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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sails. Soon the Englishman hoisted three en-
signs, when the American also set his colors, one
at each mast-head, and one at the mizzen-peak.

The Constitution now ran down with the wind
nearly aft. The Guerriere was on the starboard
tack, and at five o 'clock opened with her weather-
guns,^ the shot falling short, then wore round and
fired her port broadside, of which two shots struck

'Do., August 30th.

* Letter of Captain James R. Dacres, September 7, 1812.

3 Log of Guerribre.

Naval War of 1 8i 2 m

her opponent, the rest passing over and through
her rigging/ As the British frigate again wore, to
open with her starboard battery, the Constitution
yawed a Httle and fired two or three of her port
bow-guns. Three or four times the Guerrihe
repeated this manoeuvre, wearing and firing alter-
nate broadsides, but with little or no effect, while
the Constitution yawed as often to avoid being
raked, and occasionally fired one of her bow-guns.
This continued nearly an hour, as the vessels were
very far apart when the action began, hardly any
loss or damage being inflicted by either party. At
6.00 the Guerrihe bore up and ran off under her
topsails and jib, with the wind almost astern, a
little on her port quarter, when the Constitution
set her main-topgallantsail and foresail, and at
6.05 closed within half pistol-shot distance on her
adversary's port beam.^ Immediately a furious
cannonade opened, each ship firing as the guns
bore. By the time the ships were fairly abreast,

' See in the Naval Archives (Bureau of Navigation) the
Constitution's Log-Book (vol. ii., from February i, 1812, to
December 13, 18 13). The point is of some little importance,
because Hull in his letter speaks as if both the first broad-
sides fell short, whereas the log distinctly says that the second
went over the ship, except two shot, which came home.
The hypothesis of the Guerri^re having damaged powder was
founded purely on this supposed falling short of the first two

^Autobiography of Commodore Morris, p. 164. Annapolis,

1 1 2 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

at 6.20, the Constitution shot away the Guerrihe's
mizzen-mast, which fell over the starboard quarter,
knocking a large hole in the counter, and bringing
the ship round against her helm. Hitherto, she had
suffered very greatly, and the Constitution hardly
at all. The latter, finding that she was ranging
ahead, put her helm aport and then luffed short
round her enemy's bows,' delivering a heavy rak-
ing fire with the starboard guns and shooting away
the Guerriere's main-yard. Then she wore and
again passed her adversary's bows, raking with
her port guns. The mizzen-mast of the Guerriere,
dragging in the water, had by this time pulled her
bow round till the wind came on her starboard
quarter ; and so near were the two ships that the
Englishman's bowsprit passed diagonally over the
Constitution's quarter-deck, and as the latter ship
fell off it got foul of her mizzen-rigging, and the
vessels then lay with the Guerrihre's starboard
bow against the Constitution's port, or lee quarter-
gallery. ^ The Englishman's bow-guns played
havoc with Captain Hull's cabin, setting fire to it;
but the flames were soon extinguished by Lieuten-
ant Hoffman. On both sides the boarders were
called away; the British ran forward, but Captain
Dacres relinquished the idea of attacking ^ when

' Log of Constitution.

^Cooper, in Putnam's Magazine, i., 475.

3 Address of Captain Dacres to the court-martial at Halifax.

Naval War of 1812 113

he saw the crowds of men on the American's decks.
Meanwhile, on the Constitution, the boarders and
marines gathered aft, but such a heavy sea was
running that they could not get on the Giierriere.
Both sides suffered heavily from the closeness of
the musketry fire; indeed, almost the entire loss
on the Constitution occurred at this juncture. As
Lieutenant Bush, of the marines, sprang upon the
taffrail to leap on the enemy's decks, a British
marine shot him dead; Mr. Morris, the first
lieutenant, and Mr. Alwyn, the master, had also
both leaped on the taffrail, and both were at the
same moment wounded by the musketry fire. On
the Guerriere the loss was far heavier, almost all
the men on the forecastle being picked off. Cap-
tain Dacres himself was shot in the back and
severely wounded by one of the American mizzen-
topmen, while he was standing on the starboard
forecastle hammocks, cheering on his crew ' ; two
of the lieutenants and the master were also shot
down. The ships gradually worked round till the
wind was again on the port quarter, when they
separated, and the Guerrihe's foremast and main-
mast at once went by the board, and fell over on
the starboard side, leaving her a defenceless hulk,
rolling her main-deck guns into the water. "^ At
6.30, the Constitution hauled aboard her tacks, ran
off a little distance to the eastward, and lay to.

