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?

--Tennyson.





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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