The Gallant Old Ironsides And How She Captured The Guerriere


WHEN did our country win its greatest fame upon the sea? I think, when

you have read the story of the War of 1812, you will say it was in that

war. It is true, we did not do very well on land in that war, but the

glory we lost on the shore we made up on the sea.

You should know that in 1812 England was the greatest sea-power in the

world. Fo
years she had been fighting with Napoleon, and every fleet he

set afloat was badly whipped by British ships. Is it any wonder that the

people of that little island were proud of their fleets? Is it any

wonder they proudly sang--

"Britannia needs no bulwarks,

No towers along the steep;

Her march is o'er the mountain waves,

Her home is on the deep."

They grew so vain of their lordship of the sea that they needed a

lesson, and they were to get one from the Yankee tars. As soon as war

began between England and the United States in 1812, a flock of British

war-hawks came flying bravely across the seas, thinking they would soon

gobble up the Yankee sparrows. But long before the war was over, they

quit singing their proud song of "Britannia rules the waves," and found

that what they thought was a Yankee sparrow was the American eagle.

There were too many great things done on the ocean in this war for me to

name them all, so I will have to tell only the most famous. And first of

all I must give you the story of the noble old Constitution, or, as

she came to be called, Old Ironsides.

The Constitution was a noble ship of the old kind. That royal old

craft is still afloat, after more than a hundred years of service, and

after all her companions have long since sunk in the waves or rotted

away. She was built to fight the French in 1798. She was Commodore

Preble's flagship in the war with the Moorish pirates. And she won

undying fame in the War of 1812. So the story of the Constitution

comes first in our list of the naval conquerors of that war.

I fancy, if any of you had been living at that time, you would have

wanted to fight the British as badly as the Americans then did. For the

British had for years been taking sailors from American ships and making

them serve in their own men-of-war. Then, too, they had often insulted

our officers upon the seas, and acted in a very insolent and overbearing

way whenever they had the opportunity. This made the Americans very

angry and was the main cause of the war.

I must tell you some things that took place before the war. In 1811 a

British frigate named the Guerriere was busy at this kind of work,

sailing up and down our coast and carrying off American sailors on

pretence that they were British. Just remember the name of the

"Guerriere." You will soon learn how the Constitution paid her for

this shabby work.

I have also a story to tell about the Constitution in 1811. She had to

cross the Atlantic in that year, and stopped on some business in the

harbor of Portsmouth, an English seaport.

One night a British officer came on board and said there was an American

deserter on his ship, the Havana, and that the Americans could have

him if they sent for him.

Captain Hull, of the Constitution, was then in London, so Lieutenant

Morris, who had charge of the ship, sent for the man; but when his

messenger came, he was told that the man said he was a British subject,

and therefore he should not be given up. They were very sorry, and all

that, but they had to take the man's word for it. Morris thought this

very shabby treatment but he soon had his revenge. For that very night a

British sailor came on board the Constitution, who said he was a

deserter from the Havana.

"Of what nation are you?" he was asked.

"I'm an American, sor," said the man, with a strong Irish accent.

Lieutenant Morris sent word to the Havana that a deserter from his

ship was on the Constitution. But when an officer from the Havana

came to get the deserter, Morris politely told him that the man said he

was an American, and therefore he could not give him up. He was very

sorry, he said, but really the man ought to know to what country he

belonged. You may be interested to learn that Lieutenant Morris was the

man who had been first to board the Philadelphia in the harbor of


This was paying John Bull in his own coin. The officers in the harbor

were very angry when they received this answer. Next, they tried to play

a trick on the Americans. Two of their warships came up and anchored in

the way of the Constitution. But Lieutenant Morris got up anchor and

slipped away to a new berth. Then the two frigates sailed up and

anchored in his way again. That was the way matters stood when Captain

Hull came on board in the evening.

When the captain was told what had taken place, he saw that the British

were trying to make trouble about the Irish deserter. But he was not the

man to be caught by any trick. He loaded his guns and cleared the ship

for action. Then he pulled up his anchor, slipped round the British

frigates, and put to sea.

