Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser
What cruel fate is this,
That one so gallant, a master of the seas,
Fearing naught, sailing where she please,
Should vanish in the dark of night,
And never leave a sign in sight
No bit of wreckage, no floating mast
To show which way she might have pass'd?
For as much as one hundred and fifty years before the War of 1812 England had been a virtual "mistress of the seas." The war-ships of no nation were able to compete successfully against those of Great Britain, although in that time practically every European power had matched its naval craft against her. And when, in 1812, the unknown navy of the new nation growing up across the Atlantic did what no old navy had ever been able to do, not only the English but the people of Continental Europe opened their eyes wide in wonder, and the former were greatly humiliated and aroused.
So it was the Americans who first proved to the world that the English could be beaten at their own favorite game. It was the Americans who did what the huge fleets of France, Spain, and Holland had failed to do. And—greatest credit of all—they did it without large fleets and squadrons, with a mere handful of frigates and sloops, hammered together at short notice, and manned and equipped with crude material. But untrained as they were, those seamen were full of American spirit and initiative—so full of it that their deeds with solitary ships have been honored with as much attention by modern writers of naval warfare in the Old World as bestowed upon the actions of whole fleets in other wars.
Among the famous ships of the Americans in this war were two which carried the name of Wasp. The first one built was an eighteen gun sloop which at the very outset of hostilities captured a British brig of twenty guns, but unfortunately she was herself taken a little later on by an enemy seventy-four. In memory of her the Americans gave the same name to a new sloop which they had been building. These sloops of war were very stoutly made, and their swiftness compared favorably with any European ships of their class, for the American shipwrights were already as famous as the American gunners and seamen.
The new Wasp, like most of her sister ships of sloop build, carried twenty-two guns. She was ship-rigged, and had a crew of one hundred and seventy men. Twenty of her guns were carronades, shooting thirty-two pound projectiles, and intended for short range. Her remaining two guns were bow-chasers, termed "Long Toms," which had far stronger carrying power.
It was in 1814, during the last year of the war, that the Wasp sailed from the United States to prey on the navy and commerce of Great Britain. For commander she had a gallant South Carolinian named Captain Johnson Blakeley. Her crew were nearly all native Americans, being an exceptionally fine set of men, quick to act, and afraid of nothing above or below the sun except the wrath of God. Instead of staying near the American coastline, or sailing the high seas for her prizes, the Wasp at once boldly turned her nose toward the English Channel, bent upon carrying the war to the very doors of the enemy, as John Paul Jones had done thirty-seven years before.
By this time the British fleets had obtained such complete supremacy over European waters that the ships of the French, who were friendly with the United States, were almost completely bottled up, and could not get out to render the aid to America they would so much have liked to. Night and day, in calm, squall, and tempest, these great blockading squadrons of England keep watch upon the rival war-ships of the French emperor, as a cat crouches and awaits the first movement of the little mouse for a quick pounce. Other British ships-of-war patrolled the seas unchecked, ready to pick up the first rash French vessel or American ship they could see.
In spite of all this vigilance of the enemy he found he could not close up all the gates into the seas, nor frighten those he watched into tamely staying off the waters. A few French privateers slipped out now and then. The bolder and more formidable American privateersmen drove hither and thither across the ocean in their swift craft, laughing at the enemy's frantic efforts to catch them, and harassing the English commerce without mercy.
Of these American privateers the Wasp was one of the most audacious. She proceeded at once, upon crossing the Atlantic, to cruise boldly in the English Channel and off the coasts of England, France, and Spain. Here, in the very teeth of British naval power, threatened by enemy fleets convoying detachments of troops for Wellington's Peninsular army, menaced by enemy squadrons guarding British merchantmen, imperiled by diverse foe ships-of-the-line, out looking for stray privateers like herself, the Wasp kept on. Many was the time that her escape from capture was narrow; but by the splendid seamanship of her crew and the vigilance and skill of her commander, she kept on threading the dangerous home waters of her adversary, as saucy and daring as you please.
Before she had been long on the ground, one June morning found her giving chase to a couple of English merchantmen. In the midst of the exciting pursuit, her lookout from the masthead reported a strange vessel of suspicious character bearing down fast from leeward. A little later the stranger was close enough for Captain Blakeley to see that she was a British brig-of-the-line. She was, in fact, the Reindeer, of eighteen guns and one hundred and twenty men, commanded by Captain Manners of the Royal navy. At once the American captain decided to drop his pursuit of the Merchantmen and engage the warship.
The sky was a beautiful azure blue; the air mild and still. The very lightest wind stirred across the wide expanse of sea. At one o'clock the Wasp's drum beat to quarters, and at once every man ran quickly to his post, while the sails were furled into fighting trim.
The Reindeer's drum also beat to order, and she too made preparations for battle which could be plainly seen from the deck of the American vessel. On her forecastle she had rigged a light carronade, and as she now came down from astern of the Wasp, she fired this gun five times point-blank at the American sloop, some of the shots taking effect in the latter's hull but doing little damage.
In answer, the Wasp now lulled slowly round, firing her heavy carronade as she bore. In a few moments the rival ships had closed; yard-arm to yard-arm they lay, almost in a mortal embrace. Terrific was the thunder of the heavy guns of both. No sooner did a gun spit out its venom of hot lead than its grimy gunner pulled in its smoking muzzle, its equally grimy swabber swabbed it, and it was loaded and thrust through the port again for another merciless discharge of hate. Like demons these men worked at the breeches, while on the decks and the tops other men fired with pistols and muskets at every human target presenting itself.
As the vessels ground together the American sailors sprang to the bulwarks to make the union sure by throwing grapnels over the Reindeer. They were protected by their brother jackies below and aloft, who discharged a veritable shower of shot into the foe, many of whom made desperate efforts to rush forward and frustrate the design by savage thrust of pike and bark of pistol and slash of cutlass. In this struggle Captain Manners himself was wounded.
But a wound could not deter the brave British commander. At this juncture he gave his own men the order to gather for boarding. Immediately they came running up, many naked above the waist, their skin already streaked with sickening red in spots and blacked with powder smudges in others; cutlass gripped in one rough fist, pistol in the other.
However, the Americans were quick to see their new danger. Behind the bulwarks of the Wasp crouched the American pikemen, with set countenances and restless feet and hands; behind them, drawn up on the deck, cutlassed and pistoled, stood the sturdy, tanned marines of the new country; at the right and left, on stations of elevated vantage where they could note every movement of the foe, were the cool blue coated officers, swords in hand, ready to meet any emergency. themselves.
Now came Captain Manners's signal to his men of, "Boarders away!"
Like a snapping bowstring the taut nerves of the men on both sides flew into action. The British sea-dogs began to tumble over the rail of the. American ship—only to perish by shot or steel, to go down like weeds under the hoe of the husbandman. Still they persisted, brave men that they were. Desperately they stabbed with pike and cut arcs with their cutlasses. Fully as desperately did they pull trigger of pistol, and attempt to force their way well upon the American deck.
Seeing his men stagger and hesitate, on the very verge of rout, the dauntless Manners shouted encouragement and sprang to their head. Too late! Even while his arm was extended forward, indicating the goal, the bullet of an American sharpshooter in the foretop came unerringly down and crushed through his skull.
As Manners fell, his men became panic stricken. They were quickly forced back to their own deck, and then came the order of Captain Blakeley himself to board. Over the bulwarks of the enemy ship they scrambled, shouting like men gone daft. Absolutely irresistible was their advance. With wild cheers they swept the wreck of the British seamen before them, and in almost the time it takes to tell it the Reindeer was in their possession.
Every officer on board the enemy craft had been killed, while at least two thirds of her crew had been killed or wounded. That they had fought valiantly was shown by the fact that twenty-six Americans had suffered death or injuries.
Having no desire to return to home shores right away, and not wishing to be handicapped with a prize consort, the crew of the Wasp removed the British to their own vessel and then applied the torch to the Reindeer.
After running into a friendly French port to refit, the Wasp once more put to sea in quest of new laurels. For some time she met no antagonist worthy of her timber; moreover, she had to exercise the utmost vigilance to escape capture.
Late one September afternoon she found herself within striking distance of an isolated British brig which belonged to a squadron whose other ships had become somewhat widely separated in a recent storm. Although the brig's sister ships were too close to promise a successful attack on her in broad daylight, Captain Blakeley thought he stood some chance under cover of darkness.
Accordingly, keeping the Wasp far behind, where her identity was unlikely even to be suspected, he trailed after the Avon, which carried eighteen guns and was in some respects a more powerful craft than the American vessel. During the night he came up with the pursued after following his lights for some time, and bearing very close fired a heavy broadside into the Avon, whose astonished captain had taken him for one of the other British ships.
As soon as she could do so the Avon turned her own guns upon her attacker, while sailors set lamp signals high on her foremast calling to her compatriots for aid. Plunging and wallowing in the sea, which was running quite high, both sides found the aiming difficult. But the firing was fast and furious, nevertheless.
The British marksmanship was very bad; few hits were scored. On the other hand, the Americans displayed their customary superiority at this game, and before long with such effect that the hull of the British brig was in deplorable condition. Noting that she was sinking, her commander struck his flag and cried for quarter. Fifty of his men had been laid low, while only three Americans had sustained wounds.
Before the Wasp could take possession of her prize two British ships which had seen the signals of their distressed friend, or heard the firing, unexpectedly put in an appearance. Extinguishing his own lights, Captain Blakeley adroitly sneaked away in the darkness, with one enemy shot chasing after him. Had only one foe ship come to the rescue of the Avon he would promptly have attacked it. With the enemy all around him, his feat of running in and destroying one of their ships was remarkably bold and wonderful in its accomplishment; he was too sagacious a seaman to spoil his good work now by remaining to engage insurmountable odds.
After this the Wasp took other prizes. Once she came across a convoy of British ships carrying arms and munitions of war to Wellington's army, under the protection of a big two-decker war-ship. Hanging on the outskirts of this convoy, like a hawk over a barnyard, the swift sloop watched her chance and finally swooped down upon one of the transports and destroyed it, before the mothering ship could bring her guns to bear.
This was the last known feat ever performed by the gallant little Wasp. Her country never again heard from her; Europe never heard from her. Where had she gone? The seas were scoured for her by friend and foe alike; but the waters seemed to have opened up, and swallowed the daring sloop and her daring crew, leaving no human survivor, not even an identifying splinter of wood, scrap of metal, or fragment of uniform. And nothing more is known about her to this day.