Sinking of HMS Peacock

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USS Hornet vs HMS Peacock
Part of the War of 1812
Date 24 February, 1813
Location Mouth of the Demerara River, Guiana
Result American Victory
Belligerents
United States United States United Kingdom United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
James Lawrence William Peake
Strength
1 sloop of war
135 Marines and Sailors
1 brig sloop
122 Marines and Sailors
Casualties and losses
1 dead, four wounded (1 mortally), + 3 drowned subsequently 1 brig sunk
5 dead, 33 wounded (3 mortally), + 9 drowned subsequently

The sinking of HMS Peacock was a naval action fought off the mouth of the Demerara River, Guyana on 24 February 1813, between the sloop of war USS Hornet and the Cruizer-class brig sloop HMS Peacock. After an exchange of broadsides, Hornet was able to rake Peacock, forcing her to strike. Peacock was so damaged that she sank shortly after surrendering.

Prelude[edit]

On 26 October 1812, the frigate USS Constitution and sloop Hornet sortied from Boston, Massachusetts. (The frigate USS Essex was supposed to accompany them but was undergoing repairs. Several rendezvous were assigned for the Essex to meet the other two ships, but the arrangements miscarried.)[1]

On 13 December, the two American ships arrived off Salvador, Bahia on the coast of Brazil, where they found the British sloop of war HMS Bonne Citoyenne. Commodore William Bainbridge, commanding the Constitution, sent a letter to the captain of the Bonne Citoyenne, challenging him to fight the Hornet, an equal match. The British captain refused, as his ship was carrying a valuable cargo of bullion.[2] Bainbridge left Hornet to blockade Bonne Citoyenne and cruised to the south, looking for other prizes. Eventually he found and sank the frigate HMS Java.

Aboard Hornet, Master Commandant James Lawrence was aware from Portuguese sources that a British ship of the line was expected. On 24 January 1813, HMS Montagu appeared and Lawrence retreated into Portuguese territorial waters. After dark, he headed north along the South American coast. On 14 February, Hornet encountered and captured the British packet brig Resolution, which was carrying twenty thousand dollars in gold and silver.[3]

Battle[edit]

On 24 February, Lawrence pursued a British merchant brig into the mouth of the Demerara River. As evening drew on, Lawrence then noted a British brig sloop, HMS Espiegle, at anchor in the river, and another, the Peacock, approaching from seaward.

Hornet beat to windward and gained the advantage of the windward position. Lawrence then tacked, and as Hornet and Peacock passed each other on opposite tacks they exchanged broadsides at "half pistol shot". Even at this close range, the British fire went high. Some American sailors were killed and wounded at the mastheads. Peacock suffered heavy damage to the hull.[4]

Captain Peake of Peacock turned downwind to bring his opposite battery to bear, but Lawrence had carried out the same manoeuvre more rapidly. The starboard bow of the Hornet came up against the stern of the Peacock from where the British could bring no guns to bear, and from this position, Hornet's gunners shattered the Peacock in a mere four minutes.[4] Peake was killed, and his First lieutenant surrendered and almost immediately made a distress signal. The British lost 5 men killed and 33 wounded (three mortally); the Americans lost only one man killed and four wounded (one mortally), most to Peacock's first broadside.[nb 1]

Both vessels anchored. An American prize crew went aboard the Peacock and tried to plug the holes below the waterline and throw the guns overboard to lighten the brig, but Peacock sank suddenly. Three Americans and nine British sailors were trapped below deck and drowned. Peacock sank in only 33 feet (10 m) of water, and four British sailors saved themselves by climbing the foremast, the top of which remained above the water. Four others escaped to the shore in a boat in the confusion.

Although Peacock was more lightly armed than Hornet, mounting eighteen 24-pounder carronades to the Hornet's eighteen 32-pounder carronades, the overwhelming defeat was more probably due to poor training and lack of practice at the guns. It was said that Captain Peake had concentrated on the appearance of his command rather than its fighting efficiency.[6][7]

Aftermath[edit]

The survivors of the Peacock were taken aboard Hornet, where they joined some other prisoners from captured British merchant vessels. Together with some American sailors from a recaptured prize, Hornet was now carrying 277 people. Hornet made for Martha's Vineyard, the nearest point of the American coast known not to be watched by the Royal Navy. Even so, all on board were suffering severely from shortage of water when they arrived[8] on 19 March.[5] The surviving officers of the Peacock nevertheless testified to the generosity of the Hornet's crew.[9] Eventually, Peacock's surviving officers and crew were put on a cartel on which they reached Britain in June.

Notes[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ Lloyd's List initially reported that Captain Peake and eight of her crew were killed in the action, and 27 were wounded; 19 men, who could not be rescued, went down with her when she sank, though Hornet rescued the rest. Hornet herself had lost only one man killed and two wounded.[5]
Citations
  1. ^ Roosevelt, p.67
  2. ^ Forester, p.91
  3. ^ Forester, p.97
  4. ^ a b Roosevelt, p.94
  5. ^ a b Lloyd's List 154 May 1813[1] - accessed 13 November 2013.
  6. ^ Forester, p.98
  7. ^ Roosevelt, p.96
  8. ^ Forester, p.97
  9. ^ Roosevelt, p.96

Printed sources[edit]

  • Forester, C.S. (1970)[1957] The Age of Fighting Sail. (New English Library). ISBN 0-939218-06-2
  • Roosevelt, Theodore: The Naval War of 1812, Modern Library, New York, ISBN 0-375-75419-9

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 6°51′N 58°10′W / 6.85°N 58.17°W / 6.85; -58.17