Military history

American dismantling shot (James, Full and Correct Account)

CHAPTER 4

“The Present War, Unexpected, Unnecessary, and Ruinous”

EVEN A DECLARATION of war could not immediately persuade British officials that America was in earnest. Augustus Foster thought that 80 percent of Americans opposed the war and that the declaration was mostly bluff. Every single Federalist and 20 percent of the Republicans in Congress had voted against it; the 79–49 margin in the House and 19–13 in the Senate would forever remain the closest vote on a formal declaration of war in American history. On June 20 the British minister had gone to Monroe’s office, and the two had “endeavoured to frighten one another for a whole Hour by descanting on the Consequences of War,” Foster informed London.1

Since the spring of 1812 a powerful movement had been growing in Britain in favor of repeal of the orders in council, but it had almost everything to do with the effect the orders were having on the British economy and almost nothing to do with fear of war with America. The loss of the American trade as a result of the orders had been devastating. Seven thousand firms had failed; the production of textiles in Lancashire was down 40 percent; fifteen thousand paupers were receiving relief in Liverpool. So sharply had public feeling turned that when Spencer Perceval, the British prime minister who had been the chief architect of the orders, was assassinated by a deranged gunman on May 11 in the lobby of Parliament, the news triggered public rejoicing in Britain’s industrial towns. A week later, huge crowds shouted “God bless you!” as Perceval’s murderer was led to the gallows at Newgate. Repeal now seemed all but certain.

But even Henry Brougham, who led the repeal campaign in Parliament, ridiculed the idea that those seeking to abolish the orders were out to appease America. “Jealousy of America!” he mockingly exclaimed in the House of Commons. “I should as soon think of being jealous of the tradesmen who supply me with necessaries. Jealousy of America!… whose assembled navies could not lay siege to an English sloop of war!”2 There was no sense of urgency as the question of repeal worked its way for the next month and a half through a special parliamentary committee that had been authorized to investigate the state of trade.

And so, with exquisite mistiming, Parliament found itself voting on June 23, five days after America’s declaration of war, to repeal the orders in council that the United States had so bitterly resented for five long years.

Almost alone among the voices of the British establishment, the Naval Chronicle had been cautioning its readers for months not to underestimate American determination. “A large portion of the daily press of England has been engaged in promulgating errors with regard to America,” the Chronicle’s editor asserted. “We have been persuaded to believe that our hostile system was useful, and that the American government had not the power, if it had the spirit, to resent provocations.” These political miscalculations, he lamented, had now brought England to “war against the descendants of Englishmen … against the seat of political and religious freedom.” Yet even now the same delusions were still at work: most British newspapers were confidently predicting that no real war would ever materialize, that as soon as word of the repeal of the orders in council reached Washington it would be over before it had ever begun. But, the Chronicle’s editor cautioned, “it is the people, and not merely the government of the United States, who have declared war.” And the American people, he predicted, were not going to stop fighting now that they had begun until a treaty satisfying all their grievances was agreed to.3

In sweltering Philadelphia, where the shipping merchant and former Republican congressman William Jones had stayed through the summer to tend to his business while his family went to visit friends in the country, Jones noted that some Americans were making the same mistake—believing that forthcoming concessions by the British government would bring about a swift restoration of peace. Speculators had briefly driven up the prices of goods following the declaration of war. But, he wrote his wife, Eleanor, in early July, prices had been rapidly falling in the past few days on as yet unconfirmed rumors of the revocation of the orders in council. Jones contemptuously dismissed what he called “these coffee house politicians” who “think that the character, Independence and policy of this country hang upon the breath of a British Minister.” The state of war, he told Eleanor, “has totally changed the political relations of the two countrys.” Now that it had begun, the war could only be brought to an end by “an ample and final settlement of all sources of difference.”4

On July 10 a British schooner arrived in Boston from Halifax under a flag of truce in an even more poignant piece of bad timing. The ship carried John Strachan and Daniel Martin, the two surviving crewmen taken from the Chesapeake five years earlier. The third of the Chesapeake seamen who had been imprisoned in Halifax, William Ware, had died in captivity in the interim.

At a ceremony the next day aboard the Chesapeake at Charlestown Navy Yard, the two men were formally returned under the settlement Foster had offered, and Madison had wordlessly accepted, the previous November. The commander of the British sloop came aboard, and an American lieutenant read a statement that Bainbridge, the ranking American naval officer in Boston, had prepared: “Sir I am commanded by Commodore Bainbridge to receive those two American Seamen on the very deck from which they were wantonly taken in time of Peace by a vessel of your Nation of Superior Force.” On the quarterdeck Bainbridge then added a few of his own slightly graceless words to the two freed men. “My Lads, I am glad to see you. From this Deck you were taken by British outrage. For your return to it you owe gratitude to the Government of your Country. Your Country now offers you an opportunity to revenge your wrongs, and I cannot doubt but you will be desirous of doing so on board this very Ship.” It apparently did not occur to Bainbridge that men just released from five years’ imprisonment, some of that time spent with a sentence of five hundred lashes hanging over them, might want to see friends or family or old homes again upon returning to freedom and their native land, or for that matter might never want to see a ship or the sea again. But having invited the two men to show their gratitude by immediate reenlistment in the United States navy, he dismissed them from the quarterdeck and his mind, did not even mention them by name in his subsequent report to the secretary of the navy, and invited the British officer to lunch, which he accepted.5

·    ·    ·

ISAAC HULL’s orders were to get to New York as quickly as possible and report to Rodgers, but on the day war was declared, June 18, the Constitution’s crew had just begun the tedious ritual of moving a large warship down the shallow Potomac. At the Washington Navy Yard “Jumping Billy” Haraden had been on hand again to manage her repairs, and the work had proceeded at his usual breakneck pace. In two months the shipyard workers had hove her down to clean and patch her coppering, ripped out and replaced her decks, and shipped a new bowsprit and foremast. To answer Hull’s complaints about her poor sailing, Haraden had overhauled her rigging and taken off a third of her ballast. Hull also wanted sky poles rigged to carry an extra set of sails above even the royal poles that topped the topgallants to get every ounce of thrust in light winds. The ship had been towed to Alexandria when the work at the yard was done. Then came the choreographed reloading of all her heavy fittings and stores over the course of several days as she made her way down the long looping fishhook of the river to deeper waters and the Chesapeake beyond: the lighters coming alongside and transferring iron shot and casks of provisions and the new battery of two dozen thirty-two-pounder carronades for the spar deck, a ton and a half apiece.6

At Annapolis, Hull shipped more men and stores and, after firing the eighteen-gun national salute (one for each state of the union) at noon on the Fourth of July, headed down the Chesapeake Bay the next day. He wrote a short note to his father, a farewell in case:

My Ship is now underway from Annapolis and standing down to the Bay. you will ere long hear from me some where to the Northd unless I fall in with superior force in that case you may Probably hear of my being in Halifax or Bermudas … Should anything happen [to] me I leave but little but it may be sufficient to make you comfortable during your stay in this Troublesome world.

be pleased to make my love to all the Family and accept for them & your self my most fervent Prayers for your health & long life.

your Son

Isaac Hull7

The passage down the Chesapeake was constant drilling even as more men and supplies kept coming aboard. Though many of her crew had never served on a ship of war, “in a few days we shall have nothing to fear from any single-decked Ship,” Hull promised Hamilton a few days before their departure. For the seven days it took to reach the Virginia capes, Hull had the crew at quarters nine times; 1,250 cartridges were filled for the guns, 7,000 for muskets and pistols; each day the gun crews blazed away at an anchored hogshead or other targets.8

On the twelfth they put off their Chesapeake pilot and stood for the sea. Hamilton’s final instructions to Hull, written July 3, were again all caution: if Rodgers was not at New York upon his arrival, he was to remain there and await further orders. Hamilton added: “If, on your way thither, you should fall in with an enemy’s vessel, you will be guided in your proceeding by your own judgment, bearing in mind, however, that you are not, voluntarily, to encounter a force superior to your own.”

On their third day at sea, July 15, Hull ordered one of the new carronades tested by loading it with double charges and double shot and fired five times. “Found them to stand very well,” he noted. That evening the ship spoke a merchant brig from New Orleans bound for Baltimore and warned her that war with England had been declared.9

At two o’clock the next afternoon the Constitution was off Egg Harbor, near present-day Atlantic City, when four ships were sighted far off to the north and inshore. Hull was uncertain whether they were Rodgers’s squadron come south from New York to rendezvous with him or whether they were the enemy; the winds were now light from the northeast, and Hull ordered all sail made to close with the strange ships.

