Capture of USS President
|Capture of USS President|
|Part of the War of 1812|
The Capture of USS President.
|United Kingdom||United States|
|Commanders and leaders|
|John Hayes||Stephen Decatur|
Unknown number of crew:
|1 damaged warship
|Casualties and losses|
1 warship damaged
1 warship captured
The capture of USS President was one of many actions fought at the end of the War of 1812. After running aground before the engagement, the frigate USS President, now severely damaged, tried to break out of New York Harbor but was intercepted by a British squadron of four warships and forced to surrender. President was part of a small squadron created in New York with the purpose of breaching the British blockade and attacking British shipping. Every ship of the squadron succeeded in doing so but President. The action took place several weeks after the Treaty of Ghent, but there is no evidence to suggest the combatants were aware, and more than a month before it was fully ratified.
At the time of the battle Commodore Stephen Decatur commanded President. In 1812, while in command of the frigate USS United States, he had captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian in a famous action. After his return, the British instituted a strict blockade of the American coast.
In 1813, Decatur tried to break out of New York in United States and USS Macedonian (which had been taken into the United States Navy), but encountered a powerful British squadron which drove him into New London, Connecticut. To lighten the two frigates sufficiently to tow them far enough upriver to be safe from British cutting-out expeditions, they were effectively hulked, or demilitarized.
Decatur tried to break out in United States in early 1814, but turned back when he feared that pro-British local civilians (the so-called Blue light federalists) were burning lights to alert the blockaders. Decatur and the crew of United States were transferred to President, which had been refitted in New York. (The crew of Macedonian were transferred to the Great Lakes.)
On 13 December 1814, President and some smaller warships (the sloops-of-war USS Peacock and USS Hornet, and the schooner-rigged tender USS Tom Bowline) were in New York Harbor, preparing to break out past the British blockade to embark on cruises against British merchant shipping. The British squadron which was blockading New York consisted of the former ship of the line Majestic which had been razeed, i.e. cut down to a single deck to create a heavy frigate, and the frigates HMS Endymion, HMS Pomone and HMS Tenedos. They were under the overall command of Commodore John Hayes, who was captain of Majestic.
On 13 January, a blizzard blew up from the northwest. The British ships were blown off their station, to the southeast. Decatur determined to take advantage of the situation by breaking out with President alone. (He may have been accompanied by a merchant brig, also named Macedonian, carrying extra rations as a tender, but the brig does not feature in any subsequent events.) The plan was that the smaller warships would break out later and rendezvous with President off Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.
Decatur immediately met with disaster. He had ordered harbor pilots to mark the safe passage across the bar with anchored boats at the mouth of the harbor, but they failed to do so properly. President grounded on the bar and remained stuck there for almost two hours, enduring a pounding from the wind and heavy sea. It was claimed that by the time the frigate worked free it was heavily damaged: some copper was stripped away from the hull; the masts were twisted and some of them "sprung," i.e. had developed long cracks; and the hull was twisted and "hogged," i.e. the bow and stern sagged. Although her accompanying vessels headed for safety, it was impossible for President to return to port as the gale was still blowing, and Decatur was forced to put to sea. He headed east, keeping close to the Long Island shore before heading southeast.
Once the gale had abated, the British regrouped. Realizing that American ships might have taken the opportunity to leave port unobserved, Hayes left Tenedos to watch the Sandy Hook passage and headed north to watch the Long Island passage, rather than head back to the harbor entrance. At dawn on 14 January, they sighted President. Decatur immediately turned downwind and tried to gain speed by lightening his ship, throwing stores and boats overboard and pumping out drinking water, but the damage he had received on the bar had fatally slowed President.
After Majestic had fired some ranging shots which fell short, Pomone overtook her and led the pursuit, but Tenedos appeared unexpectedly to the south and Hayes sent Pomone to investigate. As the afternoon wore on, the wind eased to a breeze and Endymion, under Captain Henry Hope, overtook Majestic and President.
