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The General Armstrong Privateer
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The General Armstrong Privateer

We have fought such a fight for a day and a night
As may never be fought again!
We have won great glory, my men!
And a day less or more
At sea or ashore,
We die--does it matter when?

In the revolution, and again in the war of 1812, the seas were covered
by swift-sailing American privateers, which preyed on the British
trade. The hardy seamen of the New England coast, and of New York,
Philadelphia, and Baltimore, turned readily from their adventurous
careers in the whalers that followed the giants of the ocean in every
sea and every clime, and from trading voyages to the uttermost parts
of the earth, to go into the business of privateering, which was more
remunerative, and not so very much more dangerous, than their ordinary
pursuits. By the end of the war of 1812, in particular, the American
privateers had won for themselves a formidable position on the ocean.
The schooners, brigs, and brigantines in which the privateersmen sailed
were beautifully modeled, and were among the fastest craft afloat. They
were usually armed with one heavy gun, the "long Tom," as it was called,
arranged on a pivot forward or amidships, and with a few lighter pieces
of cannon. They carried strong crews of well-armed men, and their
commanders were veteran seamen, used to brave every danger from the
elements or from man. So boldly did they prey on the British commerce,
that they infested even the Irish Sea and the British Channel, and
increased many times the rate of insurance on vessels passing across
those waters. They also often did battle with the regular men-of-war of
the British, being favorite objects for attack by cutting-out parties
from the British frigates and ships of the line, and also frequently
encountering in fight the smaller sloops-of-war. Usually, in these
contests, the privateersmen were worsted, for they had not the training
which is obtained only in a regular service, and they were in no way to
be compared to the little fleet of regular vessels which in this same
war so gloriously upheld the honor of the American flag. Nevertheless,
here and there a privateer commanded by an exceptionally brave and able
captain, and manned by an unusually well-trained crew, performed some
feat of arms which deserves to rank with anything ever performed by the
regular navy. Such a feat was the defense of the brig General Armstrong,
in the Portuguese port of Fayal, of the Azores, against an overwhelming
British force.

The General Armstrong hailed from New York, and her captain was named
Reid. She had a crew of ninety men, and was armed with one heavy 32
pounder and six lighter guns. In December, 1814, she was lying in Fayal,
a neutral port, when four British war-vessels, a ship of the line, a
frigate and two brigs, hove into sight, and anchored off the mouth of
the harbor. The port was neutral, but Portugal was friendly to England,
and Reid knew well that the British would pay no respect to the
neutrality laws if they thought that at the cost of their violation they
could destroy the privateer. He immediately made every preparation to
resist an attack, The privateer was anchored close to the shore. The
boarding-nettings were got ready, and were stretched to booms thrust
outward from the brig's side, so as to check the boarders as they tried
to climb over the bulwarks. The guns were loaded and cast loose, and the
men went to quarters armed with muskets, boarding-pikes, and cutlases.

On their side the British made ready to carry the privateer by boarding.
The shoals rendered it impossible for the heavy ships to approach,
and the lack of wind and the baffling currents also interfered for the
moment with the movements of the sloops-of-war. Accordingly recourse was
had to a cutting-out party, always a favorite device with the British
seamen of that age, who were accustomed to carry French frigates by
boarding, and to capture in their boats the heavy privateers and armed
merchantmen, as well as the lighter war-vessels of France and Spain.

The British first attempted to get possession of the brig by surprise,
sending out but four boats. These worked down near to the brig, under
pretense of sounding, trying to get close enough to make a rush and
board her. The privateersmen were on their guard, and warned the boats
off, and after the warning had been repeated once or twice unheeded,
they fired into them, killing and wounding several men. Upon this the
boats promptly returned to the ships.

This first check greatly irritated the British captains, and they
decided to repeat the experiment that night with a force which would
render resistance vain. Accordingly, after it became dark, a dozen
boats were sent from the liner and the frigate, manned by four hundred
stalwart British seamen, and commanded by the captain of one of the
brigs of war. Through the night they rowed straight toward the little
privateer lying dark and motionless in the gloom. As before, the
privateersmen were ready for their foe, and when they came within range
opened fire upon them, first with the long gun and then with the lighter
cannon; but the British rowed on with steady strokes, for they were
seamen accustomed to victory over every European foe, and danger had no
terrors for them. With fierce hurrahs they dashed through the shot-riven
smoke and grappled the brig; and the boarders rose, cutlas in hand,
ready to spring over the bulwarks. A terrible struggle followed. The
British hacked at the boarding-nets and strove to force their way
through to the decks of the privateer, while the Americans stabbed
the assailants with their long pikes and slashed at them with their
cutlases. The darkness was lit by the flashes of flame from the muskets
and the cannon, and the air was rent by the oaths and shouts of the
combatants, the heavy trampling on the decks, the groans of the wounded,
the din of weapon meeting weapon, and all the savage tumult of
a hand-to-hand fight. At the bow the British burst through the
boarding-netting, and forced their way to the deck, killing or wounding
all three of the lieutenants of the privateer; but when this had
happened the boats had elsewhere been beaten back, and Reid, rallying
his grim sea-dogs, led them forward with a rush, and the boarding party
were all killed or tumbled into the sea. This put an end to the fight.
In some of the boats none but killed and wounded men were left. The
others drew slowly off, like crippled wild-fowl, and disappeared in the
darkness toward the British squadron. Half of the attacking force had

been killed or wounded, while of the Americans but nine had fallen.

The British commodore and all his officers were maddened with anger and
shame over the repulse, and were bent upon destroying the privateer
at all costs. Next day, after much exertion, one of the war-brigs was
warped into position to attack the American, but she first took her
station at long range, so that her carronades were not as effective as
the pivot gun of the privateer; and so well was the latter handled, that
the British brig was repeatedly hulled, and finally was actually driven
off. A second attempt was made, however, and this time the sloop-of-war
got so close that she could use her heavy carronades, which put the
privateer completely at her mercy. Then Captain Reid abandoned his brig
and sank her, first carrying ashore the guns, and marched inland with
his men. They were not further molested; and, if they had lost their
brig, they had at least made their foes pay dear for her destruction,
for the British had lost twice as many men as there were in the whole
hard-fighting crew of the American privateer.

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