By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
When Captain Charles Stewart took command of Constitution in June 1813, he put behind him months of frustration as captain of the frigate Constellation, prevented from getting to sea by the British blockade of Chesapeake Bay. But for one brief period, he repeated the frustrations for another eighteen months in Boston, until a gap in the blockade let him get to sea and win a spectacular double victory.
Sunday, 18 December 1814, dawned fair and clear, with a fresh breeze from the westnorthwest. To seaward, for the first time in months, there was no enemy in sight, not even HMS Arab, the sloop of war used as a “tattletale” for the heavier units usually somewhat farther offshore. At 2 that afternoon, Stewart got his big frigate underway to the cheers of Bostonians who somehow had gotten word of his intent. Chaplain Assheton Y. Humphreys recalled the moment: “We felt that the eyes of the country were upon us and that everything within the bounds of possibility was expected from us…”
Certain that the British would not be long in discovering his absence, Captain Stewart struck out to the south, intending to strike at British blockaders off the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay. Within twenty-four hours, the fair weather gave way to a gray overcast and rising seas. Life became a wet misery as the ship buffeted into a head sea and began shipping water through leaky gun port lids. Compounding the misery, Stewart had left Boston so hurriedly that the ship was short of fresh provisions.
All fresh meat was gone within four days, by which time it was seen that there were no blockaders to strike and the ship turned eastward toward the shipping lanes off Bermuda.
On Christmas Eve, a schooner was sighted flying the British Union Jack, a sign of distress. The ship was Lord Nelson, damaged by the same gale that had buffeted “Old Ironsides” and forced to drop out of her convoy from Newfoundland to the West Indies. On Christmas Day, Lord Nelson was taken in tow as her cargo was transferred to the hungry American, and what a cargo it was! Tongues, corned beef, smoked salmon, cheeses, barrels of sugar, brandy, gin, port wine, tea, flour, and hams “inferior not even to Smithfield Virginia.” By sunset, Lord Nelson had been scuttled and the crew ofConstitution was looking forward to a Yuletide feast.
By 8 February, the ship had swung below the Tropic of Cancer, crossed the Atlantic to a point about 300 miles northwest of the Canary Islands, then turned northward, toward the European coast. On that date, the Hamburg barque Julia told Stewart that rumors in Ireland were that a peace had been signed between representatives of Great Britain and the United States at Ghent, Belgium. Later that same day, a Russian brig provided newspapers with the same report. For the warriors of both countries, however, the state of war would continue until both the British Parliament and the American Congress had ratified the agreement, plus thirty days in which to notify all farflung units.
Eight days later, Constitution was patrolling off the Portuguese coast when she sighted a number of contacts. The first one chased proved to be Portuguese and the second got close inshore before the Americans could come up. The third, however, proved to be the British merchantman Susanna, bound from Buenos Aires, Argentina, for England, with a cargo valued at $75,000. Placing a prize crew aboard, she was sent to the United States as Stewart sailed southward again, looking for action.
The 20th of February 1815, three days after the final ratification of the peace treaty in Washington, dawned cloudy and hazy. A cold, damp northeast wind was sending Constitution toward the southwest under short sail on a course roughly paralleling the African shore and some 180 miles eastnortheast of Madeira Island. The quiet of the day was broken around 1 in the afternoon, when an alert lookout espied a ship on the larboard bow, apparently heading toward the American. A half hour later, a second contact was seen beyond and to the westward of the first one, also coming nearer. It was soon clear that the closer unit was probably a man-of-war.
About 3, the nearer ship began signaling and turned southward, apparently so she could join with the farther unit. Stewart crowded on all sail and went in chase, hoping to bring one or both to battle before night fell and the opportunity be lost.
A sickening crack overhead warned that the main royal mast was giving way. Slowing his pursuit, Stewart sent men aloft to effect repairs. In just an hour, they had the wreckage cleared away, a new stick in place, and all sails drawing smartly once more. With the range closing again, “fired on the chase from the first gun 1st division and the chase gun on the forecastle…” The range was too great.
As Constitution resumed the chase, the enemy “passed within hail of each other, shortened sail, hauled up their courses, and appeared to be making preparations to receive us.” Captain Stewart knew his war-long frustrations were coming to an end and the fight he had sought was at hand. After a brief, unsuccessful effort to get upwind of him, the British “formed on a line of wind at half a cables length from each other.” That is, they were sailing roughly to the west, 100 yards apart, with the smaller in the lead.
