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Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

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 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p106  17[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]The Beautiful Vessels

A few days after the declaration of war the U. S. frigate Constitution left Washington, her captain, Isaac Hull, having orders to join Commodore Rodgers and his handful of other American frigates in New York. Actually, Rodgers, fearing some no‑action order, had led his frigates out to the open seas on the very day that he got word of war, but they didn't know that yet in Washington.

Hull had to stop awhile at Annapolis for supplies and equipment, and it was July 12, 1812 before he passed between the capes, Henry and Charles, that mark the entrance of Chesapeake Bay.

What little wind there was blew dead against him, from the north, and he had to tack, making very poor time.

At two o'clock in the afternoon of July 17 he sighted four sails to the northwest, and a little later a fifth, making toward shore. This was off a flat sandy island on the lower part of the New Jersey coast — today it is called Atlantic City.

Hull assumed that this was Rodgers' fleet, but he took no chances. He ran out his guns, brought up his balls and  p107 powder and sent all men to battle stations. No shots were exchanged that evening. But the others were plainly striving to reach Constitution, and with the dawn, indeed, Hull found himself virtually surrounded by them, though still out of range. He was sure now that they were not Rodgers' fleet but British, and he was right. One was a ship of the line, the 64‑gun Africa, and the others were frigates: Guerrière, Shannon, Belvidera, and Aeolus. Now, Constitution probably could have whipped any one of the frigates, for she was a sturdily built vessel, like all the American frigates, and well handled too. And in truth she did whip Guerrière a few weeks after this in more northerly waters, when she won her nickname of "Old Ironsides". Against a whole fleet, however, she would be lost. She hoisted her colors, and "ran."

The term is a technical one. In point of fact, Constitution could barely creep through the water, inch by agonizing inch, so light was the air. And the five British vessels crawled after her, one or another of them now and then getting close enough for a few shots, which still fell short.

Captain Hull played every trick in his nautical bag. He had, of course, cleared for action at the first alarm, and now all messes were canceled, everybody being at battle stations day and night.

The ship's boats were put overside and men were set to work rowing, pulling. This did not help much, but it might enable Constitution to catch a stray fragment of breeze when inches counted. The British, of course, were doing the same thing.

Two 24‑pounders were mounted on Constitution's afterdeck, where the taffrail was axed away to make room for  p108 their barrels. Two others were thrust through stern windows below. Of the vessels they menaced at too‑long range, Shannon was the nearest — and she seemed to be gaining. For a British vessel of war Shannon was exceptionally fast. And in the United States Navy Constitution was rated as slow. If the one could overhaul the other, the resulting action would hold up both of them until the rest of the fleet closed in, and Constitution would be crushed.

There were strained eyes aboard of Constitution, eyes that were red from lack of sleep.

Captain Hull did not throw any guns overboard, as a privateer would have done, for he might need them in a death struggle, but he did cause 2300 gallons of drinking water to be pumped into the Atlantic Ocean. This lightened ship, a little. It was not pumped directly into the sea but by way of the sails, every one of which was wetted again and again, to close the texture of the canvas.

In those days a frigate would carry six or seven tenders, gigs, Moses boats, and long boats; a ship of the line, a few more than that. The British admiral now ordered all the boats engaged in frantically pulling Guerrière, Africa, Belvidera, and Aeolus to go to the aid of Shannon. This veritable flotilla soon began to make itself felt.

Shannon drew nearer . . . and nearer. . . .

For this purpose, and with this towage, she furled the sails that would have held her back. But Hull kept his own sails spread, still praying for a breath of breeze. He did get one, for a short time, and pulled handsomely ahead; but then it died, and the canvas hung slack again, so that the British frigate came on . . . and on. . . .

 p109  Hull's first lieutenant, Charles Morris, had a thought now. They sounded and found only twenty-five fathoms and a sandy bottom. So they sent out a launch, with a ketch anchor and line. This anchor was dropped about a mile ahead of Constitution, and men were put to walking the capstan around, hauling the vessel up to it, a process known as "kedging." Here was backbreaking work, as was the pumping of water and the rowing, but not a man was allowed even a rest, much less any sleep.

Constitution began to outstep Shannon.

