Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser

The Constitution and the Guerriere

Constitution vs. Guerriere

The queenly ship! brave hearts had striven,

And true ones died with her!

We saw her mighty cable riven

Like floating gossamer;

We saw her proud flag struck that morn,

A star once o'er the seas—

Her anchor gone, her deck uptorn—

And sadder things than these!


An Exciting Chase

The first cruise of the United States navy in the War of 1812 was destined to be a disappointment to all concerned. Commodore Rodger sent out with six men-of-war on June 21, 1812, three days after the declaration of hostilities finally had returned to Boston harbor, after seventy day fruitless hunt for the British Jamaica squadron, with one letter-of-marque, seven merchantmen, and one recaptured American ship. To add to the humiliation, an engagement had taken place with the British ship Belvidera  of thirty-six guns, and she had very adroitly slipped away.

After her lucky escape the Belvidera  made her way to Halifax, the chief naval station of Great Britain on the American coast. Her report was the first news to reach the British of the declaration of war by America, for in those days news traveled slowly.

Thoroughly alarmed, the English were quick to act; and in a few days a squadron left Halifax in search of Commodore Rodgers. The force thus hurriedly gathered was quite formidable. It consisted of: The Africa, sixty-four guns; the Shannon, thirty-eight; the Guerriere, thirty-eight; the Belvidera, thirty-six, and the Ćolus, thirty-two. It was the intention of the squadron to chastise the headstrong Americans for their attempt to dispute with Great Britain her proud mastery of the seas.

During the early part of July this force made its appearance off New York, and quickly effected captures enough to convince the American merchantmen that a season in port was preferable to the dangers of trading on the ocean in war time. The squadron also overhauled the American brig Nautilus, thereby gaining the distinction of taking the first war vessel of the war. But what the British ached for was to meet enemy craft of more importance than merchantmen and fourteen gun brigs. Therefore, they must have been much pleased when, some days later, the United States frigate Constitution  hove in sight under circumstances which seemed to promise her an easy prey for the five British warships.

It was on the 17th of July that the Constitution, after receiving a new crew at Annapolis, was standing northward under easy sail, bound for New York. Along about noon, the lookout reported four sails on the horizon; and one hour later a fifth sail was seen bearing up a few points to the eastward.

A careful scrutiny of the strangers convinced Captain Isaac Hull, the valiant commander, then thirty-seven years old, that they were men-of-war, although their nationality could not be determined. Nor was he able to make out their identity when night fell; while they were closer, they seemed not to be approaching him directly. Uneasy, and bent upon knowing just whom they were before darkness prevented, Hull now set signals which put the question plainly. But although the distant ships must have seen and read these, they made no reply. Then the night closed in in earnest and they were blotted from view.

When day broke, to his chagrin Hull found himself fairly surrounded by British frigates. Not only were there the original five British men-of-war which had left Halifax, but there was the captured Nautilus  with her guns turned against the representative of her own nation, and a captured American schooner which had likewise been pressed into service. Clearly the Constitution  was outnumbered, and in a bad predicament. Captain Hull saw that the only way he could save her was to take to flight.

Flight it was then. The events of that three days' chase are told with great detail in the log book of the Constitution. To this record, many of the officers and crew have later added interesting and illuminating sidelights.

In referring to the early stages of the chase, British historians themselves freely admit that the Constitution, in taking advantage of the sudden lulls and gusts of the wind, showed far better seamanship and command than England's own vessels. Later on the frustrated foe called in all their small boats, and when the American frigate had vanished from view, went about for some days picking up such of her ships as had drifted widely apart.

To the delight of the jackies aboard the Constitution, the morning of the second day brought a light breeze over the ruffled waters which promised to hold. It really did keep fairly steady for a few hours, during which time she gained on her pursuers sufficiently to put her in the lead close to five miles. Then the breeze died out very tantalizingly, and the calm again held them in its grip, calling for the sweeps and small boats and kedge.

On the gun-deck, about the carriages of the great cannon which were now useless, lay such of the crew as were not assigned to duty in the boats or at the capstan. Wearied with the constant strain, they fell asleep as soon as relieved from active duty; although they knew that from that slumber they might be awakened in the midst of yelling comrades, the clash of steel, and the roar of guns.

