The Great Chase - July 16-19, 1812
Less than a month after the United States declared war on Great Britain, under the command of Capt. Isaac Hull, I was en route to New York, to join Commodore John Rodgers' squadron. At about 4 p.m. on July 16, off the coast of Egg Harbor, NJ, my crew sighted an unknown ship to the northeast, which was joined by more ships early the next day. “One Frigate astern within about five or six miles, and a Line of Battle Ship, a Frigate, a Brig, and Schooner, about ten or twelve miles astern all in chase of us, with a fine breeze, and coming up very fast it being nearly calm where we were,” Hull wrote to the secretary of the Navy a few days later. “Soon after Sunrise the wind entirely left us, and the Ship would not steer…”
Capt. Hull ordered the crew to lighten our load in order to give me more speed. They discharged thousands of gallons of drinking water over the side and doused my sails with water to take full advantage of the occasional light winds. Additionally, small boats were launched for a towing operation called kedging - carrying small anchors ahead of me to be dropped into the coastal waters, and then painstakingly using the capstan to pull me forward to the submerged anchors.
The English forces concentrated their own kedging efforts on moving a single ship closer and closer. By about 4 p.m. on July 18, I had a 3-4 mile lead over the enemy. Hull ordered his men prepare our sails for a coming squall, and when the British ships did the same, my sails were unfurled and I raced away at 11 knots. The Royal Navy ships gave up the chase early the next morning.
HMS Guerriere - August 19, 1812
We encountered HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia at about 2 p.m. Closing the distance of several miles between the two warships, HMS GUERRIERE raised three British ensigns as an invitation to a duel; Capt. Isaac Hull answered with four American ensigns.
Although Guerriere's captain began firing early, we held our fire until 6 p.m. Capt. Hull wrote soon after the engagement, “…within less than a Pistol Shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all of our Guns.”
In the course of this 35-minute battle, an astonished sailor observed British 18-lb. iron cannonballs, bouncing harmlessly off my 25-inch oak hull, and he cried out, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” Henceforth, I have carried the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
“The Guerriere was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless,” Capt. Dacres explained in a letter to his superiors in England. “As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her afire, 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.”
HMS GUERRIERE sank into the sea in flames on Aug. 20, and I returned to Boston on Aug. 30, to great fanfare.
The British reaction was summed up by the London Times, which stated, “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, and enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. …how important this triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.”
HMS Java December 29, 1812
Five months after my encounter with HMS Guerriere I engaged my second British frigate during the War of 1812. Under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, I was operating under the directive "to annoy the enemy and afford protection to our commerce." Some thirty miles off the coast of Brazil I met my directive.
At 2 p.m., my Sailors opened fire on HMS JAVA, a 38-gun ship that was smaller and faster than me, and was commanded by Capt. Henry Lambert. HMS JAVA's opening salvo damaged my rigging and spars and wounded my captain. Raking fire from HMS JAVA to my stern shattered the helm and killed or injured the four helmsmen. Wounded a second time in the thigh, Capt. Bainbridge passed steering orders to Marines in the ship's tiller room, who moved the rudder using block and tackle.
We closed fast and delivered a broadside that destroyed HMS JAVA's bowsprit cap, jib boom and head sails. When the British frigate's bowsprit became entangled in my mizzen rigging, Capt. Bainbridge seized the opportunity to fire a final broadside. My boarding party salvaged the helm from the dismasted HMS JAVA, to replace my shattered one.
As many as 60 British seamen were killed in action, including Capt. Lambert. I lost nine Sailors. Following this battle, the British Admiralty - then the world's foremost maritime superpower - decreed their warships would no longer engage American frigates in combat unless in squadron force - that is, two or more to one.
HMS Cyane and HMS Levant - February 20, 1815
The war had ended three days before, but we had no way of knowing. Sailing off the coast of Madeira, Spain, we encountered two smaller British ships in the afternoon. With my 52 guns, we began exchanging fire with both ships, the 24-gun HMS Cyane and the 18-gun HMS Levant.
In his official report, my commander, Captain Charles Stewart, described the beginning of the battle at just after 6 p.m. "…commenced action by broadsides, both ships returning fire with great spirit for about 12 minutes, then the fire of the enemy beginning to slacken, and the great column of smoke collected under our lee, induced us to cease our fire to ascertain their positions and conditions."
After a fierce 45-minute fight, HMS Cyane surrendered and a damaged HMS Levant left the scene. The battle was not over, however, as Levant returned to the scene two hours later, only to be defeated.
The defeat and capture of the two prized British ships became known as one of the most brilliant examples of seamanship and fighting tactics in the War of 1812.