Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

William Bainbridge



Commodore Bainbridge was born at Princeton, New Jersey, in 1774. His family were of good standing, and willing as well as able to give the boy a liberal education; but an inborn love of adventure possessed him, and he begged to be allowed to go to sea. At that time, 1789-90, the navy of the Revolution had, ceased to exist, while the navy of a later date was not created, and the only way to gratify the boy was to send him to sea in a merchant vessel. He first shipped in his sixteenth year, and his good habits and natural genius for the sea gave him the place of first officer of a ship when he was eighteen. During a voyage to Holland a mutiny occurred on board his vessel, which was quelled chiefly by the vigor and determination of young Bainbridge. The owners rewarded his services by giving him the command of the ship when he was barely nineteen. At this time he was a singularly handsome young man. He was six feet high, his figure elegant, and his countenance as frank and open as it was comely. His manners were cordial, and his disposition impetuous; but although he sometimes fell into hasty and passionate language, no man was more ready to make amends. Like Paul Jones, he stammered slightly, but, also like him, he spoke smoothly enough when there was occasion for it, and no one ever heard him halt in his speech when an order aboard ship was to be given.

Bainbridge remained in command of merchant ships until the reorganization of the navy in 1798. During those years a singular and unsatisfactory state of affairs existed for American ships on the ocean. Without a single ship of war to protect them, they were liable to be overhauled by British warships, which claimed the right to search, by French warships, which practically fought and captured them, while a large trade with the North of Europe and the East was harassed by the corsairs of the Barbary coast. With regard to these last, a truly disgraceful condition prevailed. The Dey of Algiers actually demanded and received tribute from the United States government for not molesting its trading-vessels! It is true that other nations of Europe submitted to the same sort of blackmail; but their reasons, although not sufficient, were better than those of the Americans. New in the art of forming a great republic, and unduly fearful of the dangers of a fixed naval force as well as of a standing army, the government of the United States tried to do without a navy; but it paid for its mistake many times over, both in national honor and in money. The European nations also paid money to the Barbary pirates, and allowed their ships to be used in various ways, at the request of these haughty despots; but it was with a desire to secure their political alliances in the universal wars that scourged Europe at that day, and not from inability to protect their own carrying ships.

It may be imagined how galling this was to American captains, and that they resisted whenever there was a chance of success. Young Bainbridge was the last man to submit to coercion when he could help himself, and on two occasions, while in command of merchant vessels, showed the spirit that was in him. Once, when commanding the Hope, a little vessel carrying only eleven men before the mast and four nine-pounders, he fell in with a British privateer, carrying thirty men and eight guns. A sharp action ensued; for privateers are not wont to heed any vessel's rights when the privateer is the stronger party, and Paul Jones's characterization of them as "licensed robbers" is not far wrong. The Hope, however, made a good defence, and forced the privateer to call for quarter. Under the existing law, Bainbridge could not claim her as lawful prize, but was forced to let her go, shouting out to her commander as they parted, "Tell your employers if they have occasion for the Hope, they must send some other man than you to get her!"

Another time, the Indefatigable, frigate, under Sir Edward Pellew, afterward Lord Exmouth and the conqueror of Algiers, sent a squad of seamen on board the Hope, and took out of her a man alleged to be a British subject. Bainbridge could not resist, but he sent word to Sir Edward that the first British vessel of a force the Hope  could cope with, a man should be taken out of her, as sure as he was alive and commanded the Hope. This he did within a week, and carried the man back to the United States with him.

