Constitution vs. Guerrière

from The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt.

On Aug. 2d the Constitution made sail from Boston1 and stood to the eastward, in hopes of falling in with some of the British cruisers. She was unsuccessful, however, and met nothing. Then she ran down to the Bay of Fundy, steered along the coast of Nova Scotia, and thence toward Newfoundland, and finally took her station off Cape Race in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where she took and burned two brigs of little value. On the 15th she recaptured an American brig from the British ship-sloop Avenger, though the latter escaped; Capt. Hull manned his prize and sent her in.

  1. Letter of Capt. Isaac Hull, Aug. 28, 1812.

He then sailed southward, and on the night of the 18th spoke a Salem privateer which gave him news of a British frigate to the south; thither he stood, and at 2 P.M. on the 19th, in lat. 41° 30' N. and 55° W, made out a large sail bearing E. S. E. and to leeward,1 which proved to be his old acquaintance, the frigate Guerrière, Captain Dacres. It was a cloudy day and the wind was blowing fresh from the northwest. The Guerrière was standing by the wind on the starboard tack, under easy canvas;2 she hauled up her courses, took in her top-gallant sails, and at 4.30 backed her main-top sail. Hull then very deliberately began to shorten sail, taking in top-gallant sails, stay-sails, and flying jib, sending down the royal yards and putting another reef in the top-sails. Soon the Englishman hoisted three ensigns, when the American also set his colors, one at each mast-head, and one at the mizzen peak.

The Constitution now ran down with the wind nearly aft. The Guerrière was on the starboard tack, and at five o'clock opened with her weather-guns,3 the shot falling short, then wore round and fired her port broadside, of which two shot struck her opponent, the rest passing over and through her rigging.4 As the British frigate again wore to open with her starboard battery, the Constitution yawed a little and fired two or three of her port bow-guns. Three or four times the Guerrière repeated this manoeuvre, wearing and firing alternate broadsides, but with little or no effect, while the Constitution yawed as often to avoid being raked, and occasionally fired one of her bow guns. This continued neatly an hour as the vessels were very far apart when the action began, hardly any loss or damage being inflicted by either party.

  1. Letter of Capt. Isaac Hull, Aug. 30, 1812.
  2. Letter of Capt. James R. Dacres, Sept. 7, 1812.
  3. Log of Guerrière.
  4. See in the Naval Archives (Bureau of Navigation) the Constitution's Log-Book (vol. ii, from Feb. 1, 1812, to Dec. 13, 1813). The point is of some little importance because Hull, in his letter, speaks as if both the first broadsides fell short, whereas the log distinctly says that the second went over the ship, except two shot, which came home. The hypothesis of the Guerrière having damaged powder was founded purely on this supposed failing short of the first two broadsides.

At 6.00 the Guerrière bore up and ran off under her top-sails and jib, with the wind almost astern, a little on her port quarter; when the Constitution set her main-top gallant sail and foresail, and at 6.05 closed within half pistol-shot distance on her adversary's port beam.1 Immediately a furious cannonade opened, each ship firing as the guns bore. By the time the ships were fairly abreast, at 6.20, the Constitution shot away the Guerrière's mizzen-mast, which fell over the starboard quarter, knocking a large hole in the counter, and bringing the ship round against her helm. Hitherto she had suffered very greatly and the Constitution hardly at all. The latter, finding that she was ranging ahead, put her helm aport and then luffed short round her enemy's bows,2 delivering a heavy raking fire with the starboard guns and shooting away the Guerrière's main-yard. Then she wore and again passed her adversary's bows, raking with her port guns. The mizzen-mast of the Guerrière, dragging in the water, had by this time pulled her bow round till the wind came on her starboard quarter; and so near were the two ships that the Englishman's bowsprit passed diagonally over the Constitution's quarter-deck, and as the latter ship fell off it got foul of her mizzen-rigging, and the vessels then lay with the Guerrière's starboard bow against the Constitution's port, or lee quarter-gallery.3 The Englishman's bow guns played havoc with Captain Hull's cabin, setting fire to it; but the flames were soon extinguished by Lieutenant Hoffmann. On both sides the boarders were called away; the British ran forward, but Captain Dacres relinquished the idea of attacking4 when he saw the crowds of men on the American's decks. Meanwhile, on the Constitution, the boarders and marines gathered aft, but such a heavy sea was running that they could not get on the Guerrière. Both sides suffered heavily from the closeness of the musketry fire; indeed, almost the entire loss on the Constitution occurred at this juncture.

  1. "Autobiography of Commodore Morris" (Annapolis, 1880), p. 164.
  2. Log of Constitution.
  3. Cooper, in "Putnam's Magazine," i. 475.
  4. Address of Captain Dacres to the court-martial at Halifax.

As Lieutenant Bush, of the marines, sprang upon the taffrail to leap on the enemy's decks, a British marine shot him dead; Mr. Morris, the first Lieutenant, and Mr. Alwyn, the master, had also both leaped on the taffrail, and both were at the same moment wounded by the musketry fire. On the Guerrière the loss was far heavier, almost all the men on the forecastle being picked off. Captain Dacres himself was shot in the back and severely wounded by one of the American mizzen topmen, while he was standing on the starboard forecastle hammocks cheering on his crew;1 two of the lieutenants and the master were also shot down. The ships gradually worked round till the wind was again on the port quarter, when they separated, and the Guerrière's foremast and main-mast at once went by the board, and fell over on the starboard side, leaving her a defenseless hulk, rolling her main-deck guns into the water.2 At 6.30 the Constitution hauled aboard her tacks, ran off a little distance to the eastward, and lay to. Her braces and standing and running rigging were much cut up and some of the spars wounded, but a few minutes sufficed to repair damages, when Captain Hull stood under his adversary's lee, and the latter at once struck, at 7.00 P.M.,3 just two hours after she had fired the first shot. On the part of the Constitution, however, the actual fighting, exclusive of six or eight guns fired during the first hour, while closing, occupied less than 30 minutes.

The tonnage and metal of the combatants have already been referred to. The Constitution had, as already said, about 456 men aboard, while of the Guerrière's crew, 267 prisoners were received aboard the Constitution; deducting 10 who were Americans and would not fight, and adding the 15 killed outright, we get 272; 28 men were absent in prizes.

Tons. Guns. Broad-
Men. Loss. Comparative

  1. James, vi, 144.
  2. Brenton, v, 51.
  3. Log of the Constitution.

The loss of the Constitution included Lieutenant William S. Bush, of the marines, and six seamen killed, and her first lieutenant, Charles Morris, Master, John C. Alwyn, four seamen, and one marine, wounded. Total, seven killed and seven wounded. Almost all this loss occurred when the ships came foul, and was due to the Guerrière's musketry and the two guns in her bridle-ports.

The Guerrière lost 23 killed and mortally wounded, including her second lieutenant, Henry Ready, and 56 wounded severely and slightly, including Captain Dacres himself, the first lieutenant, Bartholomew Kent, Master, Robert Scott, two master's mates, and one midshipman.

The third lieutenant of the Constitution, Mr. George Campbell Read, was sent on board the prize, and the Constitution remained by her during the night; but at daylight it was found that she was in danger of sinking. Captain Hull at once began removing the prisoners, and at three o'clock in the afternoon set the Guerrière on fire, and in a quarter of an hour she blew up. He then set sail for Boston, where he arrived on August 30th. "Captain Hull and his officers," writes Captain Dacres in his official letter, "have treated us like brave and generous enemies; the greatest care has been taken that we should not lose the smallest trifle."