At four o’clock the lookout at the masthead hailed the deck: another ship was in sight off to the northeast, standing for them under all sail. The inshore ships were now visible only from the tops of the masts, and toward sunset the wind shifted around to the south, bringing the Constitution to the windward of the lone ship in the offing. Hull decided to head for her to get close enough at some point in the night, six or eight miles, to make a lantern signal and learn her identity. At 7:30 p.m. the crew went to quarters, and a half hour later Hull was standing on the forecastle staring ahead through the lowering twilight sky at the chase ahead, just off the starboard bow. He turned to the boatswain, one of a small group of officers and men who had, in the words of able seaman Moses Smith, “clustered respectfully around.”

“Adams, what do you think of that vessel?” the captain asked.

“Don’t know, sir. I can’t make her out, sir. But I think she’s an Englishman.”

“So do I. How long do you think it will take to flog her, Adams?”

“Don’t know sir! We can do it, but they’re hard fellows on salt water.”

“I know that. But don’t you think we can flog them in two hours and a half, Adams?”

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir! we can do it in that time, if we can do it all.”10

The Constitution closed slowly on the stranger for the next two hours. At 10:30 p.m. they were close enough to send up the private recognition signal; three-quarters of an hour later there was still no answer from the strange ship, and Hull ordered the lanterns hauled down. A quarter moon was just dipping below the horizon to the west. Hull ordered his ship at once to haul off into the wind, southward and eastward, and wait until morning. The stranger, by now almost certainly an English frigate, did the same, dogging their course about two miles off their lee side.

Through the night the men remained at quarters, the gun crews allowed to sleep by their battle stations, though there was little sleep to be had. “That night every man on board the Constitution was wide awake,” said Moses Smith, who was on the crew of gun number 1, closest to the bow. Smith lay next to his gun, stretched out on the bare deck, his sponger and rammer at his side “ready for use at a moment’s notice.” At 4:00 a.m. the quiet of the sleepless night was broken by two signal guns being fired from the enemy ship and then a rocket arcing into the sky. And then the faint predawn light disclosed their companion of the night just within gunshot, still on their lee quarter. Directly astern, strung out in a line from six to ten miles behind, were a ship of the line, three frigates, a brig, and a schooner. All were flying English colors, and all were coming up very fast on a fine breeze that filled their sails.

The closest British frigate would turn out to be the Guerriere, whose captain, James R. Dacres, had become notorious for his zeal in pressing sailors out of merchantmen up and down the American coast. As Lieutenant Charles Morris was taking in the helplessness of the situation from the Constitution’s deck, he watched to his surprise as the Guerriere first tacked away, then apparently reversed her decision and wore around to her original course to continue in pursuit. The maneuver wasted ten minutes; it would later come out that Dacres’s signals to the other British ships had gone unanswered, and he had momentarily feared he had stumbled into Rodgers’s squadron instead of his own.11

Then the breeze began to fall away entirely from the Constitution, even as it perversely continued to favor the ships astern. As she lost even the two knots’ steerageway needed for her helm to answer, she began to fall off helplessly from the wind, her head slowly turning toward her pursuers. Hull immediately ordered the ship’s boats lowered to tow the ship’s head around into the wind, directly southward, and with the men straining at the oars, they began to inch the ship forward. The Guerriere and two of the other British frigates, Shannon and Belvidera, did the same. On the Constitution two 24-pounder guns were run out through the stern windows of the captain’s cabin while on the deck above carpenters quickly sawed through the taffrail to make openings for two more guns to fire straight aft; the bow chaser, the sole long gun mounted on the spar deck, was run aft while Moses Smith’s twenty-four-pounder from the gun deck, all six thousand pounds, was hoisted up to join it. At 7:00 a.m., as Smith stood a few feet away, Hull himself took the match in his hand, ordered the quartermaster to hoist the American colors, and fired the first shot from the number 1 gun.

Neither Constitution’s shot nor the return fire that quickly came from the British frigates hit its mark, but it was clear that the American ship’s situation was desperate. Shannon, the foremost of her pursuers, had nearly all the boats of the squadron now towing her while the men aboard the ship manned sweeps out the ports. “It soon appeared that we must be taken, and that our Escape was impossible … and not the least hope of a breeze to give us a chance of getting off by out sailing them,” Hull recalled. He was ready to turn the ship broadside and make a last stand against the entire squadron when Morris recollected a technique he had frequently been obliged to perform as lieutenant on the President—owing “to the timidity of my old commander,” who was reluctant to sail into and out of harbors. The technique, called kedging, involved rowing out an anchor ahead of the ship on a long line, dropping it, and then having the men haul in the line to propel the ship forward by brute force. Morris said they had been able to get speeds of three miles an hour this way. Hull immediately told him to try it—though not without adding, in Seaman Smith’s recollection, “But I imagine you’ll fail.”

Kedging generally only worked in shallow water, and a sounding revealed they were in twenty-four fathoms, 144 feet, which was pushing their luck; but the launch and first cutter were immediately sent ahead with the anchor, and every piece of line five inches and upward was bent on, making nearly a half mile of cable. It was a superb piece of seamanship, the anchor tripped up as the ship passed over it while a second anchor had meanwhile been carried ahead on a second line. Soon the distance from their pursuers began to widen. When a small breeze sprang up, the Guerriere ranged up on the American’s lee quarter and fired a broadside, but all the shot fell short, evoking a derisive cheer from the Constitution.

Aboard the Shannon, James Brown, an American merchant captain whose ship had been taken and burned a few days before, watched what was happening on the American frigate through a spyglass and realized at once what the crew was up to. The Shannon’s captain, Philip Broke, was the senior officer of the squadron, and he chatted confidently with his officers about the certainty that the Constitution would soon be theirs; Broke had even already appointed a prize officer and crew to man her. But Brown, now with equal confidence, announced to the British officers, “Gentlemen, you’ll never take that frigate.”12 He kept the reason to himself, and it would be two hours before the British at last recognized, and tried to imitate, the “Yankee trick” that was beginning to unfold ahead.

All day the slow-motion chase continued to the southwest. At ten o’clock in the morning Hull sent men down to the hold to start two thousand gallons of water from the casks, ten tons let flooding into the hold and then pumped out, enough to raise the ship one inch out of the water.

A light wind played teasingly like a cat’s paw from the southeast. Whenever it sprang up, the Constitution called in her boats, hauling them up on temporary tackles suspended from spars boomed out over the water, the men still in their places, leaning on their oars, “ready to act again at a moment’s notice,” said Morris. At two in the afternoon Belvidera was now leading the pack of pursuers, and the boats from all four British frigates and the ship of the line, eight or ten of them, converged on her, towing to get her to windward and in range to fire a few crippling shots that would halt their quarry while the rest of the squadron came up. The ships exchanged shots with their chasers, the four stern guns on Constitution firing back at maximum range. From the deck, the Constitution’s surgeon, Amos Evans, was watching Belvidera through a spyglass when he saw one of the Constitution’s all-but-spent shot come aboard and scatter a group of officers crowded on the forecastle.

All through the night the chase went on. The first half of the night the boats were out again, kedging and towing, four more hours of backbreaking work.

Dawn of the eighteenth came to reveal the Belvidera on Constitution’s lee bow, Guerriere and Shannon nearly abeam, and the smallest of the frigates, the thirty-two-gun Aeolus, to the eastward, on her weather quarter. The ship of line, brig, and schooner followed two miles astern. The winds were now steady though still light, and at around four in the morning Belvidera tacked eastward on a course that would intercept the Constitution’s current course in less than an hour. Hull’s choice was to let that happen or tack and risk the fire from Aeolus, and as the lesser of the evils Hull tacked. Aeolus hauled as close to the wind as she could to try to outreach Constitution and cut off her escape. It was now a slow-motion race to see which would cross the other’s track first. For the next half hour the bearings of the enemy ships on each side of Constitution’s deck slowly edged aft. As the Constitution slipped past the Aeolus, the two ships passing on their opposite tacks just within gunshot, Aeolus did nothing—perhaps, said Hull, out of fear that firing her guns would stun her wind and becalm her in the light breeze—and the Constitution weathered her, the British ship tacking in her wake to follow.

