Lossing's Field Book of the War of 1812, Chapter XXI - Naval Operations in 1812.






Failures of the Armies. – Acknowledged Naval Superiority of Great Britain. – British Contempt for the American Navy. – Number and Character of the American War Machine. – Distribution and Condition. – American Merchantmen saved. – Commodore Rodgers’s Squadron. – Cruise of the President. – First Shot on the Water. – Chase of the Belvidera. – Chase of the Jamaica Merchant Fleet. – British Squadron at Halifax. – Capture of the Nautilus. – Cruise of the Constitution. – She meets a British Squadron. – An exciting Chase begun. – Methods for Flight. – How the Constitution eluded her Pursuers. – Her final Escape. – End of the Chase after the Constitution. – The Essex starts on a Cruise. – She captures the Alert. – A Cartel-ship sent into Newfoundland. – The Essex chases British Vessels. – Yeo’s Challenge and Porter’s Acceptance. – The Motto of the Essex. – The Constitution starts on another Cruise. – The Guerriere. – The Constitution off the Eastern Coast. – She chases a strange Vessel. – the Guerriere fires on the Constitution. – Hull’s Coolness. – Terrible Response of the Constitution. – Attempts at Boarding. – The Guerriere suddenly made a wreck. – Dacres surrenders to Hull. – Destruction of the Guerriere. – Effects of the News of the Victory. – Hull’s Reception in Boston. – Tributes of Honor by Citizens and Public Bodies. – Congress presents Hull with a Gold Medal. – Effect of the Victory on the British. – Estimates of its Importance. – Remarks of the London Times. – Surprise and Chagrin of the British. – The two Vessels compared. – Commodore Hull’s Generosity. – Cruise of the Wasp. – She encounters a Gale. – Chases a Vessel. – Captain Jones. – Fight between the Wasp and the Frolic. – The Frolic boarded. – Terrible Scenes on her Deck. – Surrender of the Frolic. – Both Vessels captured by the Poictiers. – Captain Jones applauded. – Caricature of "A Wasp on a Frolic." – Honors to Captain Jones. – A Medal presented to him by Congress. – Lieutenant Biddle honored and rewarded.


" ‘By the trident of Neptune,’ brave Hull cried, ‘let’s steer;
It points out the track of the bullying Guerriere:
Should we meet her, brave boys, "Seamen’s rights!" be our cry:
We fight to defend them, to live free or die.’
The famed Constitution through the billows now flew,
While the spray to the tars was refreshing as dew,
To quicken the sense of the insult they felt,
In the boast of the Guerriere’s not being the Belt."



"Ye brave Sons of Freedom, whose bosoms beat high
For your country with patriot pride and emotion,
Attend while I sing of a wonderful Wasp,
And the Frolic she gallantly took on the ocean."


In preceding chapters we have considered the prominent events of the war on land, and perceive in the record very little whereof Americans should boast as military achievements. The war had been commenced without adequate preparations, and had been carried on by inexperienced and incompetent men in the Council and in the Field. Brilliant theories had been promulgated and splendid expectations had been indulged, while Philosophy and Experience spoke monitorily, but in vain. The visions of the theorists proved to be "dissolving views" – unsubstantial and deceptive – when tested by the standard of practical results. At the close of the campaign in 1812 the Army of the Northwest, first under Hull and then under Harrison, was occupying a defensive position among the snows of the wilderness on the banks of the Maumee; the Army of the Centre, first under Van Rensselaer and then under Smyth, had experienced a series of misfortunes and disappointments on the Niagara frontier, and was also resting, on the defensive; while the Army of the North, under Bloomfield, whose head-quarters were at Plattsburg, had made less efforts to accomplish great things, and had less to regret and more to boast of than the others. Yet it, too, was standing on the defensive when the snows of December fell.

Different was the aspect of affairs on the water. The hitherto neglected navy had been aggressive and generally successful. We have already observed the operations of one branch of it, with feeble means, in the narrow waters of Lake Ontario, under Chauncey; 1 let us now take a view of its exploits on the broad ocean, where Thomson had declared in song,

"Britannia rules the waves."

The naval superiority of England was every where acknowledged; and the idea of the omnipotence of her power on the sea was so universal in the American mind, that serious expectations of success in a contest with her on that theatre were regarded as absurd. The American newspapers – then, as now, the chief vehicles of popular information – had always been filled with praises of England’s naval puissance and examples of her prowess; while the British newspapers, reflecting the mind of the ruling classes of that empire, were filled with boastings of England’s power, abuse of all other people, and supercilious sneers at the navies of every other nation on the face of the earth. That of the United States, her rapidly growing rival in national greatness and ever the object of her keenest jealousy, was made the special target for the indecorous jeers of her public writers and speakers. The Constitution, one of the finest vessels in the navy of the United States, and which was among the first to humble the arrogance of British cruisers, was spoken of as "a bundle of pine boards, sailing under a bit of striped bunting;" and it was asserted that "a few broadsides from England’s wooden walls would drive the paltry striped bunting from the ocean." 2 It was with erroneous opinions like these that the commander of the Alert attacked the Essex [August 13, 1812.], and, as we shall observe presently, was undeceived by a conclusive argument. Yet, in spite of conscious inferiority of strength in men and metal, the distrust of the nation, and the defiant contempt of the foe, the little navy of the United States went boldly out upon the ocean to dispute with England’s cruisers the supremacy of the sea. 3

When war was declared, the public vessels of the United States, exclusive of one hundred and seventy gun-boats, numbered only twenty, with an aggregate armament of little {original text has "litle".} more than five hundred guns. These were scattered. Four of them had wintered at Newport, Rhode Island; four others in Hampton Roads, Virginia; two were away on foreign service; two were at Charleston, South Carolina; two were at New Orleans; one was on Lake Ontario; and five were laid up "in ordinary." 4 In view of this evident inefficiency of the American navy to protect its commerce, there was much alarm among the few merchants whose ships had gone abroad before the laying of the embargo, which saved many hundreds of detained vessels from exposure to capture or destruction, and thus furnished materials for the privateers that soon swarmed upon the ocean. These merchants sent a swift-sailing pilot-boat to the coasts of Northern Europe with the news of the declaration of war, and with directions for the American commercial marine in the harbors of Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia, to remain there until the war should cease. By this timely movement a greater part of the American shipping in those ports was saved from the perils of British privateering. A sketch of that important branch of the American naval service during the war will be presented in a group in another part of this work. It is proposed now to consider the events of the regular service only, excepting where necessity may compel an incidental allusion to the other.

At the time of the declaration of war, Commodore Rodgers, with his flag-ship President, 44; Essex, 32, Captain Porter; and Hornet, 18, Captain Lawrence, was in the port of New York. The Essex was overhauling her rigging; the others might be ready for service at an hour’s notice. On the 21st of June Rodgers received the news of the declaration of war, and with it orders for sailing immediately. He had dropped down the bay that morning with the President and Hornet, and toward noon had been joined by a small squadron under Commodore Decatur, whose broad pennon floated from the United States, 44. Her companions were the Congress, 38, Captain Smith, and Argus, 16, Lieutenant Commandant St. Clair.

Rodgers had received information that a large fleet of Jamaica-men had sailed for England under a strong convoy, and he believed that they must then be sweeping along the American coast in the current of the Gulf Stream. When his sailing orders arrived he resolved to make a dash at that convoy, and within an hour after receiving his dispatch from the Navy Department he had weighed anchor. With the united squadron he passed Sandy Hook that afternoon. In the evening he spoke an American merchantman that had seen the Jamaica fleet, and had been boarded by the British frigate Belvidera, 36. Rodgers crowded sail and commenced pursuit. Thirty-six hours elapsed, and the enemy were yet invisible; but an English war-vessel was espied on the northeastern horizon, and a general chase of the whole squadron commenced in that direction. The wind was fresh, and the enemy was standing before it. 5 The fleet President outstripped her companions, and rapidly gained on the fugitive. At four o’clock she was within gun-shot of the enemy, off Nantucket Shoals, when the wind fell, and the heavier President – heavier, because she had just left port – began to fall behind.

To cripple the stranger was now Rodgers’s only hope of success. With his own hand he pointed and discharged one of his forecastle chase-guns, the first hostile shot of the war fired afloat. 6 It went crashing through the stern-frame of the stranger and into the gun-room with destructive effect, driving her people from the after part of the vessel. This was immediately followed by a shot from the first division below, directed by Lieutenant Gamble, which struck and damaged one of the stranger’s stern-chasers. Rodgers fired again, and was followed immediately by Gamble, whose gun bursted, and killed and wounded sixteen men. It blew up the forecastle of the President, and threw Rodgers several feet into the air. In his descent one of his legs was broken. This accident caused a pause in the firing, when a shot from a stern-chaser of the stranger came plunging along the President’s deck, killing a midshipman and one or two men.

