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The HMS Guerriere Battle

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USS Constitution, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, sailed from Boston on August 2, 1812 and steered for the blustery waters southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. After two weeks of daily gun drills in preparation for combat, Hull and his crew sighted the British frigate HMS Guerriere, under the command of Captain James Richard Dacres, on the afternoon of August 19, 1812. Guerriere was one of the ships in a British squadron Hull and his crew had outrun a few weeks earlier.

As Guerriere closed to within a mile of Constitution, the British hoisted their colors and released a broadside, but the cannonballs fell short. The crew asked Hull for permission to return fire, but he refused so as not to waste the first broadside. Soon, however, Constitution slid alongside her opponent and Hull gave command to fire. The battle commenced. Constitution’s thick hull, composed of white oak planking and live oak frames, proved resilient to enemy cannonballs. During the engagement, a British sailor was heard exclaiming, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron! See where the shot fell out!” Boarding parties were summoned as the ships came together, and Lieutenant William Sharp Bush, commander of Constitution’s Marine detachment, took the initiative. Jumping on the taffrail, sword in hand, he called to Hull, “Shall I board her?” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a musket ball hit him in the cheek, instantly killing him. Seeing Bush fall, First Lieutenant Charles Morris leapt to take his place, but he too fell seriously wounded with a ball in the abdomen. Aboard Guerriere, Captain Dacres was gravely wounded when an American musket ball struck him in the back. Before either side could reorganize, the two ships wrenched apart. The severely damaged Guerriere that was forced to surrender.

All through the night, the Americans tended to the wounded and dead, and ferried the British prisoners of war and their possessions across to Constitution. By the morning, it was clear Guerriere could not be saved and Hull made the difficult decision to scuttle the ship by igniting the warship’s powder in the magazines. Constitution and the prisoners sailed for Boston and arrived on August 30. It was not the first American naval victory of the war (that honor went to USS Essex’s crew, who captured HMS Alerton on August 13), but it established Constitution as a household name. Throngs of cheering Bostonians greeted Hull and his crew upon their return. A militia company escorted Hull to a reception at the Exchange Coffee House and more dinners, presentations and awards followed in the ensuing weeks, months, and years. USS Constitution, for her impressive strength in battle, earned the nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”

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