Great Sea Fights 6: USS Constitution v HMS Guerriere 1812. Part 1 The Events
In this, the sixth episode of our Great Sea Fights series, we explore the remarkable events of 19 August 1812 when the powerful frigate USS Constitution fought and destroyed the British frigate HMS Guerriere in one of the greatest shocks to the Royal Navy in its history and one of the most ferocious single-ship actions ever fought. It is an extraordinary story: how did the United States get to a stage where not only could they build and maintain ships but compete with – and in the case of this battle triumph over – ships from the world’s largest navy with centuries of shipbuilding expertise and naval tradition.This episode explores the events of the day in a narrative written and presented by the prize-winning US historian William. S Dudley. Subsequent episodes will present the eyewitness accounts from the two ships’ captains; an analysis of the internal workings of the US Navy in the war of 1812; and an exploration of this battle in the context of several other single-ship actions which characterised the war of 1812.
USS Constitution has also featured in one of our Iconic Ships episodes so be sure to check that out.
- View The Transcription
Hello everyone and welcome to this our 6th episode in our Great Sea Fights series.
If this is the first one you have come to please go snr.org.uk and find our previous editions – most recently a 3-part episode on the battle of Saint Mathieu of August 1512 – one of the earliest engagements of the Mary Rose and possibly the first time ever that a naval battle was fought with cannon firing through gunports.
We also have multi-part episodes on the enormous clashes of battleships at the start of the 20thc at Tsushima and Jutland; as well as Nelson’s finest hour at St Vincent in 1797 and the battle of the River Plate – which features the legendary naval historian Eric Grove who passed just a few weeks after that recording.
Today we are crossing the pond and we are looking at a ferocious ingle ship action from the war of 1812 when the mighty USS constitution engaged and destroyed HMS Guerriere. It is an extraordinary story – how did the United States get to a stage where not only could they build and maintain ships but compete with – and in the case of this battle triumph over ships from the world’s largest navy with centuries of shipbuilding expertise and naval tradition.
It’s a story that allows us to look into the complexities of what it took to build, maintain, man, fit out, provision, and send fighting ships to sea for extended periods of time and how men could be recruited, fed, clothed, and kept healthy in unhealthy environments. And all of this within the broader context of how and why Britain decided to go to war with America even though Napoleon was as yet undefeated; and how and why America chose to pick a fight with the most powerful nation on earth.
This special on the battle between constitution and Guerriere will consist of 4 separate episodes!
First up we have a narrative of the events so you can hear how the events unfolded. The second episode will present the eyewitness accounts of the two captains involved; Captain Isaac Hull of the USS Constitution who described the events in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton; and the After Action Report of Captain James Richard Dacres, HMS Guerriere to Vice Admiral Sawyer. The third episode will present the work of the American historian William s Dudley who has explored the nitty gritty of how on earth the US managed to create itself a navy out of nothing; and the final episode explores the broader context of other single-ship actions in this war – for this war of 1812 was very unusual for the amount of single ship actions that took place – as opposed to fleet battles, and the historian Nick Kaizer helps us get to the bottom of that curious issue. So lots to look forward to, but for now let’s begin with the remarkable events of 19 August, 1812.
The narrative of the events you are about to hear was written by – and is also read out by, William S. Dudley – a legendary and award-winning historian, an, exemplar to us all for his deep knowledge and historical rigour. Bill served in the US Navy from 1959 to 1963, was Director of Naval History and Director, of the Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. from 1995 to 2004 and in 2014 he received the Commodore Dudley W. Knox Naval History Lifetime Achievement Award, Naval Historical Foundation
Now we do like to bring you the very best people on earth to talk about any particular subject and certainly you have the best with Bill. So here he is, reading out his own narrative. And let me add before he starts – that Bill is 85 – and he has just written a book called Inside the US Navy of 1812–1815 published by the John Hopkins university press. Which needless to say is outstanding. Bill you’re putting us all to shame. Now put your feet up. For all of you listening, I hope you enjoy this. I did, hugely. Here’s Bill.
