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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p144  IX
The Sloop Actions of the War

[image ALT: A map of most of the North and South Atlantic, with a few points on the ocean marked by letters or numbers. It is the plan of engagement between the U. S. S. Chesapeake and H. M. S. Shannon in the War of 1812.]

In the single-ship engagements between frigates in this war, the United States was three times victorious and once defeated. All these actions occurred during the first twelve months of the war, for after the several reverses the British Admiralty had grown wary and had instructed their captains to refuse battle when English 18‑pounders were opposed to American 24's, and to obtain added security for their frigates by cruising in couples. The activity of American frigates was further checked, as the British, on increasing their naval force on our shores, extended the blockade so as to include New England. Whenever it was known that an American frigate was in a harbor, an English squadron would hover about, making it impossible for along ship to get to sea. Thus the Congress was shut up in Portsmouth on her return in 1813; the Constellation, which was undergoing repairs in the Chesapeake at the outbreak of hostilities, was prevented from sailing till their close; and the United States, after defeating the Macedonian, was permitted to sail with her former prize only from New York to New London, where both frigates were closely held till the end of the war.

The sloops of war, drawing less water and being much more nimble than the frigates, easily eluded the blockade, and their activity continued unabated throughout the war. Besides inflicting great damage on the enemy's commerce, they engaged in battle British craft of their own kind, fighting in all eight single-ship actions; in just one, the third encounter, the British were success­ful; in the other seven, our sloops were victorious.

 p146  The Wasp and the Frolic

On the 18th of October, 1812, the American sloop of war Wasp, 18 guns, Master-Commandant Jacob Jones, engaged the British brig Frolic, 22 guns, Captain Thomas Whinyates. The Wasp had sailed from the Delaware on October 13; two days later she had encountered a violent storm that carried away her jib‑boom with two men. On the 17th, a half hour before midnight, when about 500 miles east of Chesapeake Bay, (lat. 37° N, long. 65° W) Jones made out a convoy; but, as there appeared to be at least two large ships, he cautiously stood off till daylight should disclose their force. The convoy consisted of six vessels returning from Honduras in the charge of the Frolic. The gale which had so severely handled the Wasp had been no kinder to the English brig, for the Frolic had lost her main yard as well as her topsails and had sprung her maintopmast.

When, as day broke, Jones had determined the character of the enemy, he bore down to attack.​1 Whinyates, seeing his intention, ordered the convoy to run before the wind, while he dropped astern and hoisted Spanish colors, hoping by this ruse to deceive and delay his enemy.

The action did not begin until the two were within fifty yards of each other, and as they sailed along parallel courses, there was little maneuvering. In very few naval battles has the equality of force been so marked. For though the Wasp had an advantage in the number of men, 135 to her opponent's 110, the Frolic, to offset this, had a heavier broadside, 274 pounds to the American's 250; both alike had suffered from the gale.

There was a heavy sea running, which frequently threw spray over the decks or even rolled the muzzles of  p147 the guns under, yet the gunnery was unusually good. The Wasp suffered many wounds in her spars and rigging; within four or five minutes her maintopmast was shot away, and, falling with the maintopsail yard across the port fore and foretopsail braces rendered the head yards unmanageable; four minutes later, the gaff and mizzen topgallant mast fell; and after twenty minutes of fighting every brace and most of the rigging had been shot away. Meanwhile, the distance between the two ships had gradually lessened and the Wasp, drawing ahead of her opponent, secured an advantageous position off the Frolic's bow. Captain Whinyates in his official report of the battle wrote:

"The superior fire of our guns gave every reason to expect its speedy termination in our favor; but the gaff head-braces being shot away, and there being no sail on the mainmast, the brig became unmanageable, and the enemy succeeded in taking a position to rake her, while she was unable to bring a gun to bear."