Things reached such a pass in 1798 that the necessity for a navy became pressing, and steps were promptly taken to organize and equip a naval force. Bainbridge, then twenty-four years old, was among the first to apply for a commission, and he was given that of lieutenant commandant. He soon got the command of a little cruiser of fourteen guns, captured from the French, and renamed the Retaliation. The ship was ordered to the West Indies, to cruise in company with the Montezuma, sloop of war, and the Norfolk  brig. On a November day in 1798, while cruising off Gaudeloupe, Bainbridge found himself too near two French frigates, Le Volontier, forty-four guns, and L'Insurgente, forty guns. L'Insurgente  was a tremendously fast frigate, and soon overhauled Bainbridge and compelled him to strike his colors. He was at once taken on board Le Volontier, while L'Insurgente  proceeded in chase of the Montezuma and the Norfolk. Captain St. Laurent, of Le Volontier, seeing L'Insurgente about to engage two adversaries, and knowing her captain, Barreault, to be a man brave to rashness, was disturbed at the prospect. He asked Bainbridge, who was on the quarterdeck, what the force of the American ships was. Bainbridge promptly replied that the Montezuma carried twenty-eight long guns, and the Norfolk twenty. This was about double their real force. Captain St. Laurent at once signalled L'Insurgente to return. Her captain, Barreault, was deeply chagrined, and when he went on board Le Volontier, told Captain St. Laurent that the American vessels were of trifling force, and he could easily have taken them both. Then Bainbridge's clever ruse was discovered; but the French officers, realizing that he had done his duty in trying to save his country's ships, showed no ill-will toward him.

The Retaliation was the first and only ship of war captured by the French during the years that war existed between the United States and France, although it never was declared. But Bainbridge's reputation did not suffer by this, as his whole conduct was that of a man of spirit and capacity. He rose to the rank of captain lust as he reached his twenty-sixth birthday; and in 1800 he was appointed to the command of the George Washington, of twenty-eight guns. His first duty was to carry tribute to the Dey of Algiers. No more hateful service could have been devised for him, and great blame rests upon the men in the government who subjected the United States to such humiliation.

In September, 1800, Bainbridge reached Algiers, and anchored within the mole. Scarcely had he landed the tribute, consisting of about half a million in money,—enough to have built a ship that could have knocked the Dey's forts about his ears, when he was asked to carry the Dey's ambassador to Constantinople, along with a present to the Sultan, of slaves, wild beasts, and a large sum of money. Bainbridge was furious at the demand; but the Dey insolently told him that he must go, or the ship, which was completely in the Dey's power, would be taken, her officers and crew sold into slavery, and war made on American trade. Bainbridge was reminded that British, French, and Spanish ships had performed the same duty; but no doubt Bainbridge realized that in all those cases it was done from political motives, while in his case it was done simply because he could not help himself. With a very bad grace, he agreed, and the presents and passengers were put in the ship and he sailed for Constantinople in October. It was a cruise the officers of the George Washington never liked to speak of; but there is no doubt that, although it was a time of the utmost vexation and mortification, innumerable amusing incidents occurred. The Mohammedans had great difficulty in keeping their faces toward Mecca during the frequent evolutions of the ship, and a man had to be stationed at the compass to let them know when it was time for them to "go about." This was a standing cause of laughter and gibes from the sailors, which naturally gave great offence to the Mohammedans; and these disagreements, together with a ship full of wild beasts, made it a cruise never to be forgotten.

Bainbridge was very doubtful whether his vessel would be allowed to pass the Dardanelles, as the American flag had never been seen in those seas before; so he concluded to get through by his wits. He approached with a strong wind, and dewed up his light sails as if about to anchor, saluting meanwhile. The salute was returned, and under cover of the smoke sail was quickly made and the ship slipped past, out of range of shot from the castles. When she reached Constantinople, a boat was sent ashore to report her arrival. The Turkish officials sent back word that they knew no such nation as the United States. They were soon convinced that there was such a nation, and were well received. The Sultan's brother-in-law, Capudan Pasha, became much attached to Bainbridge, and mentioned that the Dey of Algiers was not in favour with the Sublime Porte. Bainbridge, knowing he would re-turn to Algiers, got a letter from Capudan Pasha, in which the Dey was commanded to treat the American commander with the highest respect. Bainbridge returned to Algiers in January, and was immediately met with another demand,—that he take the Algerine ambassador back to Constantinople. This he firmly refused, at an interview in which the Dey stormed, raged, and threatened. In the midst of this, Bainbridge calmly produced Capudan Pasha's letter. The Dey paused, grew pale, and trembled, and then burst into profuse offers of assistance, which Bainbridge coolly declined, and left the palace.