William S. Dudley
The Great Sea Fight between USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere
On August 19, 1812, a furious battle erupted between two similar ships in the North Atlantic. One, HMS Guerriere was a British Royal Navy frigate, the other, USS Constitution, was a U.S. Navy frigate. The results of this two-hour battle were decisive and far-reaching. The War of 1812 had just begun two months before. Some saw it as a renewal of the American War for Independence which had ended by treaty in 1783. Yet, this new war between the former mother country, Great Britain, and the young American nation was actually linked to the prolonged conflict in Europe between revolutionary France and Britain and their allies. The United States had claimed neutrality and was attempting to trade with both nations; however, neither could accept that this neutral nation was trading with its enemy for profit. Finally, the United States, unable to find a diplomatic solution, declared war against Great Britain as the greater threat to American trade and the nation’s continued independence.
As background to the battle and its outcome, one needs to understand that although both ships were called frigates, there were significant differences between them. Among the various classes of warships, frigates were among the smaller. They were three-masted vessels with square sails and depending on the size of their hulls, they carried varying numbers of guns and sailors. As part of a larger fleet, they were not used in the line of battle. Their role was that of scouts, often referred as being the “eyes of the fleet” – to sail ahead, to discover the location and size of the enemy’s fleet, and to engage smaller vessels. At other times, they would be used in close blockades of an enemy’s coast, backed up by larger vessels of 74 or more guns farther at sea. In this instance, Guerriere was a smaller, lighter frigate, with fewer men, and equipped with less powerful guns than Constitution.
Guerriere was a fifth-rate, frigate 38-gun, measuring about 154 feet (47.1 meters) in length, 39 feet (12 meters) in width, with a hull draft of 19 feet (5.8 meters). The ship was actually equipped with 49 guns, carrying 16 32-pounder long guns on the spar deck, 30 18-pounder long guns on the gun deck, plus 2 12-pounder long guns, and 1 18-pounder carronade, used when needed. In the battle with Constitution, she was manned by 263 men and boys. Her career began with commissioning in May 1800. After six years in service for the French Navy, she was captured by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Blanche, refitted for British service, and commissioned as HMS Guerriere in 1807. For three years, she escorted convoys to and from the Caribbean based on Jamaica. In 1810, as relations between Britain and the United States worsened, the Admiralty assigned Guerriere to the North American Station at Halifax under the command of Captain James Dacres.
The U.S. Navy frigate Constitution was one of the original six frigates constructed under War Department orders and commissioned at Boston in 1797. Naval architect Joshua Humphreys of Philadelphia produced a unique design, a frigate that was intended to be faster, stronger, and more powerful than 4th rate frigates used in foreign naves. Its length was 175 feet on the waterline, breadth 43 feet, with a hull draft of 23 feet. Although rated for 44 guns, it was originally equipped with 52 guns, 20 32-pounder carronades on the spar deck, 30 24-pounder long guns, on the gun deck, and 2 24-pounder long guns intended as bow chasers. As of 1812, Constitution was manned by about 470 men, including 50 Marines and 30 boys; however, manning changed frequently with sailors being discharged and recruited at the end of each voyage. With these dimensions, the American ship was 21 feet longer, 4 feet wider, and had a 4 foot deeper draft and 207 more men and boys on board than Guerriere. Owing to heavier ordnance, a larger sturdier hull and masting, Constitution displaced about 1100 more tons than Guerriere. It is apparent that the American ship had the advantage of size, strength, ordnance and manning over its British adversary.
