Another post in our occasional series on the War of 1812–part two of the story of the USS Constitution!
–by Alex Milnikel, USCHS intern
Following the USS Constitution’s noteworthy escape from a five-ship strong Royal Navy squadron, Captain Isaac Hull, unable to keep his rendezvous with Commodore John Rodgers’ force, took his ship into Boston for provisions. Hull remained there for the rest of July, awaiting further orders; however, “not finding any specific orders waiting for him, and fearing being blockaded by a superior force, he quickly put to sea” (Gardiner 40). Hull planned on linking up with Commodore Rodgers’ force at sea or, if unable to do so, to cruise against British shipping coming out of Canada. Upon hearing of a nearby British squadron, which he assumed to be the very squadron Constitution had just escaped from, Hull decided to cruise further south. After sailing for a couple of weeks, on August 18 the Constitution gave chase to an unidentified ship; after pursuing her for two hours, the Constitution discovered that the unknown ship was in fact the American privateer Decatur. Despite the disappointing results of this fruitless chase, the Decatur informed Hull of a British warship which she had sighted the previous day, and the Constitution promptly set off to investigate. Early in the afternoon the next day, August 19, the Constitution “sighted a ship to the east standing westwards, and crowded on sail to close with the stranger” (40). A couple hours later, she was discovered to be a large frigate, the HMS Guerriere, “which with great confidence had backed her main topsail and lay in wait for the American ship to come down” (40).
The 38-gun frigate HMS Guerriere had originally been a French warship, but in 1806 she was captured by the British frigate HMS Blanche. After a repair and refit, she was commissioned into the British Royal Navy; “she was not a particularly large frigate even by European standards, carrying a main battery of thirty 18-pounders (although two were bow-chasers that could not be fired on the broadside)” (40). The Guerriere continued to play a role in the Napoleonic Wars, capturing a couple of French privateers in the West Indies during her service with the British before being transferred to Halifax in 1810. In 1812, after six years of service in the Royal Navy, the Guerriere was in a poor material condition; “like all French-built ships, Guerriere was lightly constructed,” and was actually “en-route to Halifax for a refit” when she encountered the Constitution (40-41). At the time of her encounter with the Constitution, Guerriere was under the command of Captain James Richard Dacres, a very seasoned and skilled officer (40-41).
As Hull carefully approached the Guerriere, “reducing to fighting sail and double reefing his topsails while clearing for action,” Dacres foolishly wasted his opening broadsides, “firing too early to inflict any damage, possibly because he was more intent on outmaneuvering the Constitution and taking the weather gage, the favoured British position” (40). Hull, however, a seasoned seaman himself, skillfully prevented this positioning through maneuvers that forced the Guerriere to “bore up at about 6pm;” shortly afterwards, the “Constitution ranged up on her opponent’s port side within pistol shot” (40-41). The two ships then began to exchange close-quarters broadsides, and Constitution’s greater firepower quickly took its toll; despite the fact that Guerriere’s well-drilled crew was “firing three broadsides for every two American,” she simply “was not accurate enough to redress the balance in weight of metal” (41). After about 15 minutes, during which time the Guerriere suffered very damaging fire from Constitution’s guns, her mizzen mast was shot away and “went by the board, and Constitution forged ahead, turning across her bow in a perfect raking position” (41). With her fallen mizzen mast acting like a rudder and dragging her around, the Guerriere was unable to shadow the Constitution’s maneuver, allowing the Constitution to rake her with a deadly close-range fire for almost half an hour. Desperate, Dacres tried in a last futile effort to prepare a boarding party, “but as the boarders were assembling, the main mast fell forwards taking the fore mast and jib boom with it,” sealing the British frigate’s fate (41).
Hull, rather than pounding the helpless Guerriere, decided to haul off to repair Constitution’s rigging; after about half an hour he returned to find out whether or not the Guerriere had decided to surrender. When Lieutenant Read, Constitution’s boarding officer, arrived on the Guerriere’s deck and inquired as to whether or not she had struck her flag, Captain Dacres, surveying his ship’s miserable condition and possibly in shock, reportedly replied, “Well, I don’t know; our mizzen mast is gone, our main mast is gone, and, upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag” (41). All told, Guerriere’s crew had suffered casualties of 15 dead and 63 wounded, “the majority according to Dacres being sustained from grape and musketry when Constitution lay off the British frigate’s bow,” while Constitution in comparison had only 7 dead and 7 wounded (40-42).
Although Hull wanted to tow the Guerriere as a prize, at daybreak on the 20th it became clear that she was beyond salvaging. Hull accordingly had the rest of Guerriere’s crew, including the sick and the wounded, transferred as quickly as possible to the Constitution, and in the afternoon fired the wreck; after her main magazine blew up, Guerriere rapidly sank to the bottom. Hull arrived at Boston on August 30, where the news of his victory was greeted with massive celebrations. The Constitution’s victory was really the first good news of the War of 1812 for the U.S. citizenry, “contrasting starkly with the humiliations to U.S. land forces on the Canadian front” that summer (42). On top of that, Dacres’ surrender marked the first time that a British frigate captain had ever surrendered to the infant United States Navy, suggesting to the American public that the all-powerful Royal Navy was not necessarily invincible. Most Americans did not bother to take into account Guerriere’s poor material state at the time of the battle, nor the fact that the Constitution had almost twice as many men manning her as the Guerriere. None of that mattered to the citizenry; all that mattered was that the U.S. had sent one of her ships into combat against a British frigate and, through the skilled seamanship of Hull and his crew as well as the superior ability of the Constitution to both dish out and sustain damage, had come out on top. No more could the U.S. Navy simply be scoffed at by the more established naval powers of Europe; now, having weathered and overcome the fires of combat, with a Royal Navy frigate no less, it was a truly legitimate branch of service and formidable sea power, a foe worthy to be reckoned with. The Constitution’s first major victory in the War of 1812 sealed her place in both the history books and the hearts of the American people, who affectionately coined her now legendary nickname following her victory over Guerriere: “Old Ironsides.”
Gardiner, Robert. The Naval War of 1812. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998. 40-42.