History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 18
A number of merchant Vessels captured by the Host of American Privateers which began to infest the Ocean—Engagement between the British armed Brig Frolic and the United States Sloop of War Wasp—Crew of the Wasp boards the Frolic—Frolic captured—Arrival of the Poictiers of seventy-four Guns, which conducts both of the Vessels into Bermuda—Captain Jones, of the Wasp, arrives in the United States—Action between the Macedonian and the United States—Macedonian captured—Captain Carden's Reception on Board the United States—Action between the British Frigate Java and the United States Frigate Constitution—Captain Lambert mortally wounded—Capture of the Java—Remarks.
Fresh proofs were daily accumulating, that the naval forces of America were not wanting in point of of for and naval tactics, as was by many, at the commencement of the war, supposed to be the case; but that they were probably, at some future period, should the war continue, destined to dispute the dominion of the ocean with Britannia herself. American privateers began to swarm from every port in the United States, by which numerous captures of British trading vessels were made; besides which, repeated engagements with the public armed vessels were occurring, amongst which was an encounter between His Majesty's armed brig Frolic and the United States sloop of war Wasp.
On the morning of the 18th of October, in latitude 36 deg. N. and long. 64 deg. W.—His Majesty's armed brig Frolic, Captain Whinyates, being on her homeward bound voyage from the Bay of Honduras, having under convoy six richly laden merchantmen from that quarter, while the crew were employed repairing damages which she had sustained the preceding night in a violent gale of wind, in which she had carried away her main-yard, lost her top-sails, and sprung her main-top-mast, she descried a strange sail which gave chase to the convoy. Captain Whinyates immediately dropped astern; and, not yet aware of the war between Great Britain and the United States, he hoisted Spanish colors, with a view to decoy the sail and give the convoy time to escape.
About ten o'clock, the sail closed with the Frolic, and proved to be the American sloop of war, Wasp Captain Jacob Jones. A close and spirited action commenced; the fire was maintained on board the Frolic with such animation, for a time, and apparently with such good effect, as encouraged every hope of a speedy termination in their favor; but the gaff-head braces being shot away, and the main-mast entirely stript of canvass, the brig became completely unmanageable. The enemy, taking advantage of this, shot ahead and raked her fore and aft, while the Frolic was unable to bring a gun to bear on her antagonist
The Wasp again took up her position on the larboard side of the Frolic, and continued to pour in a most destructive fire. The Frolic, at length, fell with her bowsprit between the main and mizen rigging of the enemy, when she was immediately boarded and the British colors hauled down, within about fifty minutes after the commencement of the action.
What must have been the astonishment of the American seamen, when they found not a man alive on the deck of the Frolic, except three officers and the mariner at the wheel. Such was the determined bravery with which the Frolic was defended; and nothing but the crippled slate of the brig, occasioned by the heavy gale she had encountered the preceding right, could have brought on such a speedy and disastrous issue, as the vessels wore nearly equal in strength, both as regarded men and guns.
The loss of the Frolic, in this sanguinary engagement, was thirty killed and fifty wounded; while in the Wasp, the loss was only trifling.
On the same day, while Captain Jones was refitting in order to convey his prize into port, a sail hove in sight, which proved to be the British ship of war, Poictiers, of seventy-four guns, commanded by Captain Sir John Beresford, who re-captured the Frolic, and captured the Wasp, conducting both vessels into Bermuda.
A short time after. Captain Jones was exchanged; and the demonstrations of joy with which he was received in the United States, were almost without a parallel.
The Congress presented the officers and crew of the Wasp with the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars as a compensation for the loss of their prize; and Captain Jones was appointed to the command of the Macedonian frigate, which the United States government had purchased from the captors.
The American navy was destined, before the termination of this year, to acquire yet further triumphs on the ocean; which, the high character maintained for a series of years by the British navy over the naval forces of those powers with whom they had been at war, rendered, at once, a subject of astonishment and affliction.
Early on the morning of the 26th of October, 1812, a few minutes after daybreak, His Majesty's frigate Macedonian, commanded by Captain John Surman Carden, in lat. 29 deg. N. and long. 29 deg. 30 m. W., descried a sail to leeward, which, after standing for it some time, was discovered to be an American frigate of the largest class, called the United States and commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur.
About nine o'clock, the frigates neared each other, and the United States opened her fire, which was immediately returned by the Macedonian; but, by reason of the enemy keeping two points off the wind, Captain Carden was prevented coming as close to him as he wished. In this situation, so discouraging to the officers and crew of the Macedonian, her guns being of so much lighter caliber than those of the enemy, the action raged for an hour; after which the enemy backed and came to the wind, when the Macedonian brought her to close quarters. However, it was soon discoverable that, even then, the superior strength of force of the enemy rendered the British frigate a very unequal match.
Yet, notwithstanding the great disparity of force. Captain Carden maintained the battle for two hours and ten minutes, vainly hoping that some fortunate occurrence might turn the engagement in his favor; during which time, the mizen-mast of the Macedonian was shot away by the board, top-masts shot away by the caps, main-yard shot in pieces, lower masts badly wounded, lower rigging all cut to pieces, a small proportion only of the fore-sail left to the fore-yard, all the guns on the quarter-deck and fore-castle disabled but two, and filled with wreck, two also on the main-deck disabled, and. several shots between Wind and water, and a very great proportion of the crew killed and wounded*.
During the engagement, the enemy had sustained but very little damage, in comparison with that of the Macedonian, and had now shot ahead, to place himself in a position to rake his antagonist, while she rolled ip the trough of the sea, a perfect wreck and unmanageable log||. At this crisis of the battle, no alternative seemed to present itself to Captain Carden but the painful extremity of a surrender.
The heavy loss sustained on board of the Macedonian, in this eventful and sanguinary engagement, together with the skillful manner in which she was brought into action and maintained the fight, fully evince that neither to a want of courage or a knowledge of naval tatics was the defeat to be attributed; for every effort of both had been exhausted, and every hope of success (even by chance itself,) had disappeared, before the mortifying thought of a surrender had suggested itself; and to have maintained the action longer, would have been a most unpardonable sacrifice of lives rendered, long ere this, truly invaluable to their country.
The loss of the Macedonian was very great: she had thirty-six killed, thirty-six severely wounded, many of whom, on examination, were despaired of, and thirty-two slightly wounded—total loss of the Macedonian, one hundred and four. The loss of the United States frigate is stated, in Commodore Decatur's report, to be only seven killed and five wounded; but the vessel was very much shattered both in hull and rigging. Captain Carden states, that after being taken on board the United States, a lieutenant and six men of that vessel were thrown overboard.
"On being taken on board the enemy's ship," says the gallant Carden, in his report, "I ceased to wonder at the result of the battle. The United States is built with the scantling of a seventy-four gun ship, mounting thirty long twenty-four pounders (English ship guns,) on her main-deck, and twenty-two forty-two pounders carronades, with two long twenty-four pounders on her quarter-deck and forecastle, howitzer guns on her tops, and a travelling carronade on her upper deck, with a complement of four hundred and seventy-eight picked men."
The reception which Captain Carden had when taken on board the United States, by the gallant Decatur, was truly characteristic of a brave and generous mind, and must have been a source of consolation in Captain Carden in that moment of disaster. When Captain Carden presented his sword to the American commodore, "I cannot think," said that magnanimous chief, "of taking the sword of an officer who had that day proved that he knew so well how to use it; and, instead of taking his sword, he should feel a peculiar happiness in taking him by the hand."
On the arrival of the news of this victory, the most unbounded joy was evinced throughout the United States; and on the evening of its arrival at Washington, (the capital,) the city was most brilliantly illuminated.
Another naval action, which, too, terminated in favor of the American flag, closes the affairs on the ocean for this year. This was fought by the Java frigate of thirty-eight guns, commanded by Captain Lamhbert, and the United States frigate Constitution, now commanded by Commodore Bainbridge*.
On the 29th of December, 1812, the Java being on an outward bound voyage to the East Indies, in latitude thirteen degrees and six minutes south, and longitude thirty-six degrees west, and from ten to fifteen leagues from St. Salvador, discovered a strange sail which was soon ascertained to be the American frigate Constitution.
The Constitution commenced the action by firing at the Java, while at some distance; the Java immediately returned a broadside; both ships begun to near each other, manœuvring alternately to gain a raking position and to avoid being raked; during which an incessant fire was maintained on both sides with grape and round shot.
At two o'clock, P. M., the ships came to close quarters. The battle raged, in this situation, till within a few minutes of three, when the unequal force of the enemy was becoming more and more apparent. The jib-boom of the Java having got foul of the mizen rigging of the Constitution, Captain Lambert endeavored to shoot ahead and extricate himself from the enemy, and rake him fore and aft, preparatory to boarding him; but, while performing this manœuvre, the main-top-mast of the Java was shot away directly above the cap, lost her gaff and spanker-boom, and had her mizen-mast shot away nearly by the board.
During this part of the sanguinary struggle, the gallant Captain Lambert, who had hitherto engaged himself in every part of the ship where the greatest fury of the battle seemed to rage, in animating his brave crew with his presence, and by his skill directing their exertions, now fell, mortally wounded in the breast; and was, of course, in consequence, obliged to quit the command, which devolved on Lieutenant Chads, the first Lieutenant of the ship, who bravely defended the frigate until every source of hope had failed of saving the vessel from falling into the hands of the enemy.
The guns of the Java were completely covered with wreck, and not a spar standing, and the Constitution had been laid athwart her bows, and was in the very instant of effectually raking her decks, before the officer commanding the Java could reconcile his mind to a surrender; but the idea of sacrificing so many valuable lives without the slightest hope of making the least further resistance, only determined him to surrender His Majesty's frigate to the American commander; the only remaining color, which had been made fast to the stump of the mizen-mast, was therefore taken down.
Captain Lambert only survived his defeat six days, when that gallant naval officer surrendered his life, (a valuable one to his country,) covered with wreaths of laurels.
"The Java," says Commodore Bainbridge, in a letter to a friend, dated at sea, 24th January, 1813, "was exceedingly well fought. Poor Lambert, whose death I sincerely regret, was a distinguished gallant officer and worthy man."
The Java had on board a number of passengers for the East India station, amongst whom were Lieutenant General Hislop, appointed to the command of Bombay, with Major Walker and Captain Wood, his aids de camp, besides Mr. Marshall, master and commander in the Royal Navy, proceeding out to assume the command of a sloop of war on the Indian station. Such a determined defence was made on board the Java, notwithstanding the great disparity of force, that she was so wrecked by the fire of the enemy as to render it impracticable to take her to the United States; she was therefore set on fire and blown up. The prisoners were landed at Saint Salvador, on parole, to return to England.
The loss of the Java, in this engagement, was immensely great. It appears from the report of Lieutenant Chads to the admiralty, that there were twenty-two killed and one hundred and two wounded*; while the loss of the Constitution was only ten men killed and forty-six wounded—by the American report, the number on board of the Constitution is said to be only nine killed and twenty-five wounded.
In point of strength, the Java might be said to be nearly equal to the Guerriere when she engaged the Constitution. True she had a number of extra seamen on board, for the purpose of manning ships of war in the East Indies; but these only crowded her decks and probably rendered the event more unpropitious.
These naval disasters were viewed, by a number of people in England, as a certain precursor of the repression of that naval pride and prowess, in British seamen, which had in such an eminent degree contributed to their ascendancy on the ocean; but, by those better acquainted with the advantages under which an American vessel at all times engaged her antagonist, and of the energy and resolution, even at such times, evinced by the British tars, when all chances of war and every combination of circumstances conspired to operate against them, to an extent capable of subduing all but those in whom courage and heroism had ever been innate and indestructible principles, it was expected they would only stimulate to renewed exertions to recover that proud eminence which they seemed born to hold on their native element.
*Captain Carden's Report to John W. Croker, Esquire, dated 28th October, 1812.
*The following letter, (if genuine,) said to have been found on board the Constitution, after the removal of the prisoners into St. Salvador, gives the loss of the Java much higher than the report of Lieutenant Chads. However, the reader, after considering the various inconsistent and ridiculous accounts of the circumstances of the war, from American sources, (as we have only the American account for the letter,) must exercise his own judgment in giving it credence.
"Prisoner on board the Constitution, American Frigate,
I am sorry to inform you of the unpleasant news of Mr. Gascoine's death. Mr. Gascoine and myself were shipmates in the Marlborough, and first came to sea together. He was shot early in the action, by a round shot, in his right thigh, and died in a few minutes afterwards. Four others of his messmates shared the same fate, together with sixty men killed and one hundred and sixty wounded. The official account you will, no doubt have read before this reaches you. I beg you will let all his friends and relations know of his untimely fate.
"We were on board the Java for a passage to India, when we fell in with the frigate. Two parcels I have sent you, under good care, and hope this will reach you safely.
(signed,) H. D. Corneck.
Isle of France or Bourbon, East Indies".