USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere

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USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere
Part of the War of 1812
USS Constitution vs Guerriere.jpg
Painting of combat between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere by Michel Felice Corne (1752–1845)
Date 19 August 1812
Location Atlantic Ocean
41°42′N 55°33′W / 41.700°N 55.550°W / 41.700; -55.550Coordinates: 41°42′N 55°33′W / 41.700°N 55.550°W / 41.700; -55.550
Result United States victory
Belligerents
United States United States United Kingdom United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Isaac Hull James Richard Dacres
Strength
1 Frigate
44 guns
950lb broadside
450 U.S. Navy Sailors and U.S. Marine infantry[1]
1 Fifth-rate frigate
38 guns
526lb broadside
272 Royal Navy Sailors and Royal Marine infantry
Casualties and losses
7 killed
7 wounded[2]
15 killed
78 wounded
257 captured
1 Frigate sunk[2]

The USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere, was a single ship action between the two ships during the War of 1812, approximately 400 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It took place shortly after war had broken out, and would prove to be an important victory for American morale.

Background[edit]

When the United States declared war on Britain on 18 June 1812, the Royal Navy had eighty-five vessels in American waters. By contrast, the United States Navy, which was not yet twenty years old, was a frigate navy that had only twenty-two commissioned vessels. The chief fighting strength of the U.S. Navy was a squadron of three frigates and two sloops of war under Commodore John Rodgers, based in New York. A week after Congress declared war, United States Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton had sent orders to Rodgers to cruise off New York, and to Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the USS Constitution at Annapolis on Chesapeake Bay, to join Rodgers.

However, Rodgers set out to sea immediately when he heard of the declaration of war, before he could receive Hamilton's instructions. He feared that if he delayed he might be blockaded by a superior British fleet, but by sailing immediately he might catch isolated British ships before they could concentrate.[3] He did indeed encounter the frigate HMS Belvidera, but the Belvidera escaped, aided by a bursting cannon aboard USS President which injured Rodgers and caused much damage and confusion. Rodgers then crossed the Atlantic hoping to catch a valuable British convoy from the West Indies. The weather was foul throughout the voyage and Rodgers missed the convoy, capturing only seven small merchant vessels.[4]

On hearing of the Belvidera's encounter, Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer, the commander of the Royal Navy's North American Station based at Halifax, Nova Scotia, despatched a squadron under Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke to catch Rodgers' squadron. Broke's squadron consisted of the 64-gun ship of the line HMS Africa and the frigates Shannon, Aeolus, Belvidera and Guerriere.[5] By forcing the British to concentrate their force in one place, Rodgers had made it possible for large numbers of American merchant ships to reach other ports without being intercepted.

Pursuit of the Constitution[edit]

The Constitution escapes the British squadron.

On the outbreak of war, the Constitution was at Annapolis, collecting a fresh crew, and was unable to sail for three weeks. When her captain, Isaac Hull, was able to put to sea, he headed for New York in accordance with Secretary Hamilton's orders. Near New York, in the late afternoon of 17 July 1812, Hull saw four ships sailing west, and another one heading straight towards the Constitution. He thought the ships could be Rodgers' squadron, but was cautious. He ordered signal lights to be shown, and when the approaching ship did not identify herself, ordered the Constitution to keep her distance and wait for daylight to assess the situation.[5] The approaching ship was the Guerriere, rejoining Broke's squadron after having become separated. Aboard her, Captain James Richard Dacres soon determined that the Constitution was a hostile ship, but at dawn on 18 July, he sighted the other four British ships. His signals to them were not answered. Fearing that he was about to be trapped by Rodgers' entire squadron, Dacres also put as much distance between the Guerriere and the other ships as he could, thus missing a chance to trap Constitution.[6]

In light and fitful winds which occasionally died away altogether, the Constitution led the British squadron in a stern chase. The Constitution lowered her boats to tow the ship, while Broke ordered the boats from the entire British squadron to tow the Shannon. In an attempt to pull away, Hull ordered ten tons of drinking water to be pumped overboard. Despite this, the British squadron continued to gain on the Constitution. The Constitution's First Lieutenant, Charles Morris, then suggested kedging to haul the ship along. This allowed Constitution to draw away from the Shannon.[7] Fire from four heavy guns which Hull had shifted to point right aft prevented the British trying the same tactic. Late in the afternoon, the wind sprang up again, and the Constitution increased her lead. The British ships gained slightly during the night, but the next day, Constitution drew away again, although the chase lasted another day and a night until the British ships were out of sight.

Following his escape, Hull sailed for Boston to replenish his drinking water supply, before setting out on 2 August to raid British merchant ships off Halifax and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, before sailing south again towards Bermuda. The Constitution soon chased down the American privateer Decatur, and her captain told Hull that he had escaped a British frigate the day before.[8]

Broke had meanwhile sailed after the valuable West India convoy, assuming correctly that Rodgers was also searching for it. Three weeks after losing sight of the Constitution and having seen the convoy safely into British waters, Broke prepared to return to New York. The Guerriere was detached and ordered to proceed to Halifax for a much-needed refit.[9]

Battle[edit]

Gun crew on Constitution preparing to do battle with Guerriere.

At 2:00 p.m. on 19 August, the Constitution sighted a large ship to leeward, and bore down to investigate. The weather was cloudy, and the wind was brisk. The strange ship proved to be the Guerriere, whose crew recognised Constitution at about the same moment. Both ships prepared for action, and shortened sail to "fighting sail", i.e. topsails and jibs only. As the Constitution closed, Dacres first hove to to fire a broadside, which fell short, and then ran before the wind for three quarters of an hour with the Constitution on her quarter. Dacres yawed several times to fire broadsides at the Constitution, but the Guerriere's broadsides were generally inaccurate, while the few shots fired from Constitution's foremost guns had little effect.[10] After one cannonball bounced "harmlessly" off the side of the Constitution, a crew member is said to have yelled "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!"[8]

Constitution fires into the burning hulk of Guerriere, now badly damaged.