It was now twilight, and the British ship having her spars and rigging imperiled by the President’s fire, that vessel having yawed 7 for the purpose, began to lighten by cutting away her anchors, staving and throwing overboard her boats, and starting two tons of water. She gained headway; and, as a last resort, the President fired three broadsides, but with little effect. Unwilling to lighten his own ship, as it would impair his ability for a cruise, Rodgers ordered the pursuit to be abandoned at midnight [June 23, 1812.]. The British vessel, it was afterward ascertained, was the frigate Belvidera, 36, Captain Richard Byron, that had boarded the American merchantman just mentioned. Her commander displayed great skill in saving his vessel. She sailed for Halifax for repairs, 8 and gave the first information there of the actual existence of war, so positively communicated to her by the President. In this action the American frigate had twenty-two men killed and wounded, sixteen of whom were injured by the bursting of the gun. The Belvidera lost seven killed and wounded by shot, and several others by splinters. Captain Byron was wounded in the thigh by the latter. 9

Rodgers now continued the chase after the Jamaica-men. Cocoanut shells, orange skins, and other evidences of his being in their track, were seen upon the water off the Banks of Newfoundland on the first of July. On the ninth the commander of an English letter-of-marque captured by the Hornet reported that he had seen the fleet on the previous evening, when he counted eighty-five sail, convoyed by a two-deck ship, a frigate, a sloop-of-war, and a brig. This intelligence stimulated Rodgers to greater exertions, and he continued the chase, ineffectually on account of fogs, until the 13th, when he was within a day’s sail of the chops of the Irish Channel. Then he relinquished pursuit, sailed southwardly, and passed within thirty miles of the Rock of Lisbon, in sight of Madeira, the Western Islands, and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, without falling in with a single vessel of war, and entered Boston Harbor after a cruise of seventy days. He had captured seven English merchantmen, recaptured an American vessel from a British cruiser, and brought in about one hundred and twenty prisoners. Many of the seamen of the squadron were sick of the scurvy, and several had died.

The news carried into Halifax by the Belvidera created a profound sensation there. The commandant of that naval station, Rear Admiral Sawyer, took measures immediately to collect a squadron for the purpose of cruising in search of Rodgers’s ships or any other American vessels. Within a week, the African, 64, Captain Bustard; the Shannon, 38, Captain Broke; the Guerriere, 38, Captain Dacres; the Belvidera, 36, Captain Byron; and the Æolus, 32, Captain Lord James Townsend, were united in one squadron, under the command of Captain Broke, the senior officer, who made the Shannon his flag-ship. This force appeared off New York early in July, and made several captures, among them the United States brig Nautilus, 14, of Tripolitan fame, 10 Lieutenant Commandant Crane. She had arrived at New York just after Rodgers left, and went out immediately for the purpose of cruising in the track of the English West Indiamen. On the very next day she fell in with the British squadron, and, after a short and vigorous chase, was compelled to strike her colors to the Shannon, and surrender one hundred and six men. The Nautilus was the first vessel of war taken on either side in that contest. A prize crew was placed in her, and she was made one of Broke’s squadron. 11 She was afterward fitted with sixteen 24-pound carronades, and commissioned as a cruiser.


The Constitution, 44, 12 Captain Isaac Hull, returned from foreign service at about the time of the declaration of war, and went into Chesapeake Bay, where she shipped a new crew, and on the 12th of July sailed from Annapolis on a cruise to the northward. 13 She was out of sight of land on the 17th, sailing under easy canvas with a light breeze, when, at one o’clock in the afternoon, she descried four vessels northward, heading westward. At four o’clock she discovered a fifth sail in a similar direction, which had the appearance of a vessel of war. By this time the other four were so near that they were distinguished as three ships and a brig. They were in sight all the afternoon, evidently watching the Constitution. At half past six a breeze sprang up from the southward, which brought the latter to the windward of the last discovered vessel. She was a British frigate. Hull determined to bear down upon and speak to her; and, to be ready for any emergency, he beat to quarters, and prepared his ship for action. The wind was very light, and the two frigates slowly approached each other during the evening. At ten o’clock the Constitution shortened sail and displayed a private signal. The lights were kept aloft for an hour without receiving an answer. At a quarter past eleven they were lowered, and the Constitution made sail again under a light breeze that prevailed all night. Just before dawn the stranger tacked, wore entirely round, threw up a rocket, and fired two signal-guns.

In the gray of early morning three other vessels were discovered on the starboard quarter of the Constitution, and three more astern, and at five o’clock a fourth was seen in the latter direction. The American cruiser had fallen in with Broke’s squadron, and the vessel with which she had been manśuvring all night was the Guerriere, 38, Captain Dacres. The squadron was just out of gun-shot distance from the Constitution, and the latter found herself in the perilous position of having two frigates on her lee quarter, and a ship of the line, two frigates, a brig, and a schooner astern. The brig was the captured Nautilus.

Now commenced one of the most remarkable naval retreats and pursuits ever recorded. The Constitution was not powerful enough to fight the overwhelming force closing around her, and Hull perceived that her safety depended upon celerity in flight. There was almost a dead calm. Her sails flapped hazily, and she floated almost independently of the helm on the slowly undulating bosom of the sea. In this listlessness there was danger. Down went her boats with long lines attached, and the sweeps were bent in towing her with the energy of men struggling for life and liberty. Up from her gun-deck was brought a long eighteen-pounder, and placed on her spar-deck as a stern-chaser, while another, of the same weight of metal and for a similar purpose, was pointed off the forecastle. Out of the cabin windows, when saws and axes had made them broad enough, two twenty-four pounders were run, and all the light cannon that would draw was set. She was just beginning to get under headway, with a gentle northwest wind blowing, when exertion was stimulated by the booming of the bow-guns of the Shannon. For ten minutes she sent forth her shot, but without effect, for she was yet beyond range. Again the breeze died away. Soundings showed twenty fathoms of water. A kedge 14 might be used. All spare rope was spliced and attached to one which was carried out half a mile ahead and cast into the deep. Quickly and strongly the crew "clapped on and walked away with the ship, overrunning and tripping the kedge as she came up with the end of the line." 15 This was frequently repeated, and the frigate moved off in a manner most mysterious to her pursuers. At length they discovered the secret and adopted the method, when the Constitution, having a little breeze, fired a shot at the Shannon, the nearest ship astern. At nine o’clock that vessel, employing a large number of men in boats and with a kedge, was gaining rapidly on the flying frigate. A conflict, unequal and terrible, seemed impending and inevitable, yet on board the Constitution the best spirit prevailed. Nearer and nearer drew the Shannon, and almost as closely the Guerriere was now pursuing on the larboard quarter of the imperiled vessel. All hope was fading, when a light breeze from the south struck the Constitution and brought her to windward. With such consummate skill did Captain Hull take advantage of the wind and bear gallantly away, that the admiration of the enemy was excited in the highest degree. As she came by the wind she brought the Guerriere nearly on her lee beam, when that vessel opened a fire from a broadside. The shot fell short, the blessed breeze that had come like a Providence at the critical moment died away, and the boats were again got out to tow by both parties. So anxious was Broke to get the Shannon near enough for action, that nearly all the boats of the squadron were employed for the purpose, 16 while the men of the Constitution made up in spirit what they lacked in numbers. Thus the race continued hour after hour all that day and night, the pursuers and the pursued sometimes towing, sometimes kedging.

The dawn of the second day of the chase was glorious. The sun rose with unusual splendor. Not a cloud was seen in the firmament. The sea was smooth, and a gentle wind was abroad, sufficient to make the murmur of ripples under the bow of the vessels fall pleasantly on the ear. All of the ships were on the same tack, and three of the English frigates were within long gun-shot of the Constitution on her lee quarter. The five frigates were clouded with canvas from their truck to their decks. Eleven sail were in sight. The scene was a most beautiful and exciting one. No guns were fired, for the distance between the belligerents widened. Either better sailing qualities or superior seamanship gave advantage to the Constitution. With that pleasant breeze she gained on her antagonists, and at four o’clock in the afternoon she was four miles ahead of the Belvidera, the nearest English ship. At seven heavy clouds began to brood over the sea, with indications of a squall. The Constitution prepared for it. It burst with fury – wind, lightning, and rain – but left that good frigate unharmed. The pursuers and the pursued lost sight of each other for a while in the murky vapor. In less than an hour the squall had passed to leeward, and the Constitution, sheeted home, her main and top-gallant sails set, was flying away from the enemy at the rate of eleven knots. At twilight the pursuers were in sight, and at near midnight they fired two guns. Away went the Constitution before the wind, and at six in the morning the topsails of the British vessel were seen from the American, beginning to dip below the horizon. At a quarter past eight the Englishman relinquished the pursuit, and hauled off to the northward; and a few days afterward the British fleet separated for the purpose of cruising in different directions. Thus ended a chase of sixty-four hours, chiefly off the New England coast, remarkable alike for its length, closeness, and activity. It was a theme for much newspaper comment, and a poet of the day, singing of the exploits of the Constitution, referred to this as follows:

" ’Neath Hull’s command, with a tough band,

    And naught beside to back her,
Upon a day, as log-books say,
A fleet bore down to thwack her.
A fleet, you know, is odds, or so,
Against a single ship, sirs;
So ’cross the tide her legs she tried,
And gave the rogues the slip, sirs."