He had not gone far before the two frigates started after him. They came

on under full sail, but one of them was slow and fell far behind, so

that the other came up alone.

"If that fellow wants to fight he can have his chance," said Captain

Hull, and he bade his men to make ready.

Up came the Englishman, but when he saw the ports open, the guns ready

to bark at him across the waves, and everything in shape for a good

fight, he had a sudden change of mind. Round he turned like a scared

dog, and ran back as fast as he had come. That was a clear case of tit

for tat, and tat had it. No doubt, the Englishman knew that he was in

the wrong, for English seamen are not afraid to fight.

Home from Plymouth came the Constitution and got herself put in shape

for the war that was soon to come. It had not long begun before she was

off to sea; and now she had a remarkable adventure with the Guerriere

and some other British ships. In fact, she made a wonderful escape from

a whole squadron of war vessels. She left the Chesapeake on July 12,

1812, and for five days sailed up the coast. The winds were light and

progress was very slow. Then, on the 17th, the lookout aloft saw four

warships sailing along close in to the Jersey coast.

Two hours afterward another was seen. This proved to be the frigate

Guerriere, and it was soon found that the others were British ships

also. One of them was a great ship-of-the-line. It would have been

madness to think of fighting such a force as this, more than six times

as strong as the Constitution, and there was nothing to do but to run


Then began the most famous race in American naval history. There was

hardly a breath of wind, the sails hung flapping to the masts; so

Captain Hull got out his boats and sent them ahead with a line to tow

the ship. When the British saw this they did the same, and by putting

all their boats to two ships they got ahead faster.

I cannot tell the whole story of this race, but it lasted for nearly

three days, from Friday afternoon till Monday morning. Now there was a

light breeze and now a dead calm. Now they pulled the ships by boats and

now by kedging. That is, an anchor was carried out a long way ahead and

let sink, and then the men pulled on the line until the ship was brought

up over it. Then the anchor would be drawn up and carried and dropped

ahead again.

For two long days and nights the chase kept up, during which the

Constitution was kept, by weary labor, just out of gunshot ahead. At

four o'clock Sunday morning the British ships had got on both sides of

the Constitution, and it looked as if she was in a tight corner. But

Captain Hull now turned and steered out to sea, across the bows of the

Eolus, and soon had them astern again.

The same old game went on until four o'clock in the afternoon, when they

saw signs of a coming squall. Captain Hull knew how to deal with an

American squall, but the Englishmen did not. He kept his men towing

until he saw the sea ruffled by the wind about a mile away. Then he

called the boats in and in a moment let fall all his sails.

Looking at the British, he saw them hard at work furling their sails.

They had let all their boats go adrift. But Captain Hull had not furled

a sail, and the minute a vapor hid his ship from the enemy all his sails

were spread to the winds and away went the Yankee ship in rapid flight.

He had taught his foes a lesson in American seamanship.

When the squall cleared away the British ships were far astern. But the

wind fell again and all that night the chase kept up. Captain Hull threw

water on his sails and made every rag of canvas draw. When daylight came

only the top sails of the enemy could be seen. At eight o'clock they

gave up the chase and turned on their heels. Thus ended that wonderful

three days chase, one of the most remarkable in naval history.

And now we come to the greatest story in the history of the "Old

Ironsides." In less than a month after the Guerriere had helped to

chase her off the Jersey coast, she gave that proud ship a lesson which

the British nation did not soon forget. Here is the story of that famous

fight, by which Captain Hull won high fame:

In the early morning of August 19, while the old ship was bowling along

easily off the New England coast, a cheery cry of "Sail-ho!" came from

the lookout at the mast-head.

Soon a large vessel was seen from the deck. On went the Yankee ship with

flying flag and bellying sails. The strange ship waited as if ready for

a fight. When the Constitution drew near, the stranger hoisted the

British flag and began to fire her great guns.