Constitution had fought in the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars and since 1807 had been on embargo patrol searching for smugglers along the American coast. Captain Isaac Hull, who assumed command in 1810, had previously been captain of the schooner Enterprize, frigate John Adams, brig Argus, and frigate Chesapeake. His family had close connections to both the U.S. Army and Navy. His uncle, William Hull, was a revolutionary war veteran who had risen to governorship of the Michigan Territory and would be appointed brigadier general in charge of the Army of the Northwest in 1812. Isaac’s father Joseph had served in the Continental Army as an artillery lieutenant and in later years as a navy agent in Connecticut.
In 1811, while at Annapolis, Hull was ordered to get Constitution underway for a voyage to England, Holland, and France carrying diplomat Joel Barlow, his wife, several other passengers, and government dispatches. This task he carried out, leaving in August though unable to return until February 1812. Having been at sea so long, his ship was badly in need of hauling out, a cleaning and repairing of the copper sheets on the hull, and replacement of its sails and running rigging. The secretary of the navy ordered this to be carried out at the Washington Navy Yard despite its distance from the sea.
Meanwhile, the lack of a diplomatic solution to ease the tensions between the United States and Great Britain had led war preparations in Washington and Quebec. The governor general of Canada was well aware that if war broke out, it could lead to an American invasion of Canada and hostilities at sea off its Atlantic coast. The Royal Navy had only a few ships of its North American squadron based at Halifax, while most of its fleet was on station blockading the European coasts against France and its allies. The British Admiralty was not alarmed about the possibility of war with the United States Navy as it was comprised of only 16 vessels. Although, with many more ships on duty elsewhere, the Royal Navy could not reinforce its Halifax station until they became available. Only 20 of His Majesty’s vessels were then available and active at Halifax: one ship of the line, 5 frigates, 8 sloops of war, 3 brigs, and 3 schooners.
The commanders of these two enemy vessels were relatively young, seasoned naval officers. Captain Isaac Hull was older at 39, the son of a merchant mariner who made frequent trading trips to the Caribbean. Hull was captain and co-owner of several merchant vessels during the period 1794 to 1798. At the commencement of the Quasi-War with France, he applied to the Navy Department and was accepted with lieutenant’s commission. Hull served first in the Caribbean and then in the Mediterranean where in 1803, he was given command of the Enterprise and then Argus. Following their return to the United States, he commanded successively, the frigates Chesapeake, President, and in 1810, Constitution, giving him all told seven years of command experience, three in frigates.
In August 1812, Captain James Richard Dacres a scion of England’s naval aristocracy, was 24 , fifteen years younger than Hull. Dacres’s father and uncles were vice admirals and a cousin, Sydney Dacres, would eventually become an admiral and first sea lord. He joined the Royal Navy in 1796 at the age of eight and rapidly gained experience. In 1804, he was appointed to his first command, the brig-sloop Elk; two years later, in 1806, he commanded the sloop of war Bacchante. He returned to England in late 1807 but, other ships not being available, he spent three years ashore on half pay. Recalled to active duty in 1811, he assumed command of his third ship, the frigate Guerriere, with orders to sail for Halifax. Altogether, Dacres had five years command experience, only one of them in Guerriere.
President James Madison’s June 1, 1812, message to Congress, alleged that, by numerous provocations, it appeared that Britain was already virtually at war with the neutral United States and that it was up to Congress to make a final decision whether to declare war or not. After a three weeks’ debate, an unevenly divided Congress voted to declare war, with the southern and western Republicans voting in favor and the New England Federalists and anti-Madisonian Republicans of the middle states voting against. The US Navy’s available ships had made rendezvous inside Sandy Hook to await their orders and the congressional decision. News of the declaration and Secretary Hamilton’s sailing orders arrived at Commodore John Rodgers flagship President on June 21. Within a matter of minutes the combined squadrons of Rodgers and Commodore Stephen Decatur hoisted anchor and were away.