Now all of the Constitution’s pursuers were astern or on her lee quarter, and it was a pure sailing match. In another tour de force of seamanship, the launch and first cutter were hoisted on board while the ship was under way, not pausing a second, “with so little loss of time or change of sails that our watching enemies could not conceive what disposition was made of them,” according to an account Morris later heard from an American lieutenant who was a prisoner in the British squadron and saw it all. The skysails Hull had specially requested were now set, the pumps were at work spraying jets of sea water through the fire hoses to keep the sails wetted and drawn tight, and all the efforts put into improving the Constitution’s trim and sailing abilities now told. At nine in the morning an American merchant ship appeared on Constitution’s weather beam, and immediately the nearest British frigate hoisted American colors to decoy her in; Hull responded with the perfectly matched ruse de guerre of hoisting British colors, and the merchantman hauled wind and quickly made her escape. By noon the Constitution was making ten knots in the freshening breeze, by two o’clock twelve and a half knots, with the wind abeam. “Our hopes began to overcome apprehension,” said Morris. A squall tore through at six in the evening, and when it passed, the Constitution had gained a mile; she was now eight miles ahead.

Another night passed with the men and officers still at quarters. At dawn the next day only three of the British ships could be seen from the masthead, the nearest twelve miles off. All hands were again set to manning the pumps and wetting the sails, and at 8:15 a.m. the lead British ship hauled her wind to the northward and gave over the chase. In a few minutes all were out of sight. The men of the Constitution had been at quarters for sixty hours straight.

The next day Captain Hull sat down in his cabin to write Secretary Hamilton a long explanation of why he regretfully could no longer obey his orders for New York, concluding:

 … the Enemy’s Squadron stationed off New York, which would make it impossible for the Ship to get in there, I determined to make for Boston to receive your further orders, and I hope that my having done so will meet with your approbation. My wish to explain to you as clearly as possible, why your orders have not been executed, and the length of time the Enemy were in chase of us with various other circumstances, has caused me to make this communication much longer than I would have wished, yet I cannot (in justice to our brave Officers, and crew under my Command) close it without expressing to you the confidence I have in them, and assuring you that their conduct whilst under the Guns of the Enemy was such as might have been expected from American Officers and Seamen.

I have the Honour to be &c. Isaac Hull13

THE UNITED States frigate Constitution made her way against a contrary wind, beating up tack on tack for Boston lighthouse. The night had been cold, foggy, and wet, but it was now a clear, bright Sunday morning, the twenty-sixth of July, and from her deck surgeon Amos Evans noted with pleasure the “very romantic and picturesque” country surrounding the bay: round smooth hills, small villages, neat farms. In the distance the church steeples of Boston and the dome of the state-house marked their destination.

The next day Evans went into town; the ship’s purser had gone ahead in the pilot boat to arrange for provisions, and news of the Constitution’s safe arrival had already spread like wildfire. “The people of Boston with whom the Constitution and her Commander are both favorites, appear overjoyd at our arrival, as they had confidently expected we were taken by the British squadron,” Evans wrote in his journal that day. “So confident were the people of this place that we had been taken and carried to Halifax that a friend of one of our officers had forwarded letters of credit for him to that place.… They cheered Capt. Hull as he passd up State Street about 12 o’clock.”

The surgeon hired a hack and toured Harvard College and Bunker Hill and thought the two-story frame farmhouses in the countryside handsomely painted and nicely planted with gardens and English walnuts and poplars, and the females of Boston he passed on the streets “rosy and healthy, and their countenances, features, sprightly and animated,” though with “more mind and less grace” than the southern ladies of his native Cecil County, Maryland, on the upper Chesapeake.14 He established himself for a few days at the Exchange Coffee House, which was the wonder of America. Built in 1808 at the fantastic cost of a half million dollars, it was the largest commercial building in the nation, seven stories tall, surmounted by a thirty-foot-wide dome that offered a commanding view of arriving shipping in the harbor. “I slept last night in the room No. 190 something,” Evans remarked in wonderment at the hotel’s size. Its ambitious proprietors had devoted the entire first story to an exchange floor, but the Boston merchants insisted on keeping their customary habit of meeting outside on the sidewalks of State Street from noon to two each day to transact their business, even in winter. The Coffee House also let space to Topliff’s News Room, which was always jammed; it was furnished with all the latest foreign and American papers, and its famous register books recorded the shipping news and other events of interest and served as a sort of local commercial and topical bulletin board.15 Hull handed in a message he asked to be placed on the books:

Capt. HULL, finding his friends in Boston are correctly informed of his situation when chased by the British squadron off New York, and that they are good enough to give him more credit for having escaped them than he ought to claim, takes this opportunity of requesting them to make a transfer of a great part of their good wishes to Lt. MORRIS, and the other brave Officers, and the Crew under his command, for their very great exertions and prompt attention to orders while the enemy were in chase. Capt. HULL has great pleasure in saying, that notwithstanding the length of the chase, and the officers and crew being deprived of sleep, and allowed but little refreshment during the time, not a murmur was heard to escape them.16

Surgeon Evans filled a couple of mornings browsing the bookstores, “of which there are a great number in this place. In all of them I found plenty of sermons in pamphlet form, & pieces against ‘Maddison’s ruinous war,’ as they call it.” The sight of several old fortifications around the city dating from the Revolution sent him into a gloomy reverie.

Will the United States receive any assistance from the eastern states in the prosecution of the present war? Judging from present symptoms, I fear not. Good God! Is it possible that the people of the U.S. enjoying the blessings of freedom under the only republican government on earth, have not virtue enough to support it! Well might Horace say—‘all men are mad.’17

BOSTON CHEERED Isaac Hull, but there were few cheers for the war. Not without justice, New Englanders saw themselves as bearing almost the entire economic brunt of a war they had opposed. “Time was (and might still be had we had a correct administration) when our ports were thronged with shipping, giving full employ to the merchants, mechanic and laborer—exchanging the products of our country for the commodities of every section of the navigable world,” declared Boston’s Columbian Centinel on the same day it published Captain Hull’s generous praise of his crew from the Exchange Coffee House books, and then continued in verse:

Yes—time was—but that time hath fled.…

Sad, on the ground, all ranks and callings bend

Their alter’d looks—and evil days portend—

And fold their arms, and watch with anxious stand,

The tempest blackening o’er their sinking land!18

The printed sermons that filled Boston’s bookstores were not content with scraps of doggerel to make their point: they shook with all the moral certainty of the New England Puritan church to denounce the war as an abomination, a reckless and wicked adventure, a transgression against the will of God. At Boston’s Second Church, where Increase Mather and Cotton Mather had preached a century before, pastor John Lathrop ascended his pulpit on Thursday, July 23, to deliver a sermon with the title “The Present War Unexpected, Unnecessary, and Ruinous.” War, said Dr. Lathrop, is one of the great evils under which the sinful children of men have been doomed to suffer. “When the chief ruler of a nation signs a declaration of war, he … signs the death warrant of thousands of his fellow creatures. The business of war is the business of destruction.” Yes, there might be times when to retain their liberty a people would be justified in the eyes of God in resorting to war, even a people as unprepared for war as Americans were now, even when fighting an enemy “much stronger, and much better provided.” Yet no such circumstances attended the present case. The very divisions of the country proved that there was no such inescapable urgency to righting the wrongs America had recently endured—endured as a result of actions by both Britain and France, he noted. “Good rulers will not suffer war to be proclaimed until every possible method be attempted to bring an offending nation to make satisfaction; because, when war is commenced, no mortal can tell when or how it will end,” Lathrop warned.

He added: “Our republick, I fear is corrupted; it is awfully divided, and if no means can be devised to heal the division, we need not the spirit of prophecy to predict its ruin.”19

Many Republicans had optimistically believed that the coming of war would unite the country, or at least silence opposition, but precisely the reverse had happened in the weeks since the declaration on June 18. The Massachusetts House passed a resolution calling it an act of “inconceivable folly and desperation.”20 Within days of the declaration, the Federalists in Congress came together to issue a widely publicized address reiterating their attack on the Republican war policies. “It cannot be concealed, that to engage in the present war against England is to place ourselves on the side of France, and expose us to the vassalage of States serving under the banners of the French Emperor,” they said. And, they asked again, “How will war upon the land protect commerce on the oceans?”21

Republican efforts to paint opposition to the war as unpatriotic or even treasonable created an instant backlash that only inflamed opposition all the more. Federalists in the House denounced the tactics employed by the Republican majority to silence dissent—secret sessions, refusal to consider motions offered by the minority, calling the previous question to cut off debate—as an attack on representative government and liberty.22 When Republican newspapers printed none-too-veiled threats of violence against “tories” and “traitors” and warned, “Whoever is not for us, is against us,” the Boston Gazette retorted: “Agreed, if you say so. The States of New-York and New-England are against you … and the opposition to you will increase through every stage of your madness.”23

More ominously, even respected Republican political leaders began coyly referring to mob violence as the right way to deal with “signs of treason” from the opposition. Robert Wright, a Republican congressman from Maryland and former governor of the state, declared on the floor of the House that the proper remedy for traitors was “hemp and confiscation”—hanging and loss of property. Jefferson wrote to Madison a week after the declaration of war, “the federalists indeed are open mouthed against the declaration. but they are poor devils here, not worthy of notice. a barrel of tar to each state South of the Potomac will keep all in order & that will be freely contributed without troubling government. to the North they will give you more trouble. you may there have to apply the rougher drastics of Gov. Wright.”24

Sarcastic blasts from the leading Federalist newspaper in the South, Baltimore’s Federal Republican, had long infuriated local Republicans; they referred to it as “His Majesty’s paper.” With the coming of war there was talk around town that unless the paper changed its “obnoxious” tone, some of the local toughs were going to put them out of business. Toughs were one thing Baltimore had in abundance. The youngest and fastest growing of the cities on the East Coast, it had a large Irish and French population, a shortage of females, a history of political street brawls, and a good many taverns and beer gardens.

