William Bainbridge’s Account of the Engagement with HMS Java
This three-page secretarial document contains an extract copied from the journal of Commodore William Bainbridge, who was USS Constitution’s second captain during the War of 1812. The document, transcribed by a clerk and signed by Bainbridge, recounts the engagement between USS Constitution and HMS Java on December 29, 1812.
While sailing off the coast of Brazil, USS Constitution sighted two British ships on the horizon. The larger of the two ships—HMS Java, a 38-gun frigate (but mounting 47) commanded by Captain Henry Lambert–tacked toward Constitution. The Americans opened fire as the range decreased, but the gun crews had difficulty hitting their target. Soon, Java ranged alongside Constitution and the battle commenced. As the two ships maneuvered to rake each other, or deliver a broadside down the length of the opponent’s deck, Java suddenly turned under the American’s stern and fired. British shot smashed Constitution’s wheel and wounded or killed the four quartermasters manning it. The same broadside shattered a railing surrounding the after hatchway, embedding a shard of copper in Captain Bainbridge’s thigh. Despite his wound, Bainbridge rallied his crew, rigged tackles on the rudder to retain control of his ship, and regained his dominant position. The heavy American shot, coupled with the defensive properties of Constitution’s thick hull, began to turn the tide of battle. Captain Lambert decided to board the American frigate, and aimed Java’s shattered bow at Constitution. As the ships neared, American shot toppled Java’s foremast and the boarding attempt failed. Soon after, Lambert received a mortal wound in the shoulder. The Americans fired several more broadsides and then stood off out of range to repair damaged rigging. On Java, the devastation was complete. Constitution swept back to her wallowing foe an hour later and took up a raking position off her bow. First Lieutenant Henry Ducie Chads surrendered the British frigate. Constitution had won her second victory of the War of 1812. After removing the British crew, Bainbridge determined that Java was too damaged to be taken back to an American port. A demolition party lit fires in Java’s hold around noon on December 31, and at 3:00 the magazine exploded.
This secretarial copy, which reports the minutes taken during action from the American perspective, was sent to the Navy Department in Washington with accompanying letters, and subsequently sent on to President James Madison.