The Gallant Old Ironsides And How She Captured The Guerriere
A FAMOUS INCIDENT OF THE WAR OF 1812
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
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
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
"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?"
"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
"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
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.