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When the schooner General Armstrong dropped her anchor at Fayal, the Azores, the afternoon of September 26, 1814, all she was looking for was drinking water. She never did get it. She got immortality instead.
General Armstrong was a privateer, and she had done more than her share of fighting in this second war with Great Britain. She carried a rather unusual armament for a privateer — a 24‑pound long guna1 mounted on a swivel amidships and three 9‑pounders on either side. Her crew numbered 90.
Captain Samuel Chester Reid was thirty‑one. He had been at sea since he was eleven, much of that time in the regular Navy, and he knew his business. He hailed from Norwich, Connecticut.
General Armstrong herself hailed from New York, and was named after a distinguished New Yorker, John Armstrong, a former Secretary of War. She'd had a hard time, on this cruise, getting out of New York, so determined was the British blockade off Sandy Hook. She had been chased by a frigate and a ship of the line, but had outpaced both. p2 She had taken a small brig, Perry, but released her when she turned out to be another American privateer. Perry had thrown all her guns overboard to lighten herself when chased by a British frigate the previous day, and now she was on her way back to Philadelphia to get some more armament.
In mid‑Atlantic General Armstrong had come upon a British ship of the line, a towering giant that could have blasted her out of the water in any kind of stand‑up fight. Armstrong had exchanged a few shots with her at long distance, out of sheer good spirits, before running away. This was a common practice among Yankee privateering skippers toward the end of the War of 1812. They knew how violently the British naval officers hated them and their kind, and it pleased the privateers to taunt them.
And now the schooner was here in Fayal, where there wasn't a breath of breeze, and sunset was near.
Captain Reid went ashore and looked up the United States consul, John B. Dabney, who said certainly, he could arrange to get some drinking water for the schooner.
They were interrupted by a lookout's shout announcing a sail, which was just outside of the harbor to the northeast and which had signalled for a pilot.
She was British, that was sure. She was brig-rigged and pierced for many cannons. (She proved in fact to be Carnation, 18 guns, and her skipper, Lloyd, was even more rancorous toward American privateers than were most of his kind.)
"I can't move, except with sweeps, and that would carry me right past her," said Captain Reid. "Will she let us alone, d'ye think?"
p3 "She'll have to," said Consul Dabney. "After all, this is a neutral harbor."
"Yes, but still. . . ."
Reid went back aboard. He knew that Fayal was a neutral harbor, but he also knew something about British naval officers, those arrogant men, and he wasn't taking any chances.
There was still some air just outside the harbor and Carnation, in contrast to the beehive-like activity of her seamen as witnessed from afar, drifted languidly in.
Reid upped anchor and with the aid of sweeps, or long oars, posted his craft much closer to the shore, as close as he dared, right under the guns of the castle. There he anchored again, fore and aft, but he put springs on his cables so that he could make a dash for it if a breeze should spring up.
The British brig could not reach him there. She drew too much water. He could see that at a glance. But she did keep getting nearer.
In the tawny sunset — there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the moon was scheduled to rise early and to be almost full — two other vessels were seen approaching the harbor from the northeast. They were British war vessels all right, as Reid's glass told him. (They proved to be the 74‑gun frigate Plantagenet and the brig-of‑war Rota, 38 guns.) Like Carnation, they were carrying troops to Jamaica, in the West Indies, where Major General Sir Edward Pakenham was assembling forces for a tremendous attack on New Orleans. Also like Carnation, and like General Armstrong too, they had come to Fayal looking not for trouble, but for drinking water.
p4 Reid ordered his men and boys to battle stations. They knew their business. Armstrong did not have an inch of canvas spread, so there was no need to worry about running gear or to man the helm. Every gunner, every layer, every powder monkey was at his post. Tubbed matches were lit. Sand was spread on deck. Swabs, wormers, linstocks, rammers, ball racks, bags of grape, all were set out in their proper places. Boarding nets were spread clear around the schooner — not past the shrouds, as would have been done if a boarding party was expected directly from another vessel, but below the gunnels outside; for if the British boarded at all it would have to be from small boats.
Then there was nothing to do but wait.
Word had got out in the town behind them that a battle might be making up in the bay, and there was a great deal of scurrying back and forth and jockeying for positions. The shore indeed was black with men, all holding their breaths. The Governor himself was on hand, in an advantageous position in a tower of the fort.
The guns of that fort had been run out, and they bristled menacingly; but Reid knew — for Dabney had told him — that most of those guns were mere show pieces, antiques that would never be fired again, even if there had been powder and shot. Besides, Portugal would not resist with force an invasion by the British Navy, no matter how flagrant a violation of international law it might be. Reid could not count on any support there.
At eight o'clock four boats put out from Carnation, which was now anchored near at hand, as close as she dared to come.
These were large, long boats of the barge type, just the p5 kind that would be used in a board or a cutting‑out operation. There might have been thirty men in each, and the men were all armed.
The moon was just about to rise. In a few minutes the whole bay would be bathed in its light. Everybody aboard General Armstrong could see that the Britishers were hoping to take them by surprise, while it still was dark.
Pikes and cutlasses, muskets, daggers, and pistols, were passed out. The gunners blew on their matches, from which columns of smoke wobbled.
Captain Reid cupped his hands and hailed the boats. What did they want?
They stopped, close together, huddled, the officers no doubt dismayed to learn that they had been seen.
There was a pause, and Reid called again.
Then the Britishers broke into action, no longer trying to keep quiet, their rowers putting full backs into it, their marines cocking muskets.
"Fire!" cried Captain Reid.
It was all over in a few minutes. Some of the Britishers fired back, and a few even found marks — the first mate of the General Armstrong was wounded in the shoulder and a seaman was killed — but when the small boats paused, shocked, the long toms let them have it again, and that was the end of that; they scampered in retreat.
The gunners swabbed their pieces, and the monkeys brought up extra powder.
For there would be more. Everybody knew that there would be more. Englishmen don't give up that easily.
Ashore, Consul Dabney hurried to the Governor and demanded that he protest against this gross violation of p6 neutrality. The Governor agreed, and he sat down and penned a stiff note to Captain Lloyd, who was brusque, being much too busy to bother about rights of neutrality — or any other kind.
By this time the moon was fully up, and those aboard of General Armstrong could see that all three war vessels were frantically signalling to one another, though what they said the Americans did not know, for of course a code was used. (This then was called, in Navy parlance, "a telegraph," which of course is anxiety what it was; for many years after Samuel Morse made known his invention, it used to be called an electric telegraph.)
They not only signalled: they sent boats back and forth. Clearly the captains were conferring, and it was obvious too that another and much larger boarding party was being organized.
This work was done fast. It was only about nine o'clock when twenty‑odd boats put out from behind Carnation. There must have been four hundred men in them.
Some of the boats had carronades mounted in the bow. Short, snub-nosed cannons,a2 named after the Carron Iron Foundry on the Carron River, Sterlingshire, Scotland, these could be devastating at a short distance.
Yet it was evident to the Americans that the organization was not yet complete, for the boats did not attack immediately. Instead they took refuge behind a rocky reef, and stayed there for some time to re‑equip and rearrange themselves and to get final orders.
It was close to midnight when at least they sallied forth.
They came very fast, in two divisions, one heading for p7 the bow of General Armstrong, the other for the stern, where Captain Reid himself was in charge.
This battle was a real one, and lasted about forty minutes. Again and again the British tried to board, and again and again they were beaten back. All of the fighting was with small arms; the long toms could no longer be brought to bear.
The slaughter among the English was appalling. Their boats floated free, filled with the dead and dying. Many men panicked and jumped overboard to swim to shore, so that the stretch between General Armstrong and the beach below the castle was stippled with bobbing heads.
Second Mate Alexander O. Williams dropped dead, a musket ball smack in the middle of his forehead. The first mate had been knocked out of action, in the original brush, and now, forward, the third mate fell with a shattered leg. The fight there wavered.
Captain Reid saw this, or sensed it. The stern, where he commanded in person, was clear of small boats now. They'd had enough, back there. But men were scrabbling up the sides of the forecastle with renewed vigor.
Reid rallied his lads and led them all forward.
That was the break of the battle. Flesh and blood could stand no more. The British fell back.
Reid had lost two dead, seven wounded. The British, by their own admission — Reid always contended that the real figure was much greater — had 63 killed, 110 wounded.
Next morning Captain Lloyd of Carnation opened up with his guns on General Armstrong. He had more than p8 twice as many guns as the Yankees, and in addition Rota and Plantagenet were now in position to open up.
A few shots went beyond General Armstrong and into the town, where a woman suffered a shattered thigh and a boy and much livestock were killed; but at that distance most of them, understandably, hulled the schooner.
Reid did the proper thing. Outnumbered and outgunned ten to one, he nailed his colors to the mast, buried his dead, sent his wounded ashore, threw all of his guns and all his powder overboard, and then scuttled the schooner so that she sank to the bottom — which was not far. After that, taking his time, he saw to it that every one of his men got safely ashore, himself the last of all.
Soon afterward the British boarded General Armstrong unopposed, and they burned her.
However, even ashore, in Portuguese territory, the Americans were not safe. The British landed not only burying parties but also press gangs, claiming that two of the Americans were deserters from the British Navy.
Reid led his men back into the hills, where they commandeered a monastery and placed it into a posture of defense. The British came, took a look, and decided not to attack.
However, caring for their wounded — a couple of sloops of war, Thais and Calypso, came along just then and were used as hospital ships — repairing their boats, and burying their dead took up so much of the Britishers' time it was October 4, more than a week later, before they continued their voyage toward Jamaica.
That week held up General Pakenham's plans for the p9 attack on New Orleans. And it may have made all the difference in that crucial campaign, for Andrew Jackson was desperately pressed for time.
General Armstrong had not died in vain.
a1 a2 See the photographs of a 24‑pound long gun and a carronade on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Clark, A Short History of the United States Navy, p42. That same chapter has a few paragraphs on their use and maintenance (pp47 ff.).
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