The next day, in obedience to orders from Constantinople, the Dey declared war against France, and notified all of the French in Algiers—fifty-six men, women, and children—that unless they left within forty-eight hours, they would be sold into slavery. France was then at war with the United States, but this did not prevent Bain-bridge from offering these unfortunates an asylum on the George Washington at great inconvenience to himself, and carrying them all to Spain. For this humane act he received the personal thanks of Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul.

Bainbridge returned to the United States with the George Washington, and soon after got the Essex, a thirty-two-gun frigate attached to the squadron which was sent to the Mediterranean in 1801, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. Among the lieutenants of the Essex  was Stephen Decatur, afterward the celebrated Commodore.

The ship arrived at Barcelona in August, and took a berth in the harbor, close to the Spanish guardship. The neatness of the Essex  and the seamanlike appearance and conduct of her officers and men were so much remarked upon that it gave great offence to the officers of the guardship. The stay of the American frigate at Barcelona was a long scene of turmoil, owing to collisions between her junior officers and the Spanish midshipmen. In one of these Decatur figured prominently. Bainbridge acted with spirit and also with judgment, but was glad to get away from such uncomfortable quarters.

By that time Congress was beginning to wake up to the necessity for a more vigorous policy with regard to the Barbary powers, and the squadron was directed to protect American shipping by force. The corsairs interpreted this to mean war, and their aggressions reached such a pitch, after the return of Dale's squadron in 1802, that in 1803 Commodore Preble was sent out with the Constitution, the Philadelphia, and five smaller vessels, to reduce these piratical powers. Bain-bridge was promoted from the command of the Essex  to the Philadelphia, a fine thirty-eight-gun frigate, carrying a few more than three hundred men.

Her first lieutenant was David Porter, who, as a young midshipman, had distinguished himself in the Constellation  under Captain Truxtun, and who was destined to a highly honorable and active career during the whole time of his service in the navy.

The Philadelphia  arrived at Gibraltar in August, 1803, and the next day began to cruise up and down the straits in search of corsairs. In a day or two she fell in with a Moorish vessel, the Meshboha, in company with an American brig which had been captured, and her company taken aboard the Meshboha. The Philadelphia  stood by, and forced the Moorish captain, Lubarez, to send all his prisoners to the Philadelphia, and to come aboard himself. Bainbridge invited him into the cabin, and feeling sure that he had orders to capture American ships, directed him to produce these orders. Lubarez stoutly denied he had any such orders.

"Very well," coolly responded Bainbridge, taking out his watch. "I am now going on deck for half an hour. When I return, if you cannot show your orders, I will immediately hang you at the yardarm for a pirate."

At the end of half an hour Bainbridge re-turned. Lubarez then sullenly admitted he had orders, but they were inside his waistcoat. "Take off your waistcoat," said Bainbridge.

Lubarez began slowly to remove his waistcoat; but another appeared under it. He finally peeled off five waistcoats, and underneath the last one were the orders. Bainbridge immediately took possession of the Meshboha  and her prize, and carried them both into Gibraltar.

In a few days Commodore Preble reached Gibraltar, and Bainbridge was sent to Tripoli, with orders to intercept and capture every Tripolitan vessel possible. He arrived before Tripoli, in the autumn of 1803, and immediately began a vigorous blockade. On the 81st of October he gave chase to a xebec trying to get into the harbor. He was rapidly overhauling her, when, at the mouth of the harbor, the water suddenly shoaled, and the Philadelphia ran upon a tremendous reef, known to the Tripolitans, but not down on any chart.

At once every effort was made to get the ship off, but she held fast, and soon heeled over so far to starboard that her guns on that side became useless. The Tripolitans at once saw her desperate plight, and gunboats came out in swarms to attack her. The Americans fought the gun-boats off as best they could, meanwhile working with amazing energy to save the ship. All the water in her was pumped out, the anchors were cut from the bows, most of her guns thrown over-board, and at last the foremast was cut away. Still the ship stuck fast. Bainbridge, who had shown great coolness and determination in the dreadful circumstances in which he found himself, presently saw that he must give up the ship. He called a council of his officers, and they agreed that all had been done that men could do. The carpenters were ordered to scuttle the ship; and just as the autumn night was closing in, the Philadelphia's  colors were hauled down, and the Tripolitans swarmed over the decks, in the ports, and everywhere a foot could be set. Then looting began; the officers being robbed of everything, even their swords and epaulets. Bainbridge gave up his watch and money in dignified silence; but when his wife's picture was about to be torn from around his neck, he swore no man should have it, and fought the Tripolitan off who would have taken it.

