval War of 1812

were several instances where privateers gave up,
without firing a shot, to a force superior, it is true,
but not enough so to justify the absolute tameness
of the surrender.' One explanation of this was
that they were cruising as private ventures, and
their object was purely to capture merchantmen
with as little risk as possible to themselves. An-
other reason was that they formed a kind of sea-
militia, and, like their compeers on land, some
could fight as well as any regulars, while most
would not fight at all, especially if there was need
of concerted action between two or three. The
American papers of the day are full of "glorious
victories" gained by privateers over packets and
Indiamen ; the British papers are almost as full of
instances where the packets and Indiamen "hero-
ically repulsed" the privateers. As neither side
ever chronicles a defeat, and as the narration is
apt to be decidedly figurative in character, there
is very little hope of getting at the truth of such
meetings ; so I have confined myself to the men-
tion of those cases where privateers, of either side,
came into armed collision with regular cruisers.
We are then sure to find some authentic ac-

The privateer brig Chasseur, of Baltimore, Cap-

' As when the Epervier, some little time before her own
capture, took without resistance the Alfred, of Salem, mount-
ing 16 long nines and having io8 men aboard.

Naval War of 1 812 163

tain Thomas Boyle, carried sixteen long 12's, and
had, when she left port, 115 men aboard. She
made eighteen prizes on her last voyage, and her
crew was thus reduced to less than 80 men; she
was then chased by the Barossa, frigate, and threw
overboard ten of her long 12's. Afterward, eight
9-pound carronades were taken from a prize, to
partially supply the places of the lost guns; but
as she had no shot of the calibre of these carro-
nades, each of the latter was loaded with one
4-pound and one 6-pound ball, giving her a broad-
side of 76 lbs. On the 26th of February, two
leagues from Havana, the Chasseur fell in with
the British schooner St. Lawrence, Lieut. H. C.
Gordon, mounting twelve 12-pound carronades,
and one long 9; her broadside was thus 81 lbs.,
and she had between 60 and 80 men aboard.' The
Chasseur mistook the St. Lawrence for a merchant-
man and closed with her. The mistake was dis-
covered too late to escape, even had such been

^ Letter of Captain Thomas Boyle, of March 2, 18 15 (see
Niles and Coggeshall) ; he says the schooner had two more
carronades; I have taken the number given by James (p.
539). Captain Boyle says the St. Lawrence had on board
8q men and several more, including a number of soldiers and
marines and gentlemen of the navy, as passengers; James
says her crew amounted to 5 i "exclusive of some passengers,"
which I suppose must mean at least nine men. So the
forces were pretty equal; the Chasseur may have had 20 men
more or less than her antagonist, and she threw from 5 to 21
lbs. less weight of shot.

i64 Naval War of 1812

Captain Boyle's intention, and a brief but bloody-
action ensued. At 1.26 p.m., the St. Lawrence
fired the first broadside, within pistol-shot, to
which the Chasseur replied with her great guns
and musketry. The brig then tried to close, so
as to board ; but having too much way on, shot
ahead under the lee of the schooner, which put
her helm up to wear under the Chasseur's stern.
Boyle, however, followed his antagonist's ma-
noeuvre, and the two vessels ran along side by side,
the St. Lawrence drawing ahead, while the firing
was very heavy. Then Captain Boyle put his
helm a-starboard and ran his foe aboard, when, in
the act of boarding, her colors were struck at 1.41
P.M., fifteen minutes after the first shot. Of the
Chasseur's crew 5 were killed and 8 wounded, in-
cluding Captain Boyle slightly. Of the St. Law-
rence s crew 6 were killed and 17 (according to
James, 18) wounded. This was a very creditable
action. The St. Lawrence had herself been an
American privateer, called the- Atlas, and was of
241 tons, or just 36 less than the Chasseur. The
latter could thus fairly claim that her victory was
gained over a regular cruiser of about her own force.
Captain Southcomb of the Lottery, Captain Reid
of the General Armstrong, Captain Ordronaux of
the Neiifchdtel, and Captain Boyle of the Chasseur
deserve as much credit as any regularly com-
missioned sea-ofhcers. But it is a mistake to

Naval War of 1 8 1 2 165

consider these cases as representing the average;
an ordinary privateer was, naturally enough, no
match for a British regular cruiser of equal force.
The privateers were of incalculable benefit to us,
and inflicted enormous damage on the foe ; but in
fighting they suffered under the same disadvan-
tages as other irregular forces; they were utterly
unreliable. A really brilliant victory would be
followed by a most extraordinary defeat.