The Frolic now fouled the Wasp, running her bowsprit between the main and mizzen rigging of the Wasp. This was not disadvantageous for Jones; for, with his rigging so badly cut up, he was apprehensive that his masts might fall, and he had already decided to take the enemy by boarding. First, however, he seized the opportunity to rake, and was intending further to hammer away, when the eagerness of his crew for still closer action could scarcely be restrained. Jack Lang, once impressed into the British service, leaped on his gun, cutlass in hand, and thence to the Frolic. Lieutenant Biddle was for calling him back, but, seeing the enthusiasm of the crew, quickly changed his mind, and led them on. His feet, however, got tangled in the rigging, and, as a midshipman caught hold of his coat to help himself up, the lieutenant fell back upon the deck of the Wasp. Quickly  p148 jumping up again, Biddle passed Lang and a seaman who had gained the bowsprit of the Frolic, and was the first to go aft. There to his astonishment, he found only four men on deck alive, Captain Whinyates with two other officers and a seaman who held to his station at the wheel. On Biddle's approach the officers, all wounded, threw down their swords in token of submission, and as there was no one to haul down the colors Biddle himself climbed the rigging and did so.

A few minutes after the Wasp had freed herself from the Frolic, both masts of the latter fell, the mainmast close to the deck, the foremast twelve or fifteen feet above the deck. The action had lasted forty-three minutes. The most surprising feature of the engagement is that with the unusual equality of force there should have been such a great difference in losses. On the American side there were five killed and five wounded, a total of ten; on the British, not twenty men escaped injury, and the total loss was about ninety. In explanation of this it was reported that, in the heavy sea running, the Frolic fired when rising on the crest of the waves, so that nearly all her shot which struck injured the spars and rigging of her enemy; and that the Wasp fired while going down so that her shot swept the decks or pierced the hull of her opponent. When Whinyates spoke of the "superior fire" of the British guns, he probably meant the more rapid fire (three to two, according to Cooper) for, as Vice-Admiral Jurien de la Gravière of the French Navy observes, the accuracy of the American fire, in spite of the unfavorable conditions prevailing, was indeed astonishing.

The determined and obstinate resistance of Frolic illustrates the value of holding out to the last, even when things are going wrong. Whinyates subjected his ship and crew to awful losses, yet not without  p149 result; for soon after the Frolic surrendered, another sail appeared on the horizon. Jones supposed it to be one of the convoy of the Frolic, several of which were heavily armed, and he loaded his guns and cleared for action. But the stranger proved to be the British 74‑gun ship-of‑the‑line Poictiers, Captain Beresford; and as the Wasp could not flee, Beresford took the Wasp and recaptured the Frolic, and sailed with them to Bermuda.

The Hornet and the Peacock

It has been told in the previous chapter how James Lawrence, when captain of the Hornet, vainly sought an engagement on equal terms with the Bonne Citoyenne off the coast of Brazil. At length, compelled by the British ship-of‑the‑line Montague, 74 guns, to choose a new station, he followed the coast to British Guiana, a favorite cruising ground of American privateers, and on his way captured the British brig Resolution, 10 guns, with $23,000 in specie on board.

On February 24, 1813, when off the mouth of the Demerara River, British Guiana, Lawrence discovered on his weather quarter, a brig which showed a willingness to engage. It was the Peacock, a sister ship of the Frolic, and thus of about the same size as the Hornet, but with only two‑thirds as heavy a broadside; for her 32‑pound carronades, because of her light scantling, had all been replaced by 24's.

As the ships neared each other, Lawrence kept close to the wind, and secured the weather-gage. At 5.25 the ships, passing on opposite tacks, exchanged broadsides at half pistol-shot range. Then Lawrence, seeing that the Peacock was about to wear, bore up and, receiving her starboard broadside, ran close on her starboard quarter, where, by a heavy and well-directed fire, he cut the brig  p150 to pieces. By this fire the British commander, Captain William Peake, was killed, and soon the Peacock was in a desperate condition. Less than fifteen minutes after the action had begun, the Peacock surrendered, hoisting an ensign, union down, as a signal of distress. The ship was sinking fast, already having six feet of water in her hold.

Lieutenant Conner, who, with a small force of American seamen, had been sent aboard, made every effort to keep the Peacock afloat until the prisoners could be removed; they threw guns overboard, plugged some of the holes, and resorted to pumping and baling. But she continued to settle, and went to the bottom so suddenly as to carry down nine of her crew and three Americans.

The loss on the Peacock was five killed, including her commander, and thirty-three wounded (two by the bursting of a cartridge);​2 the rigging of the Hornet was cut, but the hull had received no damage. While it must be admitted that the advantage favored the Americans in number of crew and weight of gun metal, still this does not explain the astonishing difference in the effects of the fire of the two ships. As some writer has observed, "Had the guns of the Peacock been of the largest size they could not have changed the result, as the weight of shot that do not hit is of no great moment."

Another British brig, the Espiegle, of approximately the same strength as the Peacock, lay at anchor six miles distant throughout the engagement. At its termination, Lawrence quickly patched his rigging and prepared for a second fight which he supposed would be soon forced upon him. But as the Espiegle remained unconcernedly at her anchorage in the harbor, he sailed away.

 p151  The Argus and the Pelican

On June 18, 1813, the American brig-of‑war Argus, Master-Commandant William H. Allen, sailed for L'Orient, with Mr. Crawford, the newly appointed minister to France. On the voyage over of twenty-three days, Allen made just one prize, but, later, in thirty‑one days of cruising in the chops of the English Channel, he captured and destroyed nineteen British merchantmen. The explanation of the difference is that on the regular thoroughfares ships were not allowed to sail except in convoy, while nearer home, in the vicinity of England and Ireland, ships followed a hundred courses, as in time of peace, and there were no ships-of‑war stationed near to protect them. The career of the Argus was soon to be cut short, but she had shown the advantage of preying on unprotected parts of the enemy's coast.

Early in the morning, August 14, 1813, the Argus, after capturing a prize between Wales and southern Ireland and setting fire to her, fell in with the British brig-of‑war Pelican, Captain Maples, which had been sent out from Cork, expressly to meet her. The wind was from the south and the Pelican had the weather-gage. Allen attempted to pass to windward, but finding he could not, he shortened sail and allowed the Pelican to close. The action began at six A.M., when the Argus wore round and fired her port broadside within grape distance, the Pelican promptly responding with her starboard battery. Although early in the action, Allen was severely wounded in the leg by a round shot, he held to his post, until he fainted from loss of blood — bravery that cost him his life. A few minutes later, the first lieutenant, W. H. Watson, was struck in the head and stunned by a grape shot, whereupon the command devolved on the second lieutenant, W. H. Allen, Jr.

 p152  A large part of the rigging of the Argus had now been disabled, yet as the enemy edged off to pass under her stern, Second Lieutenant Allen skilfully prevented this by luffing with the maintopsail aback, at the same time firing a raking broadside. The wheel ropes of the Argus, as well as the running rigging, were soon shot away and she became unmanageable. Her enemy, only slightly damaged, could then choose his position at will.

When, at 6.30, Lieutenant Watson, on recovering consciousness, again came up on deck, he found the enemy raking from under the stern of the Argus. The Americans were plainly beaten, unless they could bring their ship up and board; and this maneuver, since all their braces were cut, proved impossible. The action continued a few minutes longer, the Argus exposed to a cross or raking fire to which she was able to respond with little more than musketry. Finally, at 6.47, when the action had been in progress about three-quarters of an hour, the Argus surrendered.

The American loss was six killed and seventeen wounded, five so severely that they died within a few days. The British had two killed and five wounded. The British brig was twenty per cent larger, and her broadside seventeen per cent heavier. Yet this does not explain why the American fire at short range caused so little injury. Even when the Argus had a raking position she could use it to advantage. Her gunnery was decidedly poor. Lieutenant Watson observes in his official report that the crew had been under a long strain because of the "very rapid succession of captures."

The Enterprise and the Boxer

On September 5, 1813, the American brig Enterprise, of 14 guns, commanded by Lieutenant William Burrows, while near Monhegan Island, Maine, fell in with the  p153 British brig Boxer, of 14 guns, Captain Samuel Blyth, and decisively defeated her in an action lasting forty minutes.

Both vessels were dull sailers. The Enterprise had a slight superiority in guns, and also a larger complement; but while the Enterprise had just got to sea, the Boxer had been cruising for six months, certainly an enviable opportunity for drilling.

The loss of the Americans was fourteen killed and wounded; that of the British was not reported, but was evidently larger. The Enterprise had inflicted considerable damage in the hull of her enemy, while receiving little in return; both had suffered in spars and rigging. The Enterprise seems to have been more skilfully maneuvered, and, to quote the findings of the British court-martial, she had "a greater degree of skill in the direction of her fire." Almost at the first broadside, Captain Blyth of the Boxer was killed, and, at about the same time, Lieutenant Burrows of the Enterprise was struck down by a musket ball. Lieutenant Edward R. McCall, who then assumed command of the Enterprise, and carried the fight to a success­ful conclusion, had never so much as seen a battle before.

The Peacock and the Epervier

The Government, though so slow in building new frigates that none took part in the war, had in the latter part of 1813 three new sloops approaching completion, the Peacock, the Frolic, and the Wasp, names given in honor of Lawrence's and Jones's splendid victories. On April 29, 1814, the Peacock, 18 guns, Master-Commandant Lewis Warrington, while off the southeast coast of Florida, engaged the British brig Epervier, 18 guns, Captain Wales. The American ship, nominally equal in strength to her antagonist, was slightly superior in every particular.  p154 Still when the Epervier surrendered after an action lasting forty-five minutes, the difference in losses showed, even more decidedly than in previous engagements, that it was something more than heavier guns which brought victory.

The Peacock had not a man killed, and but two slightly wounded; the Epervier, eight killed and fifteen wounded. Not a round shot had touched the hull of the Peacock, and her masts and spars were as sound as ever, while her enemy had masts badly cut up and forty-five shots in the hull which had admitted five feet of water in the hold.

After making some repairs, Warrington decided to take his prize into Savannah. The sloops were chased by two British frigates, but escaped by clever maneuvering, and succeeded in reaching port in safety.

The Wasp and the Reindeer

An important share in the credit for the Enterprise's splendid victory over Boxer was due to Master-Commandant Johnston Blakely. It was he who had fitted out the brig and drilled the raw crew, and thus made it possible for the young and inexperienced Lieutenants Burrows and McCall, immediately on getting to sea, to give such good account of the Enterprise. He himself did not sail, for he had just received a better command, the new sloop of war Wasp, now nearly ready for sea. The story of this, the second Wasp, is that of a swift and daring cruiser which met with signal success.

Leaving Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on May 1, 1814, Blakely slipped through the blockading line, and, according to his instructions, took up a station in the approaches to the English Channel, almost exactly where Allen, in the Argus, had, a year before, captured so many merchantmen. Blakely had a sloop that probably was not surpassed in all European waters; his crew of 173 was  p155 made up almost entirely of New Englanders, and, though of they averaged only twenty-three years of age, many without previous sea training, they were spirited and ambitious, the kind that an efficient commander like Blakely could quickly mould into the best of crews.

Not until he had been thirty‑two days at sea did he make a capture; he was then probably near his station in the Channel, for, in the next thirty-five days he took seven more prizes. Not every sail he saw was legitimate prey; as he observes in a letter of July 8, 1814, "After arriving on soundings, the number of neutrals which were passing kept us almost constantly in pursuit." It was a daring game he was playing, for he adds, "I found it impossible to maintain anything like a station, and was led in chase farther up the Channel than was intended."

Early on the morning of June 28, 1814, Blakely, having discovered two sails on his lee beam, started in chase; but as soon afterwards he made out a single sail on his weather beam, he altered his course, and stood for this. The stranger, which was the brig Reindeer, Captain William Manners, might easily have escaped, and as the superior character of American sloops was now pretty well known, Manners must have been aware that he was about to engage a stronger antagonist; but William Manners had a crew said to be the pride of Plymouth, and was himself a commander that, for courage and ability, had scarcely a superior. Instead of avoiding battle, Manners came about with the wind nearly aft, and stood for his opponent.

The breezes were so light that the ships moved on almost an even keel; and it was quarter after one before Blakely had the drummer call the men to their quarters. Two hours more elapsed before the fight began, Blakely having tacked and attempted to pass to windward of his enemy; Manners, much too clever to surrender any advantage  p156 needlessly, had tacked at the same time, and standing from the American, had foiled him. Blakely, seeing that his enemy would weather him, changed to the other tack, and, furling most of his sail, allowed the Reindeer to approach.

The English brig came up on the weather quarter of the Wasp, about sixty yards distant, and opened with a 12‑pound carronade loaded with round and grape shot, a fire that must have severely tested the discipline of the crew of the Wasp, for, as this Reindeer did not draw abeam, the guns of the Wasp would not bear. Blakely got out of this awkward position, however, by suddenly putting his helm alee; and beginning with the after carronade he fired, in succession, all the guns of his broadside as they bore.

Reindeer, somewhat disabled by this fire, now ran aboard of the Wasp, her port bow against the Wasp's quarter, in which position the Wasp raked with telling effect. Meanwhile the American marines and riflemen, with the skill for which they were famed, picked off many of the exposed officers and crew of the brig. Captain Manners, though wounded, kept the deck and urged on the fight. A second wound caused by a shot that went through both thighs, brought him to his knees; but he was up again quickly, and would give no heed to his wounds, which were bleeding profusely. Finally, perceiving the execution of the musketry from the tops of the Wasp, he called out, "Follow me, my boys, we must board." With the words, he climbed the rigging to lead them on, but two balls from the Wasp's maintop, passing through his skull, killed him instantly.

The Americans, in turn, now prepared to board. The English, badly crippled by the death or disability of nearly all their officers, as well as of half their men, could make but little resistance, and soon surrendered.

 p157  The action occupied nineteen minutes.​3 The Wasp received six round shot in her hull, and a 24‑pound shot that passed through the centre of her foremast, and had her sails and rigging injured. The Reindeer, wrote Blakely, "was literally cut to pieces in a line with her ports." The Wasp had five killed and twenty‑one wounded, the Reindeer, twenty-five killed and forty‑two wounded. Almost equal honor was due the two forces for the brave fight. When, as in this case, it is a picked American crew against a picked English crew, both splendidly disciplined, and directed by the finest of captains, victory depends on something else than determination and courage; and here it is fair to conclude that it was due to superiority in power. The Wasp had twenty 32‑pounder carronades and two long guns against the Reindeer's sixteen 24‑pounders and two long guns, and as the complement of the Wasp was in a like degree larger, she surpassed the English brig in at least the ratio of three to two.

The Wasp and the Avon

That he might secure the best care for his wounded and as well make needed repairs on the Wasp, Blakely sailed for L'Orient, where he remained till the 27th of August. Then putting to sea, in less than a month, he made six more valuable captures. How free and fearless were his movements may be seen from the capture of the British brig Mary, loaded with cannon and other military stores, and convoyed with nine other ships by a bomb-ship, and the ship-of‑the‑line Armada, 74 guns. The Wasp not only succeeded in cutting out the Mary, but having burned it within sight of the convoy attempted to make another capture; she was prevented, however, by the Armada, which chased her away.

 p158  On the evening of the same day, September 1, 1814, the lookout sighted four sails, two on the starboard and two on the port bow. Blakely immediately set sail in chase of the ship on the starboard bow farthest to windward. The chase was the brig Avon, Captain James Arbuthnot. After an engagement of three-quarters of an hour she surrendered, with a loss of nine killed and thirty-three wounded. The Wasp had two killed and one wounded, about an eighth or ninth of her loss in the fight with the Reindeer; since the Avon was superior to the Reindeer by having 32‑pounders where the Reindeer had 24's, this shows something of the quality of Manners and his crew.

When Blakely was about to take possession of the prize, he discovered a second brig, the Castilian, of 18 guns, standing towards him and he received a broadside as she ran up under his stern. Since two other sails were also approaching, Blakely left his prize and standing off to reeve new braces, attempted to decoy the second brig from her supports. But the Avon was firing guns of distress, and the Castilian went to her rescue; scarcely had the last man been removed from the Avon before she went down.

Sailing now to the south, Blakely captured off the Madeiras the brig Atlanta, which, being of exceptional value, he sent with official despatches to Savannah. Three weeks later, the Wasp was spoken 900 miles farther south and this is the last ever heard of the brilliant captain and his gallant crew. Their end is entirely shrouded in mystery.

The Hornet and the Penguin​a

On January 20, 1815, the Hornet, Master-Commandant James Biddle, slipped through the British blockading squadron off New York and set sail for the South Atlantic,  p159 where, with several other ships that were to rendezvous at the lonely island of Tristan da Cunha, 1500 miles west of the Cape of Good Hope, it was planned she should cruise against British commerce.

On her arrival, March 23, 1815, as she was about to anchor, the lookout sighted a sail to the southeast, passing behind the island. The Hornet immediately got under way, and after a little maneuvering, at 1.40 that afternoon, entered into an artillery duel with the British sloop of war Penguin, Captain Dickinson. The two were running on parallel courses, the Hornet to leeward. In armament, the Penguin had sixteen 32‑pounder carronades, two long 12's, and one 12‑pounder carronade; opposed to this, the Hornet had eighteen 32‑pounder carronades and two long 12's. Thus it will be seen that the Hornet had only very little superiority in gun metal.

The story of the fight is like that of many other actions. The Penguin kept drifting nearer, and as she was being decidedly worsted in the artillery duel, Dickinson suddenly put his helm hard up and fouled the Hornet with the intention of boarding. But the American crew was ready and kept the British off while the small-arms men poured in a murderous fire. The Penguin wrenched loose with the loss of her bowsprit and foremast, and then surrendered. The action lasted twenty‑two minutes. The British guns were active, yet the fact that the Hornet did not receive a single round shot in her hull or any material injury in her spars shows the inaccuracy of their fire. Her loss was one killed and eleven wounded, to be contrasted with fourteen killed on the Penguin, including the captain, and twenty-eight wounded. This was the last naval action of the war; in fact, it occurred several weeks after the terms of peace had been approved by the President and ratified by the Senate.

 p160  The Importance of the Sloop Actions

Although the loss of seven sloops from such a navy as Great Britain's could have little direct effect upon the war, yet the service of our small cruisers was far‑reaching in its influence. The daring enterprise of our sloops, their ability to move almost at will in the face of a heavy blockade, the skill with which they were handled, in short, their almost uninterrupted success in coping with the first navy of the world, fostered in our country the much needed spirit of self-respect, earlier stimulated by the frigate actions, and awoke in Europe a general feeling of admiration.

Of no trifling importance, further, was the service of our sloops in their attack upon England's commerce. The Argus, Peacock (2d), and Wasp (2d) were extremely daring, and the number of prizes they took can be compared favorably with the work of even the most celebrated of the privateers. The sloops had found a vulnerable spot in the great sea power. Their attack was similar in strategy, though not in magnitude, with that of the German U‑boats a century later. Such communications as the following, sent to the British Admiralty by the Royal Exchange and London Assurance Corporations in August, 1814, were weighty arguments for concluding hostilities:

"Should the depredations on our commerce continue, the merchants and traders will not be able to get any insurance effected, except at enormous premiums on vessels trading between Ireland and England, either by the chartered companies or individual underwriters; and as a proof of this assertion, for the risks which are usually written fifteen shillings nine pence per cent the sum of five guineas is now demanded."​4

The Authors' Notes:

1 Jones's official report may be found in Niles's Register, III, 217; Whinyates', in the Naval Chronicle, XXIX, 76.

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2 Official report of Captain Lawrence, March 19, 1813.

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3 For Blakely's report, see Niles's Register, VII, 114.

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4 Niles's Register, VII, 174.

Thayer's Note:

a See also Francis F. Beirne, The War of 1812, pp339‑340. A very different account is given by British author M. M. Mackay in Angry Island, p34.

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