The officers and men were then carried into the town, where the officers were received by the Bashaw in great state, surrounded by his ministers. It is said that Bainbridge never looked handsomer or more imposing than when he appeared at the head of his officers before the barbaric prince. The Bashaw treated them with Eastern courtesy, gave them a handsome supper, for they were half dead with hunger and fatigue, and then sent them to a temporary prison. They were in charge of Sidi Mohammed D'Ghies, one of the great officers of state, who proved to be a man of good heart, and whose ideas of military honor were Western rather than Eastern.

Then began a captivity which lasted for nineteen months. The men were reduced to a position of slavery, and made to work for their Tripolitan masters. The officers were closely confined, and after several attempts at escape had been made by the younger ones, they were removed to the dungeons of the Bashaw's castle.

The situation of Bainbridge was sad in the extreme. He felt himself to be foredoomed to misfortune. He had lost his first ship, the Retaliation, in the French war. His cruise in the George Washington had been painful and humiliating in many respects; and now he had lost one of the two frigates that the country depended upon to punish the corsairs. A very affecting letter of his to his wife exists, in which he seems plunged into despair; and in it he says he sometimes thinks "it would have been a merciful dispensation of Providence if my head had been shot off while our vessel lay rolling upon the rocks." But from this sharp affliction his gallant spirit rallied after a time. His officers and men felt undiminished confidence in and affection for him, and did all in their power to comfort him.

The very day after their capture they sent him a letter saying, "We, late officers of the United States frigate Philadelphia, wishing to express our full approbation of your conduct concerning the unfortunate event of yesterday, do conceive that the charts and soundings justified as near an approach to the shore as we made, and that after she struck every expedient was used to get her off and to defend her which courage and abilities could dictate.

"We wish to add that in this instance as in every other, since we have had the honor of being under your command, the officers and seamen have always appreciated your distinguished conduct. Believe us, sir, that our misfortunes and sorrows are entirely absorbed in our sympathy for you. We are, sir, with sentiments of the highest and most sincere respect, your friends and fellow sufferers."

Here follow the signatures of every officer under Bainbridge.

He soon received letters from Commodore Preble; and the brotherly kindness expressed in them reflects the greatest honor upon a superior officer who could feel so generously in an affair which crippled and embarrassed him so cruelly as the loss of the Philadelphia. Preble wrote: "May God bless and preserve you! Recollect that destiny, not want of courage, has deprived you of liberty, but not of honor." And he adds, "The first consul of France, the celebrated Bonaparte, has interested himself deeply in your situation."

To the chagrin of the Americans, they found that the Philadelphia  had not been thoroughly scuttled, and she was hauled off the rocks by the Tripolitans, the holes in her bottom stopped, her foremast refitted, her guns and anchors fished up, and she was towed within the harbor. From the one window of their underground prison, the unfortunate officers of the Philadelphia  could see the ship riding at anchor, and disgraced by the pirate flag of Tripoli.

The captives were allowed to communicate at intervals with Commodore Preble, who gave them assurance that they were not forgotten, and that the Bashaw would have to surrender them and pay dearly for having imprisoned them. Besides these official communications, means were found by which letters written in lemon juice were exchanged, and in one of these Bainbridge suggested the possibility of destroying the Philadelphia  at her moorings,—which was afterward carried out with splendid dash by Decatur.

