Battle Between The "Constitution" And The "Guerriere" (1812)
BY THEODORE ROOSEVELT
On August 2 the Constitution made sail from Boston and stood to the eastward, in hopes of falling in with some of the British cruisers. She was unsuccessful, however, and met nothing. Then she ran down to the Bay of Fundy, steered along the coast of Nova Scotia, and thence toward Newfoundland, and finally took her station off Cape Race in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where she took and burned two briars of little value. On the 15th she recaptured an American brig from the British ship-sloop Avenger, tho the latter escaped; Capt. Hull manned his prize and sent her in. He then sailed southward, and on the night of the 18th spoke a Salem privateer which gave him news of a British frigate to the south; thither he stood, and at 2 P.M. on the 19th, in lat. 41° 30' N. and 55° W., made out a large sail bearing E. S. E. and to leeward, which proved to be his old acquaintance, the frigate Guerriere Captain Dacres.
It was a cloudy day and the wind was blowing fresh from the northwest. The Guerriere was standing by the wind on the starboard tack, under easy canvas; she hauled up her courses, took in her topgallantsails, and at 4:30 backed her maintopsail. Hull then very deliberately began to shorten sail, taking in topgallantsails, staysails, and flying jib, sending down the royal-yards and putting another reef in the topsails. Soon the Englishman hoisted three ensigns, when the Ameriean also set his colors, one at each masthead, and one at the mizzen-peak.
The Constitution now ran down with the wind nearly aft. The Guerriere was on the starboard tack, and at five o'clock opened with her weatherguns, the shot falling short, then wore round and fired her port broadside, of which two shots struck her opponent, the rest passing over and through her rigging. As the British frigate again wore to open with her starboard battery, the Constitution yawed a little and fired two or three of her port bow guns. Three or four times the Guerriere repeated this maneuver, wearing and firing alternate broadsides, but with little or no effect, while the Constitution yawed as often to avoid being raked, and occasionally fired one of her bow guns. This continued nearly an hour, as the vessels were very far apart when the action began, hardly any loss or damage being inflicted by either party. At 6:00 the Guerriere bore up and ran off under her topsails and jib, with the wind almost astern, a little on her port quarter; when the Constitution set her maintopgallantsail and foresail, and at 6:05 closed within half pistol-shot distance on her adversary's port beam.
Immediately a furious cannonade opened, each ship firing as the guns bore. By the time the ships were fairly abreast, at 6 :20, the Constitution shot away the Guerriere's mizzen-mast, which fell over the starboard quarter, knocking a large hole in the counter, and bringing the ship round against her helm. Hitherto she had suffered very greatly and the Constitution hardly at all. The latter finding that she was ranging ahead, put her helm aport and then luffed short round her enemy's bows, delivering a heavy raking fire with the starboard guns and shooting away the Guerriere's mainyard. Then she wore and again passed her adversary's bows, raking with her port guns. The mizzenmast of the Guerriere, dragging in the water, had by this time pulled her bow round till the wind came on her starboard quarter; and so near were the two ships that the Englishman's bowsprit passed diagonally over the Constitution's quarter-deck, and as the latter ship fell off it got foul of her mizzen-rigging, and the vessels then lay with the Guerriere's starboard-bow against the Constitutions port, or lee quartergallery. The Englishman's bow guns played havoc with Captain Hull's cabin, setting fire to it; but the flames were soon extinguished by Lieutenant Hoffmann. On both sides the boarders were called away; the British ran forward, but Captain Dacres relinquished the idea of attacking when he saw the crowds of men on the American's decks.
Meanwhile, on the Constitution, the boarders and marines gathered aft, but such a heavy sea was running that they could not get on the Guerriere. Both sides suffered heavily from the closeness of the musketry fire; indeed, almost the entire loss on the Constitution occurred at this juncture.
