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USS Constitution Defeats the HMS Guerriere - History

USS Constitution Defeats the HMS Guerriere - History


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On August 19, 1812 the USS Constitution defeated the HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. The battle lasted for an hour and marked a great victory for the Navy.

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The first major naval encounter of the War of 1812 took place between the USS Constitution, commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, and the HMS British Guerriere, commanded by Captain Dacres. The two ships were both rated as frigates and carried similar armaments. The British captain was sure of victory, and before the encounter he was reported to have said- "There is a Yankee Frigate: in forty five minutes she is surely ours take her and I promise you four months pay."
As the two ships approached each other, the British kept up a steady fire of long-range cannon fire. The early shell bounced off the hull of the Constitution without causing any damage. It is said that a cry went up "hurrah- her sides are made of iron!"- Thus her name soon became "Old Ironside". When the two ships were 25 feet apart, Hull gave the order to open fire. The cannon hit the Geurrier with devastating effect. Within a short time all the masts of the Guerriere were down and Dacres had no choice but to surrender. While the victory of the Constitution militarily was a modest success, its political effect was substantial. It solidified support from New England for the war effort and countered the poor war news coming from the Canadian front.


This Day In History: USS Constitution Beats HMS Guerriere During War Of 1812

On this day in history, August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution won a successful victory in single ship action against the HMS Guerriere.

The victory was not necessarily a great victory from a military perspective considering that the United States had a considerably smaller fleet of ships compared to the 600 ship Royal Navy, but the victory greatly boosted morale and American patriotism. So a moral victory it was.

There was a lack of public support for the war before the battle, but after it, support increased dramatically. The win also validated the point that the United States was becoming a powerful nation.

Both ships prepared for action after sighting one another around 2 pm, and shortened sail to “fighting sail.” As the Constitution closed in, Captain James Richard Dacres of the HMS Guerriere fired a broadside, which fell short of its target, and then ran before the wind for three quarters of an hour with the Constitution on her quarter. Dacres yawed several times to fire broadsides at the Constitution, but the Guerriere’s broadsides were mostly inaccurate, while the few shots fired from Constitution’s foremost guns had little effect.

After one cannonball bounced “harmlessly” off the side of the Constitution, a crew member yelled “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Once the range had closed to within a few hundred yards, Captain Hull of the USS Constitution ordered extra sail to be set, to close the distance quickly.

Dacres did not match this maneuver, and the two ships began exchanging broadsides at “half pistol-shot”, with the Constitution to starboard and Guerriere to port. After fifteen minutes exchanging shots, during which Guerriere suffered far more damage than the Constitution due to the Constitution’s larger guns and thicker hull, Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell overboard to starboard, acting like a rudder and dragging the ship all over the place.

This allowed Constitution to get ahead of Guerriere, firing a raking broadside which brought down the main yard. Hull then crossed Guerriere’s bow again, firing another raking broadside, but the maneuver was cut too close and the Guerriere’s bowsprit became entangled in the rigging of the Constitution’s mizzenmast. On both ships, boarding parties were summoned and the two sides exchanged musket fire. Captain Dacres was wounded by musket shots.

Some of the gunners aboard Guerriere fired at point-blank range into Hull’s stern cabin, setting the American ship on fire briefly. The two locked ships eventually broke free. The Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast both snapped off at deck level, leaving the ship helpless. Dacres attempted to set sail, but it too had been damaged and broke. The Constitution meanwhile ran downwind for several minutes, repairing damage to the rigging, before once again wearing and beating upwind to return to battle.

As the Constitution prepared to get back into the action, the Guerriere fired a shot in the opposite direction to the Constitution, signaling a surrender. Hull ordered a boat to take a Lieutenant over to the British ship. When the Lieutenant boarded the Guerriere and asked if Guerriere was prepared to surrender, Captain Dacres said, “Well, Sir, I don’t know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone – I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag.”


When The US Navy Came Of Age, Showing For The First Time What It Could Do

Sweat poured down the brows of eight American sailors, their white-knuckled fists gripping long oars. The bosun bellowed at them to pull for their lives as the faint whistle of a cannon ball was heard over the commotion behind them.

It fell short, sending a pillar of water towards the sky, and was immediately answered by an American cannon spewing smoke and iron in return.

The sailors were some of the many men, selected from the crew of USS Constitution (44 guns, and 450 souls), tasked with kedging pulling their anchor out forward and dropping it. Thus allowing the large ship to pull itself along a line attached to it.