'James, vi., 144. 2 Brenton, v., 51.

VOL. I.— 8

•114 Naval War of 1812

Her braces and standing and running rigging were
much cut up and some of the spars wounded, but
a few minutes sufficed to repair damages, when
Captain Hull stood under his adversary's lee, and
the latter at once struck, at 7.00 p.m.,' just two
hours after she had fired the first shot. On the -
part of the Constitution, however, the actual
fighting, exclusive of six or eight guns fired during
the first hour, while closing, occupied less than
30 minutes.

The tonnage and metal of the combatants have
already been referred to. The Constitution had,
as already said, about 456 men aboard, while of
the Guerri^res crew, 267 prisoners were received
aboard the Constitution; deducting 10 who were
Americans and would not fight, and adding the 1 5
killed outright, we get 272 ; 28 men were absent in


Tons Guns side



tive Force

tive loss

Constitution .

.1576 27 684



1. 00

1. 00


•1338 25 556





The loss of the Constitution included Lieutenant
William S. Bush, of the marines, and six seamen
killed, and her first lieutenant, Charles Morris, mas-
ter, John C. Alwyn, four seamen, and one marine,
wounded. Total, seven killed and seven wounded.
Almost all this loss occurred when the ships came

' Log of the Constitution.





This diagram is taken from Commo-
dore Morris's autobiography and the log
of the Guerriire : the official accounts
apparently consider "larboard" and
" starboard " as interchangeable terms.


i.eo / ...




\ ^ ff*^




ii6 Naval War of 1812

foul, and was due to the Giierriere's musketry and
the two guns in her bridle-ports.

The Guerriere lost 23 killed and mortally
wounded, including her second lieutenant, Henry
Ready, and 56 wounded severely and slightly,
including Captain Dacres himself, the first lieu-
tenant, Bartholomew Kent, master, Robert Scott,
two master's mates, and one midshipman.

The third lieutenant of the Constitution, Mr.
George Campbell Read, was sent on board the
prize, and the Constitution remained by her during
the night; but at daylight it was found that she
was in danger of sinking. Captain Hull at once
began removing the prisoners, and at three o'clock
in the afternoon set the Guerriere on fire, and in a
quarter of an hour she blew up. He then set sail
for Boston, where he arrived on August 30th. "Cap-
tain Hull and his officers," writes Captain Dacres in
his official letter, "have treated us like brave and
generous enemies ; the greatest care has been
taken that we should not lose the smallest trifle."

The British laid very great stress on the rotten
and decayed condition of the Guerriere; mention-
ing in particular that the mainmast fell solely be-
cause of the weight of the falling foremast. But
it must be remembered that until the action
occurred she was considered a very fine ship.
Thus, in Brighton's Memoir of Admiral Broke, it is
declared that Dacres freely expressed the opinion

Naval War of 1812 117

that she could take a ship in half the time the
Shannon could. The fall of the mainmast oc-
curred when the fight was practically over ; it had
no influence whatever on the conflict. It was
also asserted that her powder was bad, but on no
authority; her first broadside fell short, but so,
under similar circumstances, did the first broadside
of the United States. None of these causes ac-
count for the fact that her shot did not hit. Her
opponent was of such superior force — nearly in
the proportion of 3 to 2 — that success would have
been very difficult in any event, and no one can
doubt the gallantry and pluck with which the
British ship was fought; but the execution was
very greatly disproportioned to the force. The
gunnery of the Guerrihe was very poor, and that
of the Constitution excellent ; during the few min-
utes the ships were yard-arm and yard-arm, the
latter was not hulled once, while no less than 30
shot took efi'ect on the former's engaged side,'
five sheets of copper beneath the bends. The
Guerriere, moreover, was out-manoeuvred; "in
wearing several times and exchanging broadsides
in such rapid and continual changes of position,
her fire was much more harmless than it would
have been if she had kept more steady." ' The

' Captain Dacres's address to the court-martial.
2 Lord Howard Douglass's treatise on Naval Gunnery, p.
454. London, 1851.