As Lieutenant Bush, of the marines, sprang upon the taffrail to leap on the enemy's decks, a British marine shot him dead; Mr. Morris, the first lieutenant, and Mr. Alwyn, the master, had also both leapt on the taffrail, and both were at the same moment wounded by the musketry fire. On the Guerriere the loss was far heavier, almost all the men on the forecastle being picked off. Captain Dacres himself was shot in the back and severely wounded by one of the American mizzentopmen, while he was standing on the starboard forecastle hammocks cheering on his crew; two of the lieutenants and the master were also shot down.
The ships gradually worked round till the wind was again on the port quarter, when they separated, and the Gueirrere's foremast and mainmast at once went by the board, and fell over on the starboard side, leaving her a defenseless hulk, rolling her main-deck guns into the water. At 6:30 the Constitution hauled aboard her tacks, ran off a little distance to the eastward, and lay to. Her braces and standing and running rigging were much cut up and some of the spars wounded, but a few minutes sufficed to repair damages, when Captain Hull stood under his adversary's lee, and the latter at once struck, at 7:00 P.M., just two hours after she had fired the first shot. On the part of the Constitution, however, the actual fighting, exclusive of six or eight guns fired during the first hour, while closing, occupied less than 30 minutes.
The Constitution had, about 456 men aboard, while the Guerriere's crew, 267 prisoners, were received aboard the Constitution; deducting 10 who were Americans and would not fight, and addingthe 15 killed outright, we get 272; 28 men were absent in prizes.
The loss of the Constitution included Lietenant William S. Bush, of the marines, and six seamen killed, and her first lieutenant, Charles Morris, Master, John C. Alwyn, four seamen, and one marine, wounded. Total, seven killed and seven wounded. Almost all this loss occurred when the ships came foul, and was due to the Gueirrere's musketry and the two guns in her bridle-ports.
The Guerriere lost 23 killed and mortally wdunded, including her second lieutenant, Henry Ready, and 56 wounded severely and slightly, including Captain Dacres himself the first lieutenant, Bartholomew Kent, Master Robert Scott, two master's mates, and one midshipman....
The British laid very great stress on the rotten and decayed condition of the Guerriere mentioning in particular that the mainmast fell solely because of the weight of the falling foremast. But it must be remembered that until the action occurred she was considered a very fine ship. Thus, in Brighton's "Memoir of Admiral Broke," it is declared that Dacres freely exprest the opinion that she could take a ship in half the time the Shannon could. The fall of the mainmast occurred when the fight was practically over; it had no influence whatever on the confiict. It was also
asserted that her powder was bad, but on no authority, her first broadside fell short, but so, under slmilar circumstances, did the first broadside of the United States.
None of these causes account for the fact that her shot did not hit. Her opponent was of such superior force—nearly in the proportion of 3 to 2 —that success would have been very difficult in any event and no one can doubt the gallantry and pluck with which the British ship was fought; but the execution was very greatly disproportioned to the force. The gunnery of the Guerriere was very poor, and that of the Constitution excellent; during the few minutes the ships were yardarm and yard-arm, the latter was not hulled once, while no less than thirty shot took effect on the former's engaged side, five sheets of copper beneath the bends. The Guerriere, moreover, was out-maneuvered; "in wearing several times and exchanging broadsides in such rapid and continual changes of position, her fire was much more harmless than it would have been if she had kept more steady." The Constitution was handled faultlessly; Captain Mull displayed the coolness and skill of a veteran in the way in which he managed, first to avoid being raked, and then to improve the advantage which the precision and rapidity of his fire had gained.
The disparity of force, 10 to 7, is not enough to account for the disparity of execution, 10 to 2.