A few days after Rodgers left New York, Captain Porter sailed from that harbor in the Essex, 32, from the mast-head of which fluttered a flag bearing conspicuously the words, "FREE TRADE AND SAILORS’ RIGHTS." He captured several English merchant vessels soon after leaving Sandy Hook, making trophy bonfires of most of them on the ocean, and their crews his prisoners. After cruising southward for some weeks in disguise, capturing a prize now and then, he turned northward again, and met with increased success. One night, by the dim light of a mist-veiled moon, he chased a fleet of English transports bearing a thousand soldiers toward Halifax or the St. Lawrence, convoyed by the frigate Mercury, 36, and a bomb vessel. They were sailing wide, and he captured one of the transports, with one hundred and fifty men, before dawn, without attracting the attention of the rest of the fleet, for no guns were fired.

A few days after this [August 13, 1812.], while sailing in the disguise of a merchantman, her gun-deck ports in, top-gallant masts housed, and sails trimmed in a slovenly manner, the Essex fell in with a sail to windward. The stranger came bearing down gallantly, when the Essex showed an American ensign, and kept away under short sail, as if trying to avoid a contest. This emboldened the English vessel. She followed the Essex for some time, and finally running down on her weather quarter, set her national colors, and, with three cheers from her people, opened fire. She was soon undeceived, and her temerity was severely punished. The ports of the Essex were knocked out in an instant, and the fire of the enemy was responded to with terrible effect, The assailant was so damaged and disconcerted that the conflict was made short. It was a complete surprise. A panic seized her people, and, in spite of the efforts of her officers, they fled below for safety. 17 Scarcely eight minutes had elapsed from the firing of the first gun, when the stranger, which proved to be the British ship Alert, Captain T. L. P. Laugharne, mounting twenty 18-pound carronades and six smaller guns, struck her colors and was reported to be in a sinking condition. When Lieutenant Finch, of the Essex, went on board to receive her flag, he found seven feet water in the hold. She was a stanch vessel, and had been built for the coal trade. She was purchased for the British navy in 1804, and the complement of her crew was one hundred and thirty men and boys. She was every way inferior to the Essex, whose armament was forty 32-pound carronades and six long twelves, and her complement of men was three hundred and twenty-five. The capture of the Alert possesses no special historical interest excepting from the fact that she was the first British national vessel captured in the war. The Alert had three men wounded, while the Essex sustained no injury whatever.

The Essex was now crowded with prisoners, and Porter became conscious of the fact that they had entered into a plot to rise and take the vessel from him. The leaks of the Alert being stopped, and all things put in fair seaworthy condition, Porter made an arrangement with Captain Laugharne 18 to convert her into a cartel ship. When this was accomplished, the prisoners were placed on board of her, and she was sent into St. John’s, Newfoundland. On her return to the United States she was fitted up for the government service.

The Essex continued her cruise to the southward, and on the thirtieth of August, just at twilight, fell in with a British frigate in latitude 36° N. and longitude 62° W. 19 Porter prepared for action, and the two vessels stood for each other. Night fell, and Porter, anxious for combat, ran up a light. It was answered at the distance of about four miles. The Essex sought the stranger in that direction, but in vain, and when the day dawned she had disappeared. Five days afterward Porter fell in with "two ships of war to the southward and a brig to the northward – the brig in chase of an American merchant ship." 20 The Essex pursued, when the brig attempted to pass and join the other two vessels. The Essex headed her, turned her course northward, and continued the chase until abreast the merchantman, when, the wind being light, the brig escaped by the use of her sweeps.

When the Essex showed her colors to the merchantman, the two British vessels at the southward discovered them, fired signal-guns, and gave chase. At four o’clock in the afternoon they were in the wake of the Essex and rapidly gaining upon her, when Porter hoisted the American colors, and fired a gun to the windward, expecting to escape by some manśuvre in the approaching darkness. At sunset the larger of the two vessels was within five miles, and rapidly shortening the distance between her and the Essex. Porter determined to heave about after dark, and, if he could not pass his pursuer, give her a broadside and lay her or board. The crew were in fine spirits, and when this movement was proposed to them they gave three hearty cheers. Preparations for action were immediately made. The Essex hove round and bore away to the southwest, but the night being dark and squally, Porter saw no more of the enemy. Supposing himself cut off from New York and Boston by a British squadron, he made for the Delaware. 21

Soon after Captain Porter reached the Delaware a circumstance occurred which created quite a sensation in the public mind for a few days. A week after the declaration of war a writer in a New York paper charged Captain Porter with cruelly treating an English seaman on board of the Essex who refused to fight against his countrymen, pleading, among other reasons, that if caught he would be hung as a deserter from the British navy. This story reached Sir James Lucas Yeo, commander of the frigate Southampton, then on the West India station. By a prisoner in his hands, who was sent home on parole, he forwarded a message to Porter which appeared in the following language on the 18th of September, 1812, in the Democratic Press, printed in Philadelphia: "A passenger of the brig Lyon, from Havana to New York, captured by the frigate Southampton, Sir James Yeo commander, is requested by Sir James Yeo to present his compliments to Captain Porter, commander of the American frigate Essex – would be glad to have a tête-à-tête any where between the Capes of Delaware and the Havana, where he would have the pleasure to break his own sword over his damned head, and put him down forward in irons."

To this indecorous challenge Captain Porter replied as follows on the same day: "Captain Porter, of the United States frigate Essex, presents his compliments to Sir James Yeo, commanding H. B. M.’s frigate Southampton, and accepts with pleasure his polite invitation. If agreeable to Sir James, Captain Porter would prefer meeting near the Delaware, where Captain P. pledges his honor to Sir James that no other American vessel shall interrupt their tête-à-tête. The Essex may be known by a flag bearing the motto FREE TRADE AND SAILORS’ RIGHTS, and when that is struck to the Southampton Captain P. will deserve the treatment promised by Sir James. 22 Here the matter ended. The coveted tête-à-tête never occurred.

The Constitution did not long continue idle after her escape from Broke’s squadron. She remained a short time in Boston to recuperate, and on the 2d of August sailed eastward in hope of falling in with some one of the English vessels of war supposed to be hovering along the coast from Nantucket to Halifax. Hull, 23 her commander, was specially anxious to fall in with that famous frigate before whom he had been compelled to fly when she was part of a squadron, and of whom it had been said,

"Long the tyrant of our coast

Reigned the famous Guerriere;
Our little navy she defied,
Public ship and privateer:
On her sails, in letters red,
To our captains were displayed
Words of warning, words of dread:
‘All who meet me have a care!
I am England’s Guerriere.’ " 24

The commander of the Guerriere had boastfully enjoined the Americans to remember that she was not the Little Belt, 25 and this offensive form of menace increased Hull’s desire to meet her and measure strength with her.

The Constitution ran not far from the shore down to the Bay of Fundy without meeting a single armed vessel. She then bore away southward off Cape Sable, and eastward to the region of Halifax, but with a like result. Hull now determined to cruise eastward of Nova Scotia to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with the hope of interrupting vessels making their way to Halifax or Quebec. In this new field he made some winnings, but the promise of much harvest was too small to detain him. He turned his prow southward, and on the nineteenth, at two o’clock in the afternoon, in latitude 41° 40’, and longitude 55° 48’, 26 his heart was gladdened by the discovery of a sail from his mast-head, too remote, however, for her character to be determined.

The Constitution immediately gave chase to the stranger, and at half past three o’clock it was discovered that she was a frigate, and doubtless an enemy. Hull let his ship run free until within a league of the stranger to leeward, when he began to shorten sail and deliberately prepare for action. The stranger at once showed signs of willingness for a fight. Hull cleared his ship, beat to quarters, hoisted the American colors, and bore down gallantly on the enemy, with the intention of bringing her into close combat immediately.

" ‘Clear ship for action!’ sounds the boatswain’s call;
‘Clear ship for action!’ his three mimics bawl.
Swift round the decks see war’s dread weapons hurled,
And floating ruins strew the watery world.
‘All hands to quarters!’ fore and aft resounds,
Thrills from the fife, and from the drum-head bounds;
From crowded hatchways scores on scores arise,
Spring up the shrouds, and vault into the skies,
Firm at his quarters each bold gunner stands,
The death-fraught lightning flashing from his hands."

