19 August 2011


Today marks the 199th anniversary of the engagement between the frigates USS CONSTITUTION and HMS GUERRIERE.
On 2 August 1812, CONSTITUTION, under the command of a skillful and eager Navy Captain by the name of Isaac Hull, set out for a raiding cruise of British Merchant ships along the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland before encountering the American privateer DECATUR whose Captain informed Hull that a British frigate could be found south of their position. Hull, itching for a fight, immediately fixed course for due south and went searching for the ship. The very next day at 1400 on 19 August, CONSTITUTION spotted a sail that turned out to be the HMS GUERRIERE.
Now, Hull was all too familiar with GUERRIERE. Just a month earlier and shortly after the outbreak of the war, CONSTITUTION was on her way to New York when she encountered a British squadron of five ships – a 64-gun ship of the line HMS AFRICA and four frigates, one of which was GUERRIERE. Clearly outnumbered, CONSTITUTION had no choice but to outmaneuver and outrun the British ships. Hull led the British ships on a three day chase and employed skillful tactics (such as towing and kedging) along the way to escape capture (thanks in large part to his First Lieutenant, Charles Morris)…but he was anything but content. The encounter left him eager for a fight, and this was his moment.
James Dacres, Captain of the GUERRIERE, was informed of CONSTITUTION’s pursuit and gave the order to drop sail to bring the Americans within firing range. CONSTITUTION was a much better built and equipped frigate but the British had a great tradition of ship-to-ship fighting at sea. Both crews were extremely confident in their abilities and their ships to fight and win this engagement.

At 1700, GUERRIERE commenced firing with her weather deck guns and then switched to her port broadsides, but all the shots either fell short or did little damage. The cannonballs struck but bounced off of CONSTITUTION’s 21-inch thick wooden hull, thus earning her the famous name “Old Ironsides” and vindicating Joshua Humphrey’s insistence on using the rarer and much more expensive southern live oak. CONSTITUTION returned fire during the first hour with her port guns, but also with little effect.

At 1800, precisely one hour after the first shots were fired, the ships maneuvered closer and within minutes they were within “pistol-shot” of each other. They furiously exchanged broadside shots until CONSTITUTION took out GUERRIERE’s mizzenmast and eliminated her ability to effectively maneuver. Hull took advantage of the situation and maneuvered around GUERRIERE’s bow to deliver two raking broadsides that took down her main yard. During the chaos of battle, the ships had maneuvered too closely and GUERRIERE’s bowsprit became entangled with CONSTITUTION’s mizzen rigging leaving the ships bound dangerously close to each another. Both ships prepared boarding parties as musket fire erupted from each side. Ironically, it was during this exchange that both ships took their greatest casualties. As the ships broke free from each other, GUERRIERE’s foremast and mainmast collapsed, and effectively left her dead in the water.

At 1900, as CONSTITUTION approached for round two, GUERRIERE fired a shot in the opposite direction to signal her desire to surrender and thus ended the first major naval engagement of the War of 1812.
Isaac Hull took GUERRIERE’s remaining crew of over 200 as prisoners, including her Captain, James Dacres. Ten impressed Americans were found among the GUERRIERE crew (impressments were one of the reasons we went to war with the British). Casualties onboard GUERRIERE were more than five times those on CONSTITUTION, even though CONSTITUTIONS crew was close to double in size. The next morning, when it was apparent that GUERRIERE was too damaged to be towed, she was burned and sunk. The victory over GUERRIERE gave a much-needed boost to American morale in the war. Although we were only two months into the war, we had already experienced setbacks with losses at Fort Mackinac, Fort Dearborn, and the surrender of Detroit (by General William Hull, who just happened to be the uncle of Isaac Hull). Despite the superior frigates of the U.S. Navy, it was the brilliant seamanship by her Captain and crew that brought victory to CONSTITUTION. There was a fighting spirit among her crew that was unmatched by the British navy.

This great single ship victory over what was considered the greatest strength of the much larger Royal Navy, along with the USS UNITED STATES’ capture of HMS MACEDONIAN and CONSTITUTION’s later victory over HMS JAVA, rocked the Royal Navy back on their heels, and demonstrated the superb fighting spirit of our Sailors and the superb fighting qualities of our ships.
All the best, JCHjr
USS CONSTITUTION fires a 21-gun salute
toward Fort Independence on
Castle Island during an underway to
celebrate the 213th launching
day anniversary of the ship.


Carl Amos Johnson said...


Just walked aboard the Constitution (for the second time) last weekend. It was inspirational, as was your reminder of this historic battle. Modifying Burke's famous quote a little, our Navy is built to fight; we better know how.


Barrett Tillman said...

From the perspective of the XXI century it's amazing how national assets were often used by ship captains as personal weapons. Call out the other fellow for a showdown on Maritime Main Street: cannon at fifty paces! Apart from Constitution v Guerriere, Chesapeake v. Shannon must be one of the classic duels. IIRC Shannon's skipper had been aboard for 6 or 7 years. Today, when we fire more than one CO a month, we must marvel at the longevity of some captains in the age of sail...