In the early months of the War of 1812, the American Navy scored a string of victories over British ships. Royal Navy officers, unaccustomed to losing fights at sea, searched for the causes of the failures. After all, they hadn’t surrendered a frigate since 1803, and to do so to an upstart service without much experience or reputation wounded their professional pride.
Facing courts martial when they returned home, the defeated officers ascribed their loss to many different factors. For some, the small size of their crews, or weak masts, or faulty fittings were reasons for defeat. For others, the American ships were just too large and powerful to be overcome by the standard British frigate.
But the most startling charge, one repeated over and over again, was that the American ships were manned chiefly by former British seamen, men who had cut their teeth while serving under Lord Nelson and his band of brothers.
In his provocative 1817 book, A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the Late War Between Great Britain and the United States of America, British lawyer William James asserted that it was hardly possible to tell an American from an Englishman. Moreover, many men born in Great Britain had taken advantage of the United States’ liberal naturalization laws, and so truly believed they were American citizens.1 British law said otherwise. The Orders in Council of October 16, 1807 asserted the right of the British crown to claim British-born men as subjects, regardless of where they resided or what nation they served.
In his final address to the court martial convened to inquire into the loss of HMS Guerriere, Captain James Richard Dacres communicated the distress he felt after surrendering his ship:
“I felt much shocked, when on board the Constitution, to find a large portion of that ship’s company British seamen; and many of whom I recognized as having been foremost in the attempt to board.”2
The other surviving officers corroborated this testimony, and added detail to the charges. Lieutenant Bartholomew Kent, Guerriere’s executive officer, was examined by the court:
“Court: Did you see many English men on board the enemy when you were taken Prisoner.
Answer: There were several pointed out to me as Englishmen. There were some I knew personally as Deserters from the Halifax Squadron.
Court: Did you understand generally the number she was supposed to have.
Answer: I understood about 200. The Gunner of the Constitution was Captain of the Forecastle in the Eurydice, when she came from England. He was a Scotchman and went by the name of Robert Allen in the Eurydice and in the Constitution by the Name of Anderson. The Third Lieutenant I believe to be an Irishman his name is Reed.
Court: How many of them were supposed to have been in the Action of Trafalgar.
Answer: I understood seventeen of the Captains of Guns were in the British Service in that Action, but I cannot say from what authority.”3
The last assertion seems to have been hearsay or speculation, but Constitution’s gunner’s name was Robert Anderson and Lieutenant George Campbell Read was born in Ireland. Master Robert Scott, who hailed from Scotland, thought he heard the accents of Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cheshire, Lancashire, and Westmorland spoken on Constitution’s decks:
“Court: Did you understand there were any English Seamen in the Constitution.
Answer: I heard there were, and I saw several who were born in England a good number of North Country men. It is impossible I could be deceived in their dialect. I am a Scotchman and served my time from the North country myself.”4
Master’s Mate William John Snow fought on board HMS Achillie at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, and recognized one of his former shipmates in Constitution’s crew:
“Court: When you were on board the Constitution, did you understand there were many Englishmen in her.
Answer: I understood there were 200. One man was in the Achille with me in the Action off Trafalgar. I believe the Gunner and third Lieutenant to be British Subjects.”5
Guerriere’s officers clearly thought they had been largely defeated by British veterans — men they and their colleagues had trained in the art of naval warfare.
But what of the Americans? Did Captain Isaac Hull know or care that he had a crew filled with men from the British Isles?
Evidence suggests that he knew a great deal about the origins of his seamen. Two days after the United States declared war on Great Britain, Hull wrote to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton to tell him that several of his crew “have acknowledged themselves to be deserters from the British Service, and have requested to be removed to some fort, or vessel stationed in Port. They say they are willing to fight for this Country, but are fearful of being hung if taken.” Captain Hull had not yet polled the crew to discover the exact proportion of former British seamen, but he presumed “there are a number sufficient to make a material difference in the strength of the Crew, should they have the feelings in action that they now possess.”6
Paul Hamilton knew that all the American vessels were racing to fill their crews, and he thought mixed allegiances an insufficient reason for discharging prime seamen. In fact, “if they apprehend any serious consequences from being taken,” he replied, “such apprehensions will excite them to additional exertions — for such exertions may ensure their safety.”7
President James Madison had other ideas. Hamilton consulted him a few days later, and the President ordered that “the foreigners — deserters, or alleged deserters from another service” should be discharged from the U.S. Navy. The Secretary cautioned Hull to be wary of any genuine Americans who might be posing as foreigners, and to make sure that only men who really wanted to be excused were discharged, stipulating that those sent from the ship were not entitled to their pay.8
Two days later, Hull wrote to say “only Two have as yet made application to be removed[.] They are good men and do not wish their discharge but are willing to serve their Time out in the Navy Yard or in the Army if their services are wanting.” He sent them up to Washington on a gunboat.9
So, there the matter stood as Constitution sailed down Chesapeake Bay and into the history books. Two weeks before, Hull had thought British deserters made up a “number sufficient” in his crew. Since only two received their discharge, it stands to reason that the others had simply chosen to stick by the ship and take their chances. Hull seems to have looked the other way as well, despite the direct orders from the president.
In the end, it is extremely difficult to arrive at the truth. From the research performed by the USS Constitution Museum over the past decade, we now know a great deal about the origins of many who sailed on Constitution during the war. Some of them were undoubtedly born in Britain or had deserted from the British Navy, but why they chose to fight against the land of their birth is known only to them — and they aren’t talking.
1 William James, A full and correct account of the chief naval occurrences of the late war between Great Britain and the United States of America (London: T. Egerton, 1817), 73.
2 “Record of the Court Martial of Captain James Richard Dacres, Jr., Late Commander of HMS Guerriere,” Public Records Office, ADM 1/5431.
6 Hull to Sec Nav, 20 June 1812, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Captains, M125, Roll 24, National Archives and Records Administration.
7 Sec Nav to Hull, 22 June 1812, Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Navy to Officers, 1798-1868, M149, Roll 10, National Archives and Records Administration.
8 Sec Nav to Hull, 1 July 1812, Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Navy to Officers, 1798-1868, M149, Roll 10, National Archives and Records Administration.
9 Hull discharged twelve men on July 6 while the ship lay off Annapolis. They included the two Englishmen, but also “several old men that will be of little use to us were they kept on board.” Hull to Sec Nav, 3 July 1812, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Captains, M125, NARA; and Log book of the USS Constitution, 6 July 1812, M1030 Roll 1.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.