Constitution Defeats HMS Guerriere
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Early on the morning of 30 August 1812, a lone frigate crept quietly into Nantasket Roads outside of Boston harbor. The few who saw her come in couldn’t believe their eyes: beneath the Stars and Stripes was flying a blue ensign of the British Royal Navy! It didn’t seem possible, but a unit of the tiny American Navy had taken the measure of the mightiest fleet in the world.
When Isaac Hull sailed USS Constitution from Boston on Sunday, 2 August 1812, the war with Britain was a little more than six weeks old. He had sailed earlier from Annapolis, Maryland, under orders to join the squadron of Commodore John Rodgers at New York. Denied entrance to New York by a blockading British squadron, he stopped at Boston to try and contact Rodgers, but Rodgers already had sailed, and there were no further orders for him. He then decided, on his own, to get clear of the coast and raise havoc with the British at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a crossroads of shipping making for Canadian ports.
Once clear of the harbor, life settled into wartime routine. At 1 that afternoon, the crew was assembled for a reading of the Articles of War so that everybody understood the rules of the business. Later, Hull ordered battle stations for practice in loading and aiming the thirty 24-pounder long guns on the gun deck and the twenty-four 32-pounder carronades on the spar deck. His crew was terribly green, and their enemy, the Royal Navy, had been at war with the French for twenty years.
When not training, equipment was readied against the day of battle. Two days were spent making and fitting protective iron-strapped canvas caps for men assigned to board an enemy ship. Wads and sponges were made for the great guns. The small arms — cutlasses, boarding axes, pistols, blunderbusses, muskets, and swivels — were cleaned and readied. Additional rigging was run parallel to existing lines as a hedge should any vital piece be shot away and perhaps limit the ship’s maneuverability.
On the 15th, having already captured and burned one British merchantman, Constitution came upon a British war-sloop attacking four American ships. Three already had been made prize; the fourth turned out to be the American privateerDolphin. Hull retook the three prizes, and from his British prisoners learned that six frigates were patrolling the general area on the alert for the likes of Constitution. With no further success, he turned southward toward Bermuda two days later.
At 2 P.M. on 19 August, when about 600 miles southwest of Cape Race, Newfoundland, a sail was spied to the south on that cloudy, breezy day. After an hour in chase, it was clear the contact was a full-rigged ship on the starboard tack. In another thirty minutes, that she was a frigate was certain.
At 3:45, the chase lay her main topsail to the mast, an invitation to duel. With the caution of man who had never done it before, Captain Hull ordered his topgallant sails, stay sails, and flying jib taken in, the fore and main sails hauled up, a second reef taken in the topsails, and the royal yards sent down. Then he beat to quarters, upon which the crew gave three cheers.
The frigates were about a mile apart at 4:10, when the enemy hoisted three British blue ensigns to her masts and “discharged her Starboard Broadside at us without effect.” Hull altered course to larboard to throw off enemy gunners. “She immediately wore round, and discharged her Larboard Broadside two shot of which rubbed us and the remainder flying over and through our rigging, we then hoisted our Ensigns and Jack, at the Fore and Main Top Gallant Mastheads.” This time, Hull altered to starboard. The British thought he was attempting to maneuver himself into a raking position directly across their bow or stern, where they would be most vulnerable to enemy fire, and they kept reversing course as a preventive maneuver. The Americans during this period were firing only single guns as ranging shots, perhaps hoping for a lucky hit.
After forty-five minutes of maneuvering, the Briton, impatient that his foe had not taken advantage of his upwind position to come down on him rapidly, turned southeastward and put the wind “rather on his Lab’d Quarter,” which Hull correctly understood was an invitation to move into close quarters and slug it out.
He reset his main topgallant sail and moved in, his gun crews at the ready with their guns double-shotted with round and grape shot for a full broadside.
At about five o’clock, the big American’s bow was nearly even with the Briton’s stern with the latter to larboard. Hull hauled down his jib and let the main topsail shiver to slow down as he ranged alongside. Reportedly at his command, “Now, boys, hull her!,” the first broadside crashed out at the Britisher half a pistol shot distance away. Again and again, the heavy American guns roared. The rotund Hull is said to have split his breeches, jumping up and down in the excitement. After twenty minutes, the Briton’s mizzen mast was seen to totter, then crash over his starboard side in a welter of dragging rigging. At nearly the same time, his main yard was shot from its slings. “Huzza boys! We’ve made a brig of her! Next time we’ll make her a sloop!” The American crews gave three cheers and went on firing.
