The Great Chase, July 1812
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
The United States declared war on Great Britain on 18 June 1812. Constitution was loading supplies at Alexandria, Virginia, having just completed a two-month overhaul at the Washington Navy Yard. Her commander, Captain Isaac Hull, was not on board, a First Lieutenant had yet to be appointed, and the Second Lieutenant was ashore, and so it fell to Third Lieutenant George Campbell Read to make the announcement to the newly recruited crew. They responded by requesting permission to give three cheers. It was granted.
In the week that followed, Constitution completed loading stores and moved down the Potomac River near Thomas Creek, where the river’s greater depth permitted her to take aboard her long guns and iron shot. That done, she moved on to Annapolis, where she took on still more supplies, her spar deck battery of carronades, and completed recruiting a crew.
It was a time of constant activity, for not only had the supplies to be properly stowed and powder cartridges made up, but the new men, many of whom had never been to sea before, had to be assigned positions in the organization and exercised to develop teamwork. Even as she lay at anchor, Captain Hull repeatedly ran team drills at the guns and in setting and taking in sail. He knew he would have to be at maximum readiness once he entered the Atlantic, for Britain’s Royal Navy outnumbered the U. S. Navy by about twenty to one in frigates alone!
On 5 July, a Sunday, Hull headed down Chesapeake Bay and trained his crew (they exercised at battle stations nine times in seven days). On the 12th, he cleared the Virginia Capes and turned to the north, under orders to join the squadron commanded by Commodore John Rodgers in or near New York.
A British squadron under Captain Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke, consisting of frigate Shannon (flagship, 38 guns), ship of the line Africa (64 guns), and frigates Aeolus (32) and Belvidera (36), sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, under orders to intercept Rodgers’ squadron. Four days later, when in the vicinity of Nantucket, the squadron was augmented by the arrival of frigate Guerriere (38), which had been diverted from a planned repair period in Halifax. The squadron took up its watch for Rodgers off New York on 14 July. (Unbeknownst to the British, Rodgers was in the mid-Atlantic at this time.)
As Hull later reported, “For several days after we got out the wind was light and ahead which with a strong southerly current prevented our making much way to the Northward.” On the 16th, “at 2 PM being in 22 fathoms of water off Egg Harbor [New Jersey] four sail of Ships were discovered from the MastHead to the northward and in shore of us; apparently Ships of War.” Hull headed for them, thinking it might be Rodgers’ squadron. At 3, unable to identify the ships, the American turned eastward to keep his distance. An hour later, yet another ship was seen heading toward them from the northeast. The airs continued light, so sunset came with the latest ship still too far off to identify. Hull decided to continue to get nearer, but prudently cleared his ship for action and beat to quarters at 7:30.
Ten o’clock came and went, and still six or eight miles separated the closing ships. Hull made the U. S. code signal for the day, and after an hour of no response decided that all five in his vicinity were British men-of-war. He turned away to the southeast to clear the coast and gain maneuvering room. The unidentified late arrival appeared to be signaling the other four inshore. It was about 11 PM, and the hunt was on.
The lone pursuer gradually closed on Constitution throughout the first watch of the 17th until she was within gunshot range to larboard. Near 4 AM, she fired a signal rocket and two guns — evidently telling her mates she was with an American — and then opened her distance to the north.
“At day light,” wrote Hull, “or a little before it was quite light, saw two sail under our Lee, which proved to be Frigates of the Enemies [Aeolus and Belvidera]. One frigate astern within about five or six miles [Guerriere], and a Line of Battle Ship, A Frigate, a Brig, and a Schooner, about ten or twelve miles directly astern all in chase of us it being nearly calm where we were. Soon after Sunrise the wind entirely left us, and the Ship would not steer it fell round off with her head towards the two Ships under our lee.”
Hull was not about to drift aimlessly near so many enemies. Two cutters were set to towing the big frigate. At the same time, guns were shifted so that they could be fired directly astern: two in Hull’s cabin itself and two above on the spar deck, where a portion of the transom had been cut away to give them a field of fire.
It was a half hour before the British realized the American was under tow and began putting boats of their own in the water. By 6:30 AM, the snail’s pace chase was proceeding under tow. Had there been a wind, Constitution would have been favored to escape, but with more men and boats, the enemy was seen to have the trump cards. Hull’s First Lieutenant, Charles Morris, suggested that the shallow waters in which they were operating (about 20 fathoms) might make it possible to kedge the ship more rapidly than towing her. The Captain saw the merit of the suggestion and ordered it be done.
Kedging involved hauling a small anchor out ahead of the ship, slung under a ship’s boat. When at the limit of its cable, about 200 yards, the anchor was dropped, and sailors at the anchor capstan in the ship gradually would wind the ship up to a position over the anchor. While they were doing this, a second boat with another anchor was moving to a position farther along in the desired direction. This anchor was dropped when the ship was over the first one, cables shifted on the capstan, and the process repeated. It was an operation normally done in harbor or other confined area.
