Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy | Chapter 27 of 41 - Part: 1 of 5

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Vice-Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commander in chief of British naval forces at Halifax, received the shocking news from Captain Dacres in a letter from Boston dated September 7: “Sir, I am sorry to inform you of the Capture of His Majesty’s late Ship Guerrière by the American Frigate Constitution, after a severe action on the 19th of August in Latitude 40.20 N and Longitude 55.00 West.”

Sawyer had been slow to react to the American declaration of war. This was due in great part to the limitations of early nineteenth-century communications. After learning of the Belvidera’s dustup with the President in late June, he had dispatched a sloop of war, the Colibri, to sail to New York under a flag of truce and request an explanation. Even after confirming that war had been declared, Sawyer had continued to order captured American merchant vessels released, pending instructions from London. Sawyer was a junior admiral, and he was conscious of his duty to prevent “incidents” at sea from escalating into wider conflicts without the sanction of the British government. There was hope that hostilities would be called off when the American government learned that the offending British Orders in Council had been repealed in early June.

British public opinion was divided over the prospect of an American war. Many of the leading newspapers continued to take a belligerent tone, and the fortunes to be won in capturing American commerce were a powerful enticement to the officers and seamen of the Royal Navy, as well as to the myriad other British interests that held a stake in the prize system. When news of the American declaration of war reached London, the British government commanded that “H.M.’s ships of war and privateers do detain and bring into port all ships and vessels belonging to citizens of the United States of America.” American vessels found in British ports were peremptorily seized, American goods were confiscated, and debts owed American merchants were annulled. But there were also many British citizens, including Whig politicians and newspapers, who argued that England could ill afford to take on new enemies. The struggle against Napoleon was at a critical phase. The same week Madison had signed the American declaration of war, the French emperor had crossed the Niemen River into Russia with the largest army assembled in modern times—some 400,000 troops, all told. There was every reason to expect the campaign to succeed, if only because Napoleon had never failed. If Russia was conquered, there would be no other viable threat to France in the east, and Napoleon would be free to turn his full attention to defeating the British armies under Lord Wellington on the Iberian Peninsula, and perhaps to renewing his old dream of invading England.

Wellington’s forces in Portugal and Spain were gathering their strength to drive the French beyond the Pyrenees. It was the largest and most important land campaign England had ever mounted against Napoleon, and its success was essential to the overall course of the war. British forces were supplied principally by sea, through the port of Lisbon, by some two thousand ships per year. Any interruption of that supply line posed a serious threat to the British war effort. Moreover, Wellington’s troops relied heavily on imported American grain and corn. As recently as April, Admiral Sir David Milne, writing from Lisbon, had told a colleague that “if it was not for the supplies from America, the army here could not be maintained.” War with America threatened to cut off this trade, while at the same time unleashing American privateers on the sea routes between England and Portugal.

On August 6, Admiral Sawyer was superseded by the appointment of Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren as “commander in chief of H.M.’s squadron on the Halifax and West India stations, and down the whole Coast of America.” The order merged all of the operations of the Royal Navy in the Western Hemisphere, from the northernmost navigable waters of the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and the Spanish Main, under one command. Sailing from Portsmouth in the 80-gun San Domingo on August 14, Sir John suffered a wet, nasty crossing. The flagship was beleaguered by fierce, unseasonable gales, and one of her consorts, the sloop of war Magnet, went down with the loss of all hands. When San Domingo reached Halifax on September 27, Warren learned of the capture of the Guerrière.

Warren, fifty-nine years old, had nearly forty years of service in the Royal Navy. He also brought wide-ranging political and diplomatic experience to the job, having served for several years in Parliament and as ambassador extraordinary to Russia in 1802. His appointment was a measure of how seriously Whitehall took the threat of an American war. The admiral’s instructions empowered him to offer an armistice to President Madison. He was to refer to the June repeal of the Orders in Council, but had no authority to offer concessions on the question of impressments. As his first official act, Admiral Warren wrote directly to the American president, offering an immediate cessation of hostilities, with reparations or indemnities to be determined by a bilateral commission. Though Warren’s instructions also granted authority to “attack, sink, burn or otherwise destroy” enemy warships, privateers, and merchantmen, the full weight of British naval power would not fall on the American seaboard until the last hope of a peaceful reconciliation had been extinguished.


