The Cruise Of The Wasp

A crash as when some swollen cloud

Cracks o'er the tangled trees!

With side to side, and spar to spar,

Whose smoking decks are these?

I know St. George's blood-red cross,

Thou mistress of the seas,

But what is she whose streaming bars

Roll out before the breeze?

Ah, well her iron ribs are knit,

Whose thunders strive to quell

The bellowing throats, the blazing lips,

That pealed the Armada's knell!

The mist was cleared,--a wreath of stars

Rose o'er the crimsoned swell,

And, wavering from its haughty peak,

The cross of England fell!


In the war of 1812 the little American navy, including only a dozen

frigates and sloops of war, won a series of victories against the

English, the hitherto undoubted masters of the sea, that attracted an

attention altogether out of proportion to the force of the combatants

or the actual damage done. For one hundred and fifty years the English

ships of war had failed to find fit rivals in those of any other

European power, although they had been matched against each in turn; and

when the unknown navy of the new nation growing up across the Atlantic

did what no European navy had ever been able to do, not only the English

and Americans, but the people of Continental Europe as well, regarded

the feat as important out of all proportion to the material aspects of

the case. The Americans first proved that the English could be beaten

at their own game on the sea. They did what the huge fleets of France,

Spain, and Holland had failed to do, and the great modern writers

on naval warfare in Continental Europe--men like Jurien de la

Graviere--have paid the same attention to these contests of frigates and

sloops that they give to whole fleet actions of other wars.

Among the famous ships of the Americans in this war were two named the

Wasp. The first was an eighteen-gun ship-sloop, which at the very

outset of the war captured a British brig-sloop of twenty guns, after

an engagement in which the British fought with great gallantry, but were

knocked to Pieces, while the Americans escaped comparatively unscathed.

Immediately afterward a British seventy-four captured the victor. In

memory of her the Americans gave the same name to one of the new sloops

they were building. These sloops were stoutly made, speedy vessels which

in strength and swiftness compared favorably with any ships of their

class in any other navy of the day, for the American shipwrights were

already as famous as the American gunners and seamen. The new Wasp, like

her sister ships, carried twenty-two guns and a crew of one hundred

and seventy men, and was ship-rigged. Twenty of her guns were 32-pound

carronades, while for bow-chasers she had two "long Toms." It was in

the year 1814 that the Wasp sailed from the United States to prey on the

navy and commerce of Great Britain. Her commander was a gallant South

Carolinian named Captain Johnson Blakeley. Her crew were nearly all

native Americans, and were an exceptionally fine set of men. Instead of

staying near the American coasts or of sailing the high seas, the Wasp

at once headed boldly for the English Channel, to carry the war to the

very doors of the enemy.

At that time the English fleets had destroyed the navies of every other

power of Europe, and had obtained such complete supremacy over the

French that the French fleets were kept in port. Off these ports lay the

great squadrons of the English ships of the line, never, in gale or

in calm, relaxing their watch upon the rival war-ships of the French

emperor. So close was the blockade of the French ports, and so hopeless

were the French of making headway in battle with their antagonists,

that not only the great French three-deckers and two-deckers, but their

frigates and sloops as well, lay harmless in their harbors, and the

English ships patroled the seas unchecked in every direction. A few

French privateers still slipped out now and then, and the far bolder and

more formidable American privateersmen drove hither and thither across

the ocean in their swift schooners and brigantines, and harried the

English commerce without mercy.

The Wasp proceeded at once to cruise in the English Channel and off

the coasts of England, France, and Spain. Here the water was traversed

continually by English fleets and squadrons and single ships of war,

which were sometimes covoying detachments of troops for Wellington's

Peninsular army, sometimes guarding fleets of merchant vessels bound

homeward, and sometimes merely cruising for foes. It was this spot,

right in the teeth of the British naval power, that the Wasp chose for

her cruising ground. Hither and thither she sailed through the narrow

seas, capturing and destroying the merchantmen, and by the seamanship

of her crew and the skill and vigilance of her commander, escaping the

pursuit of frigate and ship of the line. Before she had been long on the

ground, one June morning, while in chase of a couple of merchant ships,

she spied a sloop of war, the British brig Reindeer, of eighteen guns

and a hundred and twenty men. The Reindeer was a weaker ship than the

Wasp, her guns were lighter, and her men fewer; but her commander,

Captain Manners, was one of the most gallant men in the splendid British

navy, and he promptly took up the gage of battle which the Wasp threw


The day was calm and nearly still; only a light wind stirred across the

sea. At one o'clock the Wasp's drum beat to quarters, and the sailors

and marines gathered at their appointed posts. The drum of the Reindeer

responded to the challenge, and with her sails reduced to fighting trim,

her guns run out, and every man ready, she came down upon the Yankee

ship. On her forecastle she had rigged a light carronade, and coming up

from behind, she five times discharged this pointblank into the American

sloop; then in the light air the latter luffed round, firing her guns

as they bore, and the two ships engaged yard-arm to yard-arm. The guns

leaped and thundered as the grimy gunners hurled them out to fire and

back again to load, working like demons. For a few minutes the cannonade

was tremendous, and the men in the tops could hardly see the decks for

the wreck of flying splinters. Then the vessels ground together, and

through the open ports the rival gunners hewed, hacked, and thrust at

one another, while the black smoke curled up from between the hulls. The

English were suffering terribly. Captain Manners himself was wounded,

and realizing that he was doomed to defeat unless by some desperate

effort he could avert it, he gave the signal to board. At the call the

boarders gathered, naked to the waist, black with powder and spattered

with blood, cutlas and pistol in hand. But the Americans were ready.

Their marines were drawn up on deck, the pikemen stood behind the

bulwarks, and the officers watched, cool and alert, every movement of

the foe. Then the British sea-dogs tumbled aboard, only to perish by

shot or steel. The combatants slashed and stabbed with savage fury, and

the assailants were driven back. Manners sprang to their head to lead

them again himself, when a ball fired by one of the sailors in the

American tops crashed through his skull, and he fell, sword in hand,

with his face to the foe, dying as honorable a death as ever a brave man

died in fighting against odds for the flag of his country. As he fell

the American officers passed the word to board. With wild cheers the

fighting sailormen sprang forward, sweeping the wreck of the British

force before them, and in a minute the Reindeer was in their possession.

All of her officers, and nearly two thirds of the crew, were killed or

wounded; but they had proved themselves as skilful as they were brave,

and twenty-six of the Americans had been killed or wounded.

The Wasp set fire to her prize, and after retiring to a French port to

refit, came out again to cruise. For some time she met no antagonist

of her own size with which to wage war, and she had to exercise the

sharpest vigilance to escape capture. Late one September afternoon, when

she could see ships of war all around her, she selected one which was

isolated from the others, and decided to run alongside her and try to

sink her after nightfall. Accordingly she set her sails in pursuit, and

drew steadily toward her antagonist, a big eighteen-gun brig, the Avon,

a ship more powerful than the Reindeer. The Avon kept signaling to two

other British war vessels which were in sight--one an eighteen-gun brig

and the other a twenty-gun ship; they were so close that the Wasp

was afraid they would interfere before the combat could be ended.

Nevertheless, Blakeley persevered, and made his attack with equal skill

and daring. It was after dark when he ran alongside his opponent,

and they began forthwith to exchange furious broadsides. As the ships

plunged and wallowed in the seas, the Americans could see the clusters

of topmen in the rigging of their opponent, but they knew nothing of

the vessel's name or of her force, save only so far as they felt it. The

firing was fast and furious, but the British shot with bad aim, while

the skilled American gunners hulled their opponent at almost every

discharge. In a very few minutes the Avon was in a sinking condition,

and she struck her flag and cried for quarter, having lost forty or

fifty men, while but three of the Americans had fallen. Before the Wasp

could take possession of her opponent, however, the two war vessels

to which the Avon had been signaling came up. One of them fired at the

Wasp, and as the latter could not fight two new foes, she ran off easily

before the wind. Neither of her new antagonists followed her, devoting

themselves to picking up the crew of the sinking Avon.

It would be hard to find a braver feat more skilfully performed

than this; for Captain Blakeley, with hostile foes all round him, had

closed with and sunk one antagonist not greatly his inferior in force,

suffering hardly any loss himself, while two of her friends were coming

to her help.

Both before and after this the Wasp cruised hither and thither making

prizes. Once she came across a convoy of ships bearing arms and

munitions to Wellington's army, under the care of a great two-decker.

Hovering about, the swift sloop evaded the two-decker's movements, and

actually cut out and captured one of the transports she was guarding,

making her escape unharmed. Then she sailed for the high seas. She made

several other prizes, and on October 9 spoke a Swedish brig.

This was the last that was ever heard of the gallant Wasp. She never

again appeared, and no trace of any of those aboard her was ever found.

Whether she was wrecked on some desert coast, whether she foundered

in some furious gale, or what befell her none ever knew. All that is

certain is that she perished, and that all on board her met death in

some one of the myriad forms in which it must always be faced by those

who go down to the sea in ships; and when she sank there sank one of the

most gallant ships of the American navy, with as brave a captain and

crew as ever sailed from any port of the New World.

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