After the Constitution had escaped from Boston,
as I have described, she ran to the Bermudas,
cruised in their vicinity a short while, thence to
Madeira, to the Bay of Biscay, and finally off Por-
tugal, cruising for some time in sight of the Rock
of Lisbon. Captain Stewart then ran off south-
west, and on February 20th, Madeira bearing
W.S.W. 60 leagues,' the day being cloudy, with
a light easterly breeze,^ at i p.m. a sail was made
two points on the port bow ; and at 2 p.m., Captain
Stewart, hauling up in chase, discovered another
sail. The first of these was the frigate-built ship
corvette Cyane, Captain Gordon Thomas Falcon,
and the second was the ship-sloop Levant, Cap-
tain the Honorable George Douglass.^ Both were

' Letter of Captain Stewart to the Secretary of the Navy,
May 20, 1815.

^ Log of Constitution, February 20, 1815.
3 Naval Chronicle, xxxiii., 466.

i66 Naval War of 1812

standing close-hauled on the starboard tack, the
sloop about ten miles to leeward of the corvette.
At 4 P.M. the latter began making signals to her
consort that the strange sail was an enemy, and
then made all sail before the wind to join the
sloop. The Constitution bore up in chase, set-
ting her topmast, topgallant, and royal studding-
sails. In half an hour she carried away her main
royal mast, but immediately got another prepared,
and at 5 o'clock began firing at the corvette with
the two port-bow guns ; as the shot fell short the
firing soon ceased. At 5.30, the Cyane got within
hail of the Levant, and the latter' s gallant com-
mander expressed to Captain Falcon his inten-
tion of engaging the American frigate. The two
ships accordingly hauled up their courses and
stood on the starboard tack; but immediately
afterward their respective captains concluded to
try to delay the action till dark, so as to get the
advantage of manoeuvring.' Accordingly they
again set all sail and hauled close to the wind to
endeavor to weather their opponent ; but, finding
the latter coming down too fast for them to suc-
ceed, they again stripped to fighting canvas and
formed on the starboard tack in head and stem
line, the Levant about a cable's length in front of
her consort. The American now had them com-
pletely under her guns and showed her ensign, to

^ Naval Chronicle, xxxiii., 466.

Naval War of 1 812 167

which challenge the British ships replied by setting
their colors. At 6.10, the Constitution ranged up
to windward of the Cyane and Levant, the former
on her port quarter the latter on her port bow,
both being distant about 250 yards from her ' — so
close that the American marines were constantly
engaged almost from the beginning of the action.
The fight began at once, and continued with great
spirit for a quarter of an hour, the vessels all firing
broadsides. It was now moonlight, and an im-
mense column of smoke formed under the lee of the
Constitution, shrouding from sight her foes; and,
as the fire of the latter had almost ceased. Captain
Stewart also ordered his men to stop, so as to find
out the positions of the ships. In about three
minutes the smoke cleared, disclosing to the Amer-
icans the Levant dead to leeward on the port beam,
and the Cyane luffing up for their port quarter.
Giving a broadside to the sloop, Stewart braced
aback his main- and mizzen-topsails, with top-
gallant sails set, shook all forward, and backed
rapidly astern, under cover of the smoke, abreast

' Testimony sworn to by Lieut. W. B. Shubrick and
Lieutenant-of-Marines Archibald Henderson before Thomas
Welsh, Jr., Justice of the Peace, Suffolk Street, Boston, July
20, 18 15. The depositions were taken in consequence of a
report started by some of the British journals that the action
began at a distance of three quarters of a mile. All the
American depositions were that all three ships began firing
at once, when equidistant from each other about 250 yards,
the marines being engaged almost the whole time.

1 68 Naval War of 1 812

the corvette, forcing the latter to fill again to
avoid being raked. The firing was spirited for a
few minutes, when the Cyane's almost died away.
The Levant bore up to wear round and assist her
consort, but the Constitution filled her topsails,
and, shooting ahead, gave her two stern rakes,
when she at once made all sail to get out of the
combat. The Cyane was now discovered wearing,
when the Constitution herself at once wore and
gave her in turn a stern rake, the former luffing to
and firing her port broadside into the starboard
bow of the frigate. Then, as the latter ranged
up on her port quarter, she struck, at 6.50, just
forty minutes after the beginning of the action.
She was at once taken possession of, and Lieuten-
ant Hoffman, second of the Constitution, was put
in command. Having manned the prize. Captain
Stewart, at 8 o'clock, filled away after her consort.
The latter, however, had only gone out of the
combat to refit. Captain Douglass had no idea of
retreat, and no sooner had he rove new braces
than he hauled up to the wind, and came very
gallantly back to find out his friend's condition.
At 8.50, he met the Constitution, and, failing to
weather her, the frigate and sloop passed each
other on opposite tacks, exchanging broadsides.
Finding her antagonist too heavy, the Levant then
crowded all sail to escape, but was soon overtaken
by the Constitution, and at about 9.30 the latter

Naval War of 1 812 169

opened with her starboard bow-chasers, and soon
afterward the British captain hauled down his
colors. Mr. Ballard, first of the Constitution, was
afterward put in command of the prize. By one
o'clock, the ships were all in order again.