1 1 8 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

Constitution was handled faultlessly ; Captain Hull
displayed the coolness and skill of a veteran in the
way in which he managed, first, to avoid being
raked, and then to improve the advantage
which the precision and rapidity of his fire had
gained. "After making every allowance claimed
by the enemy, the character of this victory is not
essentially altered. Its peculiarities were a fine
display of seamanship in the approach, extraor-
dinary efficiency in the attack, and great readi-
ness in repairing damages; all of which denote
cool and capable officers, with an expert and
trained crew; in a word, a disciplined man-of-
war." ^ The disparity of force, 10 to 7, is not
enough to account for the disparity of execution,
10 to 2. Of course, something must be allowed
for the decayed state of the Englishman's masts,
although I really do not think it had any influence
on the battle, for he was beaten when the main-
mast fell; and it must be remembered, on the
other hand, that the American crew was absolutely
new, while the Guerriere was manned by old hands.
So that, while admitting and admiring the gal-
lantry, and, on the whole, the seamanship, of Cap-
tain Dacres and his crew, and acknowledging that
he fought at a great disadvantage, especially in
being short-handed, yet all must acknowledge
that the combat showed a marked superiority,

'Cooper, ii., 173.

Naval War of 1 8i 2 119

particularly in gunnery, on the part of the Amer-
icans. Had the ships not come foul, Captain
Hull would probably not have lost more than
three or four men; as it was, he suffered but
slightly. That the Guerrihe was not so weak as
she was represented to be, can be gathered from
the fact that she mounted two more main-deck
guns than the rest of her class; thus carrying on
her main-deck thirty long 1 8-pounders in battery
to oppose to the thirty long 24's or rather (allow-
ing for the short weight of shot) long 22'sof the
Constitution. Characteristically enough, James,
though he carefully reckons in the long bow-
chasers in the bridle-ports of the Argus and Enter-
prise, yet refuses to count the two long i8's
mounted through the bridle-ports on the Gtier-
rieres main-deck. Now, as it turned out, these
two bow-guns were used very effectively, when the
ships got foul, and caused more damage and loss
than all of the other main-deck guns put together.
Captain Dacres, very much to his credit, allowed
the ten Americans on board to go below, so as not
to fight against their flag ; and, in his address to the
court-martial, mentions, among the reasons for
his defeat, "that he was very much weakened by
permitting the Americans on board to quit their
quarters." Coupling this with the assertion
made by James and most other British writers
that the Constitution was largely manned by Eng-

I20 Naval War of 1812

lishmen, we reach the somewhat remarkable con-
clusion that the British ship was defeated because
the Americans on board would not fight against
their country, and that the American was vic-
torious because the British on board would. How-
ever, as I have shown, in reality there were
probably not a score of British on board the

In this, as well as the two succeeding frigate
actions, every one must admit that there was a
great superiority in force on the side of the vic-
tors, and British historians have insisted that this
superiority was so great as to preclude any hopes
of a successful resistance. That this was not
true, and that the disparity between the com-
batants was not as great as had been the case in a
number of encounters in which English frigates
had taken French ones, can be best shown by a
few accounts taken from the French historian
Troude, who would certainly not exaggerate the
difference. Thus, on March i, 1799, the English
38-gun i8-pounder frigate Sybil captured the
French 44-gun 24-pounder frigate Forte, after an
action of two hours and ten minutes.' In actual
weight the shot thrown by one of the main-deck
guns of the defeated Forte was over six pounds
heavier than the shot thrown by one of the main-

^ Batailles Novates de la Frattce. O. Troude, iv., 171.
Paris, 1868.

Naval War of 1 812 121

deck guns of the victorious Constitution or United

There are later examples than this. But a very-
few years before the declaration of war by the
United States, and in the same struggle that was
then still raging, there had been at least two vic-
tories gained by English frigates over French foes
as superior to themselves as the American 44's
were to the British ships they captured. On
August 10, 1805, the Phoenix, 36, captured the
Didon, 40, after ^^ hours' fighting, the compara-
tive broadside force being ^ :



13 X 18

14 X 18



6 X 32

7 X 36

21 guns, 444 lbs.

23 guns, 522 lbs.

(nominal; about

600, real).

On March 8, 1808, the San Florenzo, 36, cap-
tured the Piedmontaise, 40, the force being
exactly what it was in the case of the Phosnix and
Didon.^ Comparing the real, not the nominal,
weight of metal, we find that the Didon and Pied-
montaise were proportionately of greater force,
compared to the Phcenix and San Florenzo, than

* See Appendix B for actual weight of French shot.
^ Baiailles Navales de la France, iii., 425.
3 Ibid., iii., 499.