Comprehending Hull’s movement, the Englishman hoisted three national ensigns, 27 fired a broadside of grape-shot, filled away, and gave another broadside on the other tack, but without effect. The missiles all fell short. The stranger continued to manśuvre for about three quarters of an hour, endeavoring to get in a position to rake and prevent being raked, when, disappointed, she bore up and ran under topsails and jib, with the wind on the quarter. The Constitution, following closely, yawed occasionally to rake and avoid being raked, and firing only a few guns as they bore, as she did not wish to engage in a serious conflict until they were close to each other.

It was now about six in the evening. These indications on the part of the enemy to engage in a fair yard-arm and yard-arm fight caused the Constitution to press all sail to get alongside of the foe. At a little after six the bows of the American began to double the quarter of the Englishman. Hull had been walking the quarterdeck, keenly watching every movement. He was quite fat, and wore very tight breeches. As the shot of the Guerriere began to tell upon the Constitution, the gallant Lieutenant Morris, Hull’s second in command, came to the captain and asked permission to open fire. "Not yet," quietly responded Hull. Nearer and nearer the vessels drew toward each other, and the request was repeated. "Not yet," said Hull again, very quietly. When the Constitution reached the point we have just mentioned, Hull, filled with sudden and intense excitement, bent himself twice to the deck, and then shouted, "Now, boys, pour it into them!" The command was instantly obeyed. The Constitution opened her forward guns, which were double shotted with round and grape, with terrible effect. When the smoke that followed the result of that order cleared away, it was discovered that the commander, in his energetic movements, had split his tight breeches from waistband to knee, but he did not stop to change them during the action. 28

The concussion of Hull’s broadside was tremendous. It cast those in the cockpit of the enemy from one side of the room to the other, and, before they could adjust themselves, the blood came streaming from above, and numbers, dreadfully mutilated, were handed down to the surgeons. The enemy at the same time was pouring heavy metal into the Constitution. They were only half pistol-shot from each other, and the destruction was terrible. Within fifteen minutes after the contest commenced the stranger’s mizzen-mast was shot away, her main yard was in slings, and her hull, spars, sails, and rigging were torn in pieces. The English vessel brought up in the wind as her mizzen-mast gave way, when the Constitution passed slowly ahead, poured in a tremendous fire as her guns bore, luffed short round the bows of her antagonist to prevent being raked, and fell foul of her foe, her bowsprit running into the larboard quarter of the stranger. In this situation the cabin of the Constitution was set on fire by the explosion of the forward guns of her enemy, but the flames were soon extinguished.

Both parties now attempted to board. The roar of great guns was terrible, and the fierce volleys of musketry on both sides, together with the heavy sea that was running, made that movement impossible. The English piped all hands from below, and mounted them on the forward deck for the purpose; and Lieutenant Morris, Alwyn, the master, and Lieutenant Bush, of the Marines, sprang upon the taffrail of the Constitution to lead their men to the same work. Morris was severely but not fatally shot through the body; Alwyn was wounded in the shoulder; and a bullet through his brain brought Bush dead to the deck. Just then the sails of the Constitution were filled, and as she shot ahead and clear of her antagonist, whose fore-mast had been severely wounded, that spar fell, carrying with it the main-mast, and leaving the hapless vessel a shivering, shorn, and helpless wreck, rolling like a log in the trough of the sea, entirely at the mercy of the billows.

"Quick as lightning, and fatal as its dreaded power,
Destruction and death on the Guerriere did shower,
While the groans of the dying were heard on the blast.
The word was, ‘Take aim, boys, away with the mast!’
The genius of Britain will long rue the day.
The Guerriere’s a wreck in the trough of the sea;
Her laurels are withered, her boasting is done;
Submissive, to leeward she fires her last gun." – OLD SONG.

The Constitution hauled off a short distance, secured her own masts, rove new rigging, and at sunset wore round and took a favorable position for raking the wreck. A jack that had been kept flying on the stump of the enemy’s mizzen-mast was now lowered, and the late Commodore George C. Read, then a third lieutenant, was sent on board of the prize.


She was found to be the Guerriere, 38, Captain James Richards Dacres, one of the vessels which had so lately been engaged in the memorable chase of her present conqueror, and which Hull was anxious to meet. The lieutenant asked for the commander of the prize, when Captain Dacres appeared. "Commodore Hull’s compliments," said Read, "and wishes to know if you have struck your flag?" Captain Dacres, looking up and down, coolly and dryly remarked, "Well, I don’t know; our mizzen-mast is gone, our main-mast is gone, and, upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag." Read then said, "Commodore Hull’s compliments, and wishes to know whether you need the assistance of a surgeon or surgeon’s mate?" Dacres replied, "Well, I should suppose you had on board your own ship business enough for all your medical officers." Read replied, "Oh no; we have only seven wounded, and they were dressed half an hour ago." 29

The Constitution kept near her prize all night. At two in the morning a strange sail was seen closing upon them, when she cleared for action, but an hour later the intruder stood off and disappeared. At dawn the officer in charge of the Guerriere hailed to say that she had four feet water in her hold and was in danger of sinking. Hull immediately sent all his boats to bring off the prisoners and their effects. 30 That duty was accomplished by noon, and at three o’clock the prize crew was recalled. The Guerriere was too much damaged to be saved; so she was set on fire, and fifteen minutes afterward she blew up, scattering widely upon the subsiding billows all that was left of the boastful cruiser that was "not the Little Belt." 31

"Isaac did so maul and rake her,
That the decks of Captain Dacre
Were in such a woful pickle
As if Death, with scythe and sickle,
With his sling or with his shaft,
Had cut his harvest fore and aft.
Thus, in thirty minutes, ended
Mischiefs that could not he mended;
Masts, and yards, and ship descended
All to David Jones’s locker –
Such a ship, in such a pucker!" – OLD SONG.

The Constitution arrived at Boston on the 30th of August, and on that day Captain Hull wrote his official dispatch to the Secretary of War, dated "U. S. frigate Constitution, off Boston Light." He was the first to announce to his countrymen the intelligence of his own victory. That intelligence was received with the most lively demonstrations of joy in every part of the republic, and dispelled for a moment the gloom occasioned by the recent disasters at Detroit in the surrender of General Hull. When the Constitution appeared in Boston Harbor, she was surrounded by a flotilla of gayly-decorated small boats, and the hundreds of people who filled them made the air tremble with their loud huzzas. At the wharf where he landed he was received with a national salute by an artillery company, which was returned by the Constitution. An immense assemblage of citizens were there to greet him and escort him to quarters prepared for him in the city, and the whole town was filled with tumultuous joy. The streets through which the triumphal procession passed were decorated with flags and banners. From almost every window ladies waved their white handkerchiefs, and from the crowded side-pavements shout after shout of the citizens greeted the hero. Men of all ranks hastened to pay homage to the conqueror. A splendid public entertainment was given him and his officers by the inhabitants of Boston, and almost six hundred citizens, of both political parties, sat down to the banquet in token of their appreciation of the gallant commander’s services. 32 The citizens of New York raised money for the purchase of swords to be presented to Captain Hull and his officers; and the Corporation offered the gallant victor the freedom of the city in a gold box [December 28, 1812.], with an appropriate inscription. 33 Hull was also requested by the same Corporation to sit for his portrait, to be hung in the picture-gallery of the City Hall. 34 In Philadelphia the citizens, at a general meeting, resolved to present to Captain Hull "a piece of plate of the most elegant workmanship, with appropriate emblems, devices, and inscriptions," and that "a like piece of plate be presented to Lieutenant Morris, in the name of the citizens of Philadelphia." They also resolved to present tokens of their gratitude to the other officers of the Constitution.

The Congress of the United States, by resolution, voted a gold medal to Captain Hull, 35 and fifty thousand dollars to be distributed as prize-money among the officers and crew of the victor, whose example was "highly honorable to the American character and instructive to our rising navy." 36

It is difficult to comprehend at this time the feeling which this victory of the Americans created on both sides of the Atlantic. The British, as we have observed, looked with contempt upon the American navy, while the Americans looked upon that of England with dread. The naval flag of England had seldom been lowered to an enemy during the lapse of a century, and the people had come to believe her "wooden walls" to be impregnable. Dacres himself, though less a boaster than most of his countrymen in command, had similar faith. He believed that an easy victory awaited him whenever he should be so fortunate as to meet any American vessel in conflict; and he constantly expressed a desire to show how quickly he would make the "striped bunting" trail in his presence. Very great, then, was the disappointment of the commander of the Guerriere, the service, and the British people, when Hull’s victory was accomplished. The Americans, on the other hand, as we have observed, had little confidence in the power of their navy, and at that time they were cast down by the heavy blow to their hopes in the misfortunes of the Army of the Northwest at Detroit. This victory, therefore, so unexpected and so complete, was like the sudden bursting forth of the morning sun, without preceding twilight, after a night of tempest, and the joy of the whole people was unbounded. It was natural for them to indulge in many extravagances, yet these were only the mere demonstrative evidences of a new-born faith that had taken hold of the American mind. This victory was, therefore, of immense importance, inasmuch as it gave the Americans confidence, and dispelled the idea of the absolute omnipotence of the British navy. Its momentous bearing upon the future of the war was at once perceived by statesmen and publicists on both sides, and zealous discussions at once arose concerning the relative strength, and force, and armament of the two vessels, and the comparative merits of the two commanders as exhibited in their conduct before and during the action.

