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History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 17

Chapter XVII.

Engagement between the Gurrier and Constitution—At­tempts made to board the Constitution—The Guerriere rendered completely unmanageable—She surrenders—Remarks.

A period, most of the events of which have just passed in review, must now be returned to. An ardent anxiety had been for some time expressed, both in Great Britain and America, that the British and American navy should have an encounter—of the result of which, no doubt, on either side, appeared to be entertained. The day, however, arrived.

On the 19th of August, in latitude 40 degrees 20 minutes north and longitude 55 degrees west, off the coast of Labrador—the Guerriere, (British frigate,) Captain Dacres, and the Constitution, (American frigate,) Cap­tain Hull, met—the former of which rated thirty-eight guns but mounted forty-nine and mustered at quar­ters, at the commencement of the action, two hundred and forty-four men and nineteen boys: the latter rated forty-four guns but mounted fifty-six, of uncommonly heavy metal, and mustered at quarters, at the commence­ment of the action, four hundred and seventy-six men, almost double the number of the Guerriere.

The Guerriere, being on her return from a cruise—her foremast and bowsprit both considerably crippled, and a great part of her fore rigging gone—discovered a sail on her weather beam, which afterwards proved to be the United States frigate Constitution, bearing down before the wind. She immediately made sail and gave chase; all hands were called to quarters and the ship cleared for action.

At about twenty minutes past four, the frigates came to close quarters, and a heavy fire was continued for some time. About half past five, the mizen mast of the Guerriere was shot away and fell over the starboard quar­ter, which brought the ship to the wind against her helm, and left her exposed to a galling fire from the Constitution, which had placed herself on the larboard bow of the Guerriere, and was raking her fore and aft. At the same time, her marines and riflemen were pick­ing from the decks of the Guerriere all whom they found to be most efficient.

Several attempts were made by the crew of the Guer­riere, to board her opponent; but the sea ran so high, and the ship refusing to answer her helm, it was found to be impracticable.

At twenty minutes past six, the fore and main masts of the Guerriere went over the starboard side, which com­pletely rendered the guns on that side useless; and just as the crew had finished clearing the wreck, the sprit-sail yard gave way, which left the ship an unmanageable wreck in the trough of the sea, rolling her main-deck guns under water. The Constitution, which had pre­viously shot ahead to refit, had now completed and returned to the contest; when Captain Dacres called together the few officers who remained, and held a short consultation, the result of which was, that they con ceived any further resistance a useless waste of valuable lives; the Union Jack was, therefore, taken from the stump of the mizen mast, where it had been, from necessity, nailed fast.

On board of the Guerriere, there were fifteen killed and sixty-three wounded; amongst the latter of whom was Captain Dacres, who received a severe contusion in the back; and on board of the Constitution, there were eight killed and twelve wounded.

No blame could possibly be attached to the officers and crew of the Guerriere: she was defended with the most consummate skill and gallantry, against a force almost double their superior in strength, in almost every point of view, and only surrendered when further resist­ance would have been the most prodigal waste of lives of the brave crew that had already done their duty to their king and country.

It redounds much to the honor of the United States—the manner in which the officers and seamen of the Constitution conducted themselves towards their prisoners. It was the conduct of the brave towards the brave, and the wounded were attended with every mark of kindness.

Language fails when a description is attempted of the triumph of the people of the United States, on hearing of this, their first naval victory (if after such an unequal contest it might be so called,) over "the lords of the main," who, until now, had driven every other power from the face of the ocean that ventured to contest their dominion on that element. Public entertainments, of the most splendid description, were prepared by the citi­zens of Boston, for the officers and crew of the Consti­tution, on their landing at that place; and in every town through which Captain Hull passed, the example of the citizens of Boston was faithfully copied.

The war was now becoming popular throughout America; and it was in contemplation to augment the American navy so as to cope with that of Great Britain.

Although there were some unthinking people in Eng­land, who censured Captain Dacres for not rather having allowed himself and crew to go to the bottom than to have surrendered to an enemy whom they looked upon as contemptible, yet there were others—and those, too, who were more capable of forming a juster value of the American character, and who made a proper es­timate of the relative strength of the two vessels—who formed quite a different opinion on the subject.

To the groundless apprehensions, generated in a mo­ment of disappointment, the best answer probably which could be made, is contained in the following very sen­sible and very pertinent remarks*, which may be read with interest when the puny naval force of Ame­rica shall be forgotten.

"There are three of the American frigates, viz.—the Constitution, the President and the United States, which were originally intended for line of battle ships, and are of one thousand six hundred tons burthen and up­wards, admeasurement. They carry fourteen twenty-four pounder long guns, at each side on their main deck, and are armed on their quarter deck and forecastle, which nearly meet, with fourteen thirty-two pounders, carronades, on each side—making a total of fifty-six guns heavy. By their capacity, this battery is elevated possibly ten feet above the lead water line, from the lower side of the main deck ports.