The Constitution had been hulled eleven times,
more often than in either of her previous actions,
but her loss was mainly due to the grape and
musketry of the foe in the beginning of the fight.'
The British certainly fired better than usual, es-
pecially considering the fact that there was much
manoeuvring, and that it was a night action. The
Americans lost 3 men killed, 3 mortally and 9
severely and slightly wounded. The corvette, out
of her crew of 180, had 12 men killed and 26
wounded, several mortally; the sloop, out of 140,
had 7 killed and 16 wounded. The Constitution-
had started on her cruise very full-handed, with
over 470 men, but several being absent on a prize,
she went into battle with about 450.^ The prizes
had suffered a good deal in their hulls and rigging,
and had received some severe wounds in their
masts and principal spars. The Cyane carried on
her main-deck twenty-two 3 2 -pound carronades,
and on her spar-deck two long 12's and ten 18-

' Deposition of her officers, as before cited.

^ Four hundred and ten officers and seamen, and 41
marines, by her muster-roll of February 19th. (The muster-
rolls are preserved in the Treasury Department at Washing-

170 Naval War of 181 2

pounder carronades. The Levant carried, all on
one deck, eighteen 3 2 -pound carronades and two
long 9's, together with a shifting 12-pounder.
Thus, their broadside weight of metal was 763
pounds, with a total of 320 men, of whom 61 fell,
against the Constitution s 704 pounds and 450
men, of whom 15 were lost; or, nominally, the
relative force was 100 to 91, and the relative loss
100 to 24. But the British guns were almost ex-
clusively carronades, which, as already pointed
out in the case of the Essex, and in the battle off
Plattsburg, are no match for long guns. Moreover,
the scantling of the smaller ships was, of course,
by no means as stout as that of the frigate, so that
the disparity of force was much greater than the
figures would indicate, although not enough to
account for the difference in loss. Both the
British ships were ably handled, their fire was well
directed, and the Levant in especial was very gal-
lantly fought.

As regards the Constitution, "her manoeuvring
was as brilliant as any recorded in naval annals,"
and it would have been simply impossible to sur-
pass the consummate skill with which she was
handled in the smoke, always keeping her antag-
onists to leeward, and, while raking both of them,
not being once raked herself. The firing was ex-
cellent, considering the short time the ships were
actually engaged, and the fact that it was at night.

Naval War of 1812


Altogether, the fight reflected the greatest credit
on her, and also on her adversaries.'

The merits of this action can perhaps be better
appreciated by comparing it with a similar one
that took place a few years before between a
British sloop and corvette on the one side, and a
French frigate on the other, and which is given in
full by both James and Troude. Although these


6.05 fi.M



— n., ^ ~..

COS ^^♦•~— ^


authors differ somewhat in the account of it, both
agree that the Frenchman, the Nereide, of 44 guns

' There is no British official account of the action. James
states that the entire British force was only 302 men, of
whom 12 were killed and 29 wounded. This is probably not
based on any authority. Captain Stewart received on board
301 prisoners, of whom 42 were wounded, several mortally.
Curiously enough, James also underestimates the American

172 Naval War of 1812

on February 14, 18 10, fought a long and inde-
cisive battle with the Rainbow of 26 and Avon
of 18 guns, the British sloops being fought sepa-
rately, in succession. The relative force was al-
most exactly as in the Constitution's fight. Each
side claimed that the other fled. But this much
is sure : The Constitution, engaging the Cyane and
Levant together, captured both ; while the Nereide,
engaging the Rainbow and Avo7t separately, cap-
tured neither.

The three ships now proceeded to the Cape de
Verdes, and on March loth anchored in the har-
bor of Porto Praya, Island of San Jago. Here a
merchant-brig was taken as a cartel, and a hun-
dred of the prisoners were landed to help fit her
for sea. The next day the weather was thick and

loss, making it only 12. He also says that many attempts
were made by the Americans to induce the captured British
to desert, while the Constitution s officers deny this under
oath, before Justice Welsh, as already quoted, and state that,
on the contrary, many of the prisoners offered to enlist on
the frigate, but were all refused permission — as "the loss of
the Chesapeake had taught us the danger of having renegades
aboard." This denial, by the way, holds good for all the
similar statements made by James as regards the Guerriere,
Macedonian, etc. He also states that a British court-mar-
tial found various counts against the Americans for harsh
treatment, but all of these were specifically denied by the
American officers, under oath, as already quoted.