Ever alert for any sign of a coming breeze, Captain Hull presently saw on the water far to windward that rippling appearance that always betokens the presence of a coming puff. He determined to utilize this in such a way that the British themselves would gain nothing by it. Clouds, too, began to appear to windward, promising a squall of uncertain proportions, while in a short time sheets of gray, which the experienced sea-dog knows to be rain, could be seen driving toward them.

With the greatest ostentation, the Constitution  was made ready as if she expected a severe gale. The enemy could see the nimble American jackies taking in sail and furling all the lighter canvas. They could also see the clouds and rain. There was no doubt about it; a bad squall was coming.

Immediately all was activity in the tops of the British frigates. Reefs were rapidly taken in the larger sails, some of which were even close furled. Knowing the peril of being caught in a storm too close together, the British warships steered well apart; the course was forgotten in the effort of every shipmaster to meet the brunt of ill weather as best he could.

Before these preparations had been completed the rain had reached the Constitution, and she became enveloped in a heavy shower which so hid her from view of the enemy that her outline was all but lost to the British. For this reason the foe was not aware that, in the midst of the deluge of rain, the American jackies were tearing around, rapidly taking out the reefs they had run a short time before, and shaking out the sail to almost full spread.

Then, with the uprising wind filling her canvas into beautiful arcs, the Constitution  sprang forward like a hound after a rabbit, headed for Boston harbor, the seas dashing high against her sharp bow and at times wetting the fore deck.

After traveling thus through the storm, which lasted upwards of an hour, the thunder clouds passed by, and with them went the rain to wind ward. But, to the joy of the American sailors, the wind still held good, and their ship continued to drive well.

As the gray curtain of rain swept farther and farther away, the eyes of the jackies followed it with increasing intentness and exultation. As more and more blue water was disclosed in the direction of the British, without showing a ship, many a man said to his neighbor with a chuckle, "Where are they?"

At last "they" appeared. So far were the British left behind that they were now practically out of the chase. Two of them were actually hull-down, while one was a mere speck against the horizon-line. Blanketed by the storm they had not seen their shrewd fugitives getting away; had made no effort to throw their furled sail until the squall had passed; and now they must have been immensely crestfallen at the trick played upon them so cleverly.

But though far behind, the foe must be given credit for not giving up the pursuit. They held valiantly after the American frigate, hoping against hope to yet overhaul her.

It was a fruitless effort. Instead of gaining on the Constitution—which was really a swifter craft—the British ships fell farther and farther behind. Finally they had all disappeared from view, and the American frigate continued on her way to Boston without mishap.

An Unexpected Meeting

"You say her name is the Guerriere?"

"Yes; I have just recently been commissioned to her. She carries thirty-eight guns, and is as fast as a hound. A fine craft, Hull!"

"Mayhap she is, Dacres; but you may just watch out for that ship of yours if I ever catch her in the Constitution!"

Both speakers were dressed in the uniform of naval officers. One—the taller—wore the British insignia of a captain; the other, the markings of an American captain. The Englishman now laughed good-naturedly.

"If war should come, Hull, I hope two such friends as we may be spared the irony of meeting one another in conflict; but if so, I am willing to bet a hundred pounds sterling that your Constitution  will strike her colors to my Guerriere!  What say?"

"No," said Hull; "I'll bet no money on it, and could not use your English sterling anyhow. However, I will stake you a hat on the outcome in favor of the Constitution."

"Done!" responded Dacres promptly; and the bet was made.

This little banter ended a pleasant discussion indulged in at a social gathering in Philadelphia, while the vessels of the two officers of different nations were lying in the Delaware. Although even then the cloud of war hung threateningly over the edge of the horizon, Captain Hull, American, and Captain Dacres, Englishman, old friends, would not allow bitterness to creep into their hearts against each other.

How little did either realize that they were very soon to be pitted against each other on two different occasions—one in a stern chase of many miles, when neither dreamed of the identity of the other—the other in a ferocious combat, each squarely set, each forgetting self and friend and thinking only of duty to country! Such bitter incidents are not uncommon to the demands of the Juggernaut of War.

