Thursday, August 30, 2012
Ships: Old Ironsides vs. Warrior
The news was particularly well received in Boston, always a port town full of sailors, where the United States' battle cry of the two-month-old War of 1812 was well known: Free Trade and Sailors Rights. Guerriere had been a particular thorn in the side of U.S. merchantmen. Her captain, James Richard Dacres, was notorious for stopping such vessels, searching them and almost invariable finding men he labelled British deserters. Whether the charge was true or not, these men were immediately impressed for service aboard Guerriere.
The battle between the two ships, which began on August 19th some time after 2:00 PM, saw two fighting captains with well-prepared crews coming together in what seemed, on its face, to be a fairly even exchange. The Americans, whose navy was still in its youth at the time, nonetheless trusted their sturdy frigates built of nearly impregnable white oak. They also relied on their crews' unusual mixture of self-discipline and honest enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy ruled the waves, and did not blink at taking on a similar sized ship from any navy in the world, regardless of firepower.
The inequalities of the two ships, however, would lead to the unfortunate result that the Royal Navy had no doubt secretly dreaded from the beginning of the war. As the records of Captain Dacres' court martial indicate, Guerriere was old and desperately in need of a refit when she met Constitution on her way to the port of Halifax in the British colony of Nova Scotia. Her timbers, and in particular her masts, were literally rotten when all three in rapid succession were torn away by Constitution's guns. Then too, as Dacres would point out, she was a French prize and therefor not built to British standards.
On the other hand, Constitution carried 44 guns in answer to Guerriere's 38. Her crew was itching for a fight as many of them had friends and relatives who had been impressed by the Royal Navy; some had even suffered that ignominy themselves. Her captain was capable and level headed and made only one slip toward the end of the battle, missing stays and entangling Guerrier's bowsprit in Constitution's aft rigging. The most remarkable advantage Constitution had, however, was her tough hull. It was, according to legend, during this battle that she earned her nickname. When a shot from Guerrier bounced off Constitution's side, the Royal Navy gun crews began the rumor that she had "sides of iron."
Though Dacres never raised a white flag of surrender, Hull surmised when Guerrier was done and sent his First Lieutenant across in a boat to address the British captain. When asked if he would care to surrender, Dacres famously replied: "Our mizzen mast is gone, and our fore and main gone as well. I think, sir, that on the whole one might evince that we have struck our flag." And to this day the British are better at sarcasm than we Americans.
Dacres was welcomed aboard Constitution with all civility. Hull refused Dacres' sword as well. He would say later that he was particularly glad of it when the news came to him that Dacres had allowed 12 impressed American sailors to wait out the battle in Guerrier's hold, rather than have to fight against their countrymen. Though Hull had hoped to tow Guerrier to Boston as prize, the damage to her was to great. When it was clear that she would sink, Hull had all her stores and people removed to Constitution and then set her aflame.
Though a few later encounters - particularly the battle between USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon - would not go so well for the Americans, this first decisive victory renewed the American hope for a swift and successful end to the war. It also began, even at this early stage, the British shift from a focus on war at sea - where the Royal Navy was flabbergasted at being regularly defeated - to a war on land. Unfortunately, despite the burning of Washington D.C. which remains the flagship victory of Britain and her colonies in the War of 1812, that didn't turn out so well either.
But the Battle of New Orleans is another discussion for another time. For today, Huzzah! Old Ironsides, her crew and Captain Isaac Hull.
Header: USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere by Michel Felice Corne via Wikipedia