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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p109  VII
The Captures of the Guerrière and the Macedonian

The Constitution and the Guerrière

The Constitution, having been prevented by Broke's squadron from entering New York, proceeded to Boston, where she arrived July 27, 1812. Captain Hull at once dispatched letters to New York and Washington, renewed supplies, and prepared for active service. When he had delayed just long enough to learn that there were no orders from Commodore Rodgers awaiting him in New York, Hull put to sea on August 2. His haste, Morris says, was due to his "apprehension of being blockaded by the enemy's squadron"; but probably he was also influenced by his eagerness to try issues with the British, and by the likelihood that his ship would soon be given to a captain higher on the list. As it turned out, he had a narrow escape in getting to sea; for, on the day following his departure, orders came from Washington which would have held him in port for weeks and perhaps months. It was well for Hull, thus sailing without orders, that he could give a good account of himself upon his return.

After an uneventful cruise to Halifax, he took his station off Cape Race, where he might intercept ships bound to or from Quebec or Halifax. Here he seized two British brigs, saved an American prize from being recaptured, and retook an American brig that had been seized by the British. At this point he heard that Broke's squadron was on the western edge of the Grand Banks. He therefore took a course southward, intending to pass near the Bermudas. On the evening of August 18, he  p110 saw a sail, and giving chase overhauled it in two hours. It proved to be an American privateer, the Decatur, which, in attempting to escape its supposed foe, had thrown twelve of its fourteen guns overboard. From the Decatur Hull learned that a British ship of war had been seen the day previous standing to the southward. He immediately resolved to give chase.

At one P.M., August 19, when the Constitution was in latitude 41° 42′ N, longitude 55° 48′ W​1 (about 750 miles east of Boston), the lookout at the masthead made out a sail somewhat south of east. Two hours later the sail could be seen to be a large ship on the starboard tack under easy canvas, close hauled to the wind, which was blowing fresh from the northwest. Hull was eager to engage a British frigate, and, being to windward, he came rapidly down until he was within three miles, when he ordered the light sails taken in, the courses hauled up, and the ship cleared for action. The stranger, which proved to be the Guerrière, had, in the meantime, shown her willingness to engage by backing her main topsail and waiting for her enemy to approach. The American responded smartly, intending to come to close quarters at once.

If the Constitution held to her course, Captain Dacres of the Guerrière saw that his enemy might pass under his stern and rake. To prevent this, Dacres fired a broadside when his antagonist was barely within range and then wore, firing the other broadside as he came about. The Constitution, which had displayed an ensign and a jack at each masthead, also fired occasionally, and yawed to prevent being raked. Thus the frigates maneuvered for three-quarters of an hour, each giving the other no advantage,  p111 but inflicting no injury. The Guerrière then gave the Constitution an opportunity to come into close action by bearing up and sailing slowly under topsails and jib with the wind on her quarter. Hull, seeing Dacres' willingness, ordered the man at the wheel to steer directly  p112 for the British ship, and had the main topgallant sail set that he might close at once; further, he instructed his gunners to cease firing.

[image ALT: A diagram of the evolutions of two ships. It charts the action between the U. S. S. Constitution and H. M. S. Guerrière in the Atlantic about 750 miles off Boston, Massachusetts; the engagement is described in detail in the accompanying text.]

As the Constitution approached, the Guerrière opened vigorously with her stern chasers, to which the Constitution could give no effective reply without yawing, a maneuver which could prevent the American from coming at once into close action. In obedience to Hull's orders, his gunners endured this fire in silence, but made every preparation to strike a telling blow when the word should be given, and double-shotted their guns with round and grape.

It was at 5.55, according to Captain Hull's report that he came alongside the Guerrière within half pistol shot. At the signal a heavy fire burst from his starboard battery as each gun bore on the Guerrière. Hull had struck his first blow, and the enemy fairly staggered in from the shock. Just before the battle, as the American ensign was unfurled, the crew of the Constitution had given three cheers, "requesting to be laid close alongside the enemy." And now when their desire was promptly granted, they responded nobly to the supreme test and maintained a cool and well-directed fire in the face of a furious cannonade from the Guerrière. It was only six to eight weeks since Hull had shipped his crew, many of whom were raw hands. But the weeks had been filled with constant practice, and early in this battle the practice began to tell. The main yard of the Guerrière was shot away in the slings, and fifteen minutes after she had been engaged at close quarters her mizzenmast was struck by a 24‑pound shot, and went by the board, knocking a hole in her starboard counter. On seeing this, Hull is said to have exclaimed, "Huzza, my boys! We have made a brig of her!"