We have already seen, in the preceding chapter, the result of the first meeting of these two friends, now rivals. We shall now see how they finally met by accident, and forever settled the question of which of their proudful ships was the better fighter.

After her escape from the British fleet, the Constitution  remained at Boston only a few days, and then set out on a cruise to the eastward along the New England coast. Bad luck seemed to follow her. Not a prize did she take until she reached a point off Cape Sable. Here she captured two small English merchantmen, and forced an English sloop-of-war to relinquish an American brig. Shortly afterward a Salem privateer was spoken, the captain of which informed Captain Hull that he had seen a British frigate cruising in the neighborhood.

This was good news. If he could only come up with the foe warship the monotony of the cruise might be broken. Captain Hull straightway set out to scour the sea in quest of the frigate. Never once did he dream that it was the Guerriere—the ship of his pre-war friend, Captain Dacres—that he sought.

It was not long before the search was ended. One morning there came a long drawn hail of "Sail ho-o-o!" from the lookout aloft. The course of the Constitution  was at once shaped toward the stranger, who was not yet visible from the deck. In half an hour she was made out to be a frigate. As she was seen to alter presently her own course, and bear toward the American vessel, it was assumed that she was either a friend or a very audacious foe.

Without waiting longer, determined to be on the safe side, Captain Hull began operations for action. The top-gallant sails were furled, and the lighter spars lowered to the deck. The decks were cleared, and the guns uncovered. Through their glasses the officers could see the stranger making similar preparations; still it was uncertain that she was an enemy.

By five o'clock in the afternoon the two ships were rapidly nearing, but were still too far off to accurately identify. The drums on the American frigate beat to quarters. Then followed the rush of barefooted men along the deck, as they ran hastily and in perfect order to their various stations. As the roll of the drums died away, the shrill voices of the midshipmen rose, calling off the quarter bills, answered by the gruff responses of the men at their posts.

The Guerriere  was not one bit behindhand in her preparations for a possible conflict. Although Captain Dacres had been unable to establish the identity of the other vessel, he was too good a commander, like Hull, to take it for granted that she was a friend. At length he called to his side Captain William Orne, an American sailor whom he had taken prisoner with Orne's vessel some days before. Handing the American his glass, Captain Dacres said:

"Captain Orne, what do you think of that vessel? Is she friend or foe to me?"

Taking the spyglass Orne inspected the distant frigate carefully. He saw by her peculiar sails and general appearance that she was without doubt an American vessel. Being too honest to deceive the British captain, as he might have done to the advantage of his friends had he chosen, he answered candidly:

"I think, sir, from her behavior, that she is an American frigate, but I do not recognize her."

"He has a familiar look to me somehow," said Dacres, puzzled. "I can hardly credit him with being an American, however, for he comes down too boldly for such."

"It is by his very boldness that I make certain he is an American," retorted the prisoner with great warmth.

The British officer laughed good-humoredly. "So be it, sir," he said. "The better he behaves, the more credit we shall gain by taking him."

As the two ships came down toward each other, the Guerriere  backed her main topsail, and waited for her opponent to draw near enough to commence action—if action there was to be. As Dacres stood thus, he set the English flag at each masthead, and beat to quarters.

And when the frigate came to within two or three miles, she took in all her light sails, reefed her topsails, and made final preparations for combat. Then she filled away and ran down to meet the Guerriere.

On board the latter, Captain Dacres turned again to his American prisoner. "Captain Orne," he said politely, "as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen, you are at liberty to retire below the waterline."

The American officer bowed, filled with admiration for the gallant conduct of the British captain, and started for the cockpit. With him went half a dozen American seamen whom Dacres had impressed into his crew, and whom he now chivalrously relieved from duty. Such fine conduct is not often met in the home of an enemy.

Constitution vs. Guerriere


Now Captain Dacres saw the Stars-and-Stripes go up to the masthead of the frigate, and realized that his preparations had been well-timed. Instantly he let go with his weather broadside. Observing that his shot had fallen short, he wore the Guerriere  around and tried her port broadside. Most of this went through the American's rigging, though two shots took effect in her hull.

In response to this, the Constitution  yawed a little. Bang! bang!  went two of her bow guns. Once more the Guerriere  fired her broadsides. In this manner the battle continued for about an hour, at long range, the American ship saving her ammunition and only responding to the heavy broadsides of her antagonist with occasional shot.

As this ineffectual firing continued, the two vessels had been slowly drawing nearer and nearer, and the gunners on the Constitution  became so restless under their inaction that they could hardly keep still. Captain Hull was pacing the quarter-deck with short, quick steps, trying to keep cool, but inwardly much excited. While thus engaged, Lieutenant Morris, the second in command, came up and asked his permission to let him respond with a broadside, declaring the gunners were becoming almost unruly in their impatience to do more firing.

But Hull shook his head. Some minutes later the request was repeated. This time there was no response at all; Captain Hull seemed too engrossed in pacing to and fro and watching the enemy to even hear the words or see his junior officer, who, non-plused, retired once more.

When, a little later, the ships were within half-pistol-shot of one another, the smothered excitement in Hull's breast suddenly broke out.

"Now, boys, pour it into them!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, gesticulating with such violence that the tight breeches of his naval uniform split far down the side. Lieutenant Morris repeated his superior's orders, though in slightly modified terms. "Hull her, lads! Hull her!" he cried.

And the crew, catching up his words and the significance of their double meaning, joyously yelled in chorus: "Hull her! Hull her! Hull her!"

The guns had already been carefully aimed. Now, with slow-match, they were touched off. The effect of the first broadside was terrific. Captain Orne, deep in the cockpit of the Guerriere, said afterward that he "heard a tremendous explosion from the opposing frigate. The effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerriere  reel and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake. Immediately after this I heard a tremendous shock on deck, and was told that the mizzenmast was shot away. In a few moments the cockpit where I was was filled with wounded men. I did not like to see them suffer, but I was overjoyed that the American was getting in such good work."

But in the seclusion of the cockpit, this American prisoner could gain little idea of the work of destruction going on above. He could not see the gunners on the two ships, their bare breasts covered with stains of powder and rivulets of blood and sweat, pulling fiercely at the gun tackle and wielding rammers with frantic energy. He could not see the British ship's mizzenmast go crashing and hurtling from its ragged stump into the sea, carrying with it some of the topmen and throwing others far out into the churning waters, choked with freshly made débris. He could not see the great, ragged breach torn in the Guerriere's  quarter by the falling mast, nor observe the frantic energy with which the British sailors went to work to clear away the wreckage on deck.

While this was going on the Constitution  drew slowly ahead, pouring in several other destructive broadsides. Then she lulled until she lay right athwart the enemy's bow. This brought the bowsprit of the Guerriere  across the quarter-deck of the American, where it was soon fouled in the mizzen-rigging of the latter.

High and clear on the evening air now sounded the notes of two bugles. One came from the Constitution, the other from the Guerriere. Each was calling up its crew of boarders. Like modern rival football gladiators, ready for the game, they responded to the signal. But instead of a trophy of goals to lead them to victory, in this case it was to be a trophy of dead men. Now see them come rushing,—boarding-caps on head, cutlass in one hand, cocked pistol in the other,—to the near side of their respective vessels!

But a heavy sea is rolling and tossing the two frigates; to board either seems almost impossible. As Captain Dacres observes this he recalls his men back to the guns. Even though each party is forced to stick to its own ship, so close are they that all weapons except the cutlasses can be used. From the tops comes a steady rain of leaden missiles down upon the heads of the adversary, one of which slightly wounds Captain Dacres. The protruding muzzles of the big guns often touch the near side of the rival ship; when they are drawn in for reloading, after their deep toned thunder, the sailors quickly thrust their muskets through the ports. The rattle of small arms is almost incessant, sounding like millions of stones being cast against a suspended piece of sheet-iron; muskets and pistols blend together in their reports. And interspersed throughout it all are the ever-present human tones—sometimes in peremptory command, sometimes in anger, sometimes in reproach, sometimes in pain, sometimes in exultation, sometimes in sacrificial glorification, sometimes in weakened gasps—seldom in fear.