It was the Guerriere. When he saw the Stars and Stripes, Captain

Dacres said to his men:

"That is a Yankee frigate. She will be ours in forty-five minutes. If

you take her in fifteen, I promise you four months pay."

It is never best to be too sure, as Captain Dacres was to find.

The Guerriere kept on firing at a distance, but Captain Hull continued

to take in sail and get his ship in fighting trim, without firing a gun.

After a time Lieutenant Morris came up and said to him:

"The British have killed two of our men. Shall we return their fire?"

"Not yet," said Captain Hull. "Wait a while."

He waited until the ships were almost touching, and then he roared out:

"Now, boys; pour it into them!"

Then came a roaring broadside that went splintering through the British

hull, doing more damage than all the Guerriere's fire.

Now the battle was on in earnest. The two ships lay side by side, and

for fifteen minutes the roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry

filled the air, while cannon balls tore their way through solid timber

and human flesh.

Down came the mizzen-mast of the Guerriere, cut through by a big iron


"Hurrah, boys!" cried Hull, swinging his hat like a schoolboy; "we've

made a brig of her."

The mast dragged by its ropes and brought the ship round, so that the

next broadside from the Constitution raked her from stem to stern.

The bowsprit of the Guerriere caught fast in the rigging of the

Constitution, and the sailors on both ships tried to board. But soon

the winds pulled the Constitution clear, and as she forged ahead, down

with a crash came the other masts of the British ship. They had been cut

into splinters by the Yankee guns. A few minutes before she had been a

stately three-masted frigate; now she was a helpless hulk. Not half an

hour had passed since the Constitution fired her first shot, and

already the Guerriere was a wreck, while the Yankee ship rode the

waters as proudly as ever.

Off in triumph went the "Old Ironsides," and hasty repairs to her

rigging were made. Then she came up with loaded guns. The Guerriere

lay rolling like a log in the water, without a flag in sight. Not only

her masts were gone, but her hull was like a sieve. It had more than

thirty cannon-ball holes below the water-line.

There was no need to fire again. Lieutenant Read went off in a boat.

"Have you surrendered?" he asked Captain Dacres, who was looking, with a

very long face, over the rail.

"It would not be prudent to continue the engagement any longer," said

Dacres, in gloomy tones.

"Do you mean that you have struck your flag?"

"Not precisely. But I do not know that it will be worth while to fight

any more."

"If you cannot make up your mind I will go back and we will do something

to help you."

"I don't see that I can keep up the fight," said the dejected British

captain. "I have hardly any men left and my ship is ready to sink."

"What I want to know is," cried Lieutenant Read, "whether you are a

prisoner of war or an enemy. And I must know without further parley."

"If I could fight longer I would," said Captain Dacres. Then with

faltering words he continued, "but-I-must-surrender."

"Then accept from me Captain Hull's compliments. He wishes to know if

you need the aid of a surgeon or surgeon's mate."

"Have you not business enough on your own ship for all your doctors?"

asked Dacres.

"Oh, no!" said Read. "We have only seven men wounded, and their wounds

are all dressed."

Captain Dacres was obliged to enter Read's boat and be rowed to the

Constitution. He had been wounded, and could not climb very well, so

Captain Hull helped him to the deck.

"Give me your hand, Dacres," he said, "I know you are hurt."

Captain Dacres offered his sword, but the American captain would not

take it.

"No, no," he said, "I will not take a sword from one who knows so well

how to use it. But I'll trouble you for that hat."

What did he mean by that, you ask? Well, the two captains had met some

time before the war, and Dacres had offered to bet a hat that the

Guerriere would whip the Constitution. Hull accepted the bet, and he

had won.

All day and night the boats were kept busy in carrying the prisoners,

well and hurt, to the Constitution. When daylight came again it was

reported that the Guerriere was filling with water and ready to sink.

She could not be saved, so she was set on fire. Rapidly the flames

spread until they reached her magazine. Then came a fearful explosion,

and a black cloud of smoke hung over the place where the ship had

floated. When it moved away only some floating planks were to be seen.

The proud Guerriere would never trouble Yankee sailors again.