The return fire from the British frigate generally was high, in line with their practice of seeking to disable an enemy’s motive power. Some of Constitution’s braces were slashed and her fore royal truck shot away, together with two halyards — one bearing an American flag. Amidst the cannonade, Seaman Daniel Hogan climbed the rigging and returned the ensign to the topmast. British shot striking the hull made little impression. Someone saw a British ball make a dent and fall away into the sea, and cried out, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” And so the famed nickname of “Old Ironsides” was born.
The dragging wreckage slowed the Briton, and caused him to slew toward Constitution. The British Captain tried first to counteract the swing with his rudder, but when that failed he tried to speed it up so he might cut close under Hull’s stern and rake him with a devastating broadside. Simultaneously, Hull attempted to turn across the Briton’s bow and rake, “but our braces being shot away…we could not effect it.” The net effect of the two captains’ actions was that the British ship crashed into Constitution’s larboard mizzen rigging, destroying the quarter boat in the davits, and momentarily becoming snagged. The Britisher swung astern gradually and smashed the stern boat and the spanker boom and gaff before pulling free to wallow in the choppy sea, still dragging the mizzen wreckage.
Isaac Hull next took up a position off his crippled enemy’s larboard bow from which he fired several broadsides into him, according to one report blowing the first two gun ports on that side into one gaping hole. There was only weak gunfire in return.
Satisfied that his enemy still could not maneuver, Hull attempted to lay across his bow from whence he could deliver raking fire until the foe surrendered. But something happened as he maneuvered and the two ships again collided, this time with the Briton’s bowsprit snagged in the starboard mizzen rigging as the American hit him with two more broadsides.
Both sides tried to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity to send boarding parties into the other ship, but the small arms fire from each side prevented it. American Marine Lieutenant William Sharp Bush was killed instantly by a shot in the head. And First Lieutenant Charles Morris, who leaped up to replace him, received a serious wound in the abdomen. The even deadlier American musketry killed the British Second Lieutenant, and wounded the Captain, First Lieutenant, and Sailing Master.
The ships pulled apart before any further attempts could be made. In parting, the British bowsprit was whipped, sending a shock wave up the fore stay to the weakened foremast that caused it to snap and fall. As it did so, its plunging weight pulled the decayed and damaged mainmast with it, leaving the enemy dead in the water without means to maneuver. Ironically, he had just succeeded in cutting away the mizzen wreckage.
After pausing for temporary repairs, Captain Hull maneuvered Constitution in for the kill. Recognizing any further shooting would result in needless bloodshed, the enemy hauled down his flag. It was shortly before 7 P.M. A boarding party was immediately organized and sent across to take possession.
At 8, the boat returned with the wounded commander, Captain James Richard Dacres, late of His British Majesty’s FrigateGuerriere. His ship, which he had commanded since the previous year, had been captured from the French in 1806. She mounted thirty 18-pounder long guns on her gun deck, fourteen 32-pounder carronades and one 12-pound howitzer on her quarterdeck, and two 12-pounder long guns and two 32-pounder carronades on her forecastle — forty-nine guns in all. At the time of the battle, she had been on her way to Halifax for repairs to her rotten masts and worn rigging, and to have her befouled hull scraped.
The Constitution–Guerriere fight was a straight-forward, toe-to-toe clash between two confident adversaries. Constitutionwas the bigger, heavier, and because of a recent overhaul, the faster. The greater damage done was the result of the Americans aiming at the more lightly-built enemy hull, which had been penetrated thirty times. The British gunfire, aimed principally at the American rigging and spars, did some damage, but was denied its goal of downing the masts by their stouter construction, which was better able to withstand damage. Nonetheless, after the battle Hull splinted both his fore and main masts as a precaution because of the hurt done to them.
After scuttling the helpless Guerriere the next day, Captain Hull headed for Boston where his ship could be repaired. He arrived there on 30 August without incident, and America went wild with the good news.
Militarily, this battle had no effect on the outcome of the war. But, coming as it did when the American public had been receiving bad news from other fronts, and when a considerable portion of the country was against the war, Hull’s brief report of his victory, which abbreviated the length of the fight and said nothing either about the two collisions or the damage his ship had suffered, left Americans exulting over the apparent ease with which Uncle Sam had blasted a hated unit of John Bull’s huge and seemingly invincible Royal Navy from the face of the sea.
Fowler, William M., Jr. Jack Tars & Commodores. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
Grant, Bruce. Captain Of Old Ironsides. Chicago: Pelligrini and Cudahy, 1947.
Martin, Tyrone G. “Isaac Hull’s Victory Revisited.” The American Neptune, Winter 1987.
—. Undefeated: “Old Ironsides” In The War Of 1812. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company, 1996.
—. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM