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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

by
Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 17

Chapter Sixteen

p183 "Don't Give Up the Ship"

If James Lawrence's father had had his way, James would have been a lawyer. But the youth from Burlington, New Jersey, early developed a longing for the sea. To a boy of 14 the lawbooks in his brother John's office at Woodbury seemed dull stuff and James displayed little aptitude for the tedious pursuit of Coke and Blackstone. So, after the death of the elder Lawrence, Brother John yielded to the boy's persuasion and helped him obtain the instruction needed as the foundation for a naval career.

At the age of 18 James entered naval service as a midshipman, took part in the Tripoli campaign as a lieutenant and exhibited such zeal in his profession that he was mentioned in dispatches by Decatur. Returning to the United States he served as first lieutenant on the Constitution for a time and then commanded in turn the Vixen, Wasp, Argus and Hornet. Between voyages he found time to woo and win a New York girl, and by the outbreak of the War of 1812 he had risen to the rank of master commandant.

January, 1813, found Lawrence in command of the Hornet, a sloop of 18 guns, which was cruising off San Salvador. In the harbor lay the British merchantman Bonne Citoyenne laden with a rich cargo, and Commodore Bainbridge ordered Lawrence to seize her when she came out while he sailed for New York in the Constitution. A few days later, however, the British ship of the line Montagu, of 74 guns, appeared on the scene and the Hornet had to seek refuge in the harbor. But, under cover of darkness, Lawrence managed to sail his ship safely past the guns of the Montagu and made good his escape. He then resumed his cruise northward along the coast keeping a sharp lookout for any quarry that came his way.

The Hornet on February 24 arrived off the mouth of the Demerara p184River, where she ran in with another sloop which proved to be His Majesty's Peacock, of 18 guns, under the command of Captain William Peake. Judging that the Hornet was a fair match for her, Lawrence determined at once to give battle, called the men to quarters and cleared the decks for action. The Peacock displayed an equal disposition to fight.

At 5:25 P.M. the two sloops had maneuvered until they were within half pistol-shot range of each other and Lawrence opened the engagement with a broadside from his larboard batteries. The Peacock shivered under the impact and Peake endeavored to bring her into position to rake. Lawrence, however, outwitted him, came about and brought his starboard battery to bear and delivered another devastating broadside. The Peacock was now severely damaged. She continued to fight gamely but the deadly broadsides of the Hornet were too much for her. As fast as the American gun crews could load and fire they continued to pour shot into the Peacock at close range. Within the brief space of 15 minutes the Peacock was a shambles and she struck her colors. Her commander had been slain; and of her crew of 130, five had been killed and 90 wounded. The Hornet, on the other hand, had come through the battle with the loss of only one man killed and two wounded. Lawrence now sent a party aboard the Peacock, which was sinking, to rescue the survivors. But before they could be got off the sloop went down, taking with her nine of her own men and three Americans.

The speed with which the victory had been won at so little cost was all the more surprising because the two vessels were so evenly matched. There were no extenuating circumstances. Lawrence had accomplished the feat through his own genius and the skill of his men in handling the guns. This was Lawrence's first encounter with the British and it very naturally inspired him and his men with an abounding confidence in themselves and scorn for British seamanship. It led to overconfidence that very soon was to prove disastrous.

As soon as news of the engagement between the Hornet and the Peacock reached the United States the country rang with the victory. The names of the two sloops lent themselves particularly well to the cartoonists who on this occasion outdid the poets in glorifying the victors. Lawrence arrived at Martha's Vineyard on March 19, crossed to the mainland and proceeded on a triumphal journey to p185New York where he was treated to a sumptuous banquet attended by all the local dignitaries and given the freedom of the city. President Madison did him the honor of mentioning him in his message to Congress and even the British prisoners joined in the praise, if not the thanksgiving, expressing their admiration for the kindness and courtesy with which Lawrence had treated them. Sir Charles Napier, who happened to be in Bermuda, went so far as to say that "these Yankees, though so much abused, are really fine fellows."

