What is this?
Harpers Ferry Rifle, captured from USS President in 1815.
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
This rifle is a model 1803 Harpers Ferry, made at the National Armory in Virginia. Although this gun may have started out as a standard Navy issue weapon, it was eventually changed dramatically by its later owner. Most notably, on the patch box is inscribed the following : “Taken from the Maintop of the U.S.S. PRESIDENT after her capture by H.M.S. ENDYMION, 15th January 1815 by W.N. Griffiths. Midshipman H.M.S. TENEDOS.”
William Nelson Griffiths, Esq., was a midshipman in the British Royal Navy. He served on a number of ships throughout his career. In 1815 he served on HMS Tenedos under Captain Hyde Parker as part of the British blockade of New York. Griffiths later went on to serve under Captain William Edward Parry on multiple polar expeditions between 1819 and 1823. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant on November 13, 1823, and eventually reached the rank of Commander before his retirement from the Navy in 1864. He died at the age of 78 in 1878.
After capturing the badly damaged gun, Griffiths had it repaired, probably replacing the stock, and converted from flintlock ignition to percussion cap. George Dyer, whose name appears on the lock plate of the gun, was a gunsmith working out of Bristol, England during the early to mid 1800s, and did the repairs and conversion, probably in the second quarter of the 19th century. Everything on the gun except the stock and parts of the lock are original 1803 Harpers Ferry and it still bears an armory serial number: “447.” The back of the barrel was cut off to accommodate the new firing mechanism and with it went most of the Harpers Ferry markings. The gun looks like it was heavily used but well handled; the hammer, however, is now cracked.
USS President was the fastest of the six original American frigates. On January 14, 1815 the President, under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur, tried to escape the British blockade under the cover of night. However, she took damage running aground during a snowstorm off the coast of New York; it took the crew over an hour to free the ship and her ballast was thrown out of balance. On the 15th she encountered the British blockading squadron consisting of HMSMajestic, Endymion, Pomone, and Tenedos. The Endymion, a ship designed and outfitted to fight the large American frigates, engaged President first. In the ensuing fight both ships received significant damage. Decatur, seeing that theEndymion had been immobilized by the exchange, chose to flee, but President had also been slowed by damage and was chased and overtaken by Pomone and Tenedos. After taking fire from Pomone, President surrendered and was taken back to England as a prize. She was too badly damaged to be refit and was later broken up at Portsmouth, England. Midshipman Griffiths, on board Tenedos, was directly involved in the capture of President and thus would have been permitted to take this rifle as a personal souvenir.