Two days after the declaration of war, the Federal Republican vowed it would employ “every constitutional argument and every legal means” to oppose the war. Two nights after that, a mob of several hundred laborers from Fell’s Point, the notoriously rough end of town, marched to the newspaper’s offices, pulled down the building, and destroyed the printing press and everything else inside.25

A month later the undaunted editors leased a new building on Charles Street. In preparation for a renewed sarcastic assault on Republican war policies, one of the paper’s engravers had produced an “excellent caricature of a democratic officer, making ‘A Rapid Descent upon Canada,’ mounted on a terrapin.”26

On July 27 the paper came out with a defiant edition heaping scorn on the “rabble” that had attacked their previous offices. Early that evening a mob of boys began throwing stones at the paper’s new building, and they were soon joined by a crowd of laborers that by morning reached two thousand. At one point in the night the editor of the rival Baltimore Sun had appeared along with a cannon that some men had dragged to the scene and, said one witness, “appeared almost deranged” as he urged the men to fire it. Only the hesitant intervention of a militia officer stopped that.

Among the defenders of the newspaper’s building was General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and stalwart Federalist, in town from his native Virginia to arrange for publication of his war memoirs. The mayor and other town officials finally arrived at dawn and urged the Federalists to surrender to protective custody with the promise that they and the newspaper building would be protected. Lee accepted. The mob immediately destroyed the newspaper offices as they left.

That night the mob returned, stormed the jail, and beat and tortured Lee and the others, dripping hot candle wax in their eyes and stabbing them with penknives to see if they were still alive, leaving most of them for dead in a heap in front of the jail. General James M. Lingan, an elderly veteran of the Revolutionary War, was killed, stabbed in the chest after his pleas for mercy were ignored. Lee never recovered from his injuries; his face was swollen for months afterward, his speech halting the rest of his life, and he died an invalid six years later. Another of the mob’s victims, John Thomson, was stripped, tarred and feathered, and dumped in a cart; one of the mob tried to gouge out his eyes, and another tried to break his legs with an iron bar; another threw some flaming tar and feathers on him, and he was severely burned; then they threatened to hang him if he did not give them the names of everyone in the house who had tried to defend it against the attack.

The newspaper’s editor survived and, setting up offices in Georgetown in the District of Columbia, published an edition on August 3 and sent it to Baltimore by mail, setting off a third riot when a mob tried to storm the post office to seize the papers. The Baltimore postmaster sent an express rider to Washington with an urgent plea for assistance; President Madison replied that he did not think “any defensive measures were within the Executive sphere.”

But support poured in from Federalists around the country. To keep the paper going, hundreds of new subscribers signed up from as far away as Boston, $2,000 was raised within a few months, and the Federal Republican continued its thrice-weekly invectives against the folly of Mr. Madison, the incompetence of his generals, and the imbecility of his policies.27

ONE NEW Englander and Federalist who did support the war was old John Adams, the cantankerous second president of the United States, who had seen his proposals for a strong navy rejected again and again but who saw war with Britain as inevitable and the cause as just. A Federalist who supported the war and a war supporter who supported the navy, he was an odd man out in every sphere. But even Adams despaired of the impossible odds America faced against the Royal Navy. “Our navy is so Lilliputian,” the former president wrote his grandson John Adams Smith a few days before the declaration of war, “… that Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it.”28

The Royal Navy was the size of all the rest of the world’s navies combined.29 From the majestic Admiralty building in Whitehall—the nerve center of the Royal Navy where the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty met every day, Sundays and Christmas included, surrounded by maps and charts of all the world’s seas, linked to the dockyards and anchorages by a semaphore telegraph on the roof that relayed reports and orders—a vast bureaucratic network of administration, training, supply, and repair spread out across the globe. Just feeding its seamen cost Britain about $10 million a year, five times what America spent on its navy in total. Victualing yards at Deptford, Plymouth, and Portsmouth employed three thousand men to bake biscuits, brew beer, and put up salt meat to keep the fleet fed; the bakehouse in Portsmouth produced ten thousand pounds of biscuits a day, and at Plymouth’s warehouses three million pounds of them were stacked up in wooden casks.30

By 1812 the Royal Navy was an institution as well as a fighting force; it had 187 admirals, 777 captains, 586 commanders, 3,100 lieutenants, and all the corruption and inefficiency of a long-established government organization with favors and spoils to dispense.31 Samuel Pepys, who would later be far better remembered for his remarkable private diary of life in Stuart England than for his attempts at reforming the navy, had done what he could; as secretary to the Admiralty Board in the 1670s and 1680s, he had tried to ensure that officers were selected for promotion at least partly on merit, that they knew something about ships and the sea and not merely influential and powerful personages.

But becoming an officer in the Royal Navy in the first place was almost entirely a matter of having the right connections. Captains of each ship appointed their own retinues of “young gentlemen” as captain’s servants and midshipmen, who then rose through the ranks. Pepys managed to loosen the grip of patronage a bit by giving the Admiralty the power to directly appoint a few midshipmen whom the captains were then forced to take on board, but mainly he sought to exert control with regulations that established professional requirements for promotion to the rank of lieutenant. Under Pepys’s reforms, a candidate for lieutenant had to be at least twenty years of age and have served at least three actual years at sea, at least one of those as a midshipman; pass an oral examination in navigation, seamanship, and command of a warship; present certificates from his previous commander attesting to his sobriety, diligence, and ability; and produce his logbooks as proof he had done the required service and knew how to take navigational observations and keep competent records.

The reforms were aimed not only at limiting influence and patronage but also at addressing an old problem that the Royal Navy had never quite known how to deal with. As Pepys put it, a gentleman was not a seaman and a seaman was not a gentleman. Almost nobody questioned the idea that an officer had to be a gentleman: only members of the gentlemanly classes possessed the natural courage, leadership, and sense of honor that military command required. The problem was that commanding a ship also required the mastery of manual skills that were equally universally held to be demeaning to a gentleman. Under Pepys’s system, the rank of midshipman was meant to be the key bridge between these two worlds; it was a formal stage of apprenticeship, which ensured that even the most gentlemanly future officers had spent some time getting their hands dirty, learning the ropes, and climbing the tops before actually assuming full command responsibility for a ship of war.32

But none of this could compete with the old power of influence. While a few “tarpaulin” captains did rise on sheer ability from the lower classes and the lower decks thanks to Pepys’s rules, and while the Admiralty always would look favorably on promotion for an officer who had distinguished himself heroically in battle, family and political patronage remained deeply ingrained in the system.33 There were all kinds of ways around the rules, and by the early 1800s the ways around them were so much the norm that few naval officers gave them a second thought. Admirals on station were allowed to commission their own candidates as lieutenants or commanders to fill vacancies, and could always stall if subsequently overruled by the Admiralty. A prominent politician or peer might exert his influence directly with the Admiralty on behalf of a relative or protégé. One young man whose father was a minor government official with many useful connections was taken aside at age fourteen by one of his father’s noble friends, who told him, “When there is a general naval promotion, I am always allowed to provide for one friend, to get him made either a lieutenant, a commander or a post captain. Therefore, when your time is up, let me know and you shall be my lieutenant. In short, you are as sure of the commission as if you had it in your pocket.”34

But most of all there was a constant trade of mutual backscratching among old navy families. To get around the rule of three years’ service for promotion to lieutenant (subsequently increased to six), it was routine for captains to enter a friend’s son or nephew on their ship’s books without his having served at all. A crown piece handed to the Navy Office porter on the way in to the lieutenant’s examination ensured that the age requirement would be ignored as well, which in the early 1800s resulted in many eighteen-, seventeen-, and even sixteen-year-old lieutenants (there was even one thirteen-year-old).

