Battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant
On December 24, 1814, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, putting an end to the War of 1812. The hostilities officially concluded on February 17, 1815, when the U.S. Congress ratified the treaty. However, word of the war’s end had not yet reached USS Constitution, at sea three thousand miles away. Having escaped from British blockaders off Boston on December 18, 1814, the ship, under Captain Charles Stewart, had spent the intervening two months cruising Atlantic sea lanes in search of prizes.
By February 20, 1815, Constitution was near the island of Madeira off Portugal. At 1:00 that afternoon, the masthead lookout spied a large ship sailing to the southwest. A half hour later, another ship was spotted further westward. The two ships were HMS Levant, a sloop-of-war mounting 21 guns commanded by Captain the Honorable George Douglas, and HMS Cyane, a 22-gun frigate (mounting 34) commanded by Captain Gordon Falcon. By 5:00 the ships had closed, and Stewart ordered two guns fired to try the range. The shot fell short. At about 6:00, the British shorted sail and formed a line with Levant leading. All the ships hoisted their ensigns and the battle commenced.
Constitution had the windward advantage of greater maneuverability and the ability to block the wind from her opponents’ sails. It also meant that clouds of gun smoke would envelop the British warships, obscuring their view of the American vessel. Stewart ordered his crew to fire. Both British ships returned fire and a 15-minute exchange between the three vessels ensued. Once the smoke cleared, Constitution was alongside Levant and fired a broadside. Then, with Cyane maneuvering to attack Constitution’s port after quarter (a vulnerable spot), Stewart ordered the main and mizzen topsails braced a back, causing the ship to back sternward, under the cover of the gun smoke, surprising Cyane. The battle continued for another 30 minutes.
After more sailing and blistering fire from Constitution’s larger guns, Cyane surrendered just before 7:00. An hour later, Constitution gave chase to Levant and exchanged broadsides. The Americans raked Levant’s stern, thereby prompting Captain Douglas to flee. Constitution pursued, firing with the bow chasers, cutting up the British warship’s rigging and masts. By 10:00, finding they could not escape, Levant surrendered.
Despite the two-to-one advantage of the British, it had hardly been a fair fight. Constitution’s heavier guns and heavy construction were able to both deal out and absorb more punishment than her opponents. Still, it was a hard fought battle with brilliant ship handling, and both the U.S. Navy and the American press were quick to sing the praises of the ship and crew. The battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant was USS Constitution’s last battle engagement during her long career.Read More