Great Sea Fights 6: USS Constitution v HMS Guerriere 1812. Part 2 The Eyewitness Accounts

August 2021

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 presents two eyewitness accounts – the dispatches written in the immediate aftermath of the battle by the two ships’ captains, 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. It’s fascinating to hear how they choose to describe those events.

USS Constitution has also featured in one of our Iconic Ships episodes so be sure to check that out.

 

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello, everyone and welcome to this our sixth episode in our Great Sea Fight series and this particular episode being part two of our special on the battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere from the 19th of August 1812. If you’ve yet to check out our Great Sea Fight series, please do so there is so much to find in each Special Edition consisting of several episodes. We’ve recently covered a Tudor sea battle during the reign of Henry VIII, the mighty clash between Russia and Japan at Tsushima in 1905, the Battle of Jutland from the First World War, Nelson’s heroics at St. Vincent in 1797, and the great battle of the River Plate from the Second World War.

    Today, we are continuing the story of USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere from the War of 1812. A ferocious single ship engagement that rather turned the tables on what everyone was expecting from a naval fight between Great Britain and the United States. Episode One explained the events in a narrative – so if you’ve come to this fresh then do, please check out episode one. You don’t need to do that first, but it would be good to listen to all the same. Today we present eyewitness accounts from the two captains involved Captain Isaac Hull of the USS Constitution, who described the events in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, and the after-action report of Captain James Richard Dacres, of HMS Guerriere, writing to Vice Admiral Sawyer.

    Coming soon after, we will have the third episode which will present the work of the American historian William 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 will explore the broader context of other single-ship actions in this war: for this war was extremely unusual because of the number 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. For today, however, we have these eyewitness reports; wonderful they are too, written by the ship’s captains in the bruising aftermath of the clash. And it’s fascinating to see how they choose to describe those events, what they put in and what they leave out.

    Captain Isaac Hull

    Captain Isaac Hull, to Secretary of the Navy, Hamilton, US frigate Constitution off Boston Light, August 28, 1812.

    Sir, I have the honour to inform you that on the 19th instant at 2 pm being in Lattitude 41 degrees 42 minutes, Longitude 55 degrees 48 minutes, with the wind from the northward and the Constitution under my command, steering to the south-southwest. A sail was discovered from the masthead bearing east by south or east southeast, but at such a distance that we could not make out what she was. All sail was immediately made in chase, and we soon found we came fast up with the chase so that at 3 pm, we could make her out to be a ship on the starboard tack, close by the wind under easy sail. At 1/2 past 3 pm closing very fast with a chase could see that she was a large frigate. At 3/4 past 3 the chase backed her main topsail and lay by on the starboard tack; I immediately ordered the light sails taken in and the Royal Yards sent down, took two reefs in the topsails, hauled up the foresail, and mainsail and see all clear for action. After all was clear the ship was ordered to be kept away for the enemy, on hearing of which the gallon crew gave three cheers and requested to be laid close alongside the chase. As we bore up, she hoisted an English Ensign at the mizzen gaff, another at the mizen shrouds, and a Jack at the fore and mizzen top gallant mastheads. At 5 minutes past 5 pm, as we were running down on her weather quarter, she fired a broadside, but without effect the shot all falling short. She then wore and gave us a broadside from the larboard guns, two of which shot struck us but without doing any injury. At this time, finding we were within gunshot I ordered the Ensign and hoisted at the mizzen peak, and a Jack at the fore and mizzen topgallant masthead, and a Jack bent ready for hoisting on the main. The enemy continued wearing and manoeuvring for about 3/4 of an hour to get the wind of us. At length finding that she could not, she bore up to bring the wind on the quarter and run under her topsails and gib. Finding that we came up very slow, and we were receiving her shot without being able to return them with effect, I ordered the main topgallant sail set to run up alongside of her.