In spite of those alleviations, there were long months of weariness and dreariness in a peculiarly trying captivity. The time was not wholly wasted. The midshipmen, whose untamed spirits frequently got them into difficulties, were set to work by the older officers, and all, men as well as officers, bore their imprisonment with fortitude. The seamen were made to labor on the fortifications; and as they were often unruly, the slave drivers had no hesitation in ordering them to be bastinadoed on every occasion. The man who ad-ministered the punishment was not so hard-hearted as his masters, and although he regularly laid on the required number of blows upon the soles of the sailors' feet, he winked at the fact that they had wrapped folds of matting around their feet, and the blows hurt not at all. The sailors were clever enough to shriek and scream during this mock bastinadoing, and the slave-drivers were completely deceived by Jack's ruse.

At last, on the night of the 15th of February, 1804, the captives were awakened by the firing of heavy guns. By the light of a brilliant moon and the blazing hull and spars of the Philadelphia  out in the harbor, they saw the destruction of the ship by Decatur and his gallant band. While they watched her burn to the water's edge, her shotted guns burst with heat and flame, her magazine blew up, and when the sun rose next morning, not a vestige remained of the lovely frigate. She had been destroyed by the Americans under Decatur, without the loss of a single man.

This gave heart to the prisoners, and they felt their deliverance was at hand; but it was not until the spring had passed and the summer dragged along into August that one day they were roused by a heavy cannonade. They were then confined underground in the Bashaw's castle, and there was only one window by which they could see the offing. They eagerly clambered up, and the thrill of joy they felt may be imagined when they saw a smart flotilla of small vessels, led with the greatest dash and impetuosity by Decatur and Somers, burning, sinking, or driving back the Tripolitan gunboats. And farther out in the offing, they saw the glorious Constitution  coming into action in grand style, choosing her range with majestic deliberation, and then her batteries roaring out destruction to her enemies, while the Tripolitan shot fell short, or dropped harmlessly against her stout sides.

For six weeks the attack was kept up furiously, and in that time five tremendous assaults were made by Commodore Preble's squadron. In one of these destructive cannonades a round shot from the Constitution  tore in at the one window from which a part of the harbor could be seen, and, narrowly missing Bainbridge, knocked him down and almost covered him with the mass of stone and mortar it dislodged. But Bainbridge was not the man to mind a trifle like this, and every time the Constitution  came within range, she was welcome to the tired eyes, and the thunder of her well-served batteries was music to the ears of the imprisoned Americans. They hoped from day to day for release, and although the season for active operations closed before the Bashaw had actually been reduced to submission, yet it was plain that the town could not withstand another such cannonade.

When the Constitution  was forced to depart, she left behind her a menacing promise to the Bashaw that she would come back the next sea-son, and finish the work; and the last of May, 1805, saw her again off the town. This time the Bashaw was anxious to make peace. Sidi Mohammed D'Ghies urged him to send Bain-bridge aboard the Constitution  on his parole, to see what the Americans demanded. The Bashaw asked if Sidi really thought that Bainbridge would return if once his foot touched the Constitution's  deck.

"Certainly," replied Sidi; "the American captain will keep his word, and I will leave my eldest son as a hostage that he will return."

The Bashaw, only half believing, allowed Bainbridge to go, and on the 1st of June, 1805, nine-teen months exactly after his capture, Bainbridge again trod the deck of an American man-of-war. Commodore Rodgers, commanding the Constitution, and all the officers of the squadron received him affectionately. They had brought out a treaty of peace for the Bashaw to sign, and the first stipulation was that every American prisoner should be given up immediately and without conditions. This, Bainbridge said, he did not believe the Bashaw would ever agree to, as it was a fixed principle with the Barbary powers never to give up a prisoner without ransom. Bainbridge returned to the shore at nightfall, and, with Sidi, went to the castle, where the Bashaw expressed great surprise at seeing him again. The Bashaw, however, was far less inclined to keep up the fight than Bainbridge imagined. After a day or two of hesitation, a council of war was held at which Bainbridge was invited to be present,—an honor never before bestowed upon a prisoner of the Barbary States. When Bainbridge entered the council chamber at the castle, he found the Bashaw surrounded by all of his great officers of state, with the treaty brought by Commodore Rodgers spread out before them. To sign it meant peace, and the immediate release of every American prisoner; to refuse it meant that the Constitution  and her consorts lying out within gunshot of the town, would be thundering at their forts and ships within an hour. The question of peace or war was debated with grave eloquence. The council was evenly divided. At last the decision had to be made. The Bashaw, after a solemn pause, took his signet ring from his bosom, and, affixing it to the treaty, said with dignity,—

"It is peace."