In the midst of the turmoil of heroic tragedy there suddenly shrills high above all other noises, a new human cry—a cry of portentous dread: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

And, for a moment ceasing their fighting, the startled jackies aboard the Constitution  see one of their own men pointing excitedly to the cabin, from the windows of which billows of smoke are rolling. The fire has been set by the flash of the enemy's gun, so close are the ships. By the hardest kind of exertions a detail of men extinguish the threatened conflagration. The relaxed face of every man shows the relief that is felt as the fighting is resumed with renewed doggedness. A few moments later, a grim American gunner manages to disable the enemy gun that has done the mischief. A cheer goes up from those near him; those in other quarters are too busy even to note the swelling cry.

Lieutenant Morris, with his own hands, is trying to lash the two heaving ships together. Giving up the attempt, he leaps to the taffrail and calls upon his men to follow him aboard the foe. Before the last syllable dies on his lips, Lieutenant Bush of the marines, and Mr. Alwyn, are by his side. Crash-h-h!  goes a volley of British musketry, aimed directly at the intrepid three. All pitch backward—Bush dead, Morris and Alwyn badly wounded.

Now comes a ripping, crunching, rending of wood as the sea tosses the fouled ships and their entangled rigging tears asunder. They slowly drift apart, free once more. The heavy smoke of the guns rolls in between, shielding both for a few minutes. As it rises again, the Constitution's  big guns roar out once more; a great cheer arises from her decks as the Guerriere's  foremast is vitally fractured, topples, hangs uncertainly for an instant, then with a groan almost human, crashes down, carrying with it the mainmast and a score of unfortunate topmen.

The shattered British ship now lies a shapeless mass, tossing unguided upon the waves. She has lost all her backbone. Even her ensign flutters from a slivered stump.

Drawing away and firing continually and relentlessly with her stern guns, the Constitution  presently maneuvers herself into a good raking position. As she is on the point of letting go her broadside, the colors on the enemy ship are hauled down.

What a cheer goes up from the Americans!—what a hoarse, tired, happy, boisterous cheer!

Captain Hull's rugged face bears a queer look. In his features you read a strange mixture— triumph and pain; triumph for his beloved country, pain for his dear adversary. He cannot face him right now. Therefore, he calls Lieutenant Read and sends him aboard the Guerriere.

"Captain Hull presents his compliments, sir, and wishes to know if you have really struck your flag," states Read.

Captain Dacres's face is a study. Then he responds dryly, with a significant glance at the shattered masts and bloody deck of, his ship: "Well, I don't know. Our mizzenmast is gone, our mainmast is gone, our men are gone—and I think, on the whole, you may say that we have struck our colors."

After looking about the ship, which he found in a fearful condition, with scores of killed and wounded, untackled guns surging from side to side, and some petty officers and seamen even intoxicated, Lieutenant Read returned to the British captain.

"Would you like the assistance of a surgeon, sir, or a surgeon's mate, in caring for your wounded?"

Dacres looked surprised, and responded:

"I should suppose you had on board your own ship business enough for all your medical officers."

"Sir," answered Read, "we have only seven wounded, and they have been dressed long ago!"

Captain Dacres was astounded, as well he might be; for on the decks of his own ship lay twenty-three dead or mortally wounded men, while in the cockpit the surgeons were doing their best to alleviate the sufferings of fifty-six others.

The Americans now set to work to remove the prisoners from the Guerriere, which was evidently in a sinking condition. Needless to say, they were pleased to find that in the capture they had given freedom to some of their own countrymen—Captain Orne in particular.

In the first boat load from the British ship came its sad commander, Captain Dacres, who was politely shown into Captain Hull's cabin. Unclasping his sword, the conquered British officer extended it silently and formally to his old time friend.

But Captain Hull, with trembling lip, shoved it gently back. "No, no, Captain," said he; "I'll not take a sword from one who knows how to handle it so courageously,—but"—into his eyes came a roguish look,—"but, if you don't mind I will now trouble you for that hat!"

For a moment a shade of perplexity passed over the brow of the humbled British captain; then he recollected the wager of a year or two back, there in Philadelphia, and sheathing his formality with his sword, he shook hands laughingly but pathetically with his former comrade.