122 Naval War of 1812

the Constitution was, compared to the Guerriere or
Java. The French i8's threw each a shot weigh-
ing but about two pounds less than that thrown
by an American 24 of 181 2, while their 36-pound
carronades each threw a shot over 10 pounds
heavier than that thrown by one of the Constitu-
tion's spar-deck 32's.

That a 24-pounder cannot always whip an 18-
pounder frigate is shown by the action of the
British frigate Eurotas with the French frigate
Chlorinde, on February 25, 1814.1 The first, with
a crew of 329 men threw 625 pounds of shot at a
broadside, the latter carrying 344 men and throw-
ing 463 pounds; yet the result was indecisive.
The French lost 90, and the British 60 men. The
action showed that heavy metal was not of much
use unless used well.

To appreciate rightly the exultation Hull's vic-
tory caused in the United States, and the intense
annoyance it created in England, it must be re-
membered that during the past twenty years the
Island Power had been at war with almost every
state in Europe, at one time or another, and in the
course of about two hundred single conflicts be-
tween ships of approximately equal force (that
is, where the difference was less than one half),
waged against French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish,
Algerine, Russian, Danish, and Dutch antagon-

^ James, vi., 391.

Naval War of 1 812 123

ists, her ships had been beaten and captured in
but five instances. Then war broke out with
America, and in eight months five single-ship
actions occurred, in every one of which the British
vessel was captured.

Even had the victories been due solely to supe-
rior force, this would have been no mean triumph
for the United States.

On October 13, 181 2, the American i8-gun ship-
sloop Wasp, Captain Jacob Jones, with 137 men
aboard, sailed from the Delaware and ran off
southeast to get into the track of the West India
vessels; on the i6th, a heavy gale began to blow,
causing the loss of the jib-boom and two men who
were on it. The next day, the weather moderated
somewhat, and at 11.30 p.m., in latitude 37° N.,
longitude 65° W., several sail were descried.'
These were part of a convoy of 14 merchantmen
which had quitted the bay of Honduras on Sep-
tember 12th, bound for England,^ under the con-
voy of the British i8-gun brig-sloop Frolic, of 19
guns and no men, Captain Thomas Whinyates.
They had been dispersed by the gale of the i6th,
during which the Frolic's main-yard was carried
away and both her topsails torn to pieces ^ ; next
day she spent in repairing damages, and by dark

'Captain Jones's official letter, November 24, 1812,

^James's History, vi., 158.

3 Captain Whinyates's official letter, October 18, 1812.

124 Naval War of 1812

six of the missing ships had joined her. The day
broke almost cloudless on the i8th (Sunday),
showing the convoy, ahead and to leeward of the
American ship, still some distance off, as Captain
Jones had not thought it prudent to close during
the night, while he was ignorant of the force of his
antagonists. The Wasp now sent down her top-
gallant yards, close reefed her topsails, and
bore down under short fighting canvas ; while the
Frolic removed her main-yard from the casks,
lashed it on deck, and then hauled to the wind
under her boom mainsail and close-reefed fore-
topsail, hoisting Spanish colors to decoy the
stranger under her guns, and permit the convoy
to escape. At 11.32 the action began — the two
ships running parallel on the starboard tack, not
sixty yards apart, the Wasp firing her port, and
the Frolic her starboard guns. The latter fired
very rapidly, delivering three broadsides to the
Wasp's two,' both crews cheering loudly as the
ships wallowed through the water. There was a
very heavy sea running, which caused the vessels
to pitch and roll heavily. The Americans fired as
the engaged side of their ship was going down,
aiming at their opponent's hull ' ; while the British
delivered their broadsides while on the crests of
the seas, the shot going high. The water dashed

* Cooper, 182.

2 Niles's Register, iii., p. 324.

Naval War of 1 812 125

in clouds of spray over both crews, and the vessels
rolled so that the muzzles of the guns went under.'
But in spite of the rough weather, the firing was
not only spirited but well directed. At 11.36, the
Wasp's main-topmast was shot away and fell,
with its yard, across the port fore and fore-topsail
braces, rendering the head yards unmanageable;
at 1 1.46, the gaff and mizzen-topgallantmast came
down, and by 11.52 every brace and most of the
rigging was shot away.^ It would now have been
very difficult to brace any of the yards. But
meanwhile the Frolic suffered dreadfully in her
hull and lower masts, and had her gaff and head
braces shot away.-' The slaughter among her
crew was very great, but the survivors kept at
their work with the dogged courage of their race.
At first the two vessels ran side by side, but the
American gradually forged ahead, throwing in her
fire from a position in which she herself received
little injury; by degrees, the vessels got so close
that the American struck the Frolic's side with
her rammers in loading,^ and the British brig was
raked with dreadful effect. The Frolic then fell
aboard her antagonist, her jib-boom coming in
between the main- and mizzen-rigging of the
Wasp and passing over the heads of Captain Jones
and Lieutenant Biddle, who were standing near

' Niles's Register, iii., p. 324. 3 Captain Whinyates's letter.
* Captain Jones's letter. 4 Captain Jones's letter.