Three captains were required to conduct the examination for lieutenants, and some took the job seriously enough to prepare lists of questions they intended to ask covering an array of technical knowledge about seamanship, fitting and rigging a ship, and naval warfare. But for favored candidates the fix was always in. “Well, well, a very creditable examination,” one new lieutenant was told by his examiner, a friend of the boy’s two naval uncles. He had not been asked any questions at all, and when one of the other examiners, who had just walked in the door at this point, tried to ask one, the first captain cut him off, humorously threatened to have him arrested for showing up late, and turning to the successful candidate said, “That is not the way to pass, to linger there when you are told you will do!” “So out I bolted like a hunted rat,” the boy recalled.35

Those who tried to buck the old system found it nearly impossible. Admiral Lord Collingwood, who as Horatio Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar in 1805 commanded one of the two British lines of battle that smashed the French fleet, was asked the following year by a fellow admiral to make a protégé of his a lieutenant. “He is 18 years old and as dull a lad as I ever saw,” Collingwood privately observed. “It is this kind of person that causes all the accidents, the loss of ships, the dreadful expense of them, mutinies, insubordination and everything bad.… If the Country is to depend on the Navy, it must be reformed and weeded, for a great deal of bad stuff has got into it, and hangs like a deadweight where all should be activity.” Collingwood was by then a national hero, made a baron and granted a £2,000-a-year pension by Parliament for the victory at Trafalgar; still he could not turn down an old friend and patron to whom he felt he owed a favor: “My conscience reproved me when I promoted him, which I made two or three attempts to do before I could bring myself to do it. Nothing but it’s being Adml. R’s request could have induced me.”36

Since 1793 the Royal Navy in its encounters with the French had lost 10 ships to the enemy’s 377, which spread a layer of complacency over any deficiencies in its commanders. Nelson made a point of playing to Britain’s heroic image of herself in the tactics he pursued, and the image and results had reinforced one another: there was little finesse and a lot of bloodshed in the way the British took on their opponents at sea. Most battles of the Royal Navy were fought at extremely close range, where there was little choice but to kill or be killed and where seamanship and accurate gunfire mattered far less. The French, having guillotined most of their corps of professional sailors during the Revolution, took a similar view that zeal could substitute for skill and so were largely willing to fight on the same terms. The mayhem reached its zenith in the occasional but absolutely brutal boarding actions, which were hand-to-hand combat on a confined battlefield with no escape. Pistols, cutlasses, long-poled pikes, even fire axes, crowbars, clublike wooden belaying pins, and other tools at hand were used as weapons in what were basically free-for-alls for control of the ship. Casualties in single-ship engagements were known to reach the hundreds, and the bloodiness of such actions was spurred all the more by the Admiralty’s practice of judging the worth of a captain’s action by how many of his own crew were killed or wounded. On more than one occasion, an officer’s claim for promotion for victory in battle was turned down on the grounds that his “butcher’s bill” was not long enough.

The lopsided casualty figures in most of the Royal Navy’s encounters with the French were largely due to the fact that the French sought to disable and capture their enemy’s ships, while the British sought to kill and maim as many of their opponents as they possibly could. French crews were taught to fire as the ship began its up roll, and they tended to shoot high to disable spars, masts, and rigging. British crews fired on the down roll, straight into the hull. While enough shots low to the waterline could eventually sink a ship, that was not the purpose: it was to send cannonballs crashing directly into the gun crews of the ship lying a dozen yards away. In fourteen major engagements between 1794 and 1806, French losses totaled twenty-three thousand killed and wounded versus seven thousand for the British. One in four British casualties was fatal: more than half of the French sailors’ were.37

The enthusiastic British adoption of the carronade added to the destructive effects of the British blood-and-guts approach to naval warfare. Developed by the Carron Company of Scotland in 1776, these were short-barreled, thinly molded guns that weighed about half as much as a long gun of the same caliber and could accordingly fire a much larger round for their weight. Carronades had an effective range of only about four hundred yards, a third that of long guns, but at those short ranges they were appallingly effective: the British called them “smashers,” and placed on the upper deck of a frigate that could normally support only a twelve-pounder or smaller long gun, carronades sent their twenty-four- or thirty-two-pound balls hurtling forth to do horrific execution. The force of a shock wave from a large cannonball passing inches away was said to be able to kill a man, but what multiplied the destructive radius of each six-inch-diameter carronade ball many times over was the avalanche of jagged oak “splinters” unleashed when it crashed into a ship’s planking or frames; “splinters” was a bit of bravura understatement, since they were often several feet long and weighed several pounds, with edges as sharp as a battle lance.

So confident of its success, or perhaps complacent, had the Royal Navy become that gunnery practice came to be officially discouraged as a needless waste of shot and powder: a thirty-eight-gun frigate like the Guerriere was allowed to fire a total of seven practice rounds a month in its first six months at sea and ten a month thereafter. In 1801, when Nelson was shown a proposal for a gun sight to improve the accuracy of fire, he dismissed it, saying, “The best and only mode I have found of hitting the enemy afloat is to get so close that whether the gun is pointed upwards or downwards forward or aft … it must strike its opponent.”38

By 1812 an aura of invincibility suffused the Royal Navy, bedazzling the British public and naval commanders alike. Neither skill in seamanship nor skill in gunnery was necessary—just pluck, dash, courage, and British moral superiority.

IF THERE was one advantage to being as small as the American navy of the first decade of the 1800s, it was that its secretary could become acquainted with the merits of every officer, and possessed the authority to act on that knowledge. The result was that the American navy, as young and inexperienced and untested as it was, quickly attained a level of professionalism that probably surpassed any navy’s in the world.

Robert Smith had in many ways been a lackluster secretary of the navy for the eight years he served in the post under Jefferson. He was a frankly political selection made after Jefferson acknowledged that he was seeking “what cannot be obtained … a prominent officer equal and willing to undertake the necessary duties.” No one with expertise in naval matters was interested in presiding over the Jeffersonian program of retrenchment, and Smith’s major qualifications were a willingness to oblige his colleagues and being the brother of an important Republican senator from Maryland whose support Jefferson needed.39

But Smith had proved a quietly steady force for improving the standards of the officer corps throughout his tenure. His office files were filled with copies of letter after letter to parents, congressmen, senators, even the president himself, steadfastly declining their entreaties to promote officers who Smith felt were not yet qualified. “A lieutenant having the charge of a watch is often entrusted with the entire command of the vessel—hence that absolute necessity of his being an experienced seaman,” Smith wrote one would-be benefactor of a midshipman seeking promotion. “The meritorious midshipmen must rise agreeably to their rank. This is a principle which I shall invariably adhere to,” he told another. When President Jefferson sought the promotion of a midshipman who had served only two years, Smith answered, “He cannot possibly have acquired in this short time that knowledge of seamanship which would justify the placing him in a situation where a public vessel, with the lives of all on board, might depend upon his skill as a seaman.”40

Smith thought it took a minimum of four or five years of actual service at sea for a midshipman to gain the required experience, but he also made clear that he would weigh promotions to lieutenant, and all higher ranks as well, on the basis of merit as well as seniority. He routinely asked captains to submit brief evaluations of their officers at the end of a cruise, and received apparently frank responses:

Lieut. Gordon, an excellent officer

Lieut. Jacobs, a good officer but unaccommodating

Doctr. Taylor, an excellent surgeon

Doctr. Kearney, his mate, worthless and indolent

Mr. Garretson, purser of the first rate

[Midshipmen]

Edward Nicholson, well disposed but dull and inactive

Hazard, a smart young officer

Travis, middling

Rice, unfit for naval service41

Most naval officers would have been content with a system of promotion strictly by seniority and frequently complained about being passed over, but Smith and his successors were stonily unmoved by these appeals and regularly passed over dozens of officers in the same rank with greater seniority when selecting officers for promotion. Experience, Smith explained to one aggrieved midshipman, was not just a matter of serving time but of embracing the opportunities that had been provided him; his failure to acquire professional knowledge during that time was “unfortunate” but “attributable entirely to himself.”42

“If seniority of date was the absolute rule, the task would be very simple and less irksome to the secretary,” acknowledged one of Smith’s successors a few years later. “But it never has been—it never ought to be—except where merit and knowledge are equal in the candidates.” Promotion on the basis of seniority alone, he said, “I pray may never become the absolute rule; for I should, from thence, date the decline of our infant naval Hercules”:

 … genius, valor, talent, and skill would be leveled to the dull equality of the humblest pretensions; and, instead of those brilliant feats which adorn our annals, every commonplace automaton who performed the ordinary acts of duty with sufficient prudence to avoid court martials would rise, by the mere lapse of time and the casualties of mortality, to the highest honors of his profession.43

The constitutional requirement that military and naval commissions be confirmed by the Senate gave the whole promotion process in the American navy an openness and a gravity that served as a check on the kind of winking regulation-bending and favoritism so rampant in the Royal Navy at the time. Since the Quasi War, when some lieutenants had been appointed directly to meet the sudden need for experienced officers, all new officers entering the American navy had begun as midshipmen. Though not subject to Senate approval, even midshipmen were all appointed directly by the secretary; an equivalent policy would be adopted in Britain only in 1815.