JUST AS THE VICTORIOUS CONSTITUTION entered the outer Roads of Boston, the sails of Commodore Rodgers’s squadron—President, United States, and Congress, in company with the smaller vessels Hornet and Argus—had appeared in the offing.

After his brush with the Belvidera ten weeks earlier, Rodgers had put his powerful squadron on a course to intercept the England-bound Jamaica convoy. Near the Newfoundland Bank, President and her consorts had picked up a trail of floating coconut shells and orange peels. Cracking on to the eastward, they had reached the western approaches to the English Channel on August 6. Not wanting to sail into the hands of the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet, Rodgers had given up the pursuit. The squadron stretched away to the south for Madeira and the Azores, then doubled back to the westward, passing south of Cape Sable, and finally to Boston. By that time, “that wretched disease the scurvey, having made its appearance on board of the vessels,” many of the hands were losing teeth and hair, and a few had died. That seamen should be made to suffer the effects of a vitamin-deprived diet on a cruise of less than three months, in an era when it was widely known that the disease could be prevented by shipping an adequate store of vegetables and citrus fruits, was indefensible. It was also foolhardy, because it forced Rodgers to return home earlier than he would have liked.

With bitter remorse, Rodgers reported to Secretary Hamilton that the squadron had “only made seven Captures & one recapture.” The value of the prizes taken did not equal the cost of keeping five warships at sea for ten weeks. Rodgers blamed heavy fog, which was often so thick that the ships of the squadron could not see one another even when separated by just a few hundred yards.

As shrewd observers understood, however, Commodore Rodgers’s cruise had achieved important strategic objectives. It had diverted British naval forces away from the American coast at a time when hundreds of American merchantmen were homeward-bound. “We have been so completely occupied looking for Commodore Rodgers’s squadron,” said one British officer, “that we have taken very few prizes.” The safe return of so many ships and cargoes was a boon to the American economy, and injected badly needed revenues into the treasury. The British failure to impose an early blockade also allowed a swarm of American privateers to sail unmolested into the Atlantic. In July, a Halifax newspaper reported that enemy privateers were “swarming round our coast and in the Bay of Fundy,” and advised that it was “imprudent for any vessel to sail from this port unless under convoy.” Lloyds of London reported a spike in the insurance rates paid by shipowners and merchants. On September 5, the Niles’ Register published a list of 136 British prizes sent into American ports by privateers, and that list was probably less than half the actual number. “Prizes are pouring into almost every convenient port; and many privateers are still fitting out…a hundred sail are at sea.”

With Commodore Rodgers’s arrival virtually in the wake of the Constitution, the entire U.S. Navy was again safe in port. With the exception of Constellation, still undergoing repairs at the Washington Navy Yard, all of the original six frigates were now moored in Boston Harbor, not far from the Charlestown wharves. The triumphant Constitution was often surrounded by a flotilla of boats filled with well-wishers. Liquor in bladders was smuggled to the enlisted men. On September 5, five hundred citizens of Boston fêted the ship’s officers at a victory banquet in Faneuil Hall. A model of the Constitution was placed in the gallery, “with her masts fished and the Colors as they flew during the action.” A wreath of flowers was arranged on the wall behind Isaac Hull’s seat, and a band played patriotic songs as the dinner was served. The guests drank seventeen toasts, and each was answered in succession by the roar of artillery, positioned just outside the doors and manned by local militia companies. A hastily written play depicting the Constitution-Guerrière action was performed at the theater. Dr. Evans saw it and pronounced it “a very foolish, ridiculous thing.”

When Hull’s report arrived in Washington on September 9, Secretary Hamilton, who was not generally effusive in giving praise, wrote the captain: “In this action, we know not which most to applaud, Your gallantry or Your skill. You, Your officers & Crew are entitled to & will receive the applause & the gratitude of Your gratefull country.” Congress voted to award a gold medal to Hull and silver medals to the lieutenants and midshipmen.

