Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ships: Old Ironsides vs. Warrior

On August 30, 1812, Captain Isaac Hull brought his now famous frigate, USS Constitution, into the port of Boston with what was then astonishing news. Constitution had quite literally destroyed the British frigate of 38 guns HMS Guerriere in a firefight at sea.

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 


Timmy! said...

"Huzzah! Old Ironsides, her crew and Captain Isaac Hull."

Absolutely, Pauline!

Rick said...

It's funny how history is remembered in different parts of the world, isn't it? To the French and Germans, the battle of Waterloo is considered a mere sideshow, to the British it is the defining moment of the Napoleonic war. To a Brit, 1812 is the year that the tide really started to turn against Napoleon with his disastrous campaign in Russia and the defeats in the Peninsula. To most Brits, the American War of 1812 was a sideshow that, although it wasn't as successful as it could have been, achieved it's aim of stopping the USA from supporting Napoleon.

Pauline said...

Timmy!: Indeed.

Rick: Your point is well taken. Perhaps it reflects a common issue among world "super powers" throughout history. Certainly, the U.S. has no interest in rehashing the Korean War, for instance, or even addressing the current debacle in Afghanistan for that matter.

Why would Britain, at this late date, want to remember a failed attempt at reclaiming what she continued to consider, up until January 15, 1815, her colonies?

It is curious, as an aside, that Canadians have begun rattling sabers over "Canada winning the War of 1812" lately. Since that would be impossible - the country we now call Canada was a colony of Britain at the time - it is a particular misremembering of history indeed.

Rick said...

Agree totally, lol! I particularly think that the War of 1812 is a good example of the worst kind of opportunistic adventurism that superpowers tend to indulge in on the flawed premise that 'Might makes Right' - of which Britain has a ludicrous number of examples from the "Empire Building" era (and I speak as a Brit myself, lol!).

Pauline said...

Exactly! That's why I brought up just two of my country's more embarrassing wars. And we're still not done in Afghanistan.

Ah well, I'll speak for all Americans and say prefer you all as friends rather than foes. Thanks so much for stopping by, Rick. Come again and add more insights; I'd love to hear from you.

Timmy! said...

See? We can play nice in the internet sandbox, Pauline.

Great comments, all y'all!

So nice to see a good dialog and interesting perpectives rather than the tiresome trolling I see on soooooo many other sites.

Pauline said...

It's a happy ship we're running here, and good mates are always welcome, as is informed debate.