There was a tendency on the part of the Americans to overestimate the importance of the victory and the powers of their seamen, and there was an equal tendency of the organs of British opinion to underestimate it, and to detract from the merits of the conqueror by disparaging the strength and condition of the Guerriere. The very writers who had spoken of the Constitution as "a bundle of pine-boards" now called her one of the stanchest vessels afloat; and the Guerriere, which they had praised as a frigate worthy of the exhibition of British valor when she was captured from the French, and able to drive "the insolent striped bunting from the seas," was now spoken of as "an old worn-out frigate," with damaged masts, a reduced complement, and "in absolute need of thorough refit," for which "she was then on her way to Halifax." Yet the London Times, then, as now, the leading journal in England, and then, as now, the bitter enemy of the United States, and implacable foe of every supposed rival or competitor of England, was compelled, in deep mortification, to view the affair as a severe blow struck at Britain’s boasted supremacy of the seas. "We have been accused of sentiments unworthy of Englishmen," it said, "because we described what we saw and felt on the occasion of the capture of the Guerriere. We witnessed the gloom which that event cast over high and honorable minds; we participated in the vexation and regret; and it is the first time we have ever heard that the striking of the English flag on the high seas to any thing like an equal force should be regarded by Englishmen with complacency and satisfaction. . . . . . It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. He must be a weak politician who does not see how important the first triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American; and though we can not say that Captain Dacres, under all circumstances, is punishable for this act, yet we do say that there are commanders in the English navy who would a thousand times rather have gone down with their colors flying than have set their brother-officers so fatal an example." William James, one of the most bitterly partisan and unscrupulous historians of the war, was constrained to say, "There is no question that our vanity received a wound in the loss of the Guerriere. But, poignant as were the national feelings, reflecting men hailed the 19th of August, 1812, as the commencement of an era of renovation to the navy of England." 37

The advantage in the action, in guns, men, and stanchness, was undoubtedly on the side of the Constitution, yet not so much as to make the contest really an unequal one. The vessels rated respectively 44 and 38, while the Constitution actually carried in the action 56, and the Guerriere 49. The latter was pierced for 54 and carried 50 when she was captured from the French. 38 Her gun-deck metal was lighter than that of the Constitution, but the rest of her armament was the same. Notwithstanding this disparity, the weight of the respective broadsides, according to the most authentic account, could not have varied very materially. 39 The crew of the Constitution greatly outnumbered that of the Guerriere, being 468 against 253. That of the latter had a great advantage in experience and discipline; for they had been long in naval service, while the crew of the Constitution was newly shipped for this cruise, and mostly from the merchant service.

According to the official report of Captain Hull, the action lasted thirty minutes, while Dacres said its duration was two hours and twelve minutes. This discrepancy may be reconciled by the consideration that the British commander probably counted from the time when the Guerriere fired her first gun, which the Constitution did not respond to, and the American commander computed from the moment when he poured in his first broadside. The Guerriere was made a wreck – the Constitution was severely wounded in spars and rigging. The American loss was seven killed and seven wounded. The British loss was fifteen killed, forty-four wounded, and twenty-four (including two officers) missing. Dacres was severely wounded in the back.

At that time there were more captains in the navy than vessels for them to command; and Captain Hull, with noble generosity and rare contentment with the laurels already won, gave up the command of his frigate for the sole purpose of giving others a chance to distinguish themselves. Captain Bainbridge, one of the oldest officers in the service, and then in command of the Constellation, 38, which was fitting out for sea at Washington, was appointed Hull’s successor. He was made a flag officer, and the Essex, 32, and Hornet, 28, was placed under his command. He hoisted his broad pennant on board the Constitution, and sailed from Boston on a cruise on the 15th of September. Captain Charles Stewart was assigned to the command of the Constellation; and not long afterward, Lieutenant Morris, Hull’s second in command, who was severely wounded when gallantly attempting to lead a boarding-party to the decks of the Guerriere, was promoted to captain. Of Bainbridge’s cruise I shall write presently. Let us now consider a most gallant exploit of the Wasp, an inferior member of the United States Navy.

The sloop-of-war Wasp, 18, was considered one of the finest and fastest sailers of her class. She was built immediately after the close of the war with Tripoli, and was thoroughly {original text has "thororoughly".} manned and equipped. She mounted sixteen 32-pound carronades and two long 12’s, and also carried, usually, two small brass cannon in her tops. Her officers were always proud of her, as an admirable specimen of their country’s naval architecture. At the kindling of the war she was on the European coast, the only government vessel, excepting the Constitution, then abroad; and at the time of the declaration of hostilities by the American Congress, she was on her way home as bearer of dispatches from the diplomatic representatives of the United States in Europe. Her commander was Captain Jacob Jones, a brave officer, in whose veins ran much pure, indomitable Welsh blood. 40

On the thirteenth of October, 1812, the Wasp left the Delaware on a cruise, with a full complement of men, about one hundred and thirty-five in number. She ran off southeasterly to clear the coast and strike the tracks of vessels that might be steering north for the West Indies, and on the sixteenth encountered a heavy gale, which carried away her jib-boom, and with it two of her crew. The storm abated on the following day [October 18, 1812.]; and toward midnight, when in latitude thirty-seven north, and longitude sixty-five west, his watch discovered several sail, two of them appearing to be large vessels. Ignorant of the true character of the strangers, Captain Jones thought it prudent to keep at a respectful distance until the morning light should give him better information. All night the Wasp kept a course parallel with that of the stranger vessels. At dawn she gave chase, and it was soon discovered that the strangers were a fleet of armed merchant vessels under the protection of the British sloop-of-war Frolic, mounting sixteen thirty-two-pound carronades, two long six-pounders, and two twelve-pound carronades on her forecastle. She was manned with a crew of one hundred and eight persons, under Captain Thomas Whinyates, 41 who had been her commander for more than five years. She was convoying six merchantmen from Honduras. Four of these vessels were large, and mounted from sixteen to eighteen guns each. 42

It was Sunday morning. The sky was cloudless, the atmosphere balmy, and a stiff and increasing breeze from the northwest was giving white crests to the billows.

Jones soon perceived that the hostile sloop was disposed to fight, and was taking position so as to allow the merchantmen to escape by flight during the engagement. The top-gallant yards of the Wasp were immediately sent down, her top-sails were close-reefed, and she was otherwise brought under short fighting canvas. The Frolic also carried very little sail, and in this condition they commenced a severe engagement at half past ten o’clock in the morning. The Wasp ranged close up on the starboard side of the Frolic, after receiving a broadside from her at the distance of fifty or sixty yards, and then instantly delivered her own broadside, when the fire of the Englishman became so accelerated that the Frolic appeared to fire three guns to the Wasp’s two. The breeze had increased, and the sea was rolling heavily.

Within five minutes after the action commenced the main-top-mast of the Wasp was shot away. It fell, with the main-top-sail yard, and lodged across the larboard and fore and fore-top-sail braces, rendering the head yards unmanageable during the remainder of the action. In the course of three minutes more her gaff and main-topgallant-mast was shot away, and fell heavily to the deck; and at the end of twenty minutes from the opening of the engagement, every brace and most of the rigging was disabled. She was in a forlorn condition indeed, and had few promises of victory.

But, while the Wasp was receiving these serious damages in her rigging and tops, the Frolic was more seriously injured in her hull. The latter generally fired when on the crest of the wave, while the former fired from the trough of the sea, and sent her missiles through the hull of her antagonist with destructive force. The two vessels gradually approached each other until the bends of the Wasp rubbed against the Frolic’s bows; and, in loading for the last broadside, the rammers of the Wasp’s gunners were shoved against the sides of the Frolic. 43 Finally, the combatants ran foul of each other, the bowsprit of the Frolic passing in over the quarter-deck of the Wasp, and forcing her bows up into the wind. This enabled the latter to throw in a close raking broadside that produced dreadful havoc.