Of course, something must be allowed for the decayed state of the Englishman's masts, altho I really do not think it had any influence on the
battle, for he was beaten when the mainmast fell; and it must be remembered, on the otherhand, that the Ameriean crew was absolutely new while the Guerriere was manned by old hands. So that, while admitting and admiring the gallantry, and, on the whole, the seamanship, of Captain Dacres and his crew, and acknowledging that he fought at a great disadvantage, especially in being short-handed, yet all must acknowledge that the combat showed a marked superiority, particularly in gunnery, on the part of the Americans. Had the ships not come foul, Captain Hull would probably not have lost more than three or four men as it was, he suffered but slightly
That the Guerriere was not so weak as she was represented to be can be gathered from the fact that she mounted two more main-deck guns than the rest of her class; thus carrying on her maindeck 30 long 18 pounders in battery to oppose to the 30 long 24's, or rather (allowing for the short weight of shot) long 22's, of the Constitution. Characteristically enough, James, tho he carefully reckons in the long bow-chasers in the bridleports of the Argus and Enterprise, yet refuses to count the two long eighteens mounted through the bridle-ports on the Guerriere's main-deck. Now, as it turned out, these two bow guns were used very effectively, when the ships got foul, and caused more damage and loss than all of the other main-deck guns put together.
THE REPORT OF CAPT. WILLIAM ORME,
WHO WAS ON BOARD THE
I commanded the American brig Betsey, in the year 1812, and was returning home from Naples, Italy, to Boston. When near the western edge of the Grand Bank of Newfoundland, on the 10th of August, 1812, I fell in with the British frigate Guerriere, Captain Dacres, and was captured by him. Myself and a boy were taken on board of the frigate; the remainder of my officers and men were left in the Betsey, and sent into Halifax, N.S., as a prize to the Guerriere.
On the 19th of the same month, the wind being fresh from the northward, the Guerriere was under double-reefed topsails during all the forenoon of this day. At 2 P.M. we discovered a large sail to windward, bearing about north from us. We soon made her out to be a frigate. She was steering off from the wind, with her head to the southwest, evidently with the intention of cutting us off as soon as possible.
Signals were soon made by the Guerriere, but as they were not answered, the conclusion of course was, that she was either a French or an American frigate. Captain Dacres appeared anxious to ascertain her character, and after looking at her for that purpose, handed me his spyglass, requesting me to give him my opinion of the stranger. I soon saw from the peculiarity of her sails, and from her general appearance, that she was, without doubt, an American frigate, and communicated the same to Captain Dacres. He immediately replied, that he thought she came down too boldly for an American, but soon after added, "The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him."
The two ships were rapidly approaching each other, when the Guerriere backed her maintopsail, and waited for her opponent to come down, and commence the action. He then set an English flag at each masthead, beat to quarters, and made ready for the fight. When the strange frigate came down to within two or three miles distance, he hauled upon the wind, took in all his light sails, reefed his topsails, and deliberately prepared for action. It was now about five o'clock in the afternoon, when he filled away and ran down for the Guerriere. At this moment, Captain Dacres politely said to me: "Captain Orme, as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen, you are at liberty to go below the waterline." It was not long after this before I retired from the quarterdeek to the cockpit.
Of course I saw no more of the action until the firing ceased, but I heard and felt much of its effects; for soon after I left the deck, the firing commenced on board the Guerriere, and was kept up almost constantly until about six o'clock, when I heard a tremendous explosion from the opposing frigate. The effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerriere reel and tremble as tho she had received the shock of an earthquake. Immediately
after this, I heard a tremendous crash on deck, and was told the mizzenmast was shot away. In a few moments afterward the cockpit was filled with wounded men.
At about half-past six o'clock in the evening, after the firing had ceased, I went on deck and there beheld a scene which it would be difficult to deseribe: all the Guer. riere's masts were shot away, and as she had no sails to steady her, she lay rolling like a log in the trough of the sea. The decks were covered with blood, the gun tackles were not made fast, and several of the guns got loose, and were surging to and fro from one side to the other.
Some of the petty officers and seamen, after the action, got liquor, and were intoxicated; and what with the groans of the wounded, the noise and confusion of the enraged survivors on board of the illfated ship, rendered the whole scene fearful beyond description.