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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Constitution and the Guerriere
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[At the beginning of the war with England the navy of the United States numbered but nine frigates and a few sloops of war, while Great Britain had a hundred ships of the line, and more than a thousand vessels bearing her flag. Yet, weak as was our navy, it was stronger than the British naval force then in American waters, and there was reason to hope for some successes ere the latter could be reinforced. No time was lost by the ardent commanders of the American ships of war. Among other vessels, the forty-four-gun frigate Constitution put to sea, and was soon after chased by a British squadron, from which she escaped with great difficulty. The story of the victorious event which soon followed we select from Headley's "Second War with England."]

On the 28th of July an order was sent from the Secretary of the Navy to Captain Hull, at Boston, to deliver up the Constitution to Commodore Bainbridge and take charge of the frigate Constellation. But, fortunately for him and the navy, just before this order reached him he had again set sail, and was out on the deep, where the anxieties of the department did not disturb him. Cruising eastward along the coast, he captured ten small prizes near the mouth of the St. Lawrence and burned them. In the middle of the month he recaptured an American merchantman and sent her in, and then stood to the southward. On the 19th he made a strange sail, one of the vessels that a few weeks before had pressed him so hard in the chase. When the Constitution had run down to within three miles of him, the Englishman laid his maintop-sail aback, and hung out three flags, to show his willingness to engage. Captain Dacres, the commander, surprised at the daring manner in which the stranger came down, turned to the captain of an American merchantman whom he had captured a few days before, and asked him what vessel he took that to be. The latter replied, as he handed back the glass to Dacres, that he thought from her sails she was an American. "It cannot be possible," said Dacres, "or he would not stand on so boldly." It was soon evident, whoever the stranger might be, he was bent on mischief. Hull prepared his vessel for action deliberately, and, after putting her under close fighting canvas and sending down her royal yards, ordered the drums to beat to quarters. It was now five o'clock, and, as the Constitution bore steadily down towards her antagonist, the crew gave three cheers. The English vessel was well known, for she had at one of her mast-heads a flag proudly flying, with the "Guerriere" written in large characters upon it. When the Constitution arrived within long gunshot, the Guerriere opened her fire, now wearing to bring her broadside to bear, and again to prevent being raked by the American, which slowly but steadily approached. The Englishman kept up a steady fire for nearly an hour, to which the Constitution replied with only an occasional gun. The crew at length became excited under this in-action. The officer below had twice come on deck to report that men had been killed standing idly at their guns, and begged permission to fire; but Hull still continued to receive the enemy's broadsides in silence. The Guerriere, failing to cripple the Constitution, filled and moved off with the wind free, showing that she was willing to receive her and finish the conflict in a yard-arm to yard-arm combat. The Constitution then drew slowly ahead, and the moment her bows began to lap the quarters of the Guerriere her forward guns opened, and in a few minutes after the welcome orders were received to pour in broadside after broadside as rapidly as possible. When she was fairly abeam, the broadsides were fired with a rapidity and power that astounded the enemy. As the old ship forged slowly ahead with her greater way, she seemed moving in flame. The mizzen-mast of the enemy soon fell with a crash, while her hull was riddled with shot and her decks slippery with gore. The carnage was so awful that the blood from the wounded and mangled victims, as they were hurried into the cockpit, poured over the ladder as if it had been dashed from a bucket. As Hull passed his antagonist he wheeled short round her bows to prevent a raking fire. But in doing this he came dead into the wind; his sails were taken aback; the vessel stopped; then, getting sternway, the Guerriere came up, her bows striking the former abeam. While in this position, the forward guns of the enemy exploded almost against the sides of the Constitution, setting the cabin on fire. This would have proved a serious event but for the presence of mind of the fourth lieutenant, Beekman Verplanck Hoffman, who extinguished it. As soon as the vessels got foul, both crews prepared to board. The first lieutenant, Morris, in the midst of a terrific fire of musketry, attempted to lash the ships together, which were thumping and grinding against each other with the heavy sea, but fell, shot through the body. Mr. Alwyn, the master, and Lieutenant Bush, of the marines, mounting the taffrail to leap on the enemy's decks, were both shot down, the latter killed instantly with a bullet through the head. Finding it impossible to board under such a tremendous fire, the sails of the Constitution were filled, when the vessels slowly and reluctantly parted. As the Constitution rolled away on the heavy swell, the foremast of the Guerriere fell back against the mainmast, carrying that down in its descent, leaving the frigate a helpless wreck, "wallowing in the trough of the sea." Hull, seeing that his enemy was now completely in his power, ran off a little way to secure his own masts and repair his rigging, which was badly cut up. In a short time he returned, and, taking up a position where he could rake the wreck of the Guerriere at every discharge, prepared to finish her. Captain Dacres had fought his ship well, and, when every spar in her was down, gallantly nailed the jack to the stump of the mizzen-mast. But further resistance was impossible, and to have gone down with his flag flying, as one of the English journals declared he ought to have done, would have been a foolish and criminal act. A few more broadsides would have carried the brave crew to the bottom, and to allow his vessel to roll idly in the trough of the sea, a mere target for the guns of the American, would neither have added to his fame nor lessened the moral effect of his defeat. He therefore reluctantly struck her flag, and Lieutenant Read was sent on board to take possession..