"It is right further to remark, that this great capacity enables them to possess considerably larger scuttles for ventilating them between decks; and by such combined power of space and air, they are enabled to carry a complement of from four hundred and fifty to five hun­dred men.

"It is also worthy of remark, that this portion of their navy forms the elite of the corps, has been long in com­mission, and commanded by their best officers; add to which, that they are our own degenerate sons that man them, many of whom are absolutely fighting against us, (as it were,) with halters about their necks.

"The outcry made against the government is, that this small comparative force has not been already swal­lowed up. They, however, like a 'mouse on Salisbury Plain,' and having a roving commission, are of course not long in one spot. When met at sea by the Guerriere and Macedonian, two of our heaviest frigates now in commission, the fight was between single ships, and the result has been known, to the sorrow certainly of all lovers of their country.

"But will it be asserted by any one, that our whole frigate navy must be remodeled, in consequence of this check¿ Would it not be better at once to declare, that these three ships, viz.—the Constitution, President and United States, are line of battle ships, having equipments in men and ordnance and capacity equal thereto; and exonerate our Captains of frigates from going alongside of them, unless assisted by some additional force?

"It should be remembered by the British public, that a captain of a British thirty-two gun frigate mount­ing only twelve pounder carronades, is bound to fight any single decked ship (meaning thereby 'gun-deck,' as contradistinguished from quarter-deck and forecastle, though their two platforms nearly meet,) and conse­quently proceeds into battle, a willing sacrifice to the honor of the flag whose independence he is most cer­tainly bound to maintain. But surely there should be some bounds to such honorable chivalry. Formerly it was necessary, or at least thought so, for a regiment to remain under a severe galling fire which possibly they could not return to advantage, merely because a British soldier was never to turn his back on an enemy. But such courage is better managed now a days, thanks to Lord Wellington and other able men who have learned at his lordship's school. And why not permit our frigates (of which, I repeat it, the Guerriere and Macedonian are as good specimens of force as we can bring; and being both taken in single action shows, that they are not equal to such frigates of the American navy as before described,) to retire from such force, as they are accus­tomed to do from two decked slips?

"It is said by some, who rather delight in exhibiting any loss of war, (this country must in common share with other nations,) as the faults of the persons whose cause they do not espouse, that we do not man our ships sufficiently. Why not, say they, muster the same num­ber of men as the American frigates? The answer is easy—our frigates cannot stow them; and if stow them, or rather crowd them, they could not take the necessary supplies of provisions for the usual period of a common foreign service, in which British ship­ping are chiefly engaged, in consequence of our vast dominions abroad and extensive commercial relations. Our frigates of the first class, with the exception of the Endymion and Cambria, the former now repair­ing, and the latter either taken to pieces or about to be, are about one thousand and fifty tons, six hun­dred tons less than either of the American frigates before described. "It may be then said, and indeed is already said, build them! This certainly may be done, and pro­bably will be done to a proper extent, if any fit two decked ships whose upper works are in a state of decay, can be found to cut down*. It is also possi­ble that the department of government to which this great responsibility attaches, may be disposed to do so; time, however, must be allowed for such a pro­cess. It is easy for people who know little of the subject, to clamor why have we not this or that, the moment it is wanted. Do our countrymen, at least the sensible part, forget that our navy, with the most rigid economy, costs us twenty millions sterling an­nually, and would if such prodigality were used, cost us thirty millions? Do they forget of what perisha­ble materials ships are composed? Do they forget that dreadful disease, the dry rot? But suppose we had three, or four, or six, say, of this description of frigates, like the Americans, either building or cutting down larger ships for the purpose, it might happen, and most likely would happen, that they never would meet the large Americans. The two finest British frigates, the Endymion and Cambrian, have, I will not say never been engaged at all, but, certainly ne­ver with a frigate of any description.

"But even admitting that we had them, and that they did meet, might not some of our fast sailing two deck shins, now in the American seas, be equally and successfully employed—nay, better; for the certainty of victory, with a comparatively less loss, would be greater. On the whole, therefore, I consider that the nation should at once vote, as it were, these three American soi disant frigates, line of battle ships; and support a man, and not run his character down, who considered it right to retire from one. They would then be of no more consequence than any other ships of war; and, by being liable to capture by one of our two deckers, are the description of ships, that, if the American war could long continue, would be too ex­pensive for frigates, and not of force for the line.

It is probably not unworthy of remark, that on hoard of the Guerriere at the time of this engagement, there were ten American seamen who had for a number of years belonged to her; but as the declaration of war by the United States, was not known at the time of her sailing, no opportunity of course had since that period offered itself for discharging them. The gallant and gene­rous Dacres, however, conceiving it to be unjust, in the extreme, to compel them to fight against their countrymen, ordered them to quit their quarters and go below.

*Copied from a respectable English periodical of that day.

*These remarks are only adapted to the period in which the war was in progress; but it must be recollected it is of that period that the author is writing; and he is anxious that not only the present age, in which he writes, but posterity may be made acquainted with all the circumstances under which the war was prosecuted on both sides.

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.