126 Naval War of 1812

the capstan. This forced the Wasp up in the
wind, and she again raked her antagonist, Captain
Jones trying to restrain his men from boarding till
he could put in another broadside. But they
could no longer be held back, and Jack Lang, a
New Jersey seaman, leaped on the Frolic's bow-
sprit. Lieutenant Biddle then mounted on the
hammock-cloth to board, but his feet got entangled
in the rigging, and one of the midshipmen seizing
his coat-tails to help himself up, the lieutenant
tumbled back on the deck. At the next swell he
succeeded in getting on the bowsprit, on which
there were already two seamen whom he passed
on the forecastle. But there was no one to oppose
him; not twenty Englishmen were left unhurt.
The man at the wheel was still at his post, grim
and undaunted, and two or three more were on
deck, including Captain Whinyates and Lieuten-
ant Wintle, both so severely wounded that they
could not stand without support.' There could
be no more resistance, and Lieutenant Biddle
lowered the flag at 12.15 — just 43 minutes after
the beginning of the fight. 3 A minute or two
afterward both the Frolic's masts went by the
board — the foremast about fifteen feet above the
deck, the other short off. Of her crew, as already
said, not twenty men had escaped unhurt. Every

^ Captain Whinyates's letter.

'James, vi., i6i. 3 Captain Jones's letter.

Naval War of 1812 127

officer was wounded ; two of them, the first lieu-
tenant, Charles McKay, and master, John Ste-
phens, soon died. Her total loss was thus over
90'; about 30 of whom were killed outright or
died later. The Wasp suffered very severely in
her rigging and aloft generally, but only two or
three shots struck her hull ; five of her men were
killed — two in her mizzen-top and one in her
main-topmast rigging — and five wounded,^ chiefly
while aloft.

The two vessels were practically of equal force.
The loss of the Frolic's main-yard had merely
converted her into a brigantine, and, as the
roughness of the sea made it necessary to fight
under very short canvas, her inferiority in men
was fully compensated for by her superiority in
metal. She had been desperately defended; no
men could have fought more bravely than Captain
Whinyates and his crew. On the other hand, the
Americans had done their work with a coolness
and skill that could not be surpassed ; the contest
had been mainly one of gunnery, and had been
decided by the greatly superior judgment and
accuracy with which they fired. Both officers
and crew had behaved well; Captain Jones

^Captain Whinyates's official letter thus states it, and is,
of course, to be taken as authority; the Bermuda account
makes it 69, and James only 62.

' Captain Jones's letter.


Naval War of 1812

particularly mentions Lieutenant Claxton, who,
though too ill to be of any service, persisted
in remaining on deck throughout the engage-

The Wasp was armed with two long 12's and
sixteen 3 2 -pound carronades; the Frolic with two
long 6's, sixteen 3 2 -pound carronades, and one
shifting 12-pound carronade.






U *£




^ It is difficult to reconcile the accounts of the manoeuvres
in this action. James says "larboard" where Cooper says
" starboard"; one says the Wasp wore, the other says that
she could not do so, etc.

Naval War of 1 812 129


Tons No. Guns Weight Metal Crews Loss

Wasp 450 9 250 135 10

Frolic 467 10 274 no 90

Vice-Admiral Jurien de la Graviere comments
on this action as follows ' :

" The American fire showed itself to be as accu-
rate as it was rapid. On occasions when the
roughness of the sea would render all aim exces-
sively uncertain, the effects of their artillery were
not less murderous than under more advantageous
conditions. The corvette Wasp fought the brig
Frolic in an enormous sea, under very short canvas,
and yet, forty minutes after the beginning of the
action, when the two vessels came together, the
Americans who leaped aboard the brig found on

Online LibraryTheodore RooseveltThe 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 text (page 9 of 42)