Secretary Hamilton, Rodgers, and Decatur had discussed the strategy of using the navy’s ships Rodgers’s view was that the ships should operate as one squadron to seek out and capture British merchant convoys. Decatur advocated sending the ships out in pairs or to sail singly to avoid the Royal Navy’s blockaders and to have a broader effect on the enemy’s ships. Secretary Hamilton yielded to Rodgers’ argument but wanted the squadron to stay near coastal waters so that he could remain in contact. His last letter emphasizing this order failed to reach Rodgers before he sailed. In any event, Rodgers pursued his own plan of keeping the squadron’s ships under his command and sailed far to the east, following the usual track of British merchant convoys.
Captain Hull completed preparations for sea on July 5 and departed with Hamilton’s order to join Rodger’s squadron off New York, but this was an impossibility. Although unknown to Hull, Rodgers’s squadron was over 1,000 miles to the east. As a result, when Constitution discovered a distant squadron of warships off the New Jersey coast, he thought they were American. Only after approaching them did he discover their true identity; at about the same time, their commander, Commodore Philip Broke, correctly presumed that single frigate was American and pursued. This led to prolonged, strenuous chase over a practically breathless sea, eventually broken by squalls which enabled Constitution’s escape. From there, Hull shaped a course for Boston knowing that Broke probably expected him to catch him seeking safe harbor at New York. He put into Boston long enough to send a message to Secretary Hamilton asking for further orders. Receiving none and probably glad of it, Hull departed, having informed Hamilton that he would sail independently eastward in hopes of finding either enemy shipping or warships.
Meanwhile, Captain Dacres had joined Broke’s squadron off New Jersey and participated in the chase after Constitution. Soon thereafter, Broke dispersed his squadron and Dacres returned northeast for repairs at Halifax. During weeks of patrolling off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Hull captured some merchant ships and met with the American privateer brig Decatur whose captain suggested Hull sail to the south to seek out a British warship. Constitution caught up with Guerriere on the afternoon of August 19.
Captain Dacres understood that he would soon be attacked by Constitution which was approaching from windward and had the initial advantage of what sailors called the “weather gauge.” Both he and Hull cleared their ships for action and began maneuvering for advantage. This meant that the ship to windward could determine the timing and angle of attack; but it also meant that the leeward ship must endeavor to outmaneuver his opponent by twisting and turning his ship to gain the windward advantage. This maneuvering continued for about two hours when at about 5 p.m. with Constitution still in the windward position, Guerriere fired her starboard guns and the wore around to fire her port broadside. Hull reported two shots hit his ship but did little damage It was at this point that one of the Constitution’s seamen shouted that their ship’s sides must be made iron since the enemy shot failed to penetrate and appeared to bounce off, giving rise later to the ship’s nickname “Old Ironsides.” This was followed by another 45 minutes of maneuvering.
At about 6 p.m. Hull set more sail, increased speed, and brought his ship alongside Guerriere’s port beam. It was at this point that the gunfight began in earnest, broadside to broadside at close quarters. According to Hull, his enemy suffered the loss of his mizzen mast which fell over the starboard quarter and damage to his main yard, making ship handling difficult. Hull observed his own ship was pulling ahead along the enemy’s port side. This put Constitution in position to turn to starboard and rake the length of Guerriere across its bows, putting everything and everyone on her foc’sle in danger. Then Hull opened the distance, wore, and returned to rake Guerriere again with his port broadside. But then, with some braces shot away and being unable to control his topsails, Hull’s ship lost steerage way. As Guerriere was sailing forward, she was unable to avoid Constitution, and the two collided. Guerriere’s bow sprit fouled in the rigging over Constitution’s port quarter (stern) gallery. This allowed Dacres’s gunners to fire into Hull’s cabin, setting it on fire. In the midst of this turmoil, both ship captains called “boarders away” for the crews to jump the narrow gap separating the two ships and engage in hand-to-hand fighting. This did not occur as a heavy sea was running, with the ships rising and falling, discouraging the leap. Two of Hull’s senior officers fell wounded, Lt. William Bush of the Marines fatally so and Lt. Charles Morris, severely but he survived. Captain Dacres was wounded by a musket shot in the back, and many others of the British crew were picked off. Before the boarders could set foot on each other’s decks, the ships had drifted apart. By 6:30, Guerriere had lost her mizzenmast, foremast, and mainmast. In such a condition, the ship lay helpless, unable to sail and at the mercy of her enemy.