Behind the Constitution crept HMS Africa (64 guns), HMS Aeolus (32 guns), HMS Shannon (38 guns), HMS Belvidera (36 guns) and HMS Guerriere (38 guns).

Kedging, wetting sails, and firing at every possible opportunity, the five ships of the English squadron strained towards the lone American frigate, whose crew fought desperately to escape what they knew was certain defeat.

After 57 hours of arduous struggle, Constitution slipped below the horizon, finally free from her pursuers. She made as much speed as she could muster towards Boston, safety, and home.

The view from the deck during the chase. This is likely a depiction of kedging, the crew onboard are preparing the anchor to be carried forward by one of the boats.

That was how the War of 1812 began for the crew of USS Constitution , a frigate built in 1797. She was one of only six frigates in the tiny United States Navy, far outnumbered by the Royal Navy. Constitution and her sisters were not outdone.

They were some of the most advanced ships on the water at the time, thanks to their designer Joshua Humphreys.

He had created a design which was thinner, longer, and stiffer than anything else in the world. This allowed his ships to achieve greater speeds, without sacrificing the number of cannons carried or hull strength.

When war broke out in June 1812, this new design had not been tested against an adversary of equal power. On July 12th she set sail from Annapolis, on a voyage which would secure her a place in American memory forever.

She was searching for an American squadron led by Commodore John Rodgers when she discovered the ships she was approaching were English, initiating her nail-biting escape. She finally made Boston on July 27th but knew full well that those five English ships would be close on her wake.

Her Captain, Isaac Hull, took on enough supplies for a six-month voyage, replenished their water (which they had thrown overboard during the chase), and prepared to set sail as soon as possible.

The great ship and her 450 man crew set out again, on August 2nd, bound for the prize-rich shipping lanes off Halifax, in Nova Scotia.

The Constitution in 1803. Her straight lines and thicker, stiffer hull, made her an excellent sailing ship.

She prowled the frigid waters of the Grand Banks, capturing three British merchant ships. Captain Hull was not certain if Boston was still a free and open port, or if the British had blockaded it.

He could not risk sending a crew with a prize English merchant ship, only to have it recaptured. Every ship he took had to be burnt, once the crew was safe aboard Constitution .

While cruising, Constitution met almost no resistance, until on August 18th, sails were sighted to her south. She let fly all of her canvas, beat to quarters and chased after what appeared to be an English sloop of war and a convoy. After a two hour chase,

After a two hour chase, Constitution finally closed on the smaller vessel. Upon boarding her, both ships discovered they had misidentified the other the Constitution found her prey was an American privateer, by the name of Decatur.

Decatur saw that it was an American frigate which had chased her, not the English one which she had evaded the day before.

Suddenly the atmosphere onboard Constitution changed, her carefree days of raiding convoys was over. There was an English frigate about, and the Americans could not resist the opportunity to prove what their ship could do. They beat to quarters again and set sail on a southerly course.

The gun crews on board Constitution grew excited as they approached their opponent. They trusted in their ship and knew their captain would not fail them.

The next day, after many hours of hard sailing, a sail finally appeared. At 4 bells (2pm), the faint outline of a ship was sighted on the horizon, directly south.

By 6 bells (3pm) she was identified as a frigate (likely the same which had chased Decatur ). Both ships hoisted battle sails (topsails and jibs) and cleared their decks for action. Tension must have filled the air.

The two massive war machines raced towards each other, but it was another hour before they were close. Each man stood by his gun, looking to the captain of the gun crew, waiting for the precise order to fire.

As the two ships closed, the English frigate raised three English flags at 8 bells (4pm).

Five minutes later a rippling report of 16 cannons broke the relative silence. The English frigate, now recognized as HMS Guerriere , one of the five ships which had chased Constitution barely a month ago, unleashed her starboard broadside.

16 plumes of water shot up in front of the American ship all had fallen short. Guerriere turned, bringing her other side to bear, and unleashed another rippling broadside.

Again they fell short. It was now close to 2 bells (5pm).

While Constitution approached, Guerriere turned back and forth, trying to find a good position for an effective shot. For nearly an hour the ship danced about until Constitution was close enough for a pistol shot.

The British fired first. A massive broadside, over 500 pounds of iron, smashed into Constitution’s side but the thick planking and dense wood withstood the barrage.

One sailor was heard to cry “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” as one ball rolled harmlessly down the fortress-like walls. The American ship opened fire, its cannons belching flame, and metal. The two floating hulks exchanged broadside after broadside. While

The American ship opened fire, its cannons belching flame and metal. The two floating hulks exchanged broadside after broadside. While Constitution stood high, whole and nearly undamaged, the Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell, collapsing in a heap of line, canvas, and wood.

The English ship turned, wrapping her bow into Constitution’s rigging, entangling the two.

“We’ve made a brig of her!” one midshipman was heard to cry as the mizzen mast fell on Guerriere.

Boarding parties readied themselves from both ships, but no one could cross the narrow beam. The English gun crew fired shot directly into Captain Hull’s cabin, setting it ablaze.

Soon the sea forced both ships apart, their rigging straining and snapping as they broke away. Guerriere’s remaining two masts broke apart, pulled down by the tangle of ropes. Constitution pulled away, making quick repairs.

The Guerriere is finally cut down, all of her masts destroyed.

Soon she sailed back up to her crippled foe, preparing to land the final blow. Guerriere fired a single cannon, acknowledging defeat, and asking for mercy. Captain Hull obliged, sending a Lieutenant over to accept. The Lieutenant asked if Guerriere had struck her colors.

Captain Dacre, in command of the English ship, reportedly said “Well, Sir, I don’t know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone – I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag.”

The Lieutenant returned to Constitution with Dacre, who offered Hull his saber, the traditional sign of defeat. Hull refused, saying that the Englishman had fought as well as could be expected and he had nothing but respect for him.

James Richard Dacres, as a Vice Admiral later in his career. While he suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Constitution it was understood, thanks in part to a letter of recommendation written by his opponent, Captain Isaac Hull, that he did his duty to the last, and was simply soundly beaten.

Now Hull was faced with a problem. He had a British frigate, which could be captured and repaired but this might risk a recapture as their travel would be slow. He opted instead, to take every man on board captive, and burn the Guerriere .

He sailed to Boston, to bring news of one of the first great victories of the war, to a public that was already weary of English blockades, and constant fear.

Captain Isaac Hull, the hero of the battle. His skill, combined with the ship’s superior construction, brought about one of the first American naval victories in the War of 1812.

The Constitution has become one of the most iconic symbols of the Unites States Navy. Following her return to Boston, she continued to fight until the end of the war in 1815.

Today, after numerous restorations, she sits as the oldest commissioned warship still afloat and, as of 2015, the only commissioned US warship to have sunk an enemy vessel.


Aftermath [ edit | edit source ]

Captain Dacres was escorted aboard the Constitution. Hull refused to accept Dacres' sword of surrender, saying he could not accept the sword from a man who had fought so gallantly. ΐ] He also ordered that Dacres' mother's Bible be returned to him. ΐ] The Guerriere was clearly sinking, and the wounded were transferred to the Constitution. Hull found that ten impressed Americans had been serving aboard Guerriere but Dacres had permitted them to stay below decks instead of fighting their countrymen. ⎛]

Hull wanted the Guerriere towed in as a prize ship. The Constitution lay by the Guerriere during the night but at daybreak it was obvious that the Guerriere could not be salvaged. The prisoners and the American salvage parties were brought aboard Constitution and at three o'clock in the afternoon, the Guerriere was set on fire, and soon blew up. ⎜]

Although Constitution was capable of continuing her cruise (she was substantially undamaged and still had two thirds of her ammunition), Hull wanted the American public to have news of the victory. He reached Boston ten days later, and his news (with the obvious proof of more than two hundred prisoners of war) caused rejoicing. The Guerriere had been one of the most active ships of the Royal Navy in stopping and searching American merchant vessels, and the news of her defeat was particularly satisfying to the American seafaring community. ⎝] Ironically, Hull was never to hold another fighting command. ⎛] Just three days before he defeated Guerriere, his uncle, General William Hull, had surrendered Fort Shelby to a greatly inferior British force. Another misfortune for Isaac Hull was the death of his brother, who left a widow and children whom Hull was now duty-bound to support. Seeking a commission that would better accommodate his new domestic responsibilities, Hull asked Navy secretary Hamilton if he could exchange commands with Captain William Bainbridge, under whom he had served during the Barbary Wars and who was then commander of the Boston Navy Yard. Hamilton agreed, and on 15 September 1812, Hull took over the Navy Yard and Bainbridge the Constitution.

