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1812: The Navy’s War

The Constitution and the Guerriere

With the bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812 ongoing there is sure to be a wave of books covering the conflict on the way. I don’t pretend to know the merits of these future publications, but I can recommend one that is already available at a bookstore near you. 1812: The Navy’s War, by George Daughan, gives the War of 1812 the treatment it so richly deserves. Despite the title the book doesn’t limit its scope to the naval action of the war, but broadens to include the politics and land war, which makes it a must read for anyone trying to understand that period in American history.

For a sense of author George Daughan’s scholarly yet readable style as well as the story of how the USS Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides,” enjoy the following excerpt.

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The Constitution’s broadside in weight of metal was a potent 762 pounds, while the Guerriere’s was a bit more than 550. The quality of the officers and crews of both ships, which in the end would make the difference, could not be so easily measured.

The Constitution had a complement of 456 men and was rated at forty-four guns but mounted fifty-six, including thirty twenty-four-pound long guns on the main deck, twenty-four thirty-two-pound carronades on the spar deck, and two long eighteen-pounders at the bow. (Carronades were small, lightweight cannon with wide, short barrels that had a limited effective range of less than five hundred yards but fired large-caliber projectiles.) The Guerriere – undermanned as most British warships – had a crew of only 272, not counting the Americans aboard. She was rated at thirty-eight guns and carried forty-nine. On her main deck thirty eighteen-pound long guns were mounted, and on her spar deck she had sixteen thirty-two-pound carronades, two long twelves, and a twelve-pound howitzer. The Constitution’s broadside in weight of metal was a potent 762 pounds, while the Guerriere’s was a bit more than 550. The quality of the officers and crews of both ships, which in the end would make the difference, could not be so easily measured.

Hull cleared for action around three o’clock, ordering light sails taken in and royal yards struck down, two reefs taken in the topsails, and the foresail and mainsail hauled up. While a marine drummer beat the call to quarters, and all hands raced to their battle stations, Hull steered straight for the enemy, some three miles aways now. As the big ship plowed ahead, the crew gave three cheers, even though everyone knew a gruesome, bloody brawl was only minutes away. Hull later claimed there were no anxious faces. He said the men made it clear to him they wanted to lay the Constitution close alongside the enemy and blaze away. That may or may not have been the case, but there was no doubt Hull himself was fixed on a toe-to-toe slugfest, and by the look of things, so was the British captain.

1812: The Navy's War

1812: The Navy’s War, by George C. Daughan; Basic Books; 491 pages

“Hull was now all animation,” Moses Smith reported. “With great energy and calmness . . . he passed around among the officers and men, [saying] . . . ‘now do your duty. Your officers cannot have entire command over you now. Each man must do all in his power for his country.’”

As Hull bore up, Dacres hoisted an ensign at the mizzen gaff, another in the mizzen shrouds, and jacks at the foretopgallant and mizzen topgallant mastheads. At 5:05 the Constitution continued to run down on the enemy, and as she did, the Guerriere fired a broadside, but the balls fell short. A sea was running, and her gunners might not have adjusted sufficiently for the roll of the ships. Dacres then wore and gave the Constitution a broadside with his larboard guns. Only two balls struck, however, and they bounced harmlessly off the Constitution’s think hide, earning her the immortal sobriquet “Old Ironsides.” Hull moved closer and hoisted American colors at the mizzen peak, the foretopgallant, and the mizzen topgallant mastheads, and he made one ready for hoisting at the main masthead. All the while, Dacres had been maneuvering to gain the weather gauge, but finding he could not, he bore up to bring the wind on his quarter and ran under topsails and jib, firing at the Constitution as he went.

“Hull was now all animation,” Moses Smith reported. “With great energy and calmness . . . he passed around among the officers and men, [saying] . . . ‘now do your duty. Your officers cannot have entire command over you now. Each man must do all in his power for his country.’”

Hull responded by setting the main topgallant and closing the Guerriere’s larboard quarter. Once there, the Constitution passed to Guerriere’s beam, the distance between them narrowing from two hundred yards to a half pistol shot (ten yards). It was six o’clock. Hull had fired only a few shots as he approached, but now he let loose a barrage of crushing broadsides, his double-shotted twenty-four-pounders spewing out deadly round and grapeshot. They were far more devastating than the Guerriere’s eighteens, and they staggered the smaller ship. Dacres fired back as fast as he could. But in fifteen minutes the Guerriere’s mizzenmast went by the board, and her main yard was in the slings, while her hull and sails had taken a tremendous beating.

