Dates of Service: 9/15/1812 - 7/18/1813
Birth Date: 5/7/1774
Death Date: 7/27/1833
William Bainbridge was born to Tory parents in Princeton, New Jersey on May 7, 1774. After a rudimentary education, he went to sea. By age 19, he had earned a master’s berth. When the new United States Navy was being manned in 1798, Bainbridge accepted a lieutenant’s commission. Placed in command of the schooner Retaliation, he sailed to the West Indies to protect trade in the Quasi-War with France, but surrendered to two French frigates. In 1800, he commanded the frigate George Washington and received orders to take tribute goods to Algiers. The Dey forced him to make a voyage to Constantinople flying the Algerine flag. While commanding the frigate Philadelphia in October 1803, he pursued a ship into Tripoli harbor and accidentally ran his ship aground. He and his crew remained prisoners of the Tripolitans until June 1805. Bainbridge requested leave to enter merchant service, but returned home just before the War of 1812. In September 1812, he succeeded Isaac Hull in command of Constitution.
Bainbridge’s poor service reputation made his first days in command of “Old Ironsides” unpleasant ones as the crew gave voice to their feelings. Nevertheless, he completed repairs to the ship and sailed in October with orders to pursue British shipping in the South Atlantic and then move on to the Indian or Pacific Ocean. On December 29, 1812, off the coast of Brazil, he sighted two ships to the north. One made for the port, while the other turned toward Bainbridge. The battle began at about 2:00pm, when the 38-gun British frigate Java opened fire at long range as she came up on the Americans’ larboard (port) quarter. British gunfire was much more effective than the Americans; Bainbridge was wounded and the wheel shot away, making it necessary to send ruder orders two decks down to steer the ship. After further maneuvering in an attempt to gain an advantageous position, Java suddenly turned behind Constitution and raked her from astern. Bainbridge was wounded a second time. The lack of response led the British captain to think his enemy was now running away, so he turned back to regain his windward position.
While the British maneuvered, Bainbridge was recovering and remained in command as the British frigate came back along Constitution‘s larboard side, still at fairly long range. Desperately, Bainbridge steered as close to the wind as he could and set more sail, intent on closing the range to bring his powerful carronades into action. He was successful, and shot away Java’s jib boom, making the vessel difficult to control. Bainbridge was able to rake the frigate from both ahead and astern, and by 5:00pm, as he later wrote, “We made of her a perfect wreck.” Java was scuttled and Constitution returned to Boston and began repairs.
After two years in charge of the Boston station, Bainbridge was ordered to take a squadron to the Mediterranean to stop renewed Algerine piracy in cooperation with another squadron under Stephen Decatur. Much to Bainbridge’s chagrin, Decatur had completed the job by the time he got there. Bainbridge returned to Boston and remained there until another Mediterranean cruise from 1820 to 1821. He then returned to Boston again until 1825, when he served as head the Board of Naval Commissioners in Washington for three years. His remaining years were spent in the Philadelphia and Boston Navy Yards. Bainbridge died in Philadelphia on July 27, 1831 and was interred in the Christ Church Burial Ground.
His service has been honored by the naming of a brig (1843), two destroyers (1903 and 1921), a nuclear-powered guided missile frigate (1962), and a guided missile destroyer (2005).