Bainbridge is said to have thought, after the event happened, that the Bashaw had no real intention of withstanding another bombardment, and his hesitation and final yielding to the advocates of peace was a preconcerted arrangement.

As soon as the treaty was signed, the forts and castle saluted the American flag, and the squadron returned the salute. Next day the American prisoners were released. A Neapolitan who had been held in slavery for years by the Tripolitans had been very kind to the sailors and marines, and they asked Bainbridge if he would authorize the purser to advance them seven hundred dollars out of their pay to buy the Neapolitan's freedom. This was done, and the man was restored to his country by these grateful men.

The squadron sailed for Syracuse, where a court of inquiry into the loss of the Philadelphia  was held, and Bainbridge was honorably acquitted. On his return to the United States he was received with much kindness by his companions in arms, by the government, and the people, all of whom regarded him as a brave and capable officer who had lost his ship by one of those fateful accidents against which neither courage nor capacity can prevail.

It seems singular that on the heels of the splendid successes of the navy before Tripoli and with the rest of the Barbary powers, the government and the people showed very little understanding of the value of the naval service. As soon as hostilities were over with the corsairs, a reduction of the navy took place, although at that very time aggressions of Great Britain upon American merchant ships were continuing at a rate which was bound to provoke war in the end. Bainbridge, like many others, found himself without a ship, and on half-pay; and he asked and obtained leave, during the intervals when he was without a naval command, to make voyages in the merchant service. He was absent on one of these voyages for profit in the autumn of 1811 when at St. Petersburg he heard of the probability of a declaration of war with Great Britain. He started instantly on his return to the United States, and reached Washington in February, 1812. He found there one of Commodore Preble's captains, Charles Stewart, and to his rage and mortification was told that the government thought it vain and foolhardy to give battle on the sea to the mightiest naval power on earth, which had then vanquished the navies of Europe and kept them skulking in their own harbors.

Such over-prudence ill suited the ardent and determined natures of Bainbridge and Stewart. They heard that the government had concluded to lay up such ships as it had, and to prosecute the fight entirely on land. They went together to President Madison, and besought him to change this cowardly and unwise policy, and succeeded in persuading him to do it. For this one act the country is forever indebted to Bainbridge and Stewart. While nothing could eventually stop the progress of the United States toward being a great and powerful nation, yet, had it not been for the victories gained at sea during the War of 1812-15, the dignity and prestige of the United States would have suffered an eclipse for fifty years. The success of the Americans in the ship duels on the ocean during the war of 1812 did more to make the United States respected abroad than any event of our history after the Revolution. The great question of the right of search in neutral vessels was settled by the achievements of a few smart vessels with great and daring captains, belonging to a young and hitherto feeble power in America, a right which had been vainly contested by all the powers of Europe. The British navy had been for more than a hundred years practically invincible, and there can be no doubt that many of its earlier losses in 181215 came from absolute rashness, fostered by a long and glorious career of conquest. What was of more value to the United States than the respect of continental Europe was the respect earned from the English themselves. The United States of 1812 was chiefly populated by those only a few generations from an English ancestry, and the people of the two countries were alike in their willingness to make a square, stand-up fight, and then to shake hands afterward. From the hour that the first British frigate struck to an American ship, the British navy highly esteemed the American navy, and the British government realized that at last there was a sea power equal in skill, daring, and resource to Great Britain. The ships lost by the British were scarcely missed from their huge fleets; but Great Britain, like America, promptly recognized the new and tremendous force which the taking of those few ships implied. It was one of the most fortunate hours that ever dawned for the United States when the advice of Bainbridge and Stewart was taken, and within six months they were amply justified.