[On boarding the vessel the crew were found to be in a state of disgusting intoxication, Captain Dacres, on surrendering his ship, having told the men to go below and get some refreshments, which they liberally interpreted as a free permission to drink.]

This vessel, as well as all the English ships, presented another striking contrast to the American. Impressment was so abhorred that British officers were afraid of being shot down by their topmen during an engagement, and hence dared not wear their uniforms, while ours went into action with their epaulettes on, knowing that it added to their security, for every sailor would fight for his commander as he would for a comrade.

Captain Hull kept hovering round his prize during the night; and at two o'clock "Sail ho!" was sent aft by the watch, when the Constitution immediately beat to quarters. The weary sailors tumbled up cheerfully at the summons, the vessel was cleared for action, and there is no doubt that if another Guerriere had closed with the Constitution she would have been roughly handled, crippled as the latter was from her recent conflict.

After deliberating for an hour, the stranger stood off. In the morning the Guerriere was reported to have four feet of water in the hold, and was so cut up that it would be difficult to keep her afloat. The prisoners were, therefore, all removed, and the vessel set on fire. The flames leaped up the broken masts, ran along the bulwarks, and wrapped the noble wreck in a sheet of fire. As the guns became heated, they went off one after another, firing their last salute to the dying ship. At length the fire reached the magazine, when the blew up with a tremendous explosion. A huge column of smoke arose and stood for a long time, as if petrified in the calm atmosphere, and then slowly crumbled to pieces, revealing only a few shattered planks to tell where that proud vessel had sunk. The first English frigate that ever struck its flag to an American ship of war had gone down to the bottom of the ocean, a gloomy omen of England's future. The sea never rolled over a vessel whose fate so startled the world. It disappeared forever, but it left its outline on the deep, never to be effaced till England and America are no more.

The loss of the Constitution was seven killed and seven wounded, while that of the Guerriere was fifteen killed and sixty-four wounded, a disparity that shows with how much more precision the American had fired. It is impossible, at this period, to give an adequate idea of the excitement this victory produced. In the first place, it was fought three days after the surrender of General Hull, the uncle of the gallant captain. The mortifying, stunning news of the disaster of the Northwestern army met on the seaboard the thundering shout that went up from a people delirious with delight over this naval victory. From one direction the name of Hull came loaded with execrations, from the other overwhelmed with blessings. But not only was the joy greater, arriving as the news did on the top of disaster, but it took the nation by surprise. An American frigate had fearlessly stood up in single combat on the deep with her proud foe, and, giving gun for gun, torn the crown from the "mistress of the sea." The fact that the Constitution had four guns more and a larger crew could not prevent it from being practically an even-handed fight. The disparity of the crews was of no consequence, for it was an affair of broadsides, while the vast difference in the execution done proved that had the relative weight of metal and the muster- roll been reversed the issue would have been the same..

[This victory was but the beginning of a striking series of naval conquests which filled England with astonishment and dismay. On October 25 the frigate United States met the English frigate Macedonian, and, after dismasting her and cutting her hull to pieces, forced her to lower her flag. About the same time the Wasp met the brig Frolic, of nearly her own strength, and captured her after a desperate fight. On boarding the Frolic it was found that the terrible "hulling" fire of the Americans had killed and wounded nearly one hundred of her crew. On October 29 the Constitution, now under Commodore Bainbridge, met the frigate Java, and forced her to lower her flag in a two hours' fight. In the succeeding January the Hornet met the English brig-of-war Peacock, and sent her to the bottom after a sharp battle.]

The thrill of exultation that passed over the land at the announcement of the first naval victory was alloyed by the reflection that it was but an isolated instance, and hence could hardly justify a belief in our naval superiority. But as frigate after frigate and ship after ship struck, all doubt vanished, and the nation was intoxicated with delight. The successive disasters that befell our land-forces along the Canada line could not check the outburst of enthusiasm on every side. As the news of one victory succeeding another was borne along the great channels of communication, long shouts of triumph rolled after it, and the navy, from being unknown and uncared for, rose at once to be the bulwark and pride of the nation. All faces were turned to the ocean to catch the first echo of those resistless broadsides that proudly asserted and made good the claim to "free trade and sailors' rights." Where we had been insulted and wronged the most, there we were chastising the offender with blows that astounded the world. If the American government had been amazed at the failure of its deep-laid schemes against Canada, it was no less so at the unexpected triumphs at sea. Saved from the deepest condemnation by the navy, which it had neglected, forced to fall back on its very blunders for encouragement, it could say, with Hamlet,- -

"Let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall."

But our astonishment at these successive and brilliant victories could scarcely exceed that of the Old World. The British navy had been so long accustomed to victory that a single-handed contest of any English frigate with that of any other nation had ceased to be a matter of solicitude to her. The maritime nations of Europe had, one after another, yielded to her sway, till her flag in every sea on the globe extorted the respect and fear which the declaration "I am a Roman citizen" did in the proudest days of the Empire. Her invincibility on the ocean was a foregone conclusion. The victories of Napoleon stopped with the shore: even his "star" paled on the deep. His extraordinary efforts and energies could not tear from the British navy the proud title it had worn so long. His fleets, one after another, had gone down before the might of British broadsides, and the sublime sea-fights of Aboukir and Trafalgar were only corroborations of what had long been established. If this was the common feeling of the Continent, it is no wonder that "the English were stunned as by the shock of an earthquake." The first victory surprised them, but did not disturb their confidence. They began to discuss the causes of the unlooked-for event with becoming dignity, but before the argument was concluded another and another defeat came like successive thunder-claps, till discussion gave way to alarm. The thoughtful men of England were too wise to pretend that disasters occurring in such numbers and wonderful regularity could be the result of accident, and feared they beheld the little black cloud which the prophet saw rising over the sea, portending an approaching storm. If in so short a time a maritime force of only a few frigates and sloops of war could strike such deadly blows and destroy the prestige of English invincibility, what could not be done when the navy should approximate her own in strength!..

The war-vessels at length grew timorous, and lost all their desire to meet an American ship of equal rank. It was declared that our frigates were built like seventy-fours, and therefore English frigates were justified in declining a battle when offered. The awful havoc made by our fire affected the seamen also, and whenever they saw the stars and stripes flaunting from the mast-head of an approaching vessel they felt that no ordinary battle was before them. English crews had never been so cut up since the existence of her navy. In the terrific battle of the Nile, Nelson lost less than three out of one hundred, and in his attack on Copenhagen, less than four out of every hundred. In Admiral Duncan's famous action off Camperdown, the proportion was about the same as that of the Nile. In 1793 the French navy was in its glory, and the victories obtained over its single ships by English vessels were considered unparalleled. Yet in fourteen single engagements, considered the most remarkable, and in which the ships, with one exception, ranged from thirty-six guns to fifty-two, the average of killed and wounded was only seventeen per ship, while in four encounters with American vessels, the Constitution, United States, and Wasp, the average was a hundred and eleven to each vessel.

[This remarkable difference is ascribed to the fact that the Americans had devised an improvement in gunnery which was as yet unknown to the English. Their guns were sighted, and could be fired with remarkable accuracy of aim. "While we can fire cannon with as sure an aim as musketry, or almost rifles, striking twice out of every three shots, they must fire at random, without sight of their object or regard to the undulations of the sea, shooting over our heads, seldom hulling us or even hitting our decks." Such being the case, the striking success of the Americans in these encounters is in great measure accounted for. But, whatever the cause, the "mistress of the seas" felt herself obliged to yield the crown of victory to an antagonist whom she had long affected to despise, while Europe beheld with astonishment the victorious career of the feeble navy of the New World.]

J. T. Headley

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