Hull sailed east of the Guerriere and stood off while his sailors repaired the running rigging and cleared the decks of the worst damage. He then returned to a threatening position close to his enemy and waited for a reaction. It came soon enough, as Dacres fired a single gun to leeward, signaling surrender at 7:00 p.m., two hours after the fight had begun. Guerriere suffered major damage along with 15 killed, including the second lieutenant, 6 mortally wounded, and 57 others severely or slightly. Constitution did not escape without damage despite her larger size. Much of her standing and running rigging had been cut, the foretop mast and main mast had been shot through, the gaff and spanker boom and gig were smashed and large part of the captain’s cabin had been ruined by shot and fire. By one account, the American crew suffered only 7 killed and 7 wounded; while a British source claimed Constitution’s crew had nine killed and 13 wounded. It was Hull’s original wish to tow Guerriere into Boston as a prize of war, but this was impossible. She was too seriously damaged and lacked masts, making her very unstable, so Hull ordered her destroyed. This meant that the assessors would be unable to arrive at a value for the prize. It was up to Congress to come up with a suitable cash award for Hull, his officers and crew. Hull originally requested $100,000, but it was not until March 1813 that Congress awarded $50,000 for Hull, officers, and crew.
Why does this single ship-to-ship action qualify as a “great sea fight?” To answer, one needs to consider the moral effect of victory and defeat in the United States and Great Britain. In the U.S., the land war had gone poorly. A British force captured the U.S. military post on Lake Huron’s Mackinaw Island. Three American armies attempted to invade Canada and each had failed. In the worst case, General William Hull’s northwestern army had penetrated Canada near Detroit but he surrendered without battle to General Isaac Brock’s army, fearing a massacre by First Nations’ tribes. American morale plummeted on hearing that news; soon however, word of Captain Isaac Hull’s victory over Guerriere had exactly the opposite effect. When Constitution returned to Boston, the nation was electrified by his reports that his frigate had captured and destroyed a British frigate, an event that many had feared unlikely, given the Royal Navy’s sterling reputation. This victory inspired celebrations, dinners, and elaborate toasts to Hull and Constitution from Boston to Washington and beyond for months. This was just the beginning; other American naval victories were to come. As time passed the story was retold, rewritten, and gained legendary status, often ignoring the differences in the ships’ size, ordnance, and crew numbers. Many Americans came to assume that this was a duel fought by equals, which it was not. Myths come alive as heritage when abetted by patriotism and nostalgia which must explain why “Old Ironsides” is still honored as “the oldest navy ship in commission still afloat” at her mooring in Boston, supported by the U.S. Navy. She is currently visited by thousands of tourists each year who likewise tour the nearby non-profit USS Constitution Museum.
For the British Admiralty and the newspaper reading public, the reaction to the outcome of this battle was one of skepticism and disbelief. They were accustomed to British frigate victories not defeats. They had underestimated the sailing ships and sailors of the U.S. Navy, despite having seen them in their ports and in operations in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. This first frigate defeat brought criticism of the Admiralty in Parliament and within the Royal Navy itself. The disappointment redoubled after the loss of the frigates Macedonian and Java later in the year. This faded with time as more realistic and sanguine views prevailed among the British public and the papers. The Admiralty strengthened the blockade of the American coast in the following year and ruled that its frigates must not take on a U.S. 44-gun frigate in single combat. The initial impact of the Constitution – Guerriere engagement was significant on both sides of the Atlantic and wrought changes in their publics’ attitude toward the war in general and their navies in particular. In that sense, if no other, this battle can be considered as a great sea fight.