At first the British could not see past Constitution and did not understand what was happening. They were losing the race, but why? West they did understand they were prompt to imitate, and indeed Captain Byron of Belvidera even invented a new method of kedging with two anchors, one at each end of a very long cable, so that he did not have to waste time sending one ahead while his vessel stood still. But it was too late, Constitution had won.

For sixty solid hours her men had toiled without pause. Now at last there was a breeze, and many of the crew were permitted to drop in their tracks, exhausted. A day later Constitution was in New York harbor, the baffled British having been left far behind.

This chase up the New Jersey coast caused a great stir. It was a fitting way to start a naval war largely made up of chases. The privateers, in particular, spent a great deal of their time going after somebody or running away from somebody. They were ready at any time to use the same techniques employed by Constitution in that first classic chase, and on occasion they might even develop a few new tricks. A privateer was nothing if not ingenious.

 p110  Ordinarily an American privateer had no difficulty pulling away from any British vessel, but he never could be sure what might come into sight on the horizon ahead. There was always the chance that he must sail straight before the wind with a heavily canvased warship at his heels. At such times he might well be overtaken. The chases usually were short, but some of them were long, for time meant nothing to the warships. They would hang on as long as they could keep the hated privateer in sight. One chase on record lasted for eleven days, half way across the Atlantic, and ended with the privateer, which had thrown away her guns, being seized.

Speed was taken for granted. It was at this time that one of the greatest of American developments, the clipper ship, got its start. The idea of slim bows, straight lines, shallow draft, a long stern overhang, came, it would appear, from the West Indies by way of Bermuda. But it was in the Chesapeake Bay, and especially at Baltimore, that they first received the treatment leading to the clipper.

Flexibility was equally important. A privateer might at any time be called upon to claw off a lee shore, to duck and twist like an open-field football runner, to spin about almost on her own keel. The world never had seen anything like the American privateers of the War of 1812, the wonders of the sea, the amazement of all who beheld them. These vessels must have been mighty uncomfortable to live in, crowded as they always were. The forecastle, with those narrow bows, would be badly cramped at all times and, because of its low deck line and slight beam,  p111 would be wet even in a slightly heavy sea. Nevertheless they were beautiful to look at.

The beauty was by chance, a lucky accident. Privateers were not built with appearance in mind, but only for immediate hard use. And there was never the time, even if there had been the inclination, to decorate them with the figureheads, spiral mouldings, raised trim, carved transoms, gilded and filigreed stern castles, and headrails so dear to the slow sailor's heart.

In the beginning of this war a motley cloud of privateering ships and boats had poured forth from all the ports on the seacoast, most of them being small, little more than pilot boats in which a gun or two had been mounted. But as the British developed the convoy system and their single vessels went more heavily armed and manned, and after the first quick pickings in the West Indies had been protected or removed, so that privateers had to cross the sea to find prizes, bigger, better, stronger, and much faster boats were built. These were not converted merchantmen, as had hitherto been the rule. They were designed as privateers; they were meant to be privateers when they were laid down. There was nothing makeshift about them. They were, indeed, wondrously efficient. Herald of Salem, Chasseur of Baltimore (sometimes called the loveliest vessel ever built), Prince de Neufchâtel: these were formidable fighters, not afraid of any vessel, even war vessels, excepting the mighty frigates and ships of the line. They were lean, low, and very strong.

Nor was it the canvas alone that made them so beautiful. From the beginning the fore-and‑aft rig had been favored by Americans, and more and more, thanks to the  p112 privateers of the War of 1812, the schooner was coming to be considered a distinctively American craft. Yet no schooner could show as much snowy sail as a full-rigged ship with her broad courses, her topsails and topgallants and skysails, with her stunsails fully spread, and her serried jibs.

Rather, it was the lines — those lean, sleek hull lines that American builders loved. When an American privateer came into port it was as though a bird had lighted upon the water, a bird that was prepared to fly away quite as quickly as it had come. There was that same air of effortlessness, of grace. The men aboard of them would have snorted in derision at the very thought, but undoubtedly there was something fairylike about American privateers. But they looked that way to the spectator, not to the prize.

Page updated: 20 May 13