I have relied chiefly on Captain Stewart's narrative, but
partly (as to time, etc.) on the British account in the Naval

Naval War of 1 8 1 2


foggy, with fresh breezes.' The first and second
Ueutenants, with a good part of the people, were
aboard the two prizes. At five minutes past
twelve, while Mr. Shubrick, the senior remaining
lieutenant, was on the quarter-deck, the canvas
of a large vessel suddenly loomed up through
the haze, her hull being completely hidden by
the fog-bank. Her character could not be made
out; but she was sailing close-hauled, and evi-
dently making for the roads. Mr. Shubrick at
once went down and reported the stranger to
Captain Stewart, when that of^cer coolly re-
marked that it was probably a British frigate or
an Indiaman, and directed the lieutenant to re-
turn on deck, call all hands, and get ready to go
out and attack her.^ At that moment the canvas
of two other ships was discovered rising out of the
fog astern of the vessel first seen. It was now
evident that all three were heavy frigates. ^ In
fact they were the Newcastle, 50, Captain Lord
George Stewart; Leander, 50, Captain Sir Ralph
Collier, K. C. B. ; and Acasta, 40, Captain Robert
Kerr, standing into Porto Praya, close-hauled on
the starboard tack, the wind being Jight northeast
by north. 4 Captain Stewart at once saw that his

' Log of Constitution, March ii, 1815.
' Cooper, ii., 459.

3 Letter of Lieutenant Hoffman, April 10, 1815.

4 Marshall's Naval Biography, ii., 535.

174 Naval War of 1812

opponents were far too heavy for a fair fight, and,
knowing that the neutrality of the port would not
be the slightest protection to him, he at once
signalled to the prizes to follow, cut his cable,
and, in less than ten minutes from the time the
first frigate was seen, was standing out of the
roads, followed by Hoffman and Ballard. Cer-
tainly a more satisfactory proof of the excellent
training of both officers and men could hardly be
given than the rapidity, skill, and perfect order
with which everything was done. Any indecision
on the part of the officers or bungling on the part
of the men would have lost everything. The
prisoners on shore had manned a battery and
delivered a furious but ill-directed fire at their
retreating conquerors. The frigate, sloop, and
corvette, stood out of the harbor in the order
indicated, on the port tack, passing close under
the east point, and a gunshot to windward of the
British squadron, according to the American, or
about a league, according to the British, accounts.
The Americans made out the force of the strangers
correctly, and their own force was equally clearly
discerned by the A casta; but both the Newcastle
and Leander mistook the Cyane and Levant for
frigates, a mistake similar to that once made
by Commodore Rodgers. The Constitution now
crossed her topgallant yards and set the fore-
sail, mainsail, spanker, flying jib, and topgallant-

Naval War of 1 8i 2 175

sails ; and the British ships, tacking, made all sail
in pursuit. The Newcastle was on the Constitu-
tion's lee quarter and directly ahead of the
Leander, while the Acasta was on the weather
quarter of the Newcastle. All six ships were on the
port tack. The Constitution cut adrift the boats
towing astern, and her log notes that at 12.50 she
found she was sailing about as fast as the ships on
her lee quarter, but that the Acasta was luffing into
her wake and dropping astern. The log of the
Acasta says: "We had gained on the sloops, but
the frigate had gained on us." At the Cyane
had fallen so far astern and to leeward that Cap-
tain Stewart signalled to Lieutenant Hoffman to
tack, lest he should be cut off if he did not. Ac-
cordingly, the lieutenant put about and ran off
toward the northwest, no notice being taken of
him by the enemy beyond an ineffectual broadside
from the stemmost frigate. At 2.35 he was out
of sight of all the ships and shaped his course for
America, which he reached on April loth.' At
1.45, the Newcastle opened on the Constitution,
firing by divisions, but the shot all fell short, ac-
cording to the American statements, about 200
yards, while the British accounts (as given in
Marshall's Naval Biography) make the distance
much greater ; at any rate, the vessels were so near
that from the Constitution the officers of the New-
' Letter of Lieutenant Hoffman, April lo, 1815.

176 Naval War of 181 2

castle could be seen standing on the hammock net-
tings. But, very strangely, both the 50-gun ships
apparently still mistook the Levant, though a low,