A little after 5, Constitution broke the Stars and Stripes as she came ranging up on the windward side of the enemy column. They responded by hoisting Red Ensigns. Shortly thereafter, “Old Ironsides” was alongside the rear ship at about 600 yards, with her sails lifting gently and her momentum carrying her forward until she became the apex of an isosceles triangle formed by the three ships. From this position, Stewart “invited the action by firing a shot between the two ships which immediately commenced an exchange of broadsides.” Firing continued hot and heavy for about fifteen or twenty minutes, when enemy fire slackened markedly, his shot generally falling short. The sea and the combatants were smothered in smoke, and daylight had was fading.
Stewart ceased fire to give time for the smoke to clear off ahead so he could see what was happening. In a few minutes, he saw the rearmost foe apparently turning to get across his stern to fire through his cabin windows down the length of his gun deck, a potential disaster.
Blasting a final broadside into the smoke where he assumed the lead enemy to be, Stewart threw his main and mizzen topsails flat aback, let fly his jib sheet, backed swiftly astern, and unleashed a heavy fire on his new target. The enemy wore back toward his original course, and, because of heavy damage received by his sails and rigging, continued to fall off slowly to port, out of control.
At this point, Stewart saw that the leading enemy now also was trying to turn across his bow for a devastating raking broadside. He reset all his sails and shot forward. As the enemy maneuvered to avoid collision, Stewart hit him with two raking broadsides into his stern at a range of just a hundred yards. The enemy staggered off into the darkness.
Looking once more at his first victim, Stewart maneuvered to place himself between the two and on this one’s larboard quarter at about fifty yards. Before he could fire a broadside, his target fired a single gun to leeward and struck his colors. It was nearly 7 o’clock. In short order, Second Lieutenant Beekman V. Hoffman and fifteen Marines were sent over and took possession of HMS Cyane, a light frigate rated at 24 guns.
At about 8, having removed all British officers to Constitution and assured that his prize crew could control Cyane, Stewart set off after his other enemy. Had she run away to fight another day, or would there be more action this night? The answer was not long in coming, for within fifteen minutes of setting sail, Captain Stewart found himself bearing down on an enemy heading for him.
At about 9, the two passed each other at fifty yards going in opposite directions, and exchanged starboard broadsides. The big American frigate spun on her heel with amazing agility and blasted the enemy with a raking broadside at his stern as he sought to escape downwind.
Constitution went in chase again. At 9:30, the range was short enough that Stewart began picking away at his target with his 24-pounders, shifted to fire forward through the bridle ports. Every shot was sighted and few missed as the range steadily diminished. A flaw in the enemy’s design prevented him shooting astern. Shortly after 10, with a bad situation becoming impossible as Constitution was then ranging up on his larboard quarter, the enemy turned up into the wind and fired a leeward gun in token of surrender. Third Lieutenant William B. Shubrick went over and accepted the surrender ofHMS Levant, rated an 18-gun corvette, at 10:40.
Cyane, the larger of Stewart’s opponents, carried thirty-four guns into this fight, mostly short range carronades. Levantcarried twenty-one guns, again mostly carronades. Whatever their total strength in weight of broadside metal, their strength lay in weapons outranged by Constitution’s thirty long 24-pounders by a factor of about three to one. Her own twenty 32-pounder carronades and two 24-pounder gunades only added to the heavy frigate’s terrible power. The British gunners seem to have concentrated more fire on the American frigate’s hull than they had in her two earlier engagements of the war. Aside from a few lines cut in the opening blasts, she lost only her foretopgallant yard aloft. Her hull, on the other hand, had about a dozen 32-pounder shot embedded in it, none of which was a serious wound. She was still combat ready.
Constitution went into the fight with 451 officers, men, and Marines aboard. She had four killed and fourteen wounded. The British ships, for which public records are sketchy, carried a combined total of about 340 men. At least thirty-five of these were killed and another forty-two wounded.
Charles Stewart and Constitution had everything going for them in this fight: heavier gun batteries, a more heavily built but agile ship, and, thanks to the thoroughness of the British blockade of American ports which had stranded so many prime seamen, perhaps the most skilled crew the ship would ever know. Captain Stewart himself proved to be a superb tactician and shiphandler who took advantage of every opportunity to act decisively and divide and defeat his enemies. His crew responded to his demanding orders with swift and certain sail and gun handling. If the British can be said to have done anything wrong, it would be having had the temerity to challenge him in the first place. On that day, in those circumstances, Stewart, Constitution, and the crew simply were unbeatable.
Forester, C. S. The Age Of Fighting Sail. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1956.
Fowler, William M., Jr. Jack Tars & Commodores. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1984.
Mahan, Alfred T. Sea Power In Its Relations To The War Of 1812. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
—. Undefeated: Old Ironsides In The War Of 1812. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company, 1996.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM