The Mighty “Constitution”

Victory at sea by USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere painting by Anton Otto Fischer  

Isaac Hull, the Constitution’s first wartime captain, a kind but thoroughgoing seaman who commanded the almost worshipful loyalty of his crew.

Captain Hull had already decided to head for the south, and Bermuda, at the first chance: a few days earlier the Constitution had scattered a group of sail eastward in a long chase beginning at sunrise that had carried them within forty miles of Cape Race, Newfoundland. A British sloop of war ran free, but in mid-afternoon the Constitution caught up with an American brig that had been taken a prize by the sloop, with a British master’s mate and five seamen aboard. From the prisoners they learned that the British squadron was just to the east, on the edge of the Grand Banks. “I determined to change my cruising ground,” Hull noted; it was time to keep the enemy guessing again about his whereabouts.

In fact, the British squadron had sailed east for three weeks after giving up its chase of the Constitution off New Jersey; they had gone to escort a homebound West India merchant convoy and only a few days earlier had finally turned back for New York. On August 10 1812 an American merchant brig, the Betsey, bound for Boston from Naples with a load of brandy, had fallen in with a lone British frigate on the Western Banks. The Betsey’s master, William B. Orne, was taken aboard as a prisoner and his ship sent on to Halifax as a prize.

The cruising frigate was the Guerriere; she had gone with the rest of the squadron halfway across the Atlantic but then been detached and ordered to Halifax, the first in a regular rotation that would send one ship of the British cruising force at a time into port to replenish her stores and refit while the others maintained a constant presence off the American coast. On her way into Halifax the Guerriere had already encountered several American merchant ships, better luck than the squadron had had in its weeks of blue-water sailing. The day after taking the Betsey the Guerriere halted and boarded the brig John Adams, bound for New York. Finding that the ship was sailing under a British license, Dacres told her captain he could go on his way, but not before he first wrote an entry into the merchant ship’s register:

Capt. Dacres, commander of his Britannic Majesty’s frigate Guerriere, of forty-four guns, presents his compliments to commodore Rodgers, of the United States frigate President, and will be very happy to meet him, or any other American frigate of equal force to the President, off Sandy Hook, for the purpose of having a few minutes tête-à-tête.

At two o’clock on the afternoon of August 19, after a day’s sailing southward in pursuit of the privateer captain’s report, the Constitution spotted a sail in the far distance off the larboard bow. Hull was on deck instantly, followed quickly by nearly every man on board. “Before all the hands could be called, there was a general rush on deck,” said able seaman Moses Smith. “The word had passed like lightning from man to man; and all who could be spared came flocking up like pigeons from a net bed. From the spar deck to the gun deck, from that to the berth deck, every man was roused and on his feet. All eyes were turned in the direction of the strange sail, and quick as thought studding-sails were out, fore and aft.” The Guerriere spotted the American almost simultaneously. On her deck Dacres handed Orne his glass and asked if he thought she was an American or a French frigate. Orne said he thought American for sure, but Dacres replied that she “acted most too bold to be an American.” Dacres paused, then added, “The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him,” even remarking to Orne that he would “be made for life” by being the first British captain to capture an American frigate. The British crew facetiously hung up a barrel of molasses in the netting for their soon-to-be prisoners; Yankees were said to like a drink of molasses and water known as switchel. Ten impressed Americans in the crew were allowed by Dacres to go below, and Dacres turned politely to Orne and asked if he would like to go below as well and assist the surgeon in the cockpit in case any of the men were wounded in the battle—“as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen.” Just before he left the deck, Orne saw the main topsail backed, the yard rotated around so the sail caught the wind and checked the ship’s forward motion, as the Guerriere prepared to stand to and face the rapidly approaching American. An English ensign broke out at each masthead, and the drum began to roll to bring the men to quarters.

As the Constitution came up, her crew could see another bit of English facetiousness; on one of the ship’s topsails painted in large letters were the words NOT THE LITTLE BELT, a sarcastic allusion to Rodgers’s mistaken encounter with the Little Belt when he was seeking to intercept the Guerriere off Cape Henry the year before. If there had been any doubt as to the ship’s identity, it was now gone.

Since the Constitution was to windward, she held the weather gauge, and with it several theoretical advantages in a ship-on-ship engagement. A ship to leeward, heeling away from the wind, exposed a portion of her hull below the waterline to the enemy’s shot; in a close action the smoke from a windward ship’s guns might envelop an opponent, obscuring the aim of her gun crews; the sails of the ship on the weather side could block the wind and becalm the leeward ship, hindering her maneuverability. But most of all, the commander of the ship that held the weather gauge held the power of decision; he could haul away and avoid a fight, and an equal opponent to leeward could never intercept and catch him, or he could use the wind to steer a direct course to come up as quickly as possible to close with the enemy. That posed its own risks, though: the more direct the angle of approach, the more exposed the approaching ship was to the enemy’s broadside while unable to answer with her own. But that was the course Hull now chose to take.

Several times Dacres wore his ship and fired broadsides as the American came up. The first fell short, and others went too high, and each time Hull ordered his ship to yaw slightly to larboard and windward to take the enemy fire on the side of the bows and avoid being raked from stem to stern down the vulnerable length of the deck. Ships usually went into battle with topsails only to avoid the danger of sails catching fire from their own cannons’ flaming wads and to keep the number of sail trimmers needed to a minimum, but Hull now ordered the main topgallant sail set to close rapidly and bring his ship right alongside the enemy. The crew broke out with three cheers.

With the Constitution coming up on her windward quarter the Guerriere could now bring her sternmost guns to bear and some of her shots started to tell. Several men on the Constitution were mowed down, and Lieutenant Morris impatiently asked Hull for permission to fire.

“No, sir,” Hull replied.

A dead silence hung over the ship. “No firing at random!” Hull shouted into it. “Let every man look well to his aim.” At 6:05 p.m. the Constitution was directly alongside the Guerriere, less than a pistol shot, or two dozen yards, away. Then came the first crashing broadside from every gun on Constitution’s starboard side, double-shotted and fired right into the deck and gunports of the enemy.

To Orne, crouching in the cramped cockpit below the Guerriere’s waterline, it sounded like “a tremendous explosion … the effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerriere reel, and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake.” Almost instantly came an even more tremendous crash. And then as the smoke from the last shot cleared, the men on the Constitution were cheering like maniacs: Guerriere’s mizzenmast had gone by the board. “Huzzah boys! We’ve made a brig of her!” one of the Constitution’s crew shouted. “Next time we’ll make her a sloop!” shouted another voice. Hull, who had literally split his dress breeches excitedly leaping atop an arms chest on the deck for a better view, exclaimed, “By God that vessel is ours.” The cockpit of the Guerriere was instantly filled with wounded and dying men, barely leaving room for the surgeons to work at the long table in the center that they kneeled or bent over. From the decks above, Orne said, blood poured down as if a washtub full had been turned over.

Most of the Constitution’s sails and spars were still undamaged, and now she began to forge ahead. Hull ordered the helm put to port to bring the ship to starboard and cross the Guerriere’s bows. The English ship attempted to turn in parallel to foil the maneuver, but the drag of her fallen mizzenmast in the water prevented her from answering her helm, and the Constitution began to pour a murderous fire, two full broadsides, into the enemy’s larboard bow. Grapeshot, clusters of balls weighing a couple of pounds apiece that separated like a shotgun’s blast when fired, swept across the decks and mowed men down while round shot continued to take a toll on the Guerriere’s masts.

To keep the Guerriere from passing across her stern and raking the Constitution in turn, the American ship bore up, but the Guerriere’s bowsprit and jibboom crossed her quarterdeck and became entangled in the mizzen rigging. Men crowded on the forecastle of the Guerriere preparing to board or repel boarders, and Morris quickly suggested to Hull that he call the Constitution’s boarders too, then joined the men running for their ship’s stern preparing to board the enemy. As Morris began to wrap a few turns of the mainbrace over the enemy’s bowsprit to hold her fast, a musket ball tore into his abdomen, knocking him to the deck grievously wounded. Lieutenant William S. Bush, the captain of the ship’s marines, leapt on the taffrail at almost the same moment, sword in hand, shouting, “Shall I board her?” when he was drilled through the cheek by a musket ball that tore through the back of his head, shattering his skull and killing him instantly. The facetious barrel of molasses hanging over the Guerriere’s deck was riddled with holes and molasses poured over the deck. During the closest part of the battle the Constitution’s gunners fired a hundred rounds of canister shot—cylinders packed with bullets, nails, bolts, and scraps of old iron—which was even more deadly than grapeshot at short range.

Although only a few of the Guerriere’s forwardmost guns would bear, the British sailors ran one of the guns almost into the window of the captain’s cabin of the Constitution and a flaming wad came aboard, starting a fire, but the American sailors quickly put it out. Marines in Constitution’s mizzentop kept up a steady barrage of musketry, shooting down over the head-high breastwork of hammocks packed into the netting over both ships’ rails that offered some protection for the crews on the deck, clearing the forecastle of the enemy and wounding Dacres in the back as he stood on the piled hammocks to get a better view of the situation. Hull was about to climb back atop the arms chest when a sailor grabbed him by the arm and, pointing to the epaulets on his shoulders that made him an equally prime target for the enemy’s sharpshooters, said, “Don’t get up there, sir, unless you take them swabs off!”

Boarding would still have been an extremely dicey move at this point, the boarders having to make their way in a heavy running sea single file over the bowsprit of the Guerriere. But in rapid sequence the ships now tore away, the foremast of the English ship fell in a cascade of spars and rigging over her starboard side, and then her mainmast went too. Not a spar was left standing on the Guerriere but the bowsprit. Hull immediately ordered his sails filled and hauled off.

For half an hour the Constitution stood off nearby, repairing her rigging. The sun had gone down, and it was hard to see if any colors were still flying from the enemy, though her guns had fallen silent. William Orne made his way up on deck. The scene was “a perfect hell.” Blood was everywhere, like a slaughterhouse. The men who were still sober were throwing the dead overboard, but many of the petty officers and crewmen had broken into the spirit locker and were screaming drunk. The mastless ship, with nothing but a jury-rigged scrap of canvas flying from the bowsprit, lay “rolling like a log in the trough of the sea,” her main deck guns rolling under water. Water also poured in from thirty holes smashed through her side below the waterline. A British ensign was still flying from the stump of the mizzenmast, but with a crack the spritsail yard carried away, taking with it any hope of bringing her before the wind and fighting on.

The American ship now wore back and stood across the Guerriere’s bow, completing her picture of helplessness. From the Constitution a boat rowed over under a flag of truce, and Lieutenant George Read hailed the ship: “I wish to see the officer in command.” Dacres stood on the deck appearing slightly dazed. Read hailed again: “Commodore Hull’s compliments and wishes to know if you have struck your flag.”

The British officers had already held a council and agreed that further resistance was futile, but Dacres seemed to make an effort to utter the fateful words. “Well, I don’t know,” he finally said, “our mizzenmast is gone, our main-mast is gone—and upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag.” Read asked if they could send their surgeon to lend assistance. “Well, I should suppose you had on board your own ship business enough for all your medical officers,” Dacres replied. “Oh, no, we have only seven wounded, and they were dressed half an hour ago.” Dacres then turned to Orne and said, “How our situations have suddenly been reversed: you are now free and I am a prisoner.”

The British captain came across in the boat to present his sword to Hull and formally surrender. “Your men are a set of tigers,” he said to Hull in wonderment. Not a single shot had hulled the Constitution; her casualties were seven dead and seven wounded. The British ship officially reported fifteen dead and sixty-two wounded, but Orne was certain that at least twenty-five more of her crewmen were dead, their bodies dumped over the side or the men swept to their deaths with the falling of the masts. The American victory had taken twenty-five minutes, and the accuracy of American fire had been decisive. Hull would later single out for praise his black sailors: “I never had any better fighters than those niggers,—they stripped to the waist, and fought like devils, sir, seemingly insensible to danger, and to be possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors.”

All night Constitution’s boats went back and forth removing the prisoners. Hull later told a friend, “I do not mind the day of battle, the excitement carries one through: but the day after is fearful.” Midshipman Henry Gilliam was aboard Guerriere the whole night, and the scene of her decks “were almost enough to make me curse the war,” he admitted to his uncle in a letter a few days later; “pieces of skulls, brains, legs, arms & blood Lay in every direction.” Morris had pulled himself off the deck and gone back to his station after being shot, but once the action was over he found he could not speak and the pain began to overwhelm him; he was carried down to the cockpit and spent an agonizing night. “The pain nearly deprived me of all consciousness,” Morris said. But Evans was amazed by the fortitude of the wounded men; Orne had had the same reaction in the cockpit of the Guerriere, almost doubting his own senses as he witnessed men making jokes as they were having an arm amputated. Evans had no sleep at all, working through the night assisting the Guerriere’s surgeon to dress the wounds of the British injured. The next day Evans amputated the leg of Richard Dunn, one of the Constitution’s men. Dunn muttered, “You’re a hard set of butchers,” and then stoically submitted to his fate.

With dawn the condition of the Guerriere was clearly hopeless; she was, said Hull, “a perfect Wreck,” and he hastened to get the remaining wounded men off before she sank. Six feet of planking had been completely shot away in one place below her waterline, there was five feet of water in the hold, and the pumps could not keep up. At three o’clock in the afternoon the two captains watched wordlessly from the Constitution’s quarterdeck as Lieutenant Read’s boat began to row back across for the last time, and minutes later the English frigate was ablaze from the scuttling charge Read had set, her guns discharging in succession as the heat of the flame reached them; then there was a momentary silence followed by a deafening roar. It was like waiting for a volcano to erupt, Moses Smith remembered; then the quarterdeck, immediately over the magazine, heaved skyward in a single piece and broke into fragments; then her whole hull parted in two. Seconds later the entire ship disappeared beneath the sea’s surface. “No painter, no poet or historian could give on canvas or paper any description that could do justice to the scene,” Evans said, “a sight the most incomparably grand and magnificent I have experienced.”

That evening the bodies of Lieutenant Bush and one of the Guerriere’s men who had died from his wounds were committed to the deep.

U.S.S. CONSTITUTION 1812//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
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