The kedging began about 7 o’clock. The British response to it was to concentrate all their ships boats on the two nearest pursuers. The Americans surely were losing ground. At 9, Belvidera opened fire, but all her rounds fell short. Hull answered with his four stern guns, but most of his shot went over. Shortly thereafter, Guerriere also saw her shot fall short.
About 9:30, a light breeze came up and Hull got in two of his boats. At 10, Hull began pumping drinking water over the side to lighten ship. The British responded by concentrating all of their boats on towing Shannon, but Hull held on to his narrow margin of safety through the continued maximum effort of all hands. At 11, a sufficiently strong breeze arose to permit the big frigate to overtake the rest of her boats and hook them aboard without stopping.
The wind, unfortunately, died about an hour later, and two boats went back to towing. Gunfire was exchanged again about 2 PM, without result. Slight advantage seesawed from one side to the other. At 3:30, an enemy got dangerously close; then Hull managed to widen the gap again. At 7, Hull had all eight of his boats towing. Men not actively engaged dropped and napped where they could, rotating from boat crew to shipboard duty and back again, in an exhausting effort. It was a performance expected of a seasoned crew, and exceptional for one so green. Hull’s preparation was paying off. Happily, as if to mark the end of this trying 24 hours, at 11 a smart breeze sprang up and Constitution was in her element. The crew got a chance to rest, if not relax.
At dawn on the 18th, the Americans were cheered to discover that they had opened a two to three mile gap between themselves and their pursuers during the nighttime hours. Hull decided to clear coastal waters if at all possible, and turned eastward. This brought him within gunshot range of Aeolus, but the British Captain feared that the concussion of his guns would take the wind out of his sails and cost him his close-in position. Instead of shooting, he tamely tacked into Hull’s wake and continued the chase.
At 9, Hull set the skysails for the first time. Shortly thereafter, he saw an American merchantman to windward and also saw the British warships trying to fool the civilian into thinking they were Americans and thus be able to capture him. Hull could play that game, too: he hoisted a British flag and set more sail as if he were going to chase the merchant, and the latter hastily got himself out of harm’s way. Once again, Hull’s crew had responded well to a new and different situation even as they continued to escape peril themselves — a virtuoso performance.
At this point, the worst seemed over. By noontime, the situation actually was beginning to be comfortable. The British still were in dogged pursuit, but Constitution clearly was outsailing them as she headed eastsoutheast. Belvidera was 3 1/2 miles dead astern. Shannon was four or five miles away on the port quarter. Africa could be seen between the two, back on the horizon. Out abaft the port beam about five miles were Aeolus and Guerriere. If they could do nothing else, the British at least were in a position to prevent Constitution from getting to New York.
The gap continued to widen, and by 4 six miles separated the big American frigate from her closest antagonist. Nonetheless, Hull kept up his efforts to gain every last iota of power from the wind. Setting and resetting sails, he watched wind and water for clues as to what to expect, minute by minute. This alertness paid a big dividend at about 6:30 that evening, when he saw a squall line ahead. Judiciously, he took in his studdingsails and royals. Then, having his men act as if they were in a panic, all topgallant sails and the jib were taken in and the mizzen topsail and spanker reefed. To the British, it appeared that the American was about to be hit by a squall of unexpectedly great intensity, and they began taking similar, although apparently more prudent action. But Hull’s men had been faking their panic, and as soon as the rather ordinary squall passed over them, its rain momentarily obscuring them from the British, all topgallants and the main topsail staysail were reset and drawing in a trice.
The British had been fooled! By 7:30, two of them had fallen so far back that their hulls no longer were visible. By 9, Hull had every stitch but the skysails set and Constitution was picking up the pace. At 10:30, two British guns were heard off on the port quarter, apparently some sort of signal. At 11, the end of the second day of chase, only one enemy could be made out, dead astern.
Hull was breathing easier, but not letting up. The log records at least hourly adjustments to the sails, still seeking any and every advantage. At dawn on the 19th, four British ships still were in sight, but at least twelve miles distant. Not satisfied, Hull had his crew begin wetting the sails with sea water brought aboard with fire pumps. Constitution sped on, and at 8:15 the British were seen to give up, change course to the north, and, Hull thought, probably return to their cruising station off New York.
Isaac Hull and his crew, whose total sea time together amounted to just seven days, had given the British a fifty-seven hour demonstration of Yankee seamanship and endurance. It would not be the last time this combination would embarrass their British cousins.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. A Timonier Book. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1997.
Morris, Charles. “Autobiography.” Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. VI, No. 12. 1880.
Smith, Moses. Naval Scenes In The Last War. Boston: Gleason’s Publishing Hall. 1846.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM