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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

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 13

Chapter Twelve

 p124  Our Frigates Make History

The engagements between British and American frigates did little or nothing to settle the final issue of the war. As sporting events, testing the skill and courage of the combatants and arousing the emotions of the supporters of the ships engaged, they were without equal.

Not infrequently opposing commanders addressed challenges to each other through the newspapers. Typical of these challenges was one directed to Captain David Porter, of the U. S. frigate Essex, by Sir James Yeo, commanding His Majesty's ship Southampton. Having heard that Porter had maltreated a British subject serving under him, Sir James caused the following letter to be published in an American paper:

"A passenger of the brig Lyon, from Havana to New York, captured by the brig Southampton, Sir Yeo, commander, is requested by Sir J. Y. to present his compliments to Capt. Porter, commander of the American frigate Essex. Would be glad to have a tête‑à‑tête anywhere between the capes of Delaware and the Havanna, when he would have the pleasure to break his own sword over his damned head and put him down forward in irons."

To this challenge Captain Porter promptly replied:

"Capt. Porter, of the U. S. Frigate Essex, presents his compliments to Sir James Yeo, commanding his Britannic Majesty's frigate Southampton, and accepts with pleasure his polite invitation. If agreeable to Sir James, Capt. Porter would prefer meeting near the Delaware, where Capt. P. pledges his honor to Sir James that no other American vessel shall interrupt their tête‑à‑tête.

"The Essex may be known by a flag bearing the motto 'Free Trade  p125 and Sailors Rights.' And when that is struck, Capt. Porter will deserve the treatment promised by Sir James."

In this instance the meeting did not take place. Sir James's bark was considerably worse than his bite as he was to prove later by cruising Lake Ontario for months on end without bringing on a major engagement with the squadron under Commodore Isaac Chauncey who, on his part, was equally competent at producing good reasons for not fighting.

Under the prevailing rules of the game, warships approaching each other at sea were at liberty to conceal their true identity by flying the flags of other nations and employing similar subterfuges while they studied each other at a safe distance. If one ship judged herself inferior to her adversary she was free to run away without sullying her honor. At the beginning of the war British commanders, contemptuous of American ships, seaman­ship and fighting qualities ignored this vital consideration and thereby invited disaster.

Frigates carried on their gun deck some 44 carronades, short 42‑or 32‑pounders, used for firing broadsides; and several long guns of greater range on their bows and sterns.​a As the vessels approached for combat, the long guns first came into action while the adversaries maneuvered for position. The object was, if possible, to get the advantage of the wind and also to "cross the T," coming into range at a right angle to the enemy so that a broadside could rake his deck from bow to stern or stern to bow before he had time to bring his own broadside to bear. When one broadside had been fired, the vessel would endeavor to come about and fire a broadside with the guns on the opposite side of the deck while the first guns fired were being reloaded. These intricate maneuvers were conducted by a sailing master who stood at the wheel on deck throughout the engagement or until a sharpshooter, perched in the enemy's fighting tops, picked him off or grape shot or canister got him.

The first phase of an engagement consisted of a desperate effort to shoot away the enemy's masts, rigging and steering gear so that he could no longer maneuver, while marines in the fighting tops aimed their rifles at the officers and vital members of the crew on the enemy's deck below. Broadsides were hurled at each other until sometimes the muzzles of the opposing guns almost touched.

The combat reached its climax when the ships ran afoul of each  p126 other, the command "Boarders away!" was given, and the crews, armed with pikes, cutlasses and axes, leaped to one or the other deck and fought it out in hand-to‑hand combat. The sign of surrender was striking, or lowering, the flag. Bold commanders often nailed their flag to the mast to make striking impossible, a gesture of bravado that sometimes proved most inconvenient to them.

The battle ended, a prize crew was put aboard the defeated ship. If she was too badly damaged to be salvaged, her officers and men and the prize crew were removed and the ship was set afire. Victor and vanquished then forgot their differences, fraternized over kegs of rum and had a royal good time on their voyage back to port where the prisoners were generally exchanged or released on parole and permitted to return home on a cartel ship.