The timing of Hull’s sensational victory was critical, not only for the nation but for the Hull family. Three days before the capture of the Guerrière, an American army commanded by Brigadier General William Hull, Isaac Hull’s uncle, had surrendered without a fight to an inferior British and Indian force at Fort Detroit. In the Ohio Valley, where the security of American settlements was immediately placed in jeopardy, General Hull’s name was cursed, “and if he was to attempt to pass this way,” said John Graham, a resident of the valley, “he would be hunted and shot like a mad dog.” Richard Rush dismissed the general as a “gasconading booby” and Dolley Madison asked a correspondent: “Do you not tremble with resentment at this treacherous act?” The surrender was reported in the Boston newspapers on September 2, two days after the return of the Constitution. In maritime Boston, a popular quip circulated: “We have a Hull-up and a Hull-down.”

Before the war, many Americans had assumed Canada would be conquered without much difficulty (“a mere matter of marching,” Jefferson had predicted), while anticipating little success in the war at sea. The humiliation at Detroit and the sensational capture of the Guerrière reversed these expectations. Those who had argued for keeping the U.S. Navy safe in port fell abruptly silent. Madison and his advisers quickly settled on a new deployment strategy. The fleet would be divided into three squadrons, to be commanded by the three senior most captains on active duty: John Rodgers, Stephen Decatur, and William Bainbridge. The 44-gun frigates President, Constitution, and United States would serve as flagships. Each would be accompanied by one of the smaller frigates and a brig. Each commodore was at liberty to choose his own cruising ground, based on his judgment of how best “to afford protection to our trade & to annoy the enemy.”

The simultaneous presence of so many needy frigates in Boston Harbor placed tremendous strains on the Charlestown Navy Yard, which was poorly equipped and understaffed. Amos Binney, the newly hired Boston Navy Agent, later recalled being overwhelmed by “the chaos that surrounded me.”

Every ship required complete supplies of provisions and every kind of stores. I was but newly appointed, had no experience, no precedents, no forms, no instructions; was obliged to form a whole system from the chaos that surrounded me, was always short or wholly destitute of funds. I resorted to the banks and to my friends for money on loans and on interest, was soon overwhelmed with requisitions from the public ships in every department—pursers, boatswains, carpenters, gunners, armourers; and frequently had half a dozen midshipmen, with as many boats’ crews, calling for stores, etc.

Eager to get the fleet to sea as quickly as possible, Secretary Hamilton was willing to throw money at the problem. On September 8, he authorized a cash warrant of $33,000 to be paid to Binney for repairs, pay, provisions, medicines, and “contingencies.” The amount was $6,000 more than Binney had requested. The secretary took it on himself to increase the sum so that “no inconvenience may arise to the public Service…. We are extremely anxious to get all our public vessels to Sea, with the least possible delay—and we confidently hope that every assistance on your part will be promptly rendered to effect this desirable object.”

Commodores Rodgers and Decatur, with President and United States as their respective flagships, sailed together from Boston on October 8. Four days later, they parted company. Decatur and the United States, accompanied by the brig Argus, sailed east toward the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. In the mid-Atlantic, Decatur ordered Argus to part ways with the flagship, believing that the two ships could cover more of the sea by cruising alone.

Stephen Decatur’s career had been closely intertwined with that of the United States since 1796. When the ship was under construction in Joshua Humphreys’s Southwark shipyard, Decatur had been employed as a teenaged captain of one of the building crews. When white oak timbers were needed for the keel of the ship, Decatur had traveled with a cutting expedition into the Catskills and the forests of western New Jersey. In his first active naval assignment, he had served aboard the United States under John Barry as a midshipman during the Quasi War. In the two years prior to the War of 1812, he had commanded her as flagship of the U.S. Navy’s southern station, based in Norfolk.

After the maiden cruise of the United States in the summer of 1798, Captain John Barry had praised her sailing qualities. In the fourteen years since, however, the big Philadelphia-built frigate had earned a reputation as a slow, unwieldy sailor. Among the enlisted men, she was affectionately known as the “Old Wagon,” though it was considered a breech of discipline to say those words within earshot of an officer. United States may not have been the world’s fastest-sailing frigate, but she was one of the most powerful. Like President and Constitution, she mounted 24-pounder long guns on her gun deck, and she was built with the same heavy live oak scantlings that had earned one of her sisters the more flattering nickname “Old Ironsides.”

At dawn on Sunday, October 25, when the United States was about 500 miles south of the Azores, the lookout hailed the deck to report a large sail on the weather beam, about 12 miles north. Though the Americans did not yet know it, the strange ship was HMS Macedonian, a 38-gun frigate commanded by Captain John Surman Carden. Coincidentally, both the captain and the ship were well known to Decatur. Carden and Macedonian had harbored in Norfolk for several weeks in early 1812, while the British frigate was waiting to receive dispatches from the British ambassador in Washington. During Carden’s sojourn in Norfolk, the two men socialized frequently; Carden was a guest of Stephen and Susan Decatur at their home in Norfolk at least twice, and he visited the United States at least once. According to Decatur’s earliest biographer, the two men jokingly waged a beaver hat on the prospective outcome of a battle between their two ships, though the exchange was probably apocryphal. What is known with greater certainty is that Carden had lectured Decatur on the dangers of overarming. Britain’s experience, said Carden, had proven that frigates were more effective when armed with 18-pounder cannon rather than 24-pounders; and Carden added, “When the American officers have had as much experience as we have had, they too will prefer eighteen pounders.”

The crew of the Macedonian were turned out in their best clothes, as was their custom on the Sabbath, including “black, glossy hats, ornamented with black ribbons, and with the name of our ship painted on them.” An easy breeze blew out of the south, inclining into the southeast; the Macedonian was steering northwest by west. The British ship’s lookout sighted the United States at about the same time the American lookout caught sight of the Macedonian. Carden ordered his men to make all sail to windward in chase, and the United States simultaneously altered course to close with the British ship.

Among the crew of the Macedonian were several pressed Americans. When Captain Carden gave the order to clear the ship for action, an American named John Card, not wishing to fight his own countrymen, approached the captain and asked permission to go below. When Captain Dacres of the Guerrière had been approached with a similar request by several American seamen before her engagement with the Constitution, he had complied (and afterward cited the resulting shortfall in manpower as one of the factors in Guerrière’s defeat). Carden was less accommodating. According to a British seaman who claimed to witness the exchange, Carden “very ungenerously ordered [Card] to his quarters, threatening to shoot him if he made the request again.”

At 8:30 a.m., as the two frigates were closing, Macedonian made the private English signals. United States, ignorant of the countercode, answered by hoisting an American ensign at each masthead. A few minutes later, Decatur made an unexpected maneuver. The United States wore round and turned away from the wind. It almost seemed as if she was attempting to flee. As the Macedonian attempted to close the distance between the two ships, the United States kept two points off the wind, and as a result, Carden later reported, “I was not enabled to get as close to her as I could have wished.” In fact, Decatur chose his tactics deliberately. Knowing that his 24-pounder long guns would be more effective at long range than the Englishman’s 18s, he kept the United States in a position to rake the Macedonian as she steered down on the American frigate’s starboard quarter.

At 9:00 a.m., the United States fired a ranging broadside. From the Macedonian, the flash of the cannon was seen before the sound reached their ears. The balls fell well short, splashing down in the sea in a ragged line of white geysers. A few minutes later, Macedonian’s three forward most larboard guns fired at extreme range—long, high-arching shots that also fell short of their target. An English officer shouted: “Cease firing—you are throwing away your shot!”

The two frigates were now sailing together toward the east, both under fighting sail, about three quarters of a mile apart and closing gradually. The United States was leading ahead, but the British ship was clearly faster. As the range closed, Carden gave the order to open fire, and the Macedonian’s larboard battery erupted in a cloud of white smoke. A few of the shots actually passed over the United States and splashed into the sea on the far side.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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