The mast, falling on the starboard side, acted  p113 as a drag, and, though the helm was put hard over, brought the ship's head up. As the Constitution then drew ahead, Hull luffed short round the Guerrière's bows. The loss of braces, with spanker and mizzenmast sails disabled, prevented his coming to as quickly as he desired,​2 but he poured in two raking broadsides, swept her decks with grape, and put several holes in her hull between wind and water. He then attempted to wear that he might retain the advantage of position and perhaps rake again, but as he brought the ship before the wind the bowsprit of the Guerrière fouled the port mizzen rigging of the Constitution.

Each side now thought of boarding. With the British it was indeed a last desperate chance to retrieve the day. But as they were assembling on the forecastle of the Guerrière, the American sailors were being drawn up on the quarter-deck of the Constitution. Captain Dacres, seeing what preparation had been made to receive his men, and considering how slow and difficult it would be to cross over because of the rough sea, gave up the attempt.

So near were the two forces to each other, that an American sailor who had discharged his boarding pistol, enraged that he had missed his man, threw the pistol and struck him in the chest. Marksmen in the tops, meanwhile, inflicted severe losses on each side; in fact, nearly all the losses that the Constitution suffered during the engagement occurred at this time. Lieutenant Bush of the American marines, who in organizing the boarding-party had exposed himself on the Constitution's quarter-deck, was killed; Lieutenant Morris, while attempting to pass some turns of the mainbrace over the Guerrière's bowsprit to hold the two ships together, was severely  p114 wounded; Mr. Alwyn, the master, also sustained a slight injury; and Captain Hull escaped only because a devoted sailor who saw him mounting an arm‑chest forcibly drew him back and begged that he would not get up there unless he took off "those swabs," pointing to his epaulets. Nor did the British suffer less; among the wounded were Captain Dacres (shot through the back), Mr. Scott, the master, and Mr. Kent, the master's mate.

The ships soon drew apart, but the bowsprit of the Guerrière, striking the taffrail of the Constitution, slacked the British ship's forestay; and as the foreshrouds on the port side had been mostly shot away, the foremast fell over on the starboard side, crossing the mainstay. The jerk suddenly given to the mainmast — not very sound — caused that to fall; and thirty minutes after fighting at close quarters had begun, according to Hull's statement, the Guerrière was left without a spar except the bowsprit. The Constitution sailed ahead of the Guerrière and again took a position to rake, but the British, seeing the uselessness of further fighting, fired a gun to leeward as signal of submission.

The Constitution then set fore and mainsails, and hauled a short distance to the east to repair damages. All her braces and much of her standing and running rigging had been injured, and some spars had been shot away. A slight fire, caught in the cabin from the wadding of the enemy's guns, had to be extinguished. A half hour suffered for reeving new braces and making temporary repairs, whereupon the Constitution wore and returned to the Guerrière.

The British had during the interim employed all hands in clearing away the wreckage. They had rigged up a spritsail, but when the Constitution again bore down, the spritsail yard carried away, and the ship fell into the trough of the sea, with her main-deck guns rolling under.  p115 It was hard for the British to acknowledge defeat on their own element, the sea, but there was no alternative. The small boat sent by the Constitution returned with Captain Dacres, and the formal surrender took place.

A few more broadsides would have sent the Guerrière to the bottom. As it was, the lieutenant placed in charge of the prize hailed next morning at daylight to say that there was four feet of water in the hold. The possibility of taking her into port was so slight that Hull decided on her destruction; and having removed the prisoners, he set fire to her and blew her up on the afternoon of the 20th. As he had completed the repairs of the Constitution about the same time, he set sail for Boston.

The New England States had been opposed to the war at the outset, and more than once during the dreary conflict their discontented citizens threatened secession. However, on Hull's arrival there was no lack of enthusiasm. A splendid entertainment was given by the citizens of all parties in Boston to the victorious captain and his officers; other cities and the officers' respective States honored them with similar spirit, and Congress, besides giving a vote of thanks, appropriated $50,000 as prize money. The encouragement gained from capturing a British frigate was certainly needed after the disgraceful surrender of Detroit, which occurred within the same week.

The victory also had an important influence on the naval policy of the nation. In the years following the war with Tripoli many prominent statesmen were strongly in favor of doing entirely away with the navy as had been done after the Revolution. And on the outbreak of the second war with England, the administration, having no confidence in its ships when opposed to the overwhelming forces of England, was inclining to the course of preventing their capture by holding them locked in the fortified harbors. The victory of the Constitution  p116 made permanent the establishment of the navy, and induced the Government to give the ships their share in the fighting.