    At 5 minutes past 6 pm being alongside, and within less than pistol shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all of our guns, loaded with round, and grape, which done great execution, so much so that in less than 15 minutes from the time, we got alongside, his mizzen mast went by the board, and his main yard in the slings and the hull and sails were much injured, which made it very difficult for them to manage her. At this time the Constitution had received but little damage, and having more sail set than the enemy she shot ahead. On seeing this I determined to put the helm to port, and oblige him to do the same, or suffer himself to be raked, by our getting across his bows. On our helm being put to port, the Ship came too and gave us an opportunity of pouring in upon his larboard bow several broadsides, which made great havoc amongst his men on the forecastle and did great injury to his fore rigging, and sails. The enemy put his helm to port, at the time we did, but his mizzen mast being over the quarter, prevented her coming too, which brought us across his bows, with his bowsprit over our stern. At this moment I determined to board him, but the instant the boarders were called, for that purpose, his foremast, and mainmast went by the board and took with them the gib-boom and every other spar except the bowsprit. On seeing the enemy totally disabled, and the Constitution received but little injury I ordered the sails filled, to haul off, and repair our damages and return again to renew the action. Not knowing whither, the enemy had struck, or not, we stood off for about 1/2 an hour, to repair our braces, and such other rigging, as had been shot away, and wore around to return to the enemy. It being now dark, we could not see whether she had any colours, flying or not, but could discover that she had raised a small flagstaff or jurymast forward. I ordered a boat hoisted out and sent Lieutenant Reed on board as a flag to see whether she had surrendered or not, and if she had to see what assistance she wanted, as I believed she was sinking. Lieutenant Reed returned in about 20 minutes and brought with him, James Richard Dacres Esqr. Commander of his Britannic Majesty’s Frigate the Guerriere, which ship had surrendered, to the United States Frigate Constitution. Our boats were immediately hoisted out and sent for the prisoners and were kept at work bringing them and their baggage on board, all night. At daylight we found the enemy’s Ship a perfect wreck, having many shot holes between wind, and water, and above 6 feet of the plank below the bends taken out by our round shot, and her upperworks so shattered to pieces, that I determined to take out the sick and wounded as fast as possible, and set her on fire, as it would be impossible to get her into port.

    At 3 pm, all the prisoners being out, Mr Reed was ordered to set fire to her in the storerooms, which he did and in a very short time she blew up. I want words to convey to you the bravery and gallant conduct, of the Officers, and the crew under my command during the action. I can therefore only assure you, that so well directed was the fire of the Constitution, and so closely kept up, that in less than 30 minutes, from the time we got alongside of the enemy (one of their finest Frigates) she was left without a spar standing, and the hull cut to pieces, in such a manner as to make it difficult to keep her above water, and the Constitution in a state to be brought into action in 2 hours. Actions like these speak for themselves which makes it unnecessary for me to say anything to establish the bravery and gallant conduct of those that were engaged in it. Yet I cannot but make you acquainted with the very great assistance I received from that valuable officer Lieutenant Morris in bringing the Ship into action, and in working her whilst alongside the enemy, and I am extremely sorry to state that he is badly wounded, being shot through the body. We have yet hopes of his recovery, when I am sure, he will receive the thanks, and gratitude of his Country, for this and the many gallant acts he has done in its service. Were I to name any particular Officer as having been more useful than the rest, I should do them great injustice, they all fought bravely and gave me every possible assistance, that I could wish. I am extremely sorry to state to you the loss of Lieutenant [William S.] Bush of Marines. He fell at the head of his men in getting ready to board the enemy. In him, our Country has lost a valuable and brave Officer. After the fall of Mr Bush, Mr [Lieutenant John] Contee took command of the Marines, and I have pleasure in saying that his conduct was that of a brave good Officer, and the Marines behaved with great coolness, and courage during the action, and annoyed the enemy very much whilst she was under our stern.

    Enclosed I have the honour to forward you a list of killed, and wounded, on board the Constitution, and a list of killed, and wounded, on board the enemy, with a list of her crew and a copy of her quarter bill, also a report of the damage the Constitution received in the action. I have the honour to be Isaac Hull.