Bainbridge by his rank was entitled to a choice of the few frigates the country then owned, and he would undoubtedly have chosen the glorious "Old Ironsides" upon which to hoist his flag. But Hull had got her already, and, apprehending that orders might come detaching him, he put to sea in a hurry, and before he returned, had captured the Guerriere  frigate. Bainbridge got the Constellation, the fine frigate in which Commodore Truxtun had fought two French frigates. He was not able, however, to get to sea in her; and when Hull returned from his victorious cruise, in August, 1812, he gave up the Constitution  to Bainbridge, who hoisted a broad pennant on her. The Essex, thirty-two guns, commanded by Captain Porter, who afterward made his celebrated cruise in her to the Pacific, and the Hornet, of eighteen guns, under the gallant Lawrence, with the Constitution, were ordered to join Bainbridge. Porter was Bainbridge's old lieutenant in the Philadelphia, and had shared his captivity at Tripoli. Events, however, so fell out that the Essex  did not join the other two ships, and Bainbridge sailed in October, 1812, for the South Atlantic accompanied only by the Hornet. The Constitution  was in need of repairs, and not sailing in her usual great form, but could still sail fairly well on a wind. She had some of the officers and all of the crew in her that had got her out of the clutches of Admiral Broke's squadron in June, and had taken the Guerriere  in August. Therefore it was with great confidence that Commodore Bainbridge on the morning of the 29th of December, 1812, made for a British frigate which showed an equal inclination to close with him. This vessel, the Java, which carried forty-nine guns, was undoubtedly a lighter ship than the Constitution. Yet the British were in the habit of engaging such odds successfully with the war-ships of other nations, and Captain Lambert of the Java  showed a stern determination to stand by his colors, and was as far from declining the fight when he saw his adversary's power as whew she was still hull down in the distance.

The Java  was fitted out to carry Lieutenant General Hislop and a large staff to Bombay, besides a number of naval officers and seamen for Ships on the East India stations. She had about four hundred and twenty-five men on board.

About two o'clock in the day, after maneuvering for an hour or two in order to get together, the first broadsides were exchanged. There was a light wind blowing, and Bainbridge, wishing to get the advantage of it as far as possible, did not strip his ship of much of her canvas, but went into action with most of his light sails set and his royal yards across. The Java, which was finely officered and extra manned, was very actively handled; and so many evolutions were made, in order to get a good position for raking, that the battle ended many miles to leeward of where it began. The cannonade was brisk from the start, and soon after the first broadside Commodore Bainbridge was struck on the hip by a musket ball, and in less than five minutes, while he was standing near the wheel, a shot shivered it, and a small bolt was driven into his thigh. Bainbridge did not leave the deck a moment for this, but remained walking about as if he had not been wounded. The loss of the Constitution's  wheel was very serious, especially with so expert an antagonist as Captain Lambert to deal with, and Bainbridge endeavored to close. This was only partially successful, but nevertheless so effective was the Constitution's  fire that it was soon apparent that she had the Java at her mercy. The gallant frigate, however, did not strike her colors until every spar was shot out of her, her captain mortally hurt, her first lieutenant painfully wounded, and she had lost forty-eight killed and one hundred and two wounded. Then only she hauled down the union jack which had been flying at the stump of the mizzen-mast. The Constitution  had lost nine men killed and twenty-five wounded, and came out of the action with all her royal yards across, and every spar in place.

The Java had been so much cut up that it was impossible to refit her, and Bainbridge was forced to burn her, after taking out her wheel to replace the Constitution's. This was a remarkably clumsy wheel, and in no way matched the handsome fittings of the ship; but it was retained, from motives of sentiment, ever afterward.

Captain Lambert lived several days after the fight, and was put ashore, with the rest of the officers of the Java, at San Salvador. Commodore Bainbridge's wounds were dangerous, as he had remained on deck from the time he was shot, at half past two in the day, until eleven o'clock that night. When Captain Lambert was about to be taken ashore, Bainbridge had himself carried on deck by two of his officers, to where Captain Lambert lay in his cot. Bainbridge, who was then dangerously ill and in great pain, returned the dying officer his sword, and Captain Lambert, still conscious, feebly thanked him. The interview brought tears to the eyes of all who witnessed it, and the two captains parted, never to meet again in this world, with feelings of kindness such as brave enemies should entertain for each other.