The crew of the Wasp was now in a state of the highest excitement, and could no longer be restrained. With wild shouts they leaped into the tangled rigging before Captain Jones could throw in another broadside, as he intended before boarding his enemy, and made their way to the decks of the Frolic, with Lieutenants Biddle and Rodgers, who, with Lieutenants Booth, Claxton, 44 and Rapp, had exhibited the most undaunted courage throughout the action. 45 But there was no one to oppose them. The last broadside had carried death and dismay into the Frolic, and almost cleared her decks of active men. The wounded, dying, and dead were strewn in every direction. Several surviving officers were standing aft, the most of them bleeding, and not a common seaman or marine was at his station, except an old tar at the wheel, who had kept his post throughout the terrible encounter. All who were able had rushed below to escape the raking fire of the Wasp.

The English officers cast down their swords in submission, and Lieutenant Biddle, who led the boarding-party, springing into the main rigging, struck the colors of the Frolic with his own hand, not one of the enemy being able to do so. The prize passed into the possession of the conquerors after a contest of three quarters of an hour, when every one of her officers were wounded, and a greater part of her men were either killed or severely injured. Not twenty persons on board of her remained unhurt. 46 Her aggregate loss in killed and wounded was estimated at ninety men. The Wasp had only five killed and five wounded.

The Frolic was so injured that when the two vessels separated both her masts fell, and with tattered sails and broken rigging covered the dead on her decks. She had been hulled at almost every discharge from the Wasp, and was virtually a wreck before her colors were struck.

The heat of the battle was scarcely over when Captain Jones prepared to continue his cruise in his victorious little vessel. He had placed Lieutenant Biddle in command of the shattered Frolic, with orders to take her into Charleston, or some other Southern port, and was about to part company with his prize, when a strange vessel was seen bearing down upon them. Neither the Wasp nor her prize was in a condition to resist or flee. The rigging of the latter was so cut, and her top-sails so nearly in ribbons, that it would have been folly to attempt either.

The strange sail drew near, and heaving a shot over the Frolic, and ranging up near the Wasp, convinced them both that the most prudent course would be to submit at once. Within two hours after the gallant Jones had gained his victory he was compelled to surrender his own noble vessel and her prize. The captor was the British ship-of-war Poictiers, of seventy-four guns, commanded by Captain John Poo Beresford. 47

She proceeded to Bermuda with her prizes, where the American prisoners were exchanged, and departed for home. From New York Captain Jones sent his account of the occurrences to the Secretary of the Navy – a report that was received with the greatest satisfaction. 48

The victory of the Wasp over the Frolic – the result of the first combat between the vessels of the two nations of a force nearly equal – occasioned much exultation in the United States. The press teemed with laudations of Captain Jones and his gallant companions, and a stirring song commemorative of the event was soon upon the lips of singers at public gatherings, in bar-rooms, workshops, and even by ragged urchins in the streets. The name of the author, if ever known, has been long forgotten, but the following lines are remembered by many a gray-haired survivor of the War:

"The foe bravely fought, but his arms were all broken,

And he fled from his death-wound aghast and affrighted;
But the Wasp darted forward her death-doing sting,
And full on his bosom, like lightning, alighted.
She pierced through his entrails, she maddened his brain,
And he writhed and he groan’d as if torn with the colic;
And long shall John Bull rue the terrible day
He met the American Wasp on a Frolic."

Charles, the Philadelphia caricaturist, materialized the idea, and sent forth a colored picture, called A WASP ON A FROLIC, OR A STING FOR JOHN BULL, that sold by hundreds during the excitement in the public mind. 49


Captain Jones was every where received with demonstrations of gratitude and admiration on his return to the United States. In the cities through which he had occasion to pass, brilliant entertainments were given in his honor. The Legislature of Delaware, his native state, appointed a committee to wait on him with their thanks, and to express "the pride and pleasure" they felt in recognizing him as a native of their state, and at the same time voted him thanks, an elegant sword, and a piece of silver plate with appropriate engravings. The Common Council of New York, on motion of Alderman Lawrence, voted him a sword, and also the "freedom of the city." The Congress of the United States, on motion of James A. Bayard, of Delaware, appropriated twenty-five thousand dollars as a compensation to Captain Jones and his companions for their loss of prize-money occasioned by the recapture of the Frolic.


They also ordered a gold medal to be presented to the captain, and a silver one to each of his officers. The captain also received a more substantial token of his country’s approbation by being promoted by Congress to the command of the frigate Macedonian, which had lately been captured front the British and taken into the service. 50


Lieutenant Biddle shared in the honors. The Legislature of Pennsylvania voted him thanks and a sword, and a number of leading men in Philadelphia presented him with a silver urn, bearing an appropriate inscription, and a representation of the action between the Wasp and the Frolic. 51 He was shortly afterward promoted to the rank of master commandant, and received command of the Hornet sloop-of-war. Poetry wreathed coronals for the brows of all the braves of that fight, and in the Portfolio for January, 1813, a rather doleful poem appeared in commemoration of the gallantry of Biddle, of which the following is a Specimen:

"Nor shall thy merits, Biddle, pass untold.

When covered with the cannon’s flaming breath,
Onward he pressed, unconquerably bold;
He feared dishonor, but he spurned at death."



1 See page 371.

2 This was alluded to in the following stanzas of a song of the time:

"Too long our tars have borne in peace

With British domineering;
But now they’ve sworn the trade should cease –
For vengeance they are steering.
First gallant Hull, he was the lad
Who sailed a tyrant-hunting,
And swaggering Dacres soon was glad
To strike to ‘striped bunting.’ "

3 "While therefore," says an English writer, "a feeling toward Americans bordering on contempt had unhappily possessed the mind of the British naval officer, rendering him more than usually careless and opinionative, the American naval officer, having been taught to regard his new foe with a feeling of dread, sailed forth to meet him with the whole of his energies aroused." – Naval Occurrences of the Late War, etc., by William James.

4 The following is a list of those vessels, their rated and actual armament, the names of the commanders of those afloat, and the designation of those in "ordinary," or laid up for repairs or other purposes:












Capt. Hull.

John Adams



Capt. Ludlow.

United States



Capt. Decatur.




Capt. Jones.




Com. Rodgers.




Capt. Lawrence.








Lieut. Carroll.

New York



















Capt. Smith.
















Capt. Porter.













There were four bomb-vessels in ordinary, named respectively Vengeance, Spitfire, Ætna, and Vesuvius. The gun-boats were all numbered, from "1" to "170," and during the War of 1812 were distributed as follows:

In New York, 54; New Orleans, 26; Norfolk, 14; Charleston, S. C., 2; Wilmington, N. C., 2; St. Mary’s, 11; Washington, 10; Portland, 8; Boston, 2; Connecticut and Rhode Island, 4; Philadelphia, 20; Baltimore, 10. Of these only sixty-two were in commission. Eighty-six were in ordinary, and some were undergoing repairs. There had been an increase of five to the number, and some slight changes of position, when the war broke out.

5 The commander of the English vessel had not heard of the declaration of war, and when he saw the squadron he stood toward it. But when he saw them suddenly take in their studding-sails and haul up in chase of him, frequently wetting the sails to profit by the lightness of the wind, he suspected hostility.

6 The first on land was in the amphibious fight at Sackett’s Harbor a month later. See page 368.

7 To yaw is to steer wild, or out of the line of the ship’s course.

8 The Belvidera was badly injured in her hull, spars, and rigging. The President received a number of shots in her sails and rigging, but was not materially injured.

9 Rodgers’s journal and British account of the engagement, in Niles’s Weekly Register, iii., 26; American account in the Boston Centinel, by an officer of the squadron; Cooper’s Naval History, ii., 150.

10 See page 120.

11 In naval nomenclature, a number of vessels under one commander, less than ten, are called a squadron; more than ten, a fleet.

12 The Constitution was built at Hart’s ship-yard, in Boston, where Constitution Wharf now is, at a cost of $302,718. She was made very strong. Her frame was of live-oak, and her planks were bent on without steam, as it was thought that process softened and weakened the wood. She was launched on the 21st of October, 1797 (see page 100), in the presence of a great gathering of people. She did not start upon a cruise until the following season, when she was commanded by Captain James Nicholson, who died in New York on Sunday, the 2d of September, 1804, in the sixty-ninth year of his age. She was so stanch a ship that the name of Ironsides was given her. She always was favored with excellent commanders and performed gallant service. Some years ago the Navy Department concluded to break her up and sell her timbers, as she was thought to be a decided "invalid." The order had gone forth, when the execution was arrested by the voice of public opinion, called forth by the magic wand of a poet – the pen of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote and published the following stirring protest against making merchandise of her:

"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!

Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky.
Beneath it rung the battle-shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood –
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were humming o’er the flood,
And waves were white below –
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

O! better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave.
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the God of Storms,
The lightning and the gale!"

