Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ships: Gallant Peacock

It was on this day in 1815 that the final battle of the War of 1812 took place at sea. This seems a fitting conclusion to a war that began over the issue of fair trade and, above all, sailors’ rights. But the U.S. ship involved in that 15 minute firefight that saw her take the East Indiaman Nautilus as prize had a long and fascinating life ahead of her. Today, the story of American sloop of war Peacock.

According to the U.S. Navy archives Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (find it online here), Peacock in her original form was built by Adam and Noah Brown at the New York Navy Yard beginning July 1813. She was a sloop of 509 tons, 117 feet in length and 31 and ½ feet at her beam. She had a relatively deep draft for a sloop at 16 feet, 4 inches. Her compliment of men was 140 and her compliment of guns was 24 in total. Peacock would doubtless have been a fast sailer, capable of giving chase to any vessel her own size and many larger than she, upon her launch in September of 1813.

Under Captain Lewis Warrington, Peacock carried supplies to Georgia and then cruised off the Florida coast. Here, in April of 1814, she engaged HMS Epervier who was escorting a convoy of merchants. Both ships sustained damage and casualties but, after 45 minutes, Epervier struck to Peacock. Not only did Peacock capture the British brig and her convoy, but $120,000 in cash was found aboard her.

After repairs, Peacock crossed the Atlantic to cruise the European coast. She returned to the Caribbean in October with fourteen prizes under her belt. She wintered over in New York and on January 23, 1815, she set out with Stephen Decatur’s squadron of four ships to raid British merchants in the Indian Ocean. Along with Warrington’s Peacock were Decatur’s frigate President, sloop Hornet and store ship Tom Bowline. The ships were separated off the coast of South America by a British man-of-war and Peacock proceeded alone to their destination.

The War of 1812 was officially ended via ratification of the now modified Treaty of Ghent in April of 1815, but in June of that same year Captain Warrington had no notion of it having remained at sea since his arrival in the Indian Ocean. On June 30th he engaged the British East Indiaman Nautilus, who refused to strike because the war was over. Warrington refused to believe it and opened fire. After only fifteen minutes, Nautilus surrendered but her captain continued to protest the illegality of Warrington’s actions. The following day, officials from nearby Java confirmed the peace and Peacock abandoned Nautilus to immediately sail home.

Warrington was cleared of any blame in the case by the Naval Department the following year. Peacock, meanwhile, was engaged in diplomatic missions to Belgium and France, followed by time on the Mediterranean station after the Second Barbary War. By the summer of 1821 she was back in New York and there was some talk of breaking her up.

Peacock was saved from the wrecking yard by the inimitable Commodore David Porter, who chose her as flagship for his pirate fighting squadron now famously known as the Mosquito Fleet. The Caribbean squadron was stationed at Key West, than Thompson’s Island, and Porter ran his operation largely from Peacock. She saw action against pirates at the Funda Bay in Cuba, and captured more than one pirate ship on the water. When yellow fever struck many of the sailors involved in the operation, including Commodore Porter, it was Peacock who saw them safely home to Virginia.

One last mission took Peacock around the Horn to the Hawaiian Islands, where an agreement of commerce and navigation was negotiated by U.S. officials. On the way home in 1827, Peacock was struck by a whale in the South Pacific, doing near fatal damage to her hull. Repairs were made in Callao but she was never the same. Returning home in October, Peacock was decommissioned and broken up at the New York Navy Yard.

Three more incarnations of Peacock would follow, the second launched in 1828, the third in 1918 and the fourth in 1953. The original is well worth remembering for all her adventures, and even if all she had done was fight that last battle for fair trade and sailors’ rights.

Header: An anonymous contemporary sketch of USS Peacock at sea via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nice post... And Huzzah! for Peacock!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! She had an illustrious - is surprisingly short - career. We'll have to revisit her other incarnations in the future. Huzzah!