     

    Captain James Richard Dacres

    Boston, 7th September 1812. Sir, I am sorry to inform you of the capture of His Majesty’s late Ship Guerriere by the American Frigate Constitution after a severe action on the 19th of August in Latitude 40.20 north and Longitude 55.00 west. At 2 pm being by the wind on the starboard tack, we saw a sail on our weather beam, bearing down on us. At 3 made her out to be a Man of War, beat to quarters and prepared for action. At 4, she closing fast wore to prevent her raking us. At 4.10 hoisted our colours and fired several shots at her. At 4.20 she hoisted her colours and returned our fire. Wore several times, to avoid being raked, exchanging broadsides. At 5 she closed on our starboard beam, both keeping up a heavy fire and steering free, his intention being evidently to cross our bow. At 5.20, our mizzen-mast went over the starboard quarter and brought the ship up in the wind. The enemy then placed himself on our larboard bow, raking us, a few only of our bow guns bearing and his grape and riflemen sweeping our deck. At 5.40 the Ship not answering her helm, he attempted to lay up on board at this time. Mr [Samuel] Grant who commanded the forecastle was carried below badly wounded. I immediately ordered the Marines and boarders from the main deck; the Master was at this time shot through the knee, and I received a severe wound in the back. Lieutenant [Bartholomew] Kent was leading on the boarders when the Ship coming too, we brought some of our bow guns to bear on her and had got clear of our opponent when at 6.20 our fore and main masts went over the side, leaving the Ship a perfect unmanageable wreck. The enemy shooting ahead, I was in hopes to clear the wreck and get the Ship under command to renew the action, but just as we had cleared the wreck our spritsail yard went and the enemy having rove new braces &c, wore round within pistol shot to rake us. The Ship laying in the trough of the sea and rolling, her main deck guns underwater and all attempts to get her before the wind being fruitless. When calling my few remaining officers together, they were all of opinion that any further resistance would be a needless waste of lives, I ordered, though reluctantly, the colours to be struck.

    The loss of the Ship is to be ascribed to the early fall of the mizen mast which enabled our opponent to choose his position. I am sorry to say we suffered severely in killed and wounded and mostly whilst she lay on our bow from her grape and musketry. In all 15 killed and 63 wounded, many of them severely; none of the wounded Officers quitted the deck till the firing ceased.

    The Frigate proved to be the United States Ship Constitution, of thirty 24 pounders on her main deck, and twenty-four 32 pounders and two 18 pounders on her upper deck and 476 men – her loss in comparison with ours was trifling, about 20, the First Lieutenant of Marines and 8 killed and first Lieutenant and Master of the Ship and 11 Men wounded. Her lower masts badly wounded, and stern much shattered and very much cut up about the rigging.

    The Guerriere was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless. As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her on fire, and I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his Officers to our men has been that of a brave enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded who through the attention and skill of Mr [John] Irvine, Surgeon, I hope will do well.

    I hope though success has not crowned our efforts, you will not think it presumptuous in me to say the greatest credit is due to the Officers and Ship’s company for their exertions, particularly when exposed to the heavy raking fire of the enemy. I feel particularly obliged for the exertions of Lieutenant Kent who, though wounded early by a splinter, continued to assist me; in the second Lieutenant the service has suffered a severe loss; Mr [Robert] Scott, the Master, though wounded was particularly attentive and used every exertion in clearing the wreck, as did the Warrant Officers. Lieutenant [William] Nicoll of the Royal Marines and his party supported the honourable character of their Corps, and they suffered severely. I must particularly recommend Mr [William] Snow, Masters Mate, who commanded the foremost main deck guns in the absence of Lieutenant [John] Pullman and the whole after the fall of Lieutenant [Henry] Ready, to your protection, he having served his time and received a severe contusion from a splinter. I must point out Mr [John] Garby, Acting Purser, to your notice, who volunteered his services on deck, and commanded the after-quarter deck guns and was particularly active as well as Mr [John W.] Bannister, Midshipman who has passed.

    I hope, in considering the circumstances, you will think the Ship entrusted to my charge was properly defended; the unfortunate loss of our masts, the absence of the third lieutenant, second Lieutenant of Marines, three Midshipmen, and 24 men considerably weakened our crew, and we only mustered at Quarters 244 men and 19 boys, on coming into action; the Enemy had such an advantage from his Marines and riflemen, when close and his superior sailing enabled him to choose his distance. I enclose herewith a list of killed and wounded on board the Guerriere and have the Honour to be Sir, Your most obedient Captain James Richard Dacres.

    Sam Willis

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