"Old Ironsides" was saved, repaired, and converted into a school-ship. Such is her vocation now [1867]. She was lying at Annapolis in that capacity when the Great Rebellion broke out in 1861. Our little sketch exhibits her under full sail, as she appeared there in the autumn of 1860. When the Naval Academy was temporarily removed from Annapolis to Newport, Rhode Island, on account of the Rebellion, the Constitution took her place at the latter station. Her latest commander in the war of 1812-’15, Rear Admiral Charles Stewart, yet [1867] survives, at the age of ninety-one years. He is sometimes called Old Ironsides. His achievements in the Constitution will be noticed hereafter.

13 The following is a list of the officers of the Constitution at that time: Captain, Isaac Hull; Lieutenants, Charles Morris, Alexander S. Wadsworth, Beekman V. Hoffman, George C. Read, John T. Shubrick, Charles W. Morgan; Sailing-master, John C. Alwyn; Lieutenants of Marines, William S. Bush, John Contee; Surgeon, Amos E. Evans; Surgeon’s Mates, John D. Armstrong, Donaldson Yeates; Purser, Thomas J. Chew; Midshipmen, Henry Gilliam, Thomas Beatty, William D. Salter, Lewis Germain, William L. Gordon, Ambrose L. Field, Frederick Baury, Joseph Cross, Alexander Belcher, William Taylor, Alexander Eskridge, James W. Delancy, James Greenleaf, Allen Griffin, John Taylor; Boatswain, Peter Adams; Gunner, Robert Anderson.

14 Kedge, or kedger, is a small anchor with an iron stock, used for keeping a vessel steady or warping it along.

15 Cooper, ii., 156.

16 Coggeshall, in his History of the American Privateers and Letters of Marque, relates (page 12) that his friend, Captain Brown, who was a prisoner on board the Shannon, was amused to hear Captain Broke and his officers converse about the "Yankee frigate." At one period of the chase they were so confident of capturing her that a prize-crew were already appointed to conduct her in triumph to Halifax. To all their questions about her, as she was seen speeding before them, Captain Brown had but one answer, namely, "Gentlemen, you will never take that frigate."

17 It is said that some of them, after their exchange, were executed for deserting their guns.

18 Thomas Lamb Polden Laugharne entered the British navy in 1798, at the age of twelve years. He was a most faithful and active officer, and advanced steadily to the post of commander, which he attained in 1811. He was appointed to the command of the sloop Alert in February, 1812. His last appointment afloat was to the Achates, 18, in which he cruised in the Channel until November, 1815. In 1823 he became inspecting commander in the coast-guard, was advanced to post-captain, when he retired from the service on half-pay. He is yet [1867] living.

19 The reader who may consult a modern map while studying this account should remember that at that time the longitude was calculated from the meridian of Greenwich, in England. In modern American maps it is calculated from Washington City, the national capital.

20 Manuscript letter of Captain Porter to the Secretary of the Navy, dated "At sea, September 5, 1812."

21 Porter’s manuscript letter, September 5, 1812. That letter is before me. It contains a rough sketch of the nautical movement just described. "Considering this escape a very extraordinary one," he wrote, "I have the honor to inclose you a sketch of the position of the ships at three different periods, by which you will perceive at once the plan of effecting it." According to a letter from an officer of the Shannon, that frigate was the larger of the two vessels that chased the Essex on that occasion, and the other vessel, instead of being a "ship of war," as Porter supposed, was the Planter, a recaptured West Indiaman. In the light of this fact we perceive that Porter’s escape was not very "extraordinary." The American merchantman mentioned in the text was the Minerva, from Cadiz. She was burnt by the English on the morning succeeding the chase.

22 The original of Porter’s acceptance is in the possession of Doctor Leonard D. Koecker, of Philadelphia, who kindly allowed me to make from it the fac-simile of the paragraph given in the text.

23 Isaac Hull was born at Derby, Connecticut, in 1775. He first entered the merchant service, and in 1798 became a fourth lieutenant in the infant navy of the United States, under Commodore Nicholson. In 1800 he was promoted to first lieutenant under Commodore Talbot. In 1804 he commanded the brig Argus, and distinguished himself at the storming of Tripoli and the reduction of Derne. He was made captain in 1806, and was in command of the Constitution when the war broke out. Of his achievements in her the text furnishes a detailed account. Commodore Hull served in the American navy, afloat and ashore, with the rank of captain, thirty-seven years. He commanded in the Mediterranean and Pacific, and had charge of the navy yards at Boston and Washington. He was a member of the Naval Board for several years. Commodore Hull died at his residence in Philadelphia on the 9th of February, 1843.


His remains rest in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and over them is a beautiful altar-tomb of Italian marble, made by John Struthers and Sons. It is a copy of the tomb of Scipio Barbato at Rome, chastely ornamented, and surmounted by an American eagle in full relief, in the attitude of defending the national flag, on which it stands. There is a cannon-ball under the flag, on which rests one of the eagle’s talons. Upon the south side of the tomb is the name of ISAAC HULL. On the north side is the following inscription, written by his friend Horace Binney, Esq.: "FEBRUARY IX., MDCCCXLIII. In affectionate devotion to the private virtues of ISAAC HULL, his widow has erected this monument." The above likeness of Hull is from an engraving by Edwin, from a painting by Stewart.

24 A feminine warrior – an Amazon. The Guerriere was originally a French ship, and was captured on the 19th of July, 1806, by the British ship Blanche, Captain Lavie. She was built at L’Orient upon a sudden emergency, and her timbers, not having been well seasoned, were in a somewhat decaying state at this time, it is said.

25 See page 184.

26 See note 2, page 440.

27 This is alluded to in an old song called "Halifax Station," written and very extensively sung soon after the event commemorated occurred:

"Then up to each mast-head he straight sent a flag,
Which shows on the ocean a proud British brag
But Hull, being pleasant, he sent up but one,
And told every seaman to stand true to his gun."

28 Statement of Lieutenant B. V. Hoffman.

29 Statement of Captain William B. Orne, in the New York Evening Post. He commanded the American brig Betsey, and when returning from Naples in the summer of 1812, she was captured by the Guerriere. Captain Orne was a prisoner on board of her at the time of the action, and was treated by Captain Dacres with the greatest courtesy. When that commander’s interview with Read was concluded, he turned to Orne and said, "How have our situations been changed! You are now free, and I am a prisoner."

James Richard Dacres was a son of Vice Admiral J. R. Dacres, who was in command of the British schooner Carleton, on Lake Champlain, in the fight with Arnold’s flotilla in 1776. Young Dacres entered the royal navy in 1796, on board the Sceptre, 64, commanded by his father. His first service was against the French, in which he exhibited excellent qualities. He was promoted to the command of the sloop Elk in 1805, and the next year was transferred to the Bacchante, 24. He was appointed to the command of the Guerriere in March, 1811. She then carried 48 guns, and was called "a worn-out frigate." See O’Byrne’s Naval Biography. He was wounded in the action with the Constitution. He was unanimously acquitted by the court-martial at Halifax that tried him for surrendering his ship. He commanded the Tiber from 1814 to 1818. He continued in service afloat. In 1838 he attained flag rank, answering to our commodore, and in 1845 was appointed commander-in-chief at the Cape of Good Hope, his flag-ship being the President, 50. Vice Admiral Dacres died in England, at an advanced age, on the 4th of December, 1853. The preceding likeness of Captain Dacres (Vice Admiral of the Red) is from a print published in London in October, 1831.

30 "I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his officers to our men has been that of a brave enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded." – Captain Dacres’s Report to Vice Admiral Sawyer, September 7, 1812.

31 Three days before the action between the Constitution and Guerriere, the John Adams, Captain Fash, from Liverpool, was spoken by the English frigate. Upon Fash’s register, which he deposited at the New York Custom-house, the following lines were found written:

"Captain Dacres, commander of his Britannic majesty’s frigate Guerriere, of 44 guns, presents his compliments to Commodore Rodgers, of the United States frigate President, and will be very happy to meet him, or any other American frigate of equal force to the President, off Sandy Hook, for the purpose of having a few minutes’ tête-à-tête."

To this fact a poet of the day, an American gentleman then living at St. Bartholomew’s, thus alluded:

"This Briton oft had made his boast
He’d with his crew, a chosen host,
Pour fell destruction round our coast,

And work a revolution;
Urged by his pride, a challenge sent
Bold Rodgers, in the President,
Wishing to meet
Him tête-à-tête,
Or one his equal from our fleet –
Such was the Constitution."

32 A stirring ode was sung at the table. It was written for the occasion by the late L. M. Sargent, Esq., then an eminent and highly esteemed citizen of Boston. The victory of Hull, so complete, and obtained over a foe so nearly equal in strength, gave promise of future successes on the ocean, and inspired the most doubting heart with hope. This hope was expressed In the following closing stanza of Mr. Sargent’s ode:

"Hence be our floating bulwarks

Those oaks our mountains yield;
’Tis mighty Heaven’s plain decree –
Then take the watery field!
To ocean’s farthest barriers, then,
Your whitening sails shall pour;
Safe they’ll ride o’er the tide
While Columbia’s thunders roar;
While her cannon’s fire is flashing fast,
And her Yankee thunders roar."