Exultation in America and depression in England were both marked with extravagance. Strangely enough, when the British officers had seen the Constitution in the West Indies and the Mediterranean, they had spoken slightingly of her, as of the other "Yankee" frigates.​3 The low estimation put on their power is indicated by Dacres' entry on the register of the American brig John Adams, as he fell in with her two or three days before meeting the Constitution: "Captain Dacres, commander of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Guerrière, of 44 guns, presents his compliments to Commodore Rodgers, of the United States frigate President, and will be very happy to meet him, or any other American frigate of equal force to the President, off Sandy Hook, for the purpose of having a few minutes' tête-à‑tête." Thus, in meeting a sister ship of the President, Dacres got precisely what he sought.

The opinions of the British on the inferior qualities of the American frigates were now quickly reversed. Captain Dacres, before the court-martial which tried him for the loss of his ship, testified to the American's "superior sailing" which "enabled him to choose his distance." And an officer of the Guerrière wrote home shortly after the fight: "No one that has not see the Constitution would believe there could be such a ship for a frigate;  p117 the nearest ship in the British Navy, as to her dimensions and tonnage, is the Orion, of 74 guns."

A comparison of the two forces will show at a glance that, courage and skill being at all equal, there really could be no excuse for the Americans' not winning:

Guns Broadside-
Crew Killed Wounded Total
Constitution 55 736​4 468 7 7 14
Guerrière 49 570 263 15 63 78

Yet the British had fought with the French and Spanish against odds fully as great, and had won. They had come to think British courage and discipline much more than an offset for a few additional guns. Now, as they suddenly apprehended, they were dealing with quite a different foe. They had also to face the fact that the disparity in force, which, according to Roosevelt's estimate, was about as three to two, was very much less than the disparity in losses, so that the advantage was very decidedly with this new foe.

The United States and the Macedonian

In the first frigate action of the war there is some weight to be given to the explanation that the Guerrière was not an English-built ship (she had been captured from the French six years before), and that at the end of a long cruise she was very much in need of overhauling. In the second action this was not at all the situation. The British frigate, the Macedonian, 38 guns, just out of drydock, and built only two years before, was supposed  p118 to be one of the finest ships of her class in the Royal Navy. Her captain, John Surman Carden, gave the closest attention to the personnel as well as to the discipline of his crew. To such men as he found below the standard he gave opportunity to desert; those whom he found efficient he held under strictest rule; and with his able lieutenant, David Hope, drilled them daily in seaman­ship and gunnery.

The ship that was to engage in duel with the Macedonian was the United States, 44 guns, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur. She had left Boston, October 8, 1812, in Commodore Rodgers' squadron. The other ships of the squadron, the President, Congress, and Argus, returned after a three months' cruise, having accomplished little. Decatur had parted company after three days out, and it was on October 25, 1812, off the Canary Islands (lat. 29° N, long. 29° 30′ W) that he encountered the Macedonian.5

Carden, who was less than a month out from Portsmouth, had heard at Madeira that the American frigate Essex was in the vicinity, and as the lookout at the masthead early on the morning of the 25th reported a sail twelve miles distant on the lee beam, Carden made haste and stood over in its direction. Instead of the Essex, inferior to his ship in power, he was about to meet the United States, which was decidedly superior. The utmost confidence prevailed on board the Macedonian, and neither Carden nor his lieutenant, Hope, was the kind of Englishman that is careful in considering the odds against him. Carden had not yet learned of the fate of the Guerrière.

 p119  In the crew of the Macedonian were seven Americans impressed into the British Navy. They had heard only rumors of the existence of war between the two countries; but when they saw the preparations for battle and an American frigate approaching, one of their number, Jack Cand, known among his shipmates for his bravery, addressed the captain, requesting that they might be regarded as prisoners of war and be excused from fighting against their own flag. Captain Dacres, although short of men, had in precisely the same situation allowed the Americans to go below. Captain Carden, never too gentle with his crew, roughly ordered the man to his quarters, threatening to shoot him if he made the request again. It was a hard fate for Cand, whichever course he took, and he was killed during the battle by a 24‑pound shot.

The Macedonian, on first sighting the United States, was sailing northwest by west, and in closing had the advantage of the weather-gage.​6 The wind was blowing fresh from the south-southeast.

[image ALT: A map of central and southern Europe and the northern part of Africa, centered on the Mediterranean and focusing on the five African states marked large: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Egypt.]

Decatur, wishing to secure a better position, just before coming into range wore round on the port tack and hauled short up. The Macedonian, by continuing on the course she was then sailing, would have crossed the United States' bow at short range and would have entered at once into close action.​7 This was what Lieutenant Hope advised. But in so doing the Macedonian must have relinquished the weather-gage. Rather than do this Carden hauled close to the wind, still keeping his distance. Had he been fighting the Essex, as he still supposed,  p121 Carden's decision would have been wise, for that ship, though well equipped with carronades, was weak in long guns. As it was, he gave his enemy a decided advantage, for the United States excelled in long guns of unusual weight.

When the ships passed on opposite tacks, the United States fired, but the distance was too great to inflict injury. The Macedonian, which had already shown herself much the faster sailer, then wore in pursuit and caught up with her enemy, reaching a position, at long range, off the American's port quarter. An exchange of broadsides cost the United States her mizzen topgallant mast, and the Macedonian her gaff-halyards and mizzen topmast, the latter falling into her maintop. This loss deprived the Macedonian of her superiority in sailing. As long as the two ships sailed on parallel courses or yawed to fire a full broadside, the advantage was not of position but of long guns, and the latter was decidedly with the United States. To overcome this superiority, and to bring his ship near enough to use her carronades, Carden changed from a parallel to a converging course. Decatur yawed and fired a broadside; and then, running ahead a little to prevent the Macedonian from closing, he repeated the maneuver. On came the Macedonian, exposing her starboard bow to the United States; whereupon the latter, by a severe diagonal fire, dismounted all the carronades on the starboard side of the Macedonian's quarter-deck and forecastle and at the same time damaged her hull and disabled many of the crew.

If in time of peace there had been considerable sullenness among the crew of the Macedonian because of the stern rigidity of the discipline and the cruel use of the lash, as is reported, the men certainly showed admirable spirit in fighting. "Our men kept cheering with all their  p122 might," wrote Samuel Leech,​8 a boy serving one of the gun. "I cheered with them, though I confess I scarcely knew for what. Certainly there was nothing very inspiriting in the aspect of things where I was stationed. So terrible had been the work of destruction round us, it was termed the slaughter-house." After many gruesome details he continues, "Our men fought like tigers. Some of them pulled off their jackets, others, their jackets and vests; while some, still more determined, had taken off their shirts, and, with nothing but a handkerchief tied around the waistband of their trousers, fought like heroes." Mr. Hope, the first lieutenant, was wounded by an iron ring torn from a hammock by a shot. "He went below, shouting to the men to fight on. Having had his wound dressed, he came up again, shouting to us at the top of his voice, and bidding us fight with all our might." This lieutenant had been brutal in enforcing discipline and in administering extreme penalties for slight offenses; and the gunner's boy pauses in his narrative to observe that there was not a man in the ship who would not have rejoiced if something much larger had struck the petty tyrant.

At 10.15, when the United States have been pouring in an effective fire for half or three-quarters of an hour, Decatur laid his maintopsail to the mast and allowed the Macedonian to come into close action. But it was too late to be of any benefit to the Englishman, who had only his main-deck guns remaining, and the maneuver but increased the disparity of forces. A few minutes after eleven the Macedonian had her mizzenmast shot away; her fore and maintopmasts were also shot away at the caps, her lower masts were wounded, and she had received more than 100 shot in her hull. No longer steadied by her sail, she was rolling her main-deck guns under, while  p123 the United States, having no sail she could not set but her mizzen topgallant, was perfectly steady.

There was just one wild, desperate chance remaining for the British, and putting their helm hard aport they prepared to board the American frigate. Lieutenant Hope wrote afterwards, "At that moment every man was on deck, several who had lost an arm, and the universal cheer was, 'Let us conquer or die.' " Just then, however, the forebrace was shot away, and the yard, swinging round, threw the ship up into the wind. The United States, seeing her opponent's helpless state, then withdrew a short distance for repairs; at which the irrepressible "Macedonians," deluded into thinking that their enemy had spied an English man-of‑war coming to the rescue, gave a final cheer.

Returning at noon, the United States took a position off her opponent's stern. There had already been a council of war on the quarter-deck of the Macedonian. Lieutenant Hope, though wounded again, this time somewhat seriously in the head, had still much fight in him, and advised "not to strike but to sink alongside." The counsel of those who put a higher valuation on life, however, prevailed.