Once released by exchange of prisoners and returned to Halifax, Dacres was tried by court martial, as was customary in the case of a Royal Navy ship lost from any cause. He put forward as his defence the facts that the Guerriere was originally French-built, captured by the Royal Navy in 1806, and therefore not as sturdy as British-built ships, and more importantly, that the Guerriere was badly decayed and in fact on her way to refit in Halifax at the time, and the fall of the mizzen mast which crippled the Guerriere early in the fight had been due as much to rot as battle damage. ⎞] There was no suggestion that Dacres and his men had not done their utmost, or that Dacres had been unwise to engage the Constitution. (Early in the War of 1812, it was accepted in the Royal Navy that a British 38-gun frigate could successfully engage a 44-gun frigate of any other nation.) Dacres was therefore acquitted. ⎟]


USS Constitution Defeats the HMS Guerriere - History

Naval Battle: the Constitution vs. the Guerriere 1812
by R. Taylor



The Constitution and the Guerriere 1812

O n August 2nd 1812 the "Constitution" set sail departing from Boston and sailed east in hopes of finding some British ships. After meeting no British ships, the "Constitution" sailed along the coast of Nova Scotia, and then Newfoundland, finally stationing off Cape Race in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. It was here that the Americans captured and burned two brigs of little value. On August 15th the "Constitution" recaptured an American brig from the British ship-sloop "Avenger", however the British ship managed to escape. Captain Isaac Hull put a crew on the brig and they sailed it back to an American port.

At 2:00 p.m. on August 19th the crew of the "Constitution" made out a large sail which proved to be the British frigate "Guerriere" captained by James Dacres. At 4:30 p.m. the two ships began to position themselves and hoisted their flags (colours). At 5:00 p.m. the "Guerriere" opened fire with her weather guns, the shots splashed in the water short of the American ship. The British then fired her port broadsides, two of these shots hit the American ship, the rest went over and through her rigging. As the British prepared to fire again the "Constitution" fired her port guns. The two ships were a fair distance apart, and for the next 60 minutes or so they continued like this with very little damage being done to either party.

At 6:00 p.m. they moved closer, at 6:05 p.m. the two ships were within pistol-shot of each other. A furious cannonade began, at 6:20 p.m. the "Constitution" shot away the "Guerriere's" mizzen-mast, the British ship was damaged. The "Constitution" came around the "Guerriere's" bow and delivered a heavy raking fire which shot away the British frigate's main yard. The Americans came around yet again and raked the "Guerriere". The mizzen-mast of the British ship was now dragging in the water and the two ships came in close to each other. The British bow guns did some damage to the captain's cabin of the "Constitution", a fire even started there. An American officer by the name of Lieutenant Hoffmann put the fire out.

It was about here that both crews tried to board the others ship, or at least thought about it. And it was also here where most of the "Constitution's" casualties were taken. In fact both sides suffered greatly from musketry at this point. On the "Guerriere" the loss was much greater. Captain James Dacres was shot in the back while cheering on his crew to fight. The ships finally worked themselves free of each other, and then the "Guerriere's" foremast and main-mast came crashing down leaving the British ship defenceless.

At 6:30 p.m. the "Constitution" ran off a little and made repairs which only took minutes to complete. Captain Isaac Hull stood and watched at 7:00 p.m. as the battered British ship surrendered, unable to continue the fight.

The "Constitution" had a crew of 456 and carried 44 guns. The Guerriere had a crew of 272 men and carried 38 guns. The American casualties were 14, which included Lieutenant William S. Bush, of the marines, and six seamen killed. And her first lieutenant, Charles Morris, Master, John C. Alwyn, four seamen, and one marine wounded. Total seven killed and seven wounded. Almost all the American casualties came from the enemy musketry when the two ships came together. The British lost 23 killed and mortally wounded, including her second lieutenant, Henry Ready, and 56 wounded severely and slightly, including Captain Dacres for a total of 79. The rest of the British crew became prisoners.


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USS Constitution in the War of 1812:

The USS Constitution fought in numerous battles of the War of 1812. The ship earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” after it fought the British ship, HMS Guerriere, on August 19, 1812 during the early phase of the war.

During the battle, several cannonballs hit the USS Constitution and simply bounced off the ship’s sides. The crew noticed this and declared the sides were made of iron. The ship’s officers and several press publications started using the “Old Ironsides” nickname and the name stuck.

The USS Constitution defeated five British warships during the War of 1812, the HMS Guerriere, Java, Pictou, Cyane and Levant, and captured many merchant ships.

After the War of 1812, she served in the Mediterranean and helped intercept and capture slave ships, such as the H.N. Gambrill, off the coast of Africa.

After the support of Captain “Madjack” Percival, and a strong public reaction to a newly published Oliver Wendell Holmes poem titled “Old Ironsides,” saved her from being scrapped in the 1840s, the Navy renovated the ship and sent it on a world tour between 1845-1846 under Madjack’s command.

The purpose of the tour was to chart areas not covered by the Wilkes expedition. The ship stopped in Brazil, Madagascar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Hawaii before receiving orders to sail to Mexico to provide provision for the impending U.S. war with the country.


USS Constitution Defeats HMS Guerriere

Today in Military History: On Aug. 19, 1812, two months after the start of the War of 1812, the USS Constitution commanded by Capt. Issac Hull defeated the HMS Guerriere commanded by Capt. James Richard Dacres about 600 southwest of Newfoundland.

After a fierce action that lasted nearly an hour, the 38-gun British ship is badly damaged and set ablaze by 44-gun American frigate’s heavier and more accurate fire. Having lost all three masts and with the largely unscathed Constitution bearing down to reengage, the Guerriere fires a lee gun to surrender.

The British ship suffered heavy damage and casualties, sinking the following day. Constitution rescued some 200 sailors, taking the prisoner of war.

The battle is historically significant in shaping America’s reputation as a seapower.

The victory over Guerriere represented the young American Navy’s first triumph over a Royal Navy ship during the War of 1812, giving a welcome morale boost after setbacks on land. Constitution would go on to defeat four other British warships during the war.

In its age, Constitution was a technological marvel: a larger and heavier than other frigates of the era, she was also faster — top speed of 13 knots (15 mph) — than ships that could outgun her. Built of live oak and heavy bracing, her sides were 21 inches thick but also more resilient to enemy fire. It was during the engagement with Guerriere that Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides,” after an American sailor, seeing an enemy round bounce off his ship, exclaimed that her sides were made of iron.

Constitution was one of six frigates proposed by President George Washington and authorized by the Naval Act of 1794. She was designed Joshua Humphreys and built at Edmund Hart’s shipyard in Boston’s North End. Constitution was ordered on March 1, 1794, and commissioned on Oct. 21, 1797. Some 60 acres of trees were used to build her, while Paul Revere supplied bolts and copper sheeting for her hull.

She has remained in service with the US Navy ever since, serving various duties including training ship for the US Naval Academy, and is the world’s oldest commissioned ship afloat.

Today, Constitution has a crew 60 officers and sailors, with Cmdr. Robert S. Gerosa Jr. serving as the ships 74th commanding officer.


he young Republic fell prey to the Barbary pirates, as American merchants were set upon in the Mediterranean. George Washington reluctantly paid the ransom for the crews, but that was not the end of the story. In March of 1794 Congress authorized the building of six frigates, the real beginning of the United States Navy. Not only would the Americans settle the hash of the pirates, those ships would remain in service for many years and fight France in the “Quasi-war,” and the British in the War of 1812. One of those vessels, the USS Constitution, is still an active, commissioned Naval warship — the oldest in the world. In 1812 she earned a nickname — “Old Ironsides.”


Battle Between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere

Launched in 1797, the 44-gun frigate was built to beat any other frigate of France or Britain, and outrun ships of the line. She often exceeded her rating with up to fifty guns. She boasted a twenty-one-inch thick hull of southern live oak from Georgia, a brilliant choice of wood in combination with her white pine masts from Maine and copper sheathing made by Paul Revere! Constitution performed solid service around the Mediterranean Sea in a patrol that lasted for four years and almost caused a mutiny in the crew. Resupplied and refitted in Boston, her home port, the Constitution under Captain Isaac Hull sailed out of Annapolis with a new crew, against the British Navy three months after the declaration of war in June of 1812. As providence would have it, the USS Constitution spotted HMS Guerriere off the coast of Canada near the mouth of the St. Lawrence in August, and took off in hot pursuit.


USS Constitution fires a salute during an Independence Day demonstration in Boston

The British frigate, in command of Captain James Richard Dacres, had broken off from the fleet for a much needed refit in Halifax. Guerriere fired the first broadside, which fell short, and then made a run for it. Captain Hull ran the Constitution “within pistol shot range” and the two ships exchanged broadsides for fifteen minutes. Some of the English cannonballs bounced off the oaken hull of the American ship, causing one sailor to shout that her sides were made of iron! After a raking fire that brought down the main yard of Dacres’ ship, they swung around in such a manner that the British could only use her bow guns while the Constitution fired broadsides. The mainmast and foremast “fell by the board”. The result of such a contest caused one-third of the British seamen to fall dead or wounded and the entire ship turned into a floating wreck. Captain Dacres struck his colors. His ship was sinking, so the crew was taken off by the Americans and the ship set ablaze till it blew up.


Sailplan Sketch of the USS Constitution

The loss of HMS Guerriere made but a small dent in the six-hundred-ship British navy, but the victory for the Americans made a huge impact on the morale and patriotic fervor of a population already discomfited by military defeats and anti-war sentiments. Some historians believe the victory by the USS Constitution was a pivotal point in American history. The psychological effect of a small victory at the right time can boost the morale of a nation far beyond its actual military accomplishment. George Washington found that out at Trenton and Princeton. The engagement was Captain Hull’s only battle he subsequently took over the navy yard in Bainbridge and Constitution received a new captain.


Constitution vs Guerrière, 19 August 1812

The clash between USS Constitution and HMS Guerrière was the first significant American victory of the War of 1812. It was an early indication that this was not going to be the war that either side had expected. At the start of the war the United States expected to win easy victories on land but to be overpowered at sea. Pre-war plans saw the US Navy staying in port, acting as a &ldquofleet in being&rdquo and only coming out in emergencies. These plans were only changed after the captains of the five major ships then at New York had a personal audience with President Madison to put their case.

The war began with a series of indecisive encounters between the American and British fleets. Although the Royal Navy was nearly sixty times larger than the U.S. Navy, the vast majority of British ships were needed elsewhere. Only eight larger ships were immediately available &ndash HMS Africa, a small 64 gun ship of the line, and seven frigates. Admittedly this was still a superior force to the five ship American squadron that started the war at New York (three frigates and two sloops), but this was would not be dominated by squadron sized actions.

Instead the War of 1812 would become famous for a series of clashes between single frigates. Here the U.S. Navy had a big advantage. The standard European frigate was designed to carry 38 18-pdr guns, giving them a broadside of 342lb. U.S.S. Constitution was a rather more powerful ship. Not only was she significantly more strongly built that her British opponents, she had been built to carry 44 24-pdr guns, giving her a broadside of 528lb. The American frigates were also normally much better manned than their British opponents. The Royal Navy relied on conscription to provide many of her men, had trouble rounding up enough men, and even more trouble keeping them. On 19 August the Guerrière would be carrying 280 men, 10 of whom were impressed Americans who were sent below when they refused to fight their fellow countrymen. In contrast the small U.S. Navy had no problem finding volunteers (including a number of British deserters). The U.S.S. Constitution would enter the battle with just over 550 men.

The U.S. Navy had one final advantage that would perhaps worry the British more than anything else. The American sailors were at least as good and as well led as their British opponents. For twenty years the Royal Navy had been able to assume, with some justification, that most of their opponents were inferior sailors. During the long war with France the navy had become used to winning victories over larger better armed opponents.

This tradition of success was clear in the mind of Captain James Dacres of the Guerrière, who early in the war had issued a challenge to any American frigate that wanted to engage in a fair fight. His ship might have been undermanned, but by August 1812 it was over-gunned, carrying 49 guns, which gave her a broadside similar to that of the Constitution as built. Unfortunately for Dacres, the USS Constitution had also been up gunned, and was now carrying 55 24-pdrs and a number of 32-pdr carronades.

The Constitution left Boston on 2 August for a cruise off the St. Lawrence, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. He was the nephew of General William Hull, then commanding the American army around Detroit. Contrary to some accounts, Captain Hull did not set sail on learning of the fall of Detroit &ndash on 2 August his uncle was still on Canadian soil, while Detroit was not surrendered until 16 August. News of the disaster could hardly have reached Boston by 19 August, yet along reached Captain Hull out at sea.

While cruising off the St. Lawrence, the Constitution sighted the Guerrière at long distance at around 2.00pm on 19 August. When Dacres identified the distant ship as an American frigate he began to prepare for battle. The British frigate opened fire at long range at just after 5.00pm, zigzagging so that she could fire both broadsides, but without any success. The two ships finally came together in a battle of broadsides just after 6.00pm. The British maintained a higher rate of fire than the Americans, firing three broadside for every two fired by the Constitution, but the American fire was both more accurate and more damaging.

The Guerrière soon lost her mizzenmast, and suffered heavy damage to her rigging and sails. Captain Hull was able to get the Constitution into a position where she could rake the Guerrière without taking heavy fire herself. The British ship soon lost her remaining sails, and was helpless. Captain Dacres struck his colours. The British had suffered 15 dead and 63 wounded by this time, representing one third of her crew, while the Constitution was virtually undamaged and had only suffered 7 dead and 7 wounded.

The defeat of the Guerrière caused deep shock in Britain and an outpouring of enthusiasm for the navy in the United States. Worse was to come. In October USS United States defeated HMS Macedonia and in December the Constitution scored another victory, this time over HMS Java (although by then Captain Hull had resigned his command). A massive public debate would follow in Britain, where the Navy&rsquos control of the seas had been taken for granted, especially since the battle of Trafalgar. In the United States these naval victories helped to make up for embarrassing failure of the land campaign against Canada.

The Line upon a Wind, Noel Mostert. This is an excellent account of the greatest naval war of the age of sail. Mostert covers a wider range of topics than most books on this subject, while always remaining readable. There is a good section on the rise of American naval power and the War of 1812 [see more]

The USS Constitution – Leading The Power Of The US Navy For The First Time

Sweat poured down the brows of eight American sailors, their white-knuckled fists gripping long oars. The bosun bellowed at them to pull for their lives as the faint whistle of a cannon ball was heard over the commotion behind them.

It fell short, sending a pillar of water towards the sky, and was immediately answered by an American cannon spewing smoke and iron in return.

The sailors were some of the many men, selected from the crew of USS Constitution (44 guns, and 450 souls), tasked with kedging pulling their anchor out forward and dropping it. Thus allowing the large ship to pull itself along a line attached to it.

Behind the Constitution crept HMS Africa (64 guns), HMS Aeolus (32 guns), HMS Shannon (38 guns), HMS Belvidera (36 guns) and HMS Guerriere (38 guns).

Kedging, wetting sails, and firing at every possible opportunity, the five ships of the English squadron strained towards the loan American frigate, whose crew fought desperately to escape what they knew was certain defeat.

After 57 hours of arduous struggle, Constitution slipped below the horizon, finally free from her pursuers. She made as much speed as she could muster towards Boston, safety, and home.

The view from the deck during the chase. This is likely a depiction of kedging, the crew onboard are preparing the anchor to be carried forward by one of the boats.

That was how the War of 1812 began for the crew of USS Constitution , a frigate built in 1797. She was one of only six frigates in the tiny United States Navy, far outnumbered by the Royal Navy. Constitution and her sisters were not outdone.

They were some of the most advanced ships on the water at the time, thanks to their designer Joshua Humphreys.

He had created a design which was thinner, longer, and stiffer than anything else in the world. This allowed his ships to achieve greater speeds, without sacrificing the number of cannons carried or hull strength.

When war broke out in June 1812, this new design had not been tested against an adversary of equal power. On July 12th she set sail from Annapolis, on a voyage which would secure her a place in American memory forever.

She was searching for an American squadron led by Commodore John Rodgers when she discovered the ships she was approaching were English, initiating her nail-biting escape. She finally made Boston on July 27th but knew full well that those five English ships would be close on her wake.

Her Captain, Isaac Hull, took on enough supplies for a six-month voyage, replenished their water (which they had thrown overboard during the chase), and prepared to set sail as soon as possible.

The great ship and her 450 man crew set out again, on August 2nd, bound for the prize-rich shipping lanes off Halifax, in Nova Scotia.

The Constitution in 1803. Her straight lines and thicker, stiffer hull, made her an excellent sailing ship.

She prowled the frigid waters of the Grand Banks, capturing three British merchant ships. Captain Hull was not certain if Boston was still a free and open port, or if the British had blockaded it.

He could not risk sending a crew with a prize English merchant ship, only to have it recaptured. Every ship he took had to be burnt, once the crew was safe aboard Constitution .

While cruising, Constitution met almost no resistance, until on August 18th, sails were sighted to her south. She let fly all of her canvas, beat to quarters and chased after what appeared to be an English sloop of war and a convoy. After a two hour chase,

After a two hour chase, Constitution finally closed on the smaller vessel. Upon boarding her, both ships discovered they had misidentified the other the Constitution found her prey was an American privateer, by the name of Decatur.

Decatur saw that it was an American frigate which had chased her, not the English one which she had evaded the day before.

Suddenly the atmosphere onboard Constitution changed, her carefree days of raiding convoys was over. There was an English frigate about, and the Americans could not resist the opportunity to prove what their ship could do. They beat to quarters again and set sail on a southerly course.

The gun crews on board Constitution grew excited as they approached their opponent. They trusted in their ship and knew their captain would not fail them.

The next day, after many hours of hard sailing, a sail finally appeared. At 4 bells (2pm), the faint outline of a ship was sighted on the horizon, directly south.

By 6 bells (3pm) she was identified as a frigate (likely the same which had chased Decatur ). Both ships hoisted battle sails (topsails and jibs) and cleared their decks for action. Tension must have filled the air.

The two massive war machines raced towards each other, but it was another hour before they were close. Each man stood by his gun, looking to the captain of the gun crew, waiting for the precise order to fire.

As the two ships closed, the English frigate raised three English flags at 8 bells (4pm).

Five minutes later a rippling report of 16 cannons broke the relative silence. The English frigate, now recognized as HMS Guerriere , one of the five ships which had chased Constitution barely a month ago, unleashed her starboard broadside.

16 plumes of water shot up in front of the American ship all had fallen short. Guerriere turned, bringing her other side to bear, and unleashed another rippling broadside.

Again they fell short. It was now close to 2 bells (5pm).

While Constitution approached, Guerriere turned back and forth, trying to find a good position for an effective shot. For nearly an hour the ship danced about until Constitution was close enough for a pistol shot.

The British fired first. A massive broadside, over 500 pounds of iron, smashed into Constitution’s side but the thick planking and dense wood withstood the barrage.

One sailor was heard to cry “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” as one ball rolled harmlessly down the fortress-like walls. The American ship opened fire, its cannons belching flame, and metal. The two floating hulks exchanged broadside after broadside. While

The American ship opened fire, its cannons belching flame and metal. The two floating hulks exchanged broadside after broadside. While Constitution stood high, whole and nearly undamaged, the Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell, collapsing in a heap of line, canvas, and wood.

The English ship turned, wrapping her bow into Constitution’s rigging, entangling the two.

“We’ve made a brig of her!” one midshipman was heard to cry as the mizzen mast fell on Guerriere.

Boarding parties readied themselves from both ships, but no one could cross the narrow beam. The English gun crew fired shot directly into Captain Hull’s cabin, setting it ablaze.

Soon the sea forced both ships apart, their rigging straining and snapping as they broke away. Guerriere’s remaining two masts broke apart, pulled down by the tangle of ropes. Constitution pulled away, making quick repairs.

The Guerriere is finally cut down, all of her masts destroyed.

Soon she sailed back up to her crippled foe, preparing to land the final blow. Guerriere fired a single cannon, acknowledging defeat, and asking for mercy. Captain Hull obliged, sending a Lieutenant over to accept. The Lieutenant asked if Guerriere had struck her colors.

Captain Dacre, in command of the English ship, reportedly said “Well, Sir, I don’t know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone – I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag.”

The Lieutenant returned to Constitution with Dacre, who offered Hull his saber, the traditional sign of defeat. Hull refused, saying that the Englishman had fought as well as could be expected and he had nothing but respect for him.

James Richard Dacres, as a Vice Admiral later in his career. While he suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Constitution it was understood, thanks in part to a letter of recommendation written by his opponent, Captain Isaac Hull, that he did his duty to the last, and was simply soundly beaten.

Now Hull was faced with a problem. He had a British frigate, which could be captured and repaired but this might risk a recapture as their travel would be slow. He opted instead, to take every man on board captive, and burn the Guerriere .

He sailed to Boston, to bring news of one of the first great victories of the war, to a public that was already weary of English blockades, and constant fear.

Captain Isaac Hull, the hero of the battle. His skill, combined with the ship’s superior construction, brought about one of the first American naval victories in the War of 1812.

The Constitution has become one of the most iconic symbols of the Unites States Navy. Following her return to Boston, she continued to fight until the end of the war in 1815.

Today, after numerous restorations, she sits as the oldest commissioned warship still afloat and, as of 2015, the only commissioned US warship to have sunk an enemy vessel.


Watch the video: USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere (July 2022).


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