Once the range had closed to within a few hundred yards, Captain Hull ordered extra sail (the foresail and main topgallant sail) to be set, to close the distance quickly. Dacres did not match this manoeuvre, and the two ships began exchanging broadsides at "half pistol-shot",[11] with the Constitution to starboard and Guerriere to port. After fifteen minutes of this exchange, during which Guerriere suffered far more damage than the Constitution due to the latter's larger guns and thicker hull, Guerriere's mizzenmast fell overboard to starboard, acting like a rudder and dragging her around. This allowed Constitution to cross ahead of Guerriere, firing a raking broadside which brought down the main yard. Hull then wore ship to cross Guerriere's bow again, firing another raking broadside, but the manoeuvre was cut too close and the Guerriere's bowsprit became entangled in the rigging of the Constitution's mizzenmast.

Guerriere and Constitution, a BEP engraving.

On both ships, boarding parties were summoned, while musket fire broke out from each ship. Lieutenant Charles Morris and Captain Dacres were both wounded by musket shots. Only the narrow bowsprit provided a way between the ships, and in the heavy sea, neither side could venture across it. Some of the gunners aboard Guerriere fired at point-blank range into Hull's stern cabin, setting the American ship on fire briefly. The two locked ships slowly rotated clockwise until they broke free. The Guerriere's foremast and mainmast both then fell "by the board" i.e. snapped off at deck level, leaving her helpless and rolling heavily.[12] Dacres attempted to set sail on the bowsprit to bring his ship before the wind, but it too had been damaged and broke.[13] The Constitution meanwhile ran downwind for several minutes, repairing damage to the rigging, before once again wearing and beating upwind to return to battle.

As Constitution prepared to renew the action, the Guerriere fired a shot in the opposite direction to the Constitution.[14] Sensing that this was an attempt to signal surrender, Hull ordered a boat to take a Lieutenant over to the British ship. When the Lieutenant boarded the Guerriere and asked if Guerriere was prepared to surrender, Captain Dacres responded "Well, Sir, I don't know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone - I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag."[2]

Aftermath[edit]

Constitution after defeat of Guerriere.

Captain Dacres was escorted aboard the Constitution. Hull refused to accept Dacres' sword of surrender, saying he could not accept the sword from a man who had fought so gallantly.[2] He also ordered that Dacres' mother's Bible be returned to him.[2] The Guerriere was clearly sinking, and the wounded were transferred to the Constitution. Hull found that ten impressed Americans had been serving aboard Guerriere but Dacres had permitted them to stay below decks instead of fighting their countrymen.[15]

Hull wanted the Guerriere towed in as a prize ship. The Constitution lay by the Guerriere during the night but at daybreak it was obvious that the Guerriere could not be salvaged. The prisoners and the American salvage parties were brought aboard Constitution and at three o'clock in the afternoon, the Guerriere was set on fire, and soon blew up.[16]

Although Constitution was capable of continuing her cruise (she was substantially undamaged and still had two thirds of her ammunition), Hull wanted the American public to have news of the victory. He reached Boston ten days later, and his news (with the obvious proof of more than two hundred prisoners of war) caused rejoicing. The Guerriere had been one of the most active ships of the Royal Navy in stopping and searching American merchant vessels, and the news of her defeat was particularly satisfying to the American seafaring community.[17] Ironically, Hull was never to hold another fighting command.[15] Just three days before he defeated Guerriere, his uncle, General William Hull, had surrendered Fort Shelby to a greatly inferior British force. Another misfortune for Isaac Hull was the death of his brother, who left a widow and children whom Hull was now duty-bound to support. Seeking a commission that would better accommodate his new domestic responsibilities, Hull asked Navy secretary Hamilton if he could exchange commands with Captain William Bainbridge, under whom he had served during the Barbary Wars and who was then commander of the Boston Navy Yard. Hamilton agreed, and on 15 September 1812, Hull took over the Navy Yard and Bainbridge the Constitution.

Once released by exchange of prisoners and returned to Halifax, Dacres was tried by court martial, as was customary in the case of a Royal Navy ship lost from any cause. He put forward as his defence the facts that the Guerriere was originally French-built, captured by the Royal Navy in 1806, and therefore not as sturdy as British-built ships, and more importantly, that the Guerriere was badly decayed and in fact on her way to refit in Halifax at the time, and the fall of the mizzen mast which crippled the Guerriere early in the fight had been due as much to rot as battle damage.[18] There was no suggestion that Dacres and his men had not done their utmost, or that Dacres had been unwise to engage the Constitution. (Early in the War of 1812, it was accepted in the Royal Navy that a British 38-gun frigate could successfully engage a 44-gun frigate of any other nation.) Dacres was therefore acquitted.[19]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Borneman p. 81
  2. ^ a b c d e Borneman p. 87
  3. ^ Forester, pp. 18–20
  4. ^ Forester, pp. 26–28
  5. ^ a b Borneman p. 82
  6. ^ Forester, p. 38
  7. ^ Forester, pp. 39–40
  8. ^ a b Borneman p. 84
  9. ^ Forester, p. 45
  10. ^ Forester, p. 49
  11. ^ Roosevelt, p. 51
  12. ^ Roosevelt, p. 52
  13. ^ Forester, p. 52
  14. ^ Borneman, p. 86
  15. ^ a b Forester, p. 53
  16. ^ Roosevelt, p. 54
  17. ^ Forester, p. 55
  18. ^ Forester, pp. 50–51
  19. ^ Forester, pp. 56–57

References[edit]