There was no formal application process, but there were always many more candidates than openings, and Smith on several occasions showed he was looking for young men of good character, ambition, and zeal, regardless of their social or economic standing. Most were distinctly middle class, sons of master craftsmen or small merchants seeking a career to support themselves. “They are poor; their characters are good; it is from this class of society that we are to expect to find the real defenders of our country,” wrote the mayor of Annapolis in recommending two brothers from his town for midshipmen’s warrants.44 To the extent politics intruded in the selection of midshipmen, it was largely confined to ensuring that all the states were fairly represented in reasonable proportions.

The emphasis on making sure midshipmen mastered seamanship was an incessant theme in the American navy of the early 1800s. Thomas Truxtun, who was captain of the frigate Constellation in the Quasi War, set down his views on the subject in 1794. He was still enough of a product of the American navy’s British heritage—and the aristocratically tinged, antirepublican Federalist political leanings of so many American navy officers—that he felt he needed to warn midshipmen against the moral “contagion” they were liable to fall victim to when associating with common sailors, especially while learning to extend or reduce sails in the tops. But he nonetheless stressed that seeing things from the seaman’s vantage was as vital a lesson as the practical skills of seamanship acquired in the process. “The midshipman who associates with these sailors in the tops till he has acquired a competent skill … will be often entertained with a number of scurrilous jests at the expense of his superiors,” Truxtun said, especially the sailors’ mercilessly deadpan practice of showing up a less than fully competent officer by “punctual obedience” to his incorrect commands. The real lesson from this for the young officer-to-be was that to “prevent him from appearing in the same despicable point of view” he had better become a thoroughgoing seaman himself: nothing less would command true respect from the crew.45

There were plenty of American captains who resorted to brutal floggings to maintain control over their men, meting out sentences of dozens of lashes at a time through the legal fiction of dividing a single infraction into multiple offenses (such as drunkenness, neglect of duty, and insolence) in order to get around the regulation, copied from the Royal Navy, that limited punishment on captain’s authority to a dozen lashes; but there were also more than a few who embraced Truxtun’s much more enlightened view that authority was more effectively maintained by example and an easy air of command than by flaying a man’s bare back into ribbons of flesh. “Consider men in an inferior station as your fellow creatures … always remembering that rigid discipline and good order are very different from tyranny,” Truxtun advised his midshipmen. “Good order can be maintained without much whipping on shipboard; and I can assure you that the worst-disciplined ships I ever saw in our or the British navy was those renowned for severe punishment.”46

An American man-of-war was no less a ranked society than was any navy’s in the world, but the moral distance between officers and men was closer on many scores—a difference that on repeated occasions would prove a hidden strength in the fighting ability of the American navy. Half the men on a typical British warship of the year 1812 had been impressed, and another eighth were the none-too-voluntary “volunteers” who had chosen service in the navy over rotting away in the county jail or worse; in all, probably only a quarter of the crew of a British ship were there in any sense of their own free will. The “quota men” delivered up from the county jails were said to be the worst of them all, demoralizing the rest of the crew with their shirking and thieving, breeding seething resentments over the bounties of as much as £70 apiece they had received, bringing harsh discipline down on the whole ship for their misdeeds. “Them was the chaps as played hell with the fleet!” said one old British tar. “Every grass-combing beggar as chose to bear up for the bounty.… Every finger was fairly a fish-hook: neither chest nor bed nor blanket nor bag escaped their slight-of-hand.”47 The lists of punishments aboard British ships on the American station for two months in the summer of 1812 go on page after page: striking the sergeant of marines, 48 lashes; desertion and running away with the boat, 36 lashes; pissing in the manger and skulking, 24 lashes; theft and mutinous behavior, 36 lashes; contempt, 24 lashes; striking his superior, 36 lashes; drunkenness, 42 lashes; mutinous behavior, 60 lashes; neglect of duty, 36 lashes.48

By contrast the men of an American warship were all genuine volunteers, enlisted freely for a term of two years. An able seaman was paid $12 a month in the American navy versus $8 in the Royal Navy. Charles Morris noted that many American recruits brought with them practical skills in carpentry or blacksmithing or other trades, along with a general air of self-reliance.

Nearly all the captains of the American navy of 1812 were under age forty. All had done something to earn their rank beyond the circumstances of their birth or their family influence. All knew how to handle a ship.

ON THE first day of August 1812, a damp and foggy Saturday morning in Boston, the Constitution awaited only a fair wind to proceed to sea. Isaac Hull had spent the week completing his supplies and growing anxious over the absence of any orders from Washington. Rumors were swirling over the whereabouts of the British squadron: the frigate Maidstone was said to be capturing fishermen off Cape Cod; another report claimed a frigate had been seen off Cape Ann just to the north; yet another placed two frigates in the bay itself, where they would be in a position to seal Boston harbor shut.

Hull had sent to New York for any letters that might have been directed to him there, but neither Rodgers nor Hamilton had apparently left him any instructions. On July 28, Hull wrote Hamilton explaining his haste to get to sea again while there was still a chance, and hoping again that he was not exceeding his authority:

Should I not by the time she is ready get instructions from New York, or find some at this place … I shall proceed to Sea and run to the Eastward, and endeavour to join [Rodgers’s] Squadron, and if I am so unfortunate as not to fall in with them I shall continue cruising where (from information I may collect) I shall be most likely to distress the Enemy. Should I proceed to Sea without your further orders, and it should not meet your approbation, I shall be very unhappy, for I pray you to be assured in doing so I shall act as at this moment I believe you would order me to do so.49

Hull’s letter crossed in the mail with one from Hamilton written the same date. “On the arrival of the Constitution in port, I have ordered Commodore Bainbridge to take command of her,” the secretary instructed. “You will accordingly deliver up to him the command and proceed to this place and assume command of the frigate Constellation.”50 Whether Hull had an inkling of what was in the wind or not—and given Bainbridge’s seniority, his presence in Boston, and his repeated demands for the command of one of the three large frigates, it was unlikely Hull did not—he weighed anchor on Sunday, August 2, taking advantage of the wind that hauled around to the west to run out of the harbor. He wrote a final hasty note to Hamilton, expressing the hope that the ship’s boat that was even at that moment at the post office might come bearing orders; “but to remain here any time longer I am confident that the Ship would be blockaded in by a Superiour force, and probably would not get out for months.”51 To add to his unease, Hull had just learned that his brother was dangerously ill and not expected to live. Hull wrote to his father the night before sailing, urging him to take heart but ending, “Indeed my mind is in such a state I hardly know what I am writing—nor will it be at Ease until I hear from you and god only knows when that will be as I sail in the morning.”52

The harbor was filled with small vessels, fifty sail in view as they stood out from the lighthouse a little past six in the morning. By afternoon the land was lost to sight.

Surgeon Amos Evans recorded in his journal on the eleventh of August that he had caught a redheaded woodpecker aboard, 150 miles from land. On the fourteenth a sailor fell from the main chains and struck the water; the topsail was instantly backed, the stern boat lowered, and the man pulled out two hundred yards behind the ship unharmed but considerably shaken: “The blood … appeared to have forsaken his cheeks. The tenure of a sailor’s existence is certainly more precarious than any other man’s, a soldier’s not excepted. Who would not be a sailor? I, for one.” The same day a fire broke out in the cockpit when one of the surgeon’s mates left a candle burning in his room with the door locked; trying to break open the door with a crowbar, Evans smashed his hand but the fire was quickly extinguished. The surgeon’s mate was arrested for negligence. Evans feared the injury to his hand would “terminate in Tetanus,” and brooded about the folly of war:53

What an anxious uncomfortable life is ours! What a pity that people cannot live in peace.… In this enlightened era … oceans of blood are spilt and numberless throats cut to retrieve their honor! “Can honor heal a wound or set a leg?” said Shakespeare.… Honour in the present expectation of the word, at least, is no surgeon.54

On the seventeenth, about four hundred miles southeast of Halifax, they tacked ship to investigate what appeared to be the wreck of a capsized vessel, but as they approached, it proved to be a dead whale, the oil from the carcass covering the water for some distance around, the stench unbearable.