Dacres was in trouble. His mizzenmast had fallen over the starboard quarter, but its still uncut standing rigging held it fast to the ship, making her impossible to maneuver, and she swung up into the wind. Meanwhile, Hull put the Constitution had to port, crossed the enemy’s bows, and raked her. He then wore ship and came back across her bows again, delivering another crushing broadside with his portside guns. The two raking broadsides created havoc on the Guerriere’s forecastle, and ripped into her sails and fore rigging. At the same time, she had use of only a few of her bow guns. Meanwhile, Hull’s sharpshooters in the tops rained musket balls down on the Guerriere’s deck.

USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere

“The Engagement” depicting the action between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, Aug. 19, 1812. Oil on canvas, 32″ x 48″, by Michel Felice Corne (1752-1845), depicting the two frigates sailing toward each other at the commencement of the battle. Constitution is shown on the right, with crewmen working aloft. Artwork courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

Dacres tried putting his ship hard to port, but her helm would not answer, and her bowsprit and jib-boom swept over the Constitution’s quarterdeck, becoming entangled in the lee mizzen rigging, cause the Guerriere to fall astern of the Constitution. The ships were now tenuously hitched together. Lieutenant Charles Morris leaped up on the taffrail to see if Dacres was forming a boarding party. He was. Boarding was his only chance now. Although the American crew far outnumbered his own, he might get lucky. In any event, he was determined to fight it out hand-to-hand.

When Morris saw Dacres preparing to board, he shouted to Hull, and the captain ordered his own boarders to assemble. Trumpets were now sounding on both ships, calling the boarding parties. While waiting for his own men to gather, Morris began wrapping the main brace over the Guerriere’s bowsprit to better fasten the ships together. Suddenly, a musket ball, fired by one of the Guerriere’s marines assembling to board, struck him in the body, and threw him back on the deck stunned. Lieutenant William Bush of the marines was standing nearby, and another ball hit him, killing him instantly. Sailing Master John Alywin was grazed on the shoulder by another. Despite his injury, Morris somehow stood up and remained in the fight.

The ships now separated unexpectedly, making boarding impossible. Hull resumed pummeling the enemy from a short distance for several minutes, when the Guerriere’s foremast suddenly went over the side, taking with them the jib boom and every spar except the bowsprit. She was now completely disabled, rolling helplessly in the trough of the sea, taking in water from open gun ports and shot holes in her hull.

Seeing that his ship was doomed, and probably sinking, Dacres called his officers, and they agreed that further resistance would be a needless waste of lives. Dacres fired a gun to leeward, indicating he had struck his colors. He could not actually haul them down because they had all gone over the side with the masts.

In twenty minutes Read returned with Captain Dacres, who confirmed the surrender and offered his sword to Hull. Without hesitating, Hull refused to take it from so gallant a foe and invited Dacres to his cabin. Having been badly wounded in the back by on the of the Constitution’s sharpshooters, Dacres moved with great difficulty. Although he was grateful for Hull’s solicitude, he was shocked when he later discovered (or thought he did) that “a large portion” of the ship’s company were British seaman. There was no way he could prove they were, of course.

Hull, in the meantime, had ordered his sails filled and hauled off to repair damages to the braces and other rigging before returning to the fray; all the while he watched to see if Dacres had surrendered. It was impossible to find out; no enemy flags were visible. Hull heard the single cannon blast, but that could have been a stray gun going off. He needed to confirm if Dacres had actually given up. He hoisted out a boat and sent Third Lieutenant Read and Midshipman Gilliam over to the Guerriere  under a flag of truce to determine if Dacres had surrendered, and if he had, to inquire if he needed assistance. Hull thought the Guerriere was sinking.

In twenty minutes Read returned with Captain Dacres, who confirmed the surrender and offered his sword to Hull. Without hesitating, Hull refused to take it from so gallant a foe and invited Dacres to his cabin. Having been badly wounded in the back by on the of the Constitution’s sharpshooters, Dacres moved with great difficulty. Although he was grateful for Hull’s solicitude, he was shocked when he later discovered (or thought he did) that “a large portion” of the ship’s company were British seaman. There was no way he could prove they were, of course.

Reprint from 1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of The Perseus Books Group. © 2011.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to George Daughan and Basic Books for giving Defense Media Network permission to run the preceding excerpt.