Unlike the generals, the naval commanders were men in the prime of life. Practically all of them had seen active service and achieved distinction in the war with Tripoli and they were eager to try their mettle against the ships of the greatest navy in the world. When, during Jefferson's administration, the Navy was neglected, it proved necessary to cut the roster of officers from 500 to 200. This drastic pruning greatly improved the quality of the survivors.

No sooner had war been declared than, on June 23, Commodore Rodgers set sail from New York in the President, one of the new frigates of 44 guns, in command of a squadron which included the frigate United States, 44, Captain Stephen Decatur; the frigate Congress, 38, Captain Smith, and the Argus, 16, Lieutenant Commander St. Clair. Rodgers had learned that a large fleet of Jamaica‑men was sailing for England under convoy and his purpose was to intercept them.

Off the New England coast the Commodore sighted a British frigate which proved to be the Belvidera, 36, Captain Richard Byron,  p127 and immediately gave chase. The President, piling on all her canvas, gradually gained on her quarry, but in doing so she outdistanced the rest of the squadron which was lost to sight. As soon as the Belvidera came within range Rodgers ordered his long bow guns to fire. The gunners took their time, aimed carefully and the first gun bellowed as the round shot left the muzzle and went hurtling over the water to smash straight through the Belvidera's stern frame. The Americans set up a shout. Two more shots were fired and both of them found their mark. The gunners worked furiously ramming a new charge home. The engagement had begun auspiciously and a wave of confidence spread among officers and crew. A few more shots from the long gons, a broadside or two and the Belvidera would be a prize. The gun was ready, the fuse lit. The Commodore himself was standing near by observing the gunners and their work. Suddenly a terrific explosion rent the air, the deck was enveloped in smoke and the men were hurled about like tenpins. One of the long guns had blown up. When some degree of order was brought out of the confusion it was found that 22 sailors lay dead or wounded. Rodgers himself sustained a broken leg. By the time the wreckage had been cleared away and the wounded carried below deck to the surgeon the Belvidera had made good her escape. She proceeded to Halifax where Captain Byron reported the engagement to Rear Admiral Sawyer.

Rodgers had lost his squadron and, not knowing where to find it, proceeded alone in search of the Jamaica convoy. Jetsam served as an occasional clue and encouraged him in the hunt. He sailed all the way across the Atlantic and approached the English coast but failed to come up with the convoy. He then turned southward, cruised in the neighborhood of Madeira, overhauled and captured seven British merchantmen, including 120 members of their crews, and finally returned to New York after an absence of 70 days.

While he was away other interesting events had been taking place in the waters nearer home. When Rear Admiral Sawyer heard Captain Byron's report of the encounter between the Belvidera and the President he organized a squadron to set out in search of Rodgers. This British squadron was commanded by Captain Philip Broke and included the Shannon, 38, flagship; Guerrière, 38, Captain James Dacres; African, 64; Aeolus, 32; Belvidera, 36; the brig Nautilus  p128 and a schooner. It was a force more than sufficient to meet anything the Americans could pit against it.

Ignorant of what had taken place and pursuant to the general order to take to the high seas and harry British commerce, Captain Isaac Hull, nephew of the ill‑starred General William Hull, set sail from Annapolis in the frigate Constitution on July 12. He passed through the Virginia Capes, cruised northward and in five days reached New England waters. About twilight of the fifth day he sighted a frigate which he identified as British and followed her all night.

When day dawned on the 18th Hull, to his surprise and confusion, made out no fewer than three sails on his starboard quarter and four astern. Unwittingly he had taken the bait held out for the President and had been lured straight into Captain Broke's squadron. Attack against such odds would have been suicidal; Hull's only possible hope was to run. But, to his great embarrassment, a dead calm set in. Fortunately, the Constitution lay just out of range of the British men-of‑war.

There was one more way of escape and it did not take Hull long to find it. He ordered his boats lowered and manned, hawsers were run from the boats to the Constitution and the sailors set to work with might and main at the oars. Thus, so to speak, generating its own power, the Constitution began to move. At the same time Hull mounted two long 18‑pounders, one on the forecastle to hold off attack from that quarter, the other on the stern to meet a threat from behind. His stratagem was underneath none too soon for by now the Shannon, which lay nearest the Constitution, had opened fire.

Two could do the trick as well as one and Broke, whose ships had also been becalmed, was not to be robbed of his prey. He, too, ordered his bos lowered, hawsers run, and in a few minutes the whole of his squadron was being towed in a pursuit which was "hot," so far as the oarsmen were concerned. Here, on the broad bosom of the Atlantic the ship — but not the oarsmen — rested while American brawn and sinew were pitted against British. Here sweated at their oars throughout the day Americans whose battle cry was "Sailors' Rights" and Britons whose boast was that they "never would be slaves." In the long annals of rowing it is doubtful if there was ever  p129 a more unique contest, each of the entrants in the race hauling a full-rigged man-of‑war behind him!

Hull knew still another trick. Soundings showed only 20 fathoms. The American commander collected all the spare rope he could find, spliced it together, attached a small anchor known as a "kedge," carried the kedge half a mile ahead and let it take hold of the bottom. Then the men who were left on deck trudged astern with the rope and so pulled the Constitution along until she had caught up with the kedge, when the performance was repeated.

However, in spite of the towing and the kedging, Hull noted with concern that the Shannon had made a slight gain. He discouraged her by letting her have a shot from his stern chaser. And then, as if in answer to prayer, a light breeze sprang up. It was now 9 A.M. and the men had been rowing since dawn. Hull called in his boats and took immediate advantage of the breeze to increase his lead. The breeze, however, died away as suddenly as it had come. There was nothing be done but order the boats out again. All that day and all the succeeding night the sailors bent to the oars or gave a hand at kedging. The Britons, with their customary bulldog determination, hung on. It was a triumph of endurance for the two great branches of the English-speaking race.

When the morning of the second day dawned the men were still at their oars, but exhaustion was rapidly overtaking them. Whether through superior seaman­ship, more power­ful muscles or greater fear of the cat‑o'‑nine-tails that might await the laggards, three of the five British frigates crept up within long cannon-shot range. It looked as though the jinx which had attended old Uncle William had descended upon his nephew Isaac. At that crucial moment up sprang another breeze and it turned out to be a good one. Again Hull called in his boats, crowded on all canvas and, bringing to bear all the ingenuity of his trade, he outmaneuvered and outsailed his pursuers. At 4 P.M. the Belvidera, nearest British ship, was four miles away. At 7 P.M. a squall came up and rain clouds brought with them a welcome darkness. Under its cover Hull made good his escape. When the third day dawned not a British vessel was to be seen; and, unmolested, the Constitution put into Boston where her men had a chance to nurse their blisters, work the kinks out of their backs, and tell of their miraculous escape.

 p130  The respite was not for long. Hull's beard may have been singed, but he had not yet felt the fire. On August 2 the Constitution again set sail, and this time Hull kept his weather eye open against such a snare as he had blundered into on his previous voyage. Nothing of importance happened until he reached latitude 40° 41′, longitude 50° 48′, which is to say in the landsman's parlance about midway of a line drawn between New York and the Azores. There, on August 9, the lookout in the masthead reported a sail on the horizon. Hull promptly gave chase and, at 3:30 P.M., identified the vessel as a British frigate. Hull ordered the Constitution's deck cleared for action, beat the men to quarters, hoisted the American colors and with sails set proceeded to bear down gallantly on the enemy.

As the Constitution neared, the enemy frigate, which proved to be the Guerrière, 38, Captain Dacres, which had sailed in Broke's squadron, met the challenge boldly by hoisting three ensigns, giving the Constitution a welcoming broadside of grape, coming about and firing a second broadside on the other tack. Dacres, however, misjudged his distance. The shots fell short. For three quarters of an hour the sailing masters of the two ships tried every trick they knew, each one attempting to get his frigate on the stern of the other and in a position to rake. Neither was success­ful, and at length the Guerrière sailed off followed by the Constitution which fired an occasional shot from her long guns.

For an hour and a half the ships sailed on the same course. By 6 P.M. the Guerrière was responding briskly; her shots were well aimed and began to tell on the Constitution. Hull had not yet ordered a broadside though his guns were shotted and ready. Hull's men began to grow impatient under the punishment their ship was receiving without making a commensurate return. But Hull stood on the quarter-deck, calm and imperturbable, measuring the distance to the Guerrière. Lieutenant Morris, second in command, thought he would see what suggestion might do and asked permission to fire. "Not yet," snapped Hull. The vessels were drawing nearer and every moment the Constitution was getting worse punishment. Shots were ripping through her rigging, cutting splinters from her masts and spars and making things generally unpleasant for the crew. Morris was beginning to wonder if a madman was in command. In no other way could he account for Hull's inaction in  p131 the face of so determined an attack. Again he approached Hull and for the second time asked permission to fire. And again, as curtly as he had done before, Hull replied, "Not yet."

Then, as though suddenly coming to life, Hull made a couple of full bends to the deck and at the same time shouted, "Now, boys, you may fire!" Hull was stout and his breeches fitted like a glove. The strain of the full bends was too much for them; his breeches split neatly from waistband to knee. Though partially unbreeched, Hull stood his ground. His broadside rent the air. Fired at half-pistol-shot range it plowed into the Guerrière, which shivered from stem to stern. As fast as the men could reload the guns, broadside followed broadside, literally tearing the Guerrière to pieces. Within fifteen minutes her mizzenmast had been shot away, her hull had been riddled and her spars and rigging were a mass of shattered wreckage. All the while volleys of musketry played a treble accompaniment to the deep bass of the guns.

In spite of the punishment she had received and though she lacked the weight of metal of her adversary, the Guerrière, under the capable leader­ship of Captain Dacres, fought gallantly on. For a moment the bow of the Constitution touched the Guerrière's port side and the parties on both sides prepared to board. The Constitution caught fire, but the blaze was promptly extinguished.

Before the order "Boarders away!" could be given the Constitution's sails filled, she freed herself and shot forward just as the Guerrière's mainmast and foremast fell, leaving the once proud British frigate a helpless, drifting hulk, her guns forever silenced. But the Union Jack still waved from the stump of her mizzen. Having ordered his own guns to cease fire, Hull lowered a boat and dispatched an officer to the Guerrière to inquire if she had struck her colors. The officers found Captain Dacres on deck, dazed by the misfortune that had so swiftly overtaken him. The question was a hard one for a British commander to answer, and one that was seldom put to him. Dacres stood puzzled for a moment. "Well," he replied reluctantly, "I don't know. Our mizzenmast is gone, our mainmast is gone; and, upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag."

Hull, having just finished pouring shot and shell into the Guerrière and doing all he could to slaughter her crew, now graciously offered Captain Dacres the services of a surgeon or a surgeon's mate to  p132 patch up some of the damage he had inflicted. Upon hearing the offer Dacres remarked that he imagined Hull's surgeons had about as much as they could do to handle their own wounded. It was a surprise to him when he was informed that the Constitution's casualties amounted to no more than 14 killed and wounded out of a total crew of 456. That, of course, was exclusive of the Captain's breeches! Hull himself at the moment had more need of a tailor than a surgeon. On the other hand, out of a crew of 272 the Guerrière had lost 79 killed and wounded.

Through the night the frigates rode beside each other. Early in the morning the Guerrière began to fill with water and the ship's carpenters announced she was too far gone to be saved. In consequence, the prize crew and prisoners were removed. The Guerrière had fought her last fight. A torch was applied to her and when the flames reached her magazine there was a loud explosion and all that was left of her sank slowly under the waves.

Victors and vanquished now proceeded in company to Boston where they arrived on August 30. For the time being Republicans and Federalists forgot their differences and sat down together at the same banquet table to do honor to the first hero of the war. From Boston Hull, according to the custom of the day, proceeded upon a triumphal tour which took him first to New York, where he and his officers were presented with swords and granted the freedom of the city delivered in a gold box suitably inscribed; then on to Philadelphia to receive a piece of plate. Congress capped the climax by voting Hull a gold medal and $50,000 prize money for the crew. The victory was made the occasion for the drinking of toasts throughout the country, a welcome event since suitable toasts had been rather rare and patriots' throats were parched.

The Guerrière's tonnage was only 1,388 compared with the Constitution's 1,576; her broadside weighed 570 pounds as against the Constitution's 736. Mahan estimates the Constitution's physical superiority at 30 per cent and the disparity between the crews was even greater. The conclusion is that Dacres fought his ship well against a more power­ful foe. But there was no room for excuse in the opinion of the fiery editor of the London Times who refought the battle on paper in his cozy London office. The editor lamented that for the first time in history a British man-of‑war had struck to  p133 an American, conveniently over­looking the earlier achievements of the American Navy under John Paul Jones.

Hull, having displayed to the full his unusual gifts as a commander, now turned the Constitution over to Captain William Bainbridge. There were more commanders than ships and it was the Navy's custom, regardless of performance, to give each commander in turn a go at a ship. Whatever the results might be the Navy was determined to be eminently fair.

Over two months passed before men-of‑war again engaged in combat. However, early in October, the U. S. sloop Wasp, 18 guns, under the command of Captain Jacob Jones, set sail from Delaware Bay on a cruise designed to intercept merchantmen in the West India trade. The Wasp proceeded without incident until about midnight on October 18, at a point due north of Bermuda, when her lookout sighted several vessels. Unable to determine their nature, Captain Jones steered a course parallel to them throughout the night. At daylight he discovered before him six armed merchantmen which were being convoyed by the sloop Frolic, 18, Captain Thomas Whingates.

It was a Sunday morning. The sky was cloudless, the air balmy and a brisk wind was blowing up white caps. No sooner had the convoy seen the American sloop than the merchantmen clapped on sail and hastened out of harm's way. The Frolic, on the other hand, stood her ground and showed fight. Both ships shortened sail and at 10:30 A.M. the first shots were exchanged. The vessels were now running along side by side in a choppy sea at a distance of 50 yards, using their broadsides for all they were worth. There was one difference; while the Frolic fired when she was in the trough of the waves, the Wasp fired from the crest.

The combat was significant because the two ships were so evenly matched. They were of approximately the same tonnage, carried the same number of guns and threw the same weight of metal. The Wasp had a slight advantage over the Frolic in that her crew numbered 135 men as against the Frolic's 105. On the other hand the day before the Wasp had been damaged in a squall. In fact it would have been difficult to devise a more accurate test of the relative quality of British and American seaman­ship and fighting ability. The Frolic displayed considerable superiority in the speed with  p134 which the crew worked her guns. So rapid was her fire that her shots seemed to outnumber those of the Wasp by three to two. But what they gained in speed they lost in accuracy, for many of the shots went wild. Jones's technique of firing from the crest of the waves proved to be far more effective.

Within the space of a few minutes the Wasp had demonstrated her superiority. The Frolic's masts and rigging were shot away while the Wasp suffered chiefly in her hull. At this point the two ships ran afoul of each other and the Wasp was in position to send over a broadside which swept the Frolic's deck. Immediately the cry of "Boarders away!" went up from the Wasp and at the command her sailors, brandishing their pikes, cutlasses and axes, leaped to the deck of the Frolic ready to settle the issue in a hand-to‑hand fight. But they found no opposition. The terrific fire of the Wasp had driven the whole of the Frolic's crew below. There remained on deck only a few officers and a man at the while who kept defiantly at his station. Without further resistance the officers offered their swords while an American sailor lowered the colors.

The entire engagement lasted less than three quarters of an hour, during which the British lost 90 men, killed and wounded, out of their total of 105. The Americans got off with only five killed and five wounded. The battle was as decisive as it had been brief. Captain Jones placed a prize crew on the Frolic and was about to set off for Charleston when a sail appeared on the horizon and rapidly grew in size. Scenting danger Jones tried to steal away but what with his prize and the injuries he had received in the fight he could make little speed. The stranger was now close on, and through his glass Jones recognized her as a British ship of the line. She proved to be the Poictiers, whose 74 guns frowned down upon the sloop as she demanded the Wasp's surrender which Jones was unable to refuse. Thus hardly had his victory been won than it was snatched from his grasp and he found himself, his ship and his prize all prisoners of the newcomer.

The three vessels put into Bermuda and there the prisoners were exchanged to make their way home. In spite of this misfortune, a generous public recognized Jones and his men for the heroes they were. Though he had lost his ship, Jones was voted a sword by the  p135 city of New York while a grateful Congress appropriated $25,000 as prize money for the crew.

Within less than a week yet another blow was struck at England's pride. On October 25, near Madeira, the frigate United States, 44, in command of the redoubtable Captain Stephen Decatur, encountered His Majesty's frigate Macedonian, 38, Captain John S. Carden. As soon as the ships sighted each other they cleared for action and came full on. At 9 A.M. the United States fired her first broadside and was repaid in kind. For half an hour the ships stood off and pounded each other, but the United States had the greater weight of metal and her shots were well aimed, while those from the Macedonian did little or no damage. Her mizzenmast shot down, and the rest of her masts tottering, the Macedonian struck her colors. She had received no less than 100 round shot in her hull and had lost 36 men killed and 68 wounded out of a complement of 300. The United States, whose crew outnumbered the Macedonian's by 178 men, lost only five killed and six wounded. British commanders were taking some time to learn that they could not with impunity engage American ships of superior power.

The fight ended, the rival commanders met and Carden offered his sword. With a grace becoming his fame, and in the best copybook manner, Decatur replied, "Sir, I cannot receive the sword of a man who so bravery defended his ship. But I will receive your hand." Officers and men of both ships now mingled freely while the men-of‑war proceeded across the Atlantic. More fortunate than Jones, Decatur brought both ships safely to port. He reached New York just in time to share with Hull and Jones the honor of an official banquet, to receive the freedom of the city and to have a medal struck to commemorate his victory. Though he had won a victory he lost his command. For it was now Jones's turn to have a frigate and the United States was nearest to hand.

The Navy's quaint custom might have proved disastrous had not all the commanders been tried men. Thus, when Isaac Hull relinquished the Constitution to Captain William Bainbridge, the frigate fell into the best of hands. Bainbridge was not long in making a score. Setting sail from Boston on October 26 he arrived off Brazil on December 13. Three days later he espied two sails. The larger  p136 of the ships, by her actions, indicated she was spoiling for a fight and Bainbridge obliged.

At noon the Constitution and her adversary showed their colors. The latter proved to be the British frigate Java, 38, Captain Henry Lambert. In spite of the fact that her tonnage was only 1,340 to the Constitution's 1,576 and that she had fewer guns and a lighter weight of metal, the Java swiftly bore down on the Constitution to rake her. The Constitution skillfully maneuvered to escape danger and opened with a single gun to which the Java replied with a broadside. A general cannonade ensued in which the Constitution's wheel was shot away. But even with this serious handicap Bainbridge displayed fine seaman­ship by getting into position to rake. The Java attempted to close but before she could do so the Constitution fired two broadsides into her stern at point-blank range, which shot the Java's mainmast clean away. After another exchange of broadsides the Java's guns were silenced and she struck. The engagement had lasted three hours. At its close the Java was too badly damaged to be salvaged, so her crew was removed and she was set afire. The Java's loss was 60 killed and 101 wounded out of a crew of 426, not including a detachment of 100 soldiers who happened to be aboard and rendered service during the fight. The American loss was nine killed and 25 wounded out of a total of 475.

One American victory might have been blamed upon the inefficiency of a British captain, but when four American victories came in quick succession London editors who gave inefficiency as an explanation ran the risk of accusing far too large a part of the British navy of that failing. A new excuse was devised. London editors found it in the physical superiority of the American frigates. They charged that, as a matter of fact, these were not frigates at all but actually ships of the line disguised as frigates! The new explanation was much more in keeping with the popular British conception of the perfidy which distinguished the American character.

When the results of the operations at sea for the year 1812 had been tabulated it was revealed that the insignificant little navy of the United States had captured or destroyed British men-of‑war to the total of 4,330 tons as against a loss to themselves of only 820 tons. In addition, 46 prizes had been safely brought to port. These  p137 did not include the numerous prizes taken by the privateers. The British Admiralty was humiliated, but the British navy was far too large to have been seriously affected. The United States Navy had employed virtually all of its available power; the British navy had used only a small fraction of its own. There had been glory enough and the establishment of a splendid naval tradition. As for immediate results, however, the gallant frigates had done little more than stir up a hornet's nest.

Thayer's Note:

a For carronades and long guns, see Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p47 f.; a photo of each type heads off that chapter.

Page updated: 31 Aug 13