Bainbridge treated all of his prisoners with great generosity, and they showed a very grateful appreciation of it. On the 4th of January, on being informed by Lieutenant Chads, next in command, of Captain Lambert's death, Bain-bridge wrote a very beautiful letter, in which he said: "Commodore Bainbridge takes this occasion to observe, in justice to Lieutenant Chads, who fought the Java after Captain Lambert was wounded, that he had done everything which a brave and skilful officer could do, and further resistance would have been a wanton effusion of human blood."

This was valuable testimony to Lieutenant Chads on his future court martial. Bainbridge had known what it was to lose his ship, and he could feel for an officer under a similar misfortune. So thoughtful was his kindness to his prisoners, that General Hislop in gratitude gave him a splendid gold-hilted sword, and the two remained friends and correspondents during the rest of their lives. The conduct of Bainbridge and his officers was duly reported in England, and the Prince Regent, afterward George the Fourth, who could say graceful things, remarked that he would like to shake hands with Bainbridge, for his magnanimity to the British prisoners. The loss of the Java, following upon that of the Guerriere  and the Macedonian, produced a shock of pain and grief throughout Great Britain. The venerable Admiral Jarvis, the day after the news reached London, said he had passed a sleepless night, not from the destruction of a single British frigate, but because of the seamanlike manner in which it had been captured, which gave him as an Englishman much uneasiness and apprehension of the future naval greatness of the United States. Bainbridge returned to the United States within five months of leaving home, and was welcomed as victorious captains always are. He landed at Boston, where he was given a splendid public dinner; resolutions of thanks from the city and State governments were passed in his honor, and he and the brave fellows under him became the heroes of the hour. Amid all this popular adoration, Bainbridge did not forget the claims of the seamen, and immediately began efforts to get them prize money. He wrote, with much justice, that the captain usually got all the honor when a ship was captured, while the officers and men, who did quite as much toward success, got nothing, except from the generosity of the government; and he was deeply gratified when Congress, after awarding him the customary gold medal, and the officers silver medals, gave the crew a substantial sum in prize money. He gave up the Constitution  to Captain Stewart, who, like Hull and himself, was destined to do great things in her.

Bainbridge did not get to sea again during the war, but soon after the peace he went to the Mediterranean in command of a splendid squadron destined to punish the Dey of Algiers for certain treacherous acts toward American vessels. Bainbridge hoisted his flag on the Independence, seventy-four guns,—the first line-of-battle ship over which the American flag ever floated. Decatur, who had sailed in advance of the commander-in-chief, had already brought the Dey to terms before Bainbridge arrived, but it was thought well to show the squadron for some time in European waters. It consisted of the largest naval force that had, up to that time, ever been collected under an American flag officer. It consisted of one ship of the line, three splendid frigates, and fourteen smaller vessels, all well officered and manned, and fine ships of their class. At Gibraltar, where it lay some time, it was extremely admired, and the American officers received much attention from the officers of the British fleet and garrison.

In 1820 Bainbridge again took a noble fleet to the Mediterranean. On reaching Gibraltar, he found a very bad state of affairs between the officers of the American squadron, which rendezvoused there, and the British officers of the garrison and fleet. Misunderstandings, quarrels, and duels were so frequent that the Governor had taken upon himself to forbid the American officers from visiting the town or garrison. He expressed to Commodore Bainbridge, however, a desire for an amicable arrangement. Bainbridge at once required that this prohibition be removed, and refused to treat until it was withdrawn, which was done. As the British officers had very great personal regard for Bainbridge, he was the man for smoothing down differences while maintaining the dignity of an American officer. From that day, American officers have been well treated at Gibraltar. This was Bainbridge's last cruise, and afterward his service was in command of different navy yards. It is said that in the course of his naval career he moved his family twenty-six times. His health began to fail after his fifty-fifth year, but he survived his sixtieth year. He died at Philadelphia in July, 1888, honored and admired to an extraordinary degree. His last words were, as he raised himself from his bed of death,—

"Give me my sword! And call all hands to board the enemy!"