33 This is a merely complimentary act, by which a person, for gallant or useful services, is honored with the nominal right to all the privileges and immunities of a citizen by the government of a city. When Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, nobly defended the liberty of the press, and procured the acquittal of John Peter Zenger, a New York printer, who was accused of libel by the governor in 1735, the Corporation of New York presented that able lawyer the freedom of the city in a gold box for his noble advocacy of popular rights. When Washington Irving returned to New York, after twenty years’ absence in Europe, the freedom of the city was given to him as a compliment for his distinction as an American author when successful ones were rare.

The ceremony of presentation to Captain Hull took place in the Common Council Chamber of the City Hall. A committee, consisting of Aldermen Fish and Mesier, and General Morton, introduced Hull to the Common Council, when DeWitt Clinton, the mayor, arose and addressed him. He then presented him with the diploma, elegantly executed in vellum, * and a richly-embossed gold box, with a representation of the battle between the Constitution and Guerriere painted in enamel. Hull responded in a few low and modest words, after which the mayor administered to him the freeman’s oath.

* The form of words in which this instrument is expressed will be found in another part of this work, where an account is given of a similar honor conferred on General Jacob Brown.

34 In that gallery hang the portraits of the successive governors of the State of New York. On that account it is known as the Governors’ Room.

35 On one side of this medal, represented of the exact size of the original in the above engraving, is seen the likeness of Captain Hull in profile, with the legend ISACUS HULL PERITOS ARTE SUPERAT JUL. MDCCCXII. ANG. CERTAMINE FORTES. This legend (and date) seems to refer to the skill of Hull in escaping from the British fleet the previous month, for it asserts that his stratagem overmatched the experienced English. On the reverse of the medal is seen a naval engagement. in which the Guerriere is represented as receiving the deadly shots that cut away her mizzen-mast. The legend is HORÆ MOMENTO VICTORIA, and the exergue INTER CONST. NAV. AMER ET GUER. NAV. ANGL. – the abbreviation of words indicating action "between the American ship Constitution and the English ship Guerriere."

36 Resolutions of the House of Representatives, November 5, 1812.

37 Naval Occurrences, page 116.

38 Captain Lavie’s Letter to Lord Keith, July 26, 1806. "Le Guerriere," he said, "is of the largest class of frigates, mounting fifty guns, with a complement of 317 men."

39 By actual weighing of the balls of both ships by an officer of the Constitution, it was found that the American 24’s were only three pounds heavier than the English 18’s on that occasion, and that there was nearly the same difference in favor of the latter’s 32’s. – Cooper’s Naval History, etc., ii., 173, Note *.

40 Jacob Jones was born in the year 1770, near the village of Smyrna, Kent County, Delaware. His father was a farmer, and the maiden name of his mother was likewise Jones. He received a good academic education, and at the age of eighteen years commenced the study of medicine and surgery. He began the practice of his profession at Dover, in his native state, but did not pursue it long. He found the field well occupied, and, being active and ambitious, resolved to abandon his profession for one more lucrative. He received the appointment of clerk of the Supreme Court for Kent County. Of this business he became wearied, and entered the service of his country as a midshipman in the year 1799. He made his first cruise under Commodore Barry, and was on board the frigate United States when she bore Ellsworth and Davie to France as envoys extraordinary of the United States to the government of that country. He was promoted to lieutenant in February, 1801. When the war with Tripoli broke out he sailed in the Philadelphia under Bainbridge, and after the disaster that befell that vessel he was twenty months a captive among the semi-barbarians of Northern Africa. He was commissioned master commandant in April, 1810, and was appointed to the command of the brig Argus, which was stationed for the protection of our commerce on our southern maritime frontier. In 1811 he was transferred to the command of the Wasp, and in the spring of 1812 was dispatched with communications from the United States government to its embassadors in France and England. While on that duty war between the United States and Great Britain was declared by the former. Soon after his return, he went on the cruise which resulted in his capture of the Frolic, and the recapture of his own and the prize vessel by a British frigate. In March, 1813, he was promoted to captain, and ever afterward bore the title of Commodore. After the peace he was employed alternately at home and abroad; and, finally, in his declining years, he retired to his farm in his native state, where he enjoyed a serene old age. He died at Philadelphia in July, 1850, at the age of eighty years. The likeness is copied from an engraving by Edwin, from a portrait painted by the late Rembrandt Peale.

41 Thomas Whinyates entered the British navy in 1798, and obtained his first commission in September, 1799. He was promoted to the rank of commander in May, 1805, and, after having command of the bomb Zebra almost two years, he was promoted to the command of the Frolic in March, 1807. He was commissioned a post-captain in August, 1813, and in 1846 was placed on the list of retired rear admirals.

42 The Frolic had left the Bay of Honduras with about fourteen sail under convoy. When off Havana her commander first heard of the declaration of war. The British vessels experienced the same gale which the Wasp {Original text has "Frolic".} encountered, and they were separated. The Frolic sustained quite serious damage, having had her main yard broken in two places, and her main-top-mast badly sprung, besides other injuries. In this condition she entered upon the engagement. During the engagement the merchant vessels with the Frolic escaped. See James’s Naval Occurrences.

43 Captain Jones’s Report to the Secretary of the Navy, November 24, 1812.

44 "Lieutenant Claxton," says Captain Jones, in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, "who was confined by sickness, left his bed a little previous to the engagement, and, though too indisposed to be at his division, remained upon deck, and showed, by his composed manner of noticing its incidents, that we had lost by his illness the services of a brave officer."

45 John (or, as he was familiarly called, Jack) Lang, a seaman of the Wasp, who had once been impressed into the British service, and was hot with the fire of retaliation, jumped on a gun with his cutlass, and was springing on board the Frolic, when Captain Jones, wishing to give the enemy another broadside, called him down. But his impetuosity overcame his sense of obedience, and in a moment he leaped upon the bowsprit of the Frolic. The crew were all alive with excitement. Seeing this, Lieutenant Biddle mounted the hammock-cloth to board. The crew caught the signal, and followed with the greatest enthusiasm. Lang was from New Brunswick, New Jersey.

46 Captain Whinyates’s dispatch to Admiral Sir J. Borlase Warren, from the ship Poictiers, October 23, 1812. The loss of the Frolic must have been about one hundred.

47 Report of Captain Jones to the Secretary of the Navy, November 24, 1812; Whinyates’s dispatch to Admiral Warren, October 23, 1812.

48 According to general usage, a court of inquiry was held on the conduct of Captain Jones in giving up the Wasp and her prize. The opinion of the court was, "That the conduct of the officers and crew of the Wasp was eminently distinguished for firmness and gallantry in making every preparation and exertion of which their situation would admit."

49 Under the picture were the following lines:

"A Wasp took a Frolic, and met Johnny Bull,
Who always fights best when his belly is full.
The Wasp thought him hungry by his mouth open wide,
So, his belly to fill, put a sting in his side."

50 The following are the names of the officers of the Wasp at the time of the action: Jacob Jones, Commander; George W. Rodgers, James Biddle, Benjamin Booth, Alexander Claxton, and Henry B. Rapp, Lieutenants; William Knight, Sailing-master; Thomas Harris, Surgeon; George S. Wise, Purser; John M‘Cloud, Boatswain; George Jackson, Gunner; George van Cleve, A. S. Ten Eyck, Richard Brashear, John Holcomb, William J. M‘Cluney, C. J. Baker, and Charles Gaunt, Midshipmen; Walter W. New, Surgeon’s Mate.

The engraving is a representation of the medal, full size. On one side is a bust of Captain Jones. Legend – JACOBUS JONES, VIRTUS IN ARDUA TENDIT. On the reverse are seen two ships closely engaged, the bowsprit of the Wasp between the masts of the Frolic. Men on the bow of the Wasp in the act of boarding the Frolic. The main-top-mast of the Wasp shot away. Legend – VICTORIAM HOSTI MAJORI CELERRIME RAPUIT. Exergue – INTER WASP. NAV. AMERI. ET FROLIC NAV. ANG. DIE XVIII OCT. MDCCCXII.

51 This urn and the silver medal presented to Lieutenant Biddle for his share in the capture of the Frolic are in possession of Lieutenant James S. Biddle, of Philadelphia. Also the gold medal afterward presented to the hero in acknowledgment of his services in capturing the Penguin. The following is the inscription on the urn:

"To Lieutenant James Biddle, United States Navy, from the early friends and companions of his youth, who, while their country rewards his public services, present this testimonial of their esteem for his private worth. Philadelphia, 1813."



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