Just about the time the Hornet and the Peacock were fighting it out, the frigate Chesapeake, of 38 guns, under the command of Captain Samuel Evans, set sail from Boston. Superstitious sailors whispered that there was a jinx on the Chesapeake. It was she, it will be recalled, that had suffered in the engagement with the Leopard several years before. Ill luck pursued her on this voyage. She crossed the Atlantic, cruised around the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands, skirted the coast of South America and returned to Boston after a voyage of two months and for all her pains could claim no more than the capture of four merchantmen. Captain Evans was in bad health and had to be relieved of his command and the crew was in a very bad humor and on the verge of mutiny as the result of a dispute over the division of the prize money. At this juncture Lawrence was ordered to assume command.

In the month of May, blockading the port of Boston, was His Majesty's frigate Shannon, of 38 guns, with the Tenedos as consort. Commanding her was Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, as gallant an officer as his name suggests. Hearing that Lawrence had been promoted to the command of the Chesapeake, which was in Boston harbor, Broke took his pen in hand and composed the following challenge:

"As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favor to meet the Shannon with her, ship for ship, to try the fortunes of our respective flags. To an officer of your character it requires some apology for proceeding to farther particulars. Be assured, sir, it is not from any doubt I can entertain of your wishing to close with my proposal, but merely to provide an answer to any objection which might be made, and very reasonably, upon the chance of our receiving any unfair support."

Broke then obliged by revealing to his chosen adversary a detailed p186account of his strength in personnel and weight of metal and the disposition of other British vessels. He concluded by designating the place of combat and indicating the signals his ship would fly.

Broke's invitation was, no doubt, quite sincere. He probably had no idea that he was asking Lawrence to accept odds. He could not have known of the dissatisfaction of the Chesapeake's crew, or that the itemized list of personnel and armaments of the Shannon gave her a clear superiority over the Chesapeake, or that the first and second officers of the Chesapeake were ill and on leave. Had he been aware of all these handicaps a man of Broke's character would certainly not have couched his challenge in such terms as to make refusal a virtual admission of cowardice.

There were plenty of valid excuses had Lawrence cared to make use of them, but Broke had accurately gauged his man. Once Lawrence read the challenge the thought of declining it never entered his mind. Doubtless Lawrence, still flushed by his victory over the Peacock, imagined that Broke would prove to be as delicate a morsel as Peake had been.

June 1, 1813, was as rare a day as was ever sung by a New England poet. The people of Boston were up betimes, for the news spread rapidly that Lawrence had accept Broke's challenge. The peace advocates and the Federalist leaders might grumble but the humbler citizens knew a good show when one was offered. This was the greatest opportunity that had come their way since Bunker Hill and they had no intention of letting their New England consciences interfere with the gratification of their sporting instincts. Early in the morning the spectators began to line the waterfront and climb to the hilltops and other vantage points. They came in thousands, bringing their lunches with them. The principals were already on hand. In the harbor rested the Chesapeake, her tall slender masts towering above those of smaller craft, her hull bright with new paint, her guns frowning from the ports, her decks and rigging trim. She looked for all the world like a black panther ready to spring on her prey. All the while outside the harbor in the vicinity of Boston Light, the Shannon, with her sails set, darted back and forth like some monstrous bird of the sea.

Aboard the Chesapeake was Captain Lawrence, keeping his counsel. He had taken the precaution to dispatch a pilot boat to reconnoiter p187and make sure the Shannon was alone and, upon the boat's return, he received assurance from her master that Captain Broke was as good as his word. Despite appearances, things were not in the best of shape aboard the Chesapeake. The crew was still grumbling and, in a final effort at conciliation, Lawrence distributed among them checks for the disputed prize money and hoisted a white banner bearing in big letters the inscription, "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights." He was only partially successful. A rumor reached him that a Portuguese sailor was still active sowing dissension among the crew. But it was now too late to investigate the rumor or to call a court-martial.

In the absence of the first and second officers, Lawrence took with him as first officer Lieutenant Augustus Ludlow who had been third officer under Evans. Ludlow had a good record and there was no question of his courage, but he was very young. Lawrence was beginning the game with a crippled team. Yet the memory of the Peacock was still vivid and Lawrence relished the opportunity of repeating the performance before a gallery worthy of it.

The morning hours passed away, nothing happened and the crowd was beginning to grow restless. Then, promptly at noon, the Chesapeake raised anchor, set her sails and, as they filled, glided gracefully away from her mooring and gained speed rapidly as she put out into Massachusetts Bay amidst the cheers of her well-wishers on shore.

There was disappointment for the crowd, however. Even the best of naval antagonists cannot exactly stage their battles for the benefit of the onlookers. Before the frigates met they were well out of sight. Fate ordained that the populace of Salem were to have the best seats; the Bostonians had to be content with the distant boom of the guns.

As the Chesapeake sailed away Lawrence ordered her decks cleared for action and beat his crew to quarters. The opposing frigates bore away to a position 30 miles from Boston Light between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, each seeking the weather gauge. It was now midafternoon. At 4 P.M. the Chesapeake commenced the action by firing a single gun. The Shannon hove to and awaited the Chesapeake which swiftly bore down upon her. At 5:45 P.M. the frigates stood yardarm to yardarm at pistol-shot distance. The crucial p188moment had come and it was evident that this was to be a battle to the death; not a series of skillful maneuvers, but a trial of brute force, gun against gun and man against man.

The Shannon first fired her cabin guns, then followed with the rest from aft forward. As soon as the Chesapeake's guns bore she replied with a broadside. In a few moments the afternoon sun was blotted out by the smoke from the guns. For eight minutes the frigates lay side by side pouring shot into each other without either seeming to gain an advantage. Broke was a competent officer and he knew his crew. For weeks as the Shannon cruised along the coast he had rehearsed his men in their parts until they were perfect. Gradually the skill of the crew and the extra weight of the Shannon's metal began to tell. After 12 minutes much of the Chesapeake's sail had been shot away and she refused to answer to her helm. To make matters worse her mizzen rigging fouled the Shannon's forechains, exposing her to a raking fire.

Lawrence himself was slightly wounded. As the ships touched, he ordered his boarders up. As luck would have it, his regular bugler was not at hand. The substitute was so pale with fright that he couldn't get his wind up to blow. At last he managed to produce a blast, but it was so pathetically feeble it could not rise above the din of battle. The boarders didn't hear him. Verbal orders were then attempted, but they were misunderstood.

At this most critical moment the Chesapeake's reputation for bad luck asserted itself. Just when his indomitable will was most needed Lawrence dropped to the deck, mortally wounded. Loyal men picked up their captain and, with all the gentleness at their command, carried him below. There in the shadow, as battle still raged above him, Lawrence gave his last order that has been passed down to generation after generation of men of the United States Navy in those immortal words, "Don't give up the ship."

But it was now too late. The gunners, in the absence of their officers who were stunned by the loss of Captain Lawrence, had fled to safety below decks. At the very moment that Lawrence gave his order, Captain Broke leaped upon the deck of the Chesapeake with 20 boarders behind him. He found nobody there to meet him. Lieutenant Ludlow made a desperate effort to rally the crew but before he succeeded he was struck down by a saber and critically wounded. p189Broke called up 60 marines to reinforce him, but he didn't need them. The battle was already won. A British officer set to work hauling down the Chesapeake's colors and while doing so was killed by gunshot fired from his own ship. In the engagement the Chesapeake lost 48 killed and 98 wounded. The Shannon's loss was little more than half of that, 26 killed and 58 wounded.