It was at 9:30 the next night that the ship was called to quarters, the lookouts having spotted a vessel nearly ahead standing before the wind. The Constitution gave chase and came up to her an hour and a half later. She was an American privateer brig out of Newburyport, the Decatur. During the chase the privateer had thrown overboard twelve of her fourteen guns; convinced it was a British frigate that had brought them to, the Decatur’s crew had actually been getting their bags together to come aboard as prisoners, “and were overjoyed when undeceived by our boarding officer,” Evans recorded.

The privateer’s captain told Hull that the day before he had seen a large ship of war standing alone to the southward and that she could not be far from them. At midnight Hull ordered his ship to make sail to the southward.55

HULL HAD already decided to head for the south, and Bermuda, at the first chance: a few days earlier the Constitution had scattered a group of sail eastward in a long chase beginning at sunrise that had carried them within forty miles of Cape Race, Newfoundland. A British sloop of war ran free, but in midafternoon the Constitution caught up with an American brig that had been taken a prize by the sloop, with a British master’s mate and five seamen aboard. From the prisoners they learned that the British squadron was just to the east, on the edge of the Grand Banks. “I determined to change my cruising ground,” Hull noted; it was time to keep the enemy guessing again about his whereabouts.

In fact, the British squadron had sailed east for three weeks after giving up its chase of the Constitution off New Jersey; they had gone to escort a homebound West India merchant convoy and only a few days earlier had finally turned back for New York. On August 10 an American merchant brig, the Betsey, bound for Boston from Naples with a load of brandy, had fallen in with a lone British frigate on the Western Banks. The Betsey’s master, William B. Orne, was taken aboard as a prisoner and his ship sent on to Halifax as a prize.56

The cruising frigate was the Guerriere; she had gone with the rest of the squadron halfway across the Atlantic but then been detached and ordered to Halifax, the first in a regular rotation that would send one ship of the British cruising force at a time into port to replenish her stores and refit while the others maintained a constant presence off the American coast. On her way in to Halifax the Guerriere had already encountered several American merchant ships, better luck than the squadron had had in its weeks of blue-water sailing. The day after taking the Betsey the Guerriere halted and boarded the brig John Adams, bound for New York. Finding that the ship was sailing under a British license, Dacres told her captain he could go on his way, but not before he first wrote an entry into the merchant ship’s register:

Capt. Dacres, commander of his Britannic Majesty’s frigate Guerriere, of forty-four 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.57

At two o’clock on the afternoon of August 19, after a day’s sailing southward in pursuit of the privateer captain’s report, the Constitution spotted a sail in the far distance off the larboard bow. Hull was on deck instantly, followed quickly by nearly every man on board. “Before all the hands could be called, there was a general rush on deck,” said able seaman Moses Smith. “The word had passed like lightning from man to man; and all who could be spared came flocking up like pigeons from a net bed. From the spar deck to the gun deck, from that to the berth deck, every man was roused and on his feet. All eyes were turned in the direction of the strange sail, and quick as thought studding-sails were out, fore and aft.”58 The Guerriere spotted the American almost simultaneously. On her deck Dacres handed Orne his glass and asked if he thought she was an American or a French frigate. Orne said he thought American for sure, but Dacres replied that she “acted most too bold to be an American.” Dacres paused, then added, “The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him,” even remarking to Orne that he would “be made for life” by being the first British captain to capture an American frigate. The British crew facetiously hung up a barrel of molasses in the netting for their soon-to-be prisoners; Yankees were said to like a drink of molasses and water known as switchel. Ten impressed Americans in the crew were allowed by Dacres to go below, and Dacres turned politely to Orne and asked if he would like to go below as well and assist the surgeon in the cockpit in case any of the men were wounded in the battle—“as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen.” Just before he left the deck, Orne saw the main topsail backed, the yard rotated around so the sail caught the wind and checked the ship’s forward motion, as the Guerriere prepared to stand to and face the rapidly approaching American. An English ensign broke out at each masthead, and the drum began to roll to bring the men to quarters.59

As the Constitution came up, her crew could see another bit of English facetiousness; on one of the ship’s topsails painted in large letters were the words NOT THE LITTLE BELT, a sarcastic allusion to Rodgers’s mistaken encounter with the Little Belt when he was seeking to intercept the Guerriere off Cape Henry the year before. If there had been any doubt as to the ship’s identity, it was now gone.

Since the Constitution was to windward, she held the weather gauge, and with it several theoretical advantages in a ship-on-ship engagement. A ship to leeward, heeling away from the wind, exposed a portion of her hull below the waterline to the enemy’s shot; in a close action the smoke from a windward ship’s guns might envelop an opponent, obscuring the aim of her gun crews; the sails of the ship on the weather side could block the wind and becalm the leeward ship, hindering her maneuverability. But most of all, the commander of the ship that held the weather gauge held the power of decision; he could haul away and avoid a fight, and an equal opponent to leeward could never intercept and catch him, or he could use the wind to steer a direct course to come up as quickly as possible to close with the enemy. That posed its own risks, though: the more direct the angle of approach, the more exposed the approaching ship was to the enemy’s broadside while unable to answer with her own. But that was the course Hull now chose to take.

Several times Dacres wore his ship and fired broadsides as the American came up. The first fell short, and others went too high, and each time Hull ordered his ship to yaw slightly to larboard and windward to take the enemy fire on the side of the bows and avoid being raked from stem to stern down the vulnerable length of the deck. Ships usually went into battle with topsails only to avoid the danger of sails catching fire from their own cannons’ flaming wads and to keep the number of sail trimmers needed to a minimum, but Hull now ordered the main topgallant sail set to close rapidly and bring his ship right alongside the enemy. The crew broke out with three cheers.

With the Constitution coming up on her windward quarter the Guerriere could now bring her sternmost guns to bear and some of her shots started to tell. Several men on the Constitution were mowed down, and Lieutenant Morris impatiently asked Hull for permission to fire.

“No, sir,” Hull replied.

A dead silence hung over the ship. “No firing at random!” Hull shouted into it. “Let every man look well to his aim.” At 6:05 p.m. the Constitution was directly alongside the Guerriere, less than a pistol shot, or two dozen yards, away. Then came the first crashing broadside from every gun on Constitution’s starboard side, double-shotted and fired right into the deck and gunports of the enemy.

To Orne, crouching in the cramped cockpit below the Guerriere’s waterline, it sounded like “a tremendous explosion … the effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerriere reel, and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake.” Almost instantly came an even more tremendous crash. And then as the smoke from the last shot cleared, the men on the Constitution were cheering like maniacs: Guerriere’s mizzenmast had gone by the board. “Huzzah boys! We’ve made a brig of her!” one of the Constitution’s crew shouted. “Next time we’ll make her a sloop!” shouted another voice. Hull, who had literally split his dress breeches excitedly leaping atop an arms chest on the deck for a better view, exclaimed, “By God that vessel is ours.”60 The cockpit of the Guerriere was instantly filled with wounded and dying men, barely leaving room for the surgeons to work at the long table in the center that they kneeled or bent over. From the decks above, Orne said, blood poured down as if a washtub full had been turned over.

Most of the Constitution’s sails and spars were still undamaged, and now she began to forge ahead. Hull ordered the helm put to port to bring the ship to starboard and cross the Guerriere’s bows. The English ship attempted to turn in parallel to foil the maneuver, but the drag of her fallen mizzenmast in the water prevented her from answering her helm, and the Constitution began to pour a murderous fire, two full broadsides, into the enemy’s larboard bow. Grapeshot, clusters of balls weighing a couple of pounds apiece that separated like a shotgun’s blast when fired, swept across the decks and mowed men down while round shot continued to take a toll on the Guerriere’s masts.