It must have been a surprise for Carden when he learned on surrender, that he was to meet his old acquaintance, Decatur. As he offered his sword, Decatur generously declined it, saying, "Sir, I cannot receive the sword of a man who has so bravely defended his ship." With a like chivalry and kindness Decatur gave orders that all the personal effects of the English officers should be respected as still theirs, even including a large stock of wine which they had laid in at Madeira, giving them as equivalent $800. Further, everything was done by the Americans to give their late enemies, while on the United States, the comforts and cheer due to honored guests.

 p124  Decatur's good fortune did not end with the capture. Having determined to take his prize in, he spent two weeks after the fight in making repairs. With the many squadrons that the English had scattered about the Atlantic and along the American coast, the long voyage home involved great risk of recapture. However, without having so much as sighted a British sail, the two ships arrived at New London and then proceeded to New York. The Macedonian was repaired and fitted out anew, and had a long and honorable career in the American Navy.

The following shows the comparative force of the two ships:

Guns Broadside Crew Killed Wounded Total
United States 55 786 478 5 7 12
Macedonian 49 547 292 36 68 104

In speed the Macedonian had the decided advantage (the nickname of the United States, "Old Wagoner," suggests her lumbering gait, which seems later to have been somewhat remedied). In every other particular the advantage was with the American frigate. She was the larger ship, had thicker scantlings, was higher out of the water (of importance in the rough sea), had heavier guns and more of them, and finally was superior in her crew. Further, Decatur showed better seaman­ship than Carden. An instructive comparison is to be gained by considering the coming into close action by Captain Carden on the Macedonian and by Captain Hull on the Constitution. Each at the beginning of the engagement had the advantage of the weather-gage; Hull yawed when his opponent wore, giving him no opportunity to rake; Hull pursued a zig‑zag course, and coming up in the British ship's wake, was within pistol shot before the enemy could do any harm. Carden obstinately held to the weather-gage; and when he closed he did so without maneuvering, and exposed his ship to such a disastrous diagonal fire that  p125 he was virtually defeated before he had reached close quarters.

Strangely enough, the comparative effectiveness of 24‑ and 18‑pounders, as well as the superiority of their respective ships, had been the subject of a friendly argument between Carden and Decatur a few months previous to the war, when, as the two ships were together in Chesapeake Bay, the commanders were discussing the merits of each.

The inequality in force was approximately the same as that between the Constitution and the Guerrière, three to two, but the disparity in losses was almost nine to one. Yet David Hope wrote some years later to his old commander, "In no ship in the British service could there have been more attention paid to the practical part of gunnery than was done by you to the crew of the Macedonian." If this is true, the results of the action are evidence of the very superior quality of the crew under Decatur. Perhaps, also, they illustrate the principle uttered by Farragut at Port Hudson, "The best protection against the enemy's fire is a well-directed fire from our own guns." It is plain, on reading the extravagant speeches and newspaper articles that dealt with the capture, that our country was young and unaccustomed to victory. Yet without magnifying the size and armament of the Macedonian or reducing that of the United States, this victory, like that of the Constitution, was a notable achievement in the history of the navy and of the nation. The leading naval power of the world had lost a frigate of which an officer of the United States, while admitting the Macedonian's inferiority in force, goes on to observe, "But she is just such a ship as the English have achieved all their single-ship victories in; . . . she is, in tonnage, men, and guns, such a ship as the English prefer to all others, and have, till the Guerrière's loss, always thought a match for any single-decked ship afloat."

[image ALT: A finely executed ink-and‑wash drawing of a strikingly handsome man in his thirties, seen in left profile, wearing a naval uniform of the early 19c, with prominent epaulets. He is Stephen Decatur, Jr., an American naval commander in the War of 1812.]

The Authors' Notes:

1 Letter of Captain Hull, August 30, 1812, to the Secretary of the Navy.

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2 Autobiography of Commodore Morris, p56.

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3 The English people as a whole underrated the power of their enemy. The Morning Post, the organ of the Government, had observed shortly before the loss of the Guerrière: "A war of a very few months, without creating to England the expense of a single additional ship, would be sufficient to convince America of her folly by a necessary chastisement of her insolence and audacity." Quoted by Coutts, Famous Duels of the Fleet, p244.

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4 American shot regularly was lighter than British of the same size. To bring the two to a like standard, subtract from the figures given for American guns one‑eighteenth, following the suggestion of James (Naval Occurrences, p10); Roosevelt would make a reduction slightly larger than James, or seven per cent.

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5 Letter of Captain Decatur, October 30, 1812, to the Secretary of the Navy.

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6 Weather-gage: the term applied to the position of a ship to windward of another; in the days of sailing vessels this was regarded as a decided advantage, for it gave the ship possessing it in battle, everything else being equal, the greater speed and facility in maneuvering.

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7 Court-martial of Captain Carden.

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8 In his Thirty Years from Home, p132, ff.

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Page updated: 8 Jul 13