The victorious Shannon now set out triumphantly for Halifax with her prize in tow. Her celebration was subdued out of consideration for Captain Lawrence and Lieutenant Ludlow, both of whom had been transferred to her and now lay desperately wounded below. Lawrence died on the voyage and the body of the 32‑year‑old commander, at the order of Captain Broke, was draped with an American flag and laid reverently on the quarter-deck. Upon arrival in Halifax Ludlow's spirit followed that of his commander. The bodies of both officers were treated with full military honors and given a splendid funeral in which all the dignitaries of Halifax and 300 sailors and soldiers took part.

Having paid their own tribute the British authorities graciously granted the request for the return of the bodies to the United States. On August 18 they were landed at Salem where another state funeral was held. From there they commenced a journey to New York which consumed a whole month. At last, on September 17, the third and final obsequies were held and there in Trinity Churchyard the now much-honored but weary bodies were consigned to their final resting places.

While England exulted over the victory with bonfires and illuminations throughout the kingdom, the United States mourned its dead and paid tribute to the glory they had left behind them. Now that the battle was over and almost before the corpses of Lawrence and Ludlow were cold the leaders in New England took occasion to rebuke the populace for the unseemly interest it had displayed in the engagement. Josiah Quincy sponsored a resolution which was pushed through the Massachusetts Senate by his fellow Federalists and which read:

"Resolved, as the sense of the Senate of Massachusetts, that in a war like the present, waged without justifiable cause, and prosecuted in a manner which indicates that conquest and ambition are its real motives, it is not becoming a moral and religious people to express p190any approbation of military or naval exploits which are not immediately connected with the defense of our sea coast and soil."

That resolution, denying to American heroes the recognition of deeds well done, stands as a lasting illustration of the lengths to which political prejudices and partisan feeling can drive otherwise reasonable and intelligent persons. This was "Mr. Madison's War," not New England's.

On June 18, three days after the passage of the Massachusetts Senate's resolution and 18 days after the encounter between the Chesapeake and the Shannon, the United States sloop Argus, of 18 guns, under the command of Lieutenant William Henry Allen, of Rhode Island, set sail from New York bearing the Honorable William H. Crawford, of Georgia, as Minister to France to succeed the late Joel Barlow. Three weeks later she put into Lorient where Mr. Crawford was landed. While in that port Lieutenant Allen learned that no British naval forces were at the moment in the English Channel or in the Irish Sea. He seized this auspicious occasion to carry the war into the enemy's waters.

Departing from Lorient the Argus rounded Land's End and for the next thirty days struck terror into the heart of British shipping. In the course of that brief space of time she captured and destroyed 20 merchant vessels and their cargoes to the total value of $2,000,000. The ships were burned, the crews permitted to keep their personal belongings. The prisoners being too numerous for the limited accommodations of the Argus they were landed and released on parole. When the news got abroad that an American raider was at large within sight of the shores of England itself, insurance rates leaped to excessive figures and a storm of protest arose against the government which not only hadn't won the war but, apparently, was incapable of protecting shipping in home waters. The Admiralty bestirred itself and sent out men-of‑war to scour the seas in search of the marauder.

August 13 proved to be unlucky for the Argus. For on that day she came up with and captured a merchantman that was on its way home from Oporto laden with a cargo of potent and palatable wine. After their strenuous month at sea the crew of the Argus were unable to resist such an inviting opportunity. In spite of Lieutenant Allen's p191efforts to prevent it, the captured wine was smuggled aboard the Argus and an orgy followed, lasting well into the night.

The cold, gray dawn of the "morning after" was breaking and many members of the crew were nursing headaches or sleeping off the effects of the party when a sail loomed on the horizon. The stranger was His Majesty's sloop Pelican, of 18 guns, commanded by Captain J. F. Maples. Allen aroused his men and by the sheer force of his will drove them stumbling to their stations. The decks were somehow cleared for action, the cannons loaded and all was made ready for battle.

There was not much time. At 6 A.M. the ships closed and delivered broadsides into each other. In the first exchange of fire Lieutenant Allen's leg was shot away and he was carried, bleeding, below. He was succeeded in command by his first officer who almost immediately was disabled. There remained on deck only one commissioned officer. For 30 minutes the Argus fought her adversary. The wine may have given her crew courage but it played havoc with their skill and their accuracy. The Argus was outmaneuvered and outshot until there was no more fight left in her and she had to strike her colors. Her wounded commander was transferred to the Pelican and given as considerate care as if he were a British officer; but he had lost much blood and died the next day. His body was landed at Plymouth and there interred with full military honors. The career of the Argus was brief, but the tough sloop and her resourceful commander had given the British Admiralty as good a scare as it had had in a number of years.

The third duel of the year between rival ships took place on September 1 off the coast of Maine. The adversaries were the United States Enterprise, 14 guns, Lieutenant William Burrows, and His Majesty's Boxer, 14 guns, Captain Samuel Blyth. The two men-of‑war met near Pemaquid Point, closed to within half pistol-shot range at 3:20 P.M. and proceeded to pound each other in the accustomed manner. At 3:30 P.M. Enterprise ranged ahead, crossed the Boxer's bow and raked her from stem to stern. By 4 P.M. the Boxer had received all the punishment she could take, but her colors were still flying. At this point in the engagement a British officer raised a trumpet and shouted through it that the Boxer was p192ready to strike. She couldn't because, as an act of bravado before she went into action, somebody had nailed her colors to the mast.

In this spirited contest between two small but evenly matched ships, the Enterprise lost two killed and 10 wounded; the Boxer, several killed and 17 wounded. Among the dead were the two commanders, Burrows and Blyth. Their bodies were brought ashore at Portland. They were given a joint and spectacular funeral, and buried side by side.

As the days grew shorter and winter approached in this second year of the war the superiority of the British navy was beginning to tell. Only three United States frigates remained at sea — the President, 44; the Congress, 38; and the Essex, 32. The Constitution was in port under repair; the United States and the Macedonian were in the Thames River, Connecticut, blockaded by a British squadron. The Adams was under repair; the John Adams, the New York and the Boston had been declared unfit for further service. Of the brigs, all except the Enterprise had been captured.

Of the frigates at sea the Essex was the most successful. Her career as a commerce raider took her halfway around the world on a cruise that has become a classic in the honorable history of the United States Navy. Under the command of Commodore David Porter she set sail from Delaware Bay on October 28, 1812. Porter's orders were to join the Constitution and the Hornet which were cruising in southern waters under the command of Commodore Bainbridge. The Essex carried a crew of 319 men and was provisioned for a long voyage.

The Essex missed her rendezvous with Bainbridge's squadron, crossed the equator, and took a valuable prize in the capture of the British packet Nocton, which carried $50,000 in gold. A prize crew was put aboard the Nocton and she set sail for the United States but was recaptured before she arrived there. Porter, however, had stowed the $50,000 away on the Essex, thus providing himself with working capital for his enterprise.

The Essex next put it at the island of Fernando de Noronha. There Porter found waiting for him a message from Bainbridge, written in sympathetic ink, directing him to cruise to Cape Frio, north of Rio de Janeiro. Porter obeyed the order but, again failing to find Bainbridge, he set sail on January 26 for Cape Horn. On the p19314th of February the Essex rounded the Cape, entered the Pacific and cruised up the coast of Chile. On March 5, the lofty, snow-clad peaks of the Andes came into view and, for the first time since entering the Pacific, the Essex dropped anchor, while her boats put ashore and returned with wild hogs which provided the crew with a welcome ration of fresh meat.

On March 14 the Essex entered the harbor of Valparaiso. A frigate flying the Stars and Stripes was a rare sight in that distant port and the officers and crew were welcomed and royally entertained with a series of banquets, balls and excursions. It was a pleasant contrast to the long, bleak voyage around the Horn and the monotony of life at sea. Porter, however, was not a man to waste his time on idle frivolities at the expense of the mission with which he had been intrusted. Within the space of a few days he revictualed and again put to sea.

The Essex had scarcely left Valparaiso behind when she came up with an American whaler whose captain reported that two other whalers had been captured by a Peruvian corsair that was cruising in the neighborhood. Porter went in search of the corsair, found her, released the American prisoners aboard her and recovered one of the whalers which he converted into a consort for the Essex. He was told that 20 British whalers were at work in the vicinity of the Galápagos Islands and set off in quest of this valuable game.

British whalers were vessels of from 300 to 400 tons, well armed and bearing letters of marque. From April to September Porter devoted his attentions to running them down and demoralizing the British whaling industry in that quarter. In the course of the summer he captured 12 of the whalers, 360 seamen, whale oil and other property to the estimated value of $2,500,000, a considerable sum in that day. He virtually lived off the enemy. Some of the ships he dispatched with their cargoes of oil to the United States to be sold as prizes. Others he converted into men-of‑war until he had quite an impressive flotilla under his command. The best of them, the Atlantic, which mounted 18‑lb. carronades, he converted into a cruiser and rechristened the Essex Jr.

Having succeeded in destroying the whaling fleet Porter determined next to cross the Pacific to the Marquesas, refit and return home. He set sail on October 2 and reached the islands on October p19423. There he came upon a bitter war that was being waged between a tribe on the coast and a tribe in the hills. Forgetting for the time being the unpleasantness with Great Britain Porter embraced the cause of the coastal tribe which was being hard pressed. Thanks to the arrival of this powerful and unexpected ally, the coastal tribe soon won a decisive victory over the hill men. The gratitude of the tribesmen to Porter and the Essex was unbounded. With true Marquesan hospitality they presented their deliverers with their wives and daughters. There followed a highly romantic interlude.

But, as ever, Porter's call to duty transcended all mundane joys. All too soon Commodore announced that it was time for the festivities to break up and for the sailors to go home. While Porter shielded his crew aboard the Essex, the seductive Marquesan matrons and maids stood on the beach beating their breasts and uttering cries of lamentation. Their distress was too much for the gallant American seamen and an ominous grumbling spread among the crew and reached the ears of the Commodore. Porter faced up to the situation. He called the men on deck, told them of his authority over them and their duty under the articles of war. He then demanded that those who were ready to obey him stand on one side of the deck, those who were against him to take the other side. Of the whole crew only one man had the courage of his convictions. Porter directed this seaman to be put ashore, then gave the order to weigh anchor and sail. When last seen by his shipmates the lone American sailor, apparently content with his lot, was surrounded by the Marquesan matrons and maidens. What eventually became of him history fails to record.

The Essex recrossed the Pacific and again entered the port of Valparaiso on February 3, while the Essex Jr. cruised outside on guard against the enemy. The precaution was not misplaced for the news of Porter's escapades had spread abroad and the British navy had received orders to run the Essex down and put an end to her career. Shortly after the arrival of the Essex at Valparaiso the Essex Jr. reported a British man-of‑war approaching. She proved to be the frigate Phoebe, of 36 guns, under the command of Captain Hillyer, and she was accompanied by the Cherub, a sloop of 20 guns, Captain Tucker. The two ships entered the harbor.

p195 Valparaiso was ostensibly a neutral port and, therefore, no naval engagement could take place in the harbor without a violation of Chilean neutrality. Nevertheless, as the Phoebe entered she sailed close to the Essex in a decidedly threatening manner. She carried a complement of 329 men and boys, while the Cherub had a crew of 180. The Essex had by now been reduced to 225 men,a1 the Essex Jr. to 60. The weight of metal, too, was on the side of the British. However, as the Phoebe approached Porter cleared for action and shouted through his trumpet to Hillyer that if the Phoebe so much as touched the Essex he would fire. Hillyer huffed and his jib boom was thrown across the Essex's forecastle. In that position the Essex had the Phoebe at her mercy. Hillyer apologized in the nick of time declaring that the maneuver was accidental. Porter, against his better judgment but out of respect for Chilean neutrality, accepted the apology. He was destined never again to have such an opportunity.

The Phoebe obtained the supplies for which she had come and then left the harbor, cruising outside in wait for the Essex. By way of entertainment she hoisted a large banner inscribed "God and Our Country. British Sailors' Best Rights, Traitors Offend Them." Porter, not to be outdone, mobilized the literary talent aboard the Essex and produced two banners, the first reading, "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights," the second, "God, Our Country, Liberty; Tyrants Offend Them."

Pleased with his handiwork, Porter hoisted the banners; and, with these and all flags flying, he weighed anchor and sailed proudly out with the intention of running the blockade. Scarcely had the Essex reached open water with all sails set when a squall struck her, sweeping away her main topmast and the men on it who were reefing. The Phoebe at once gave chase while the Essex, badly crippled, endeavored to regain the safety of the neutral port.

Porter made the shelter of the bay while the Phoebe bore down upon him, followed by the Cherub. It was apparent that, regardless of the respect owed the Chileans and of Porter's consideration previously shown him, Hillyer this time meant business. The disabled Essex cleared her decks for action. The Phoebe took up an advantageous position and at 5 P.M. opened fire. The Cherub meanwhile p196joined the Phoebe in the attack. It was some time before the Essex, crippled as she was, could get her guns to bear in order to reply. At last Porter managed to train three of her stern guns on the enemy and drove them off. The relief was only temporary: the Phoebe and Cherub shortly returned to the attack.

Porter, in desperation, tried to close with the Phoebe in order to board her, but she drew away, the while pouring a murderous fire into the Essex. He next endeavored to run ashore and land his crew but, as luck would have it, the wind shifted, subjecting the decks of the Essex to a severe raking. The dead and dying were strewed about him and the cries of the wounded rose above the din of battle; still Porter marshaled the survivors and fought on. A whole hour passed while Porter clung to the vain hope that something might turn the tide of battle. For one hour more the Essex shuddered and shook under the terrific pounding of the guns of the Phoebe and Cherub. The defenders now numbered only a handful. Reluctantly Porter admitted that he could ask no more of his men. He struck his colors. Of the men of the Essex who had gone into battle, 58 were killed outright, 66 were wounded and 31 were missing. Only 75 effectives remained.a2 Evidence of the one‑sidedness of the engagement lay in the fact that the British loss amounted to only five killed and 10 wounded.

Thus, disastrously but gloriously, ended the cruise of the Essex. Porter and the survivors were immediately paroled, the Essex Jr. was turned into a cartel ship and set sail for home. Upon the arrival in the United States the public generously overlooked the loss of the frigate and recalled only the feats the Essex had performed. The Commodore and his men received a welcome that befitted returning heroes.

Hindsight is easier than foresight. Had the United States naval officers of the day been able to look a little farther into the future they might have possessed a new weapon which, if not decisive in its effect, would at least have been more valuable to them than to the British. At the turn of the century an inventor, bearing the name of Robert Fulton, had conceived the idea of blowing up ships from beneath the water, and he proceeded quietly to work on the idea. By the year 1805 he had made so much progress that he felt prepared p197to give a demonstration of his invention. As the British navy was the greatest sea power in the world Fulton journeyed to London and made his offer to the Admiralty. The Admiralty consented to the demonstration which took place in English waters on October 15, 1805.

For his experiment Fulton used the Danish brig Dorothea. His new weapon consisted of two torpedoes attached to each other by a 70‑foot rope. The torpedoes were suspended 15 feet underwater from rowboats. Each of the torpedoes was filled with a charge of 180 pounds of powder to which was connected a time clock set to go off in 18 minutes. The rowboats were floated by the tide in the direction of the spot where the Dorothea rode at anchor. The connecting rope struck the Dorothea's hawser and stopped, while the rowboats and the torpedoes beneath them continued on until they were respectively alongside and under the Dorothea. In exactly 18 minutes there occurred a violent explosion and when the smoke cleared the Dorothea was seen to have been blown in two and to be sinking rapidly.

The demonstration was a complete success. In fact, from the Admiralty's standpoint, it was too great a success. The torpedoes had almost as devastating an effect upon the Admiralty as they had had upon the Dorothea. For the power of the British navy rested primarily upon the preponderance of its men-of‑war over all other navies. And here was a simple device, a couple of rowboats, a 70‑foot length of rope and a few hundred pounds of powder, capable of blowing the most magnificent and costly man-of‑war to kingdom come in a matter of minutes. The Earl of St. Vincent had good reason to remark that William Pitt would be a fool to encourage a mode of warfare which they, who commanded the sea, did not want and which, if successful, would deprive them of it. The Earl's view prevailed and Fulton and his torpedoes were sent packing.

Discouraged, but not hopeless, Fulton next appealed to the United States Government. Jefferson, Madison and members of Congress listened sympathetically to his proposal and a sum of $5,000 was voted to defray the costs of a demonstration in New York harbor. The experiments were to be made under the joint supervision of a commission and Commodore Rodgers and Commodore p198Chauncey, representing the United States Navy. This time Fulton directed his torpedoes against the sloop Argus and, unfortunately, the experiment failed.

The commissioners, nevertheless, returned a favorable report, but not the representatives of the Navy. They did not have the same excuse as the Earl of St. Vincent, but doubtless as naval commanders they felt that they had about all they could do in an engagement to maneuver against the enemy, contend with his raking broadsides and dodge the shots of sharpshooters aimed at them from the tops. Probably they did not relish the added risk of being blown up from underwater. Whatever their motives they obstructed further progress by declaring Fulton's scheme to be wholly impracticable, thus "damning the torpedoes" as successfully as a distinguished admiral was to do some 50 years later.

What Fulton's torpedoes might have accomplished had he received encouragement and means to perfect his invention is a matter of conjecture. Even without encouragement they had considerable nuisance value. There were various instances of patriotic experimenters who endeavored to row alongside anchor British men-of‑war and blow them up. Some of the experiments were almost successful. Captain Hardy, of the Ramillies, while blockading New London, was so annoyed by these machinations that at last he lost patience and announced that if the Americans did not stop this cruel and unheard‑of mode of warfare he would retaliate by destroying their towns and desolating their country.

The peace party, as usual, accepted the British viewpoint and added the torpedoes to their long list of outrages attributed to the Madisonian war. They refused to listen to the arguments of the editor of the pro‑administration Philadelphia Aurora who inquired: "We would respectfully solicit the pious men to explain to us the difference between waging war with submarine machines and with aerial destructive weapons — fighting under water or fighting under air." A generation was to pass before torpedoes became as eminently respectable as pistol bullets and cannon balls.

Though the American operations on the sea in 1813 were not without many instances of individual glory, they failed to approach the achievements of 1812. British war vessels, sunk or captured, reached a total of only 754 tons as against American naval losses of p1991,711 tons. In the matter of merchant prizes, the score was considerably better. The American Navy captured a total of 79 merchantmen as compared with 46 in 1812. Most of the American frigates were now bottled up in port. The business of harassing British mercantile trade was being confined more and more to the privateers, as had originally been intended.


Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 So the printed text; but the 58 killed, 66 wounded, 31 missing, and 75 effectives on p196 add up to 230, not to the 225 given as the strength of the Essex on p195.


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