To keep the Guerriere from passing across her stern and raking the Constitution in turn, the American ship bore up, but the Guerriere’s bowsprit and jibboom crossed her quarterdeck and became entangled in the mizzen rigging. Men crowded on the forecastle of the Guerriere preparing to board or repel boarders, and Morris quickly suggested to Hull that he call the Constitution’s boarders too, then joined the men running for their ship’s stern preparing to board the enemy. As Morris began to wrap a few turns of the mainbrace over the enemy’s bowsprit to hold her fast, a musket ball tore into his abdomen, knocking him to the deck grievously wounded. Lieutenant William S. Bush, the captain of the ship’s marines, leapt on the taffrail at almost the same moment, sword in hand, shouting, “Shall I board her?” when he was drilled through the cheek by a musket ball that tore through the back of his head, shattering his skull and killing him instantly.61 The facetious barrel of molasses hanging over the Guerriere’s deck was riddled with holes and molasses poured over the deck. During the closest part of the battle the Constitution’s gunners fired a hundred rounds of canister shot—cylinders packed with bullets, nails, bolts, and scraps of old iron—which was even more deadly than grapeshot at short range.62

Although only a few of the Guerriere’s forwardmost guns would bear, the British sailors ran one of the guns almost into the window of the captain’s cabin of the Constitution and a flaming wad came aboard, starting a fire, but the American sailors quickly put it out. Marines in Constitution’s mizzentop kept up a steady barrage of musketry, shooting down over the head-high breastwork of hammocks packed into the netting over both ships’ rails that offered some protection for the crews on the deck, clearing the forecastle of the enemy and wounding Dacres in the back as he stood on the piled hammocks to get a better view of the situation. Hull was about to climb back atop the arms chest when a sailor grabbed him by the arm and, pointing to the epaulets on his shoulders that made him an equally prime target for the enemy’s sharpshooters, said, “Don’t get up there, sir, unless you take them swabs off!”63

Boarding would still have been an extremely dicey move at this point, the boarders having to make their way in a heavy running sea single file over the bowsprit of the Guerriere. But in rapid sequence the ships now tore away, the foremast of the English ship fell in a cascade of spars and rigging over her starboard side, and then her mainmast went too. Not a spar was left standing on the Guerriere but the bowsprit. Hull immediately ordered his sails filled and hauled off.

For half an hour the Constitution stood off nearby, repairing her rigging. The sun had gone down, and it was hard to see if any colors were still flying from the enemy, though her guns had fallen silent. William Orne made his way up on deck. The scene was “a perfect hell.” Blood was everywhere, like a slaughterhouse. The men who were still sober were throwing the dead overboard, but many of the petty officers and crewmen had broken into the spirit locker and were screaming drunk. The mastless ship, with nothing but a jury-rigged scrap of canvas flying from the bowsprit, lay “rolling like a log in the trough of the sea,” her main deck guns rolling under water. Water also poured in from thirty holes smashed through her side below the waterline. A British ensign was still flying from the stump of the mizzenmast, but with a crack the spritsail yard carried away, taking with it any hope of bringing her before the wind and fighting on.

The American ship now wore back and stood across the Guerriere’s bow, completing her picture of helplessness. From the Constitution a boat rowed over under a flag of truce, and Lieutenant George Read hailed the ship: “I wish to see the officer in command.” Dacres stood on the deck appearing slightly dazed. Read hailed again: “Commodore Hull’s compliments and wishes to know if you have struck your flag.”

The British officers had already held a council and agreed that further resistance was futile, but Dacres seemed to make an effort to utter the fateful words. “Well, I don’t know,” he finally said, “our mizzenmast is gone, our main-mast is gone—and upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag.” Read asked if they could send their surgeon to lend assistance. “Well, I should suppose you had on board your own ship business enough for all your medical officers,” Dacres replied. “Oh, no, we have only seven wounded, and they were dressed half an hour ago.” Dacres then turned to Orne and said, “How our situations have suddenly been reversed: you are now free and I am a prisoner.”64

The British captain came across in the boat to present his sword to Hull and formally surrender. “Your men are a set of tigers,” he said to Hull in wonderment. Not a single shot had hulled the Constitution; her casualties were seven dead and seven wounded. The British ship officially reported fifteen dead and sixty-two wounded, but Orne was certain that at least twenty-five more of her crewmen were dead, their bodies dumped over the side or the men swept to their deaths with the falling of the masts.65 The American victory had taken twenty-five minutes, and the accuracy of American fire had been decisive. Hull would later single out for praise his black sailors: “I never had any better fighters than those niggers,—they stripped to the waist, and fought like devils, sir, seemingly insensible to danger, and to be possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors.”66

All night Constitution’s boats went back and forth removing the prisoners. Hull later told a friend, “I do not mind the day of battle, the excitement carries one through: but the day after is fearful.” Midshipman Henry Gilliam was aboard Guerriere the whole night, and the scene of her decks “were almost enough to make me curse the war,” he admitted to his uncle in a letter a few days later; “pieces of skulls, brains, legs, arms & blood Lay in every direction.” Morris had pulled himself off the deck and gone back to his station after being shot, but once the action was over he found he could not speak and the pain began to overwhelm him; he was carried down to the cockpit and spent an agonizing night. “The pain nearly deprived me of all consciousness,” Morris said. But Evans was amazed by the fortitude of the wounded men; Orne had had the same reaction in the cockpit of the Guerriere, almost doubting his own senses as he witnessed men making jokes as they were having an arm amputated. Evans had no sleep at all, working through the night assisting the Guerriere’s surgeon to dress the wounds of the British injured. The next day Evans amputated the leg of Richard Dunn, one of the Constitution’s men. Dunn muttered, “You’re a hard set of butchers,” and then stoically submitted to his fate.67

With dawn the condition of the Guerriere was clearly hopeless; she was, said Hull, “a perfect Wreck,” and he hastened to get the remaining wounded men off before she sank. Six feet of planking had been completely shot away in one place below her waterline, there was five feet of water in the hold, and the pumps could not keep up. At three o’clock in the afternoon the two captains watched wordlessly from the Constitution’s quarterdeck as Lieutenant Read’s boat began to row back across for the last time, and minutes later the English frigate was ablaze from the scuttling charge Read had set, her guns discharging in succession as the heat of the flame reached them; then there was a momentary silence followed by a deafening roar. It was like waiting for a volcano to erupt, Moses Smith remembered; then the quarterdeck, immediately over the magazine, heaved skyward in a single piece and broke into fragments; then her whole hull parted in two. Seconds later the entire ship disappeared beneath the sea’s surface. “No painter, no poet or historian could give on canvas or paper any description that could do justice to the scene,” Evans said, “a sight the most incomparably grand and magnificent I have experienced.”68

That evening the bodies of Lieutenant Bush and one of the Guerriere’s men who had died from his wounds were committed to the deep.

Sailing points and maneuvering in the wind (Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship; System of Naval Tactics; courtesy Charles E. Brodine Jr.)

Stephen Decatur’s daring raid of February 16, 1804, on Tripoli harbor to burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia made the twenty-five-year-old lieutenant a national hero and helped salvage the honor of the embattled young navy. (Painting by Edward Moran, Naval History & Heritage Command)

For three days at the outbreak of the war the Constitution eluded a pursuing British squadron off the coast of New Jersey; at a crucial moment when the winds died the ship was towed forward on anchor lines carried ahead by the ship’s boats. (Painting by F. Muller, Naval History & Heritage Command)

Isaac Hull, the Constitution’s first wartime captain, a kind but thoroughgoing seaman who commanded the almost worshipful loyalty of his crew. (Painting by Samuel L. Waldo after a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, Naval History & Heritage Command)

“The birth of a world power” was how Charles Francis Adams Jr. described the moment the Constitution claimed the first American naval victory of the war: the defeat of the British frigate Guerriere on August 19, 1812. (Painting by Michel Felice Corne, Naval History & Heritage Command)

William Bainbridge had three times struck the flag of the United States in prewar commands and was possessed with jealousy, resentment, and self-pity; he also fought one of the most tactically brilliant engagements of the war, defeating the British frigate Java on December 29, 1812. (Painting by John Wesley Jarvis, Naval History & Heritage Command)

The Shannon leads the ill-fated American frigate Chesapeake into Halifax harbor, June 6, 1813. (Naval History & Heritage Command)

A weapon more of intimidation than military effectiveness, the British Congreve rocket caused only a single known fatality during the war—but it would be immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s verse describing “the rockets’ red glare.” (Congreve, Details of Rocket System; courtesy National Maritime Museum, U.K.)

British admiral George Cockburn, probably the most hated man in America for the raids he carried out along the Chesapeake Bay in 1813 and 1814, was depicted in his portrait standing against a backdrop of the White House in flames. (Painting by John James Halls, National Maritime Museum, U.K.)

The secretary of the British Admiralty was the conservative politician John Wilson Croker, who raised the withering of opponents and subordinates to an art form. (Painting by William Owen, National Portrait Gallery, London)

A man ahead of his time: Croker’s American counterpart, Secretary of the Navy William Jones, keenly grasped the importance of keeping a much more powerful enemy constantly off balance. (Painting by Gilbert Stuart, Naval History & Heritage Command)

Stephen Decatur was the quintessential American naval hero, whose “sense of honor too disdainful of life” brought him wartime fame and later tragedy. (Painting by John Wesley Jarvis, Naval History & Heritage Command)

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