By late afternoon, Endymion and President were exchanging fire using their bow- and stern-chase cannon respectively. By nightfall, Endymion had closed to President's quarter, where Decatur could bring no guns to bear. Endymion was a very fast ship, and Captain Hope yawed to fire a broadside into President's quarter, before turning again to follow and regain his position. The Long Island shore was too near for Decatur to steer northwards and put Endymion astern.
After Endymion had repeated this maneuver for the third time, causing considerable loss aboard President, Decatur abruptly turned to starboard to cross Endymion's bow. He had mustered boarding parties in case the British were taken by surprise, but Endymion also turned to starboard and the two ships headed south, exchanging broadsides. Decatur had no time to batter the British vessel into surrender, as the other three British ships would almost certainly be in range before long; so his gunners fired high into Endymion's rigging, seeking to disable her, using chain shot and "dismantling shot" (bars of iron linked by a ring), while the British gunners fired low into the hull of President. However, the shooting was poor on both sides while it is claimed President's powder was defective.
At 7.58pm, President struck, hoisting a light in her rigging to signify her surrender. Endymion hove to and commenced repairs to her rigging. Captain Hope was unable to take immediate possession of his prize as he had no boats available that would "swim". Seeing Endymion hove to, Decatur attempted to escape, making sail at 8.30pm and running downwind. Endymion completed her hasty repairs and got under way at 9.05pm. In the meantime both Pomone and Tenedos were closing on President. By 9.05pm, Pomone had caught up, firing two broadsides at President, after which Decatur once again indicated his surrender.
President had had a crew of 447 and a broadside of 828 pounds against Endymion's crew of 346 and broadside of 664 pounds. During the whole fight, President lost 24 men killed (including three of the frigate's lieutenants), and 55 wounded, including Decatur who had been wounded by a splinter. The British lost 11 killed and 14 wounded, all aboard HMS Endymion.
The damaged Endymion and President sailed in company to Bermuda. They encountered a violent storm that dismasted both. However, both reached safety. Official notification of the end of the war came soon afterwards. Endymion and President arrived at Spithead on 28 March 1815. The British took the President briefly into the Royal Navy as HMS President but broke up the badly battered ship in 1818. They later built a fourth-rate frigate, which they also named President, as an exact copy of the American vessel.
The British press noted the good conduct of both British and American captains and sailors, though they caused some ill will by claiming that Endymion had defeated President in a straightforward stand-up fight. The British briefly held Decatur and his crew prisoner in Bermuda. After their release, a court martial board acquitted Decatur, his officers and his men of any wrongdoing in the surrender of President. Decatur was quickly appointed to command an American squadron dispatched to the Mediterranean to protect American merchant ships against corsairs. He was later mortally wounded in a duel, the cause of which lay in a pre-war quarrel.
The smaller American ships still in New York sortied before hearing of the capture of President, and reached the rendezvous off Tristan da Cunha. Hornet sank the British brig of war HMS Penguin before Peacock joined her. The two American ships then mistook the British ship of the line HMS Cornwallis for an East Indiaman. Hornet narrowly escaped after jettisoning all her guns and most of her stores. Peacock subsequently captured several British merchant ships in the Indian Ocean until receiving confirmation that the war had ended.
Endymion Crook (Midshipman's Badge) and other awards
Following the arrival of Endymion and President in Bermuda, Captain Henry Hope was presented with a silver plate in honour of his success. Soon after Hope presented his officers with silver crooks that were probably made from that plate. The design of a crook was a play on the name Endymion, which had been named after a shepherd of Classical legend. These silver crooks have been named as the Midshipman's Badge, however they were given to the all of Endymion's 24 officers rather than the midshipmen only. On 15 January 1815 Hope was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for his role in the capture of President. In 1847 the Admiralty authorized the issue to any still surviving crew from Endymion of the Naval General Service Medal with clasp "Endymion wh. President".
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- Story of the capture of USS President
- Documents relating to the capture of USS President
- Naval Chronicle