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Escaping a British Squadron

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Less than a month after the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, Captain Isaac Hull of USS Constitution, at anchor in Alexandria, Virginia, was ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron at New York. Constitution headed to sea and, on July 16, 1812, off Egg Harbor, New York, the masthead lookout spied a squadron of warships. Hull thought these ships belonged to Rodgers’s squadron, and he ordered all sail made in chase. Unfortunately, he was mistaken. Instead of a friendly squadron, Hull and his crew found themselves in the midst of five British ships: HMS Africa, HMS Belvidera, HMS Aeolus, HMS Shannon, and HMS Guerriere.

Greatly outnumbered, Constitution turned and ran. The ship did not get far, however, because the wind soon died away, leaving the ship and her pursuers becalmed. Hull immediately made the best of the situation. He ordered some guns moved aft and ports cut through the stern, so he could fire astern. The crew began jettisoning stores and provisions to lighten the ship’s weight. Meanwhile, the ship’s boats began towing the ship away from the enemy in a maneuver called kedging. This operation involved carrying a kedge anchor as far ahead of the ship as the cable would allow. Once the anchor settled in the seabed, the crew hauled in the cable and the ship was pulled forward through the water. As the first anchor came aboard, a boat dropped a second anchor ahead of the ship, keeping it in constant motion. This worked well, but the British soon discovered the trick and deployed their own anchors. HMS Shannon, the frigate closest to the Americans, quickly closed the gap.

This unrelenting multi-day chase came to an end as the ominous clouds of a squall built on the horizon. Knowing that the British had copied everything he had done thus far, Hull took a gamble and ordered Constitution’s sails furled. The British, not used to the weather in American waters, followed suit. As soon as the squall struck, Hull quickly spread his sails again and seized upon the squall, leaving the British in his wake. Having escaped their pursuers, the Americans turned toward Boston and arrived there unharmed on July 27, 1812. The narrow escape demonstrated Constitution’s sailing capabilities and readiness for war.

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