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See also: Henry Adams Collection

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Battle between the Constitution and the Guerrière
By Henry Adams (1838–1918)
From the ‘History of the United States,’ Vol. vi., Chap. 17.

AS Broke’s squadron swept along the coast it seized whatever it met, and on July 16th caught one of President Jefferson’s sixteen-gun brigs, the Nautilus. The next day it came on a richer prize. The American navy seemed ready to outstrip the army in the race for disaster. The Constitution, the best frigate in the United States service, sailed into the midst of Broke’s five ships. Captain Isaac Hull, in command of the Constitution, had been detained at Annapolis shipping a new crew until July 5th, the day when Broke’s squadron left Halifax; then the ship got under way and stood down Chesapeake Bay on her voyage to New York. The wind was ahead and very light. Not until July 10th did the ship anchor off Cape Henry lighthouse, and not till sunrise of July 12th did she stand to the eastward and northward. Light head winds and a strong current delayed her progress till July 17th, when at two o’clock in the afternoon, off Barnegat on the New Jersey coast, the lookout at the masthead discovered four sails to the northward, and two hours later a fifth sail to the northeast. Hull took them for Rodgers’s squadron. The wind was light, and Hull being to windward determined to speak the nearest vessel, the last to come in sight. The afternoon passed without bringing the ships together, and at ten o’clock in the evening, finding that the nearest ship could not answer the night signal, Hull decided to lose no time in escaping.  1
  Then followed one of the most exciting and sustained chases recorded in naval history. At daybreak the next morning one British frigate was astern within five or six miles, two more were to leeward, and the rest of the fleet some ten miles astern, all making chase. Hull put out his boats to tow the Constitution; Broke summoned the boats of the squadron to tow the Shannon. Hull then bent all his spare rope to the cables, dropped a small anchor half a mile ahead, in twenty-six fathoms of water, and warped his ship along. Broke quickly imitated the device, and slowly gained on the chase. The Guerrière crept so near Hull’s lee beam as to open fire, but her shot fell short. Fortunately the wind, though slight, favored Hull. All night the British and American crews toiled on, and when morning came the Belvidera, proving to be the best sailer, got in advance of her consorts, working two kedge anchors, until at two o’clock in the afternoon she tried in her turn to reach the Constitution with her bow guns, but in vain. Hull expected capture, but the Belvidera could not approach nearer without bringing her boats under the Constitution’s stern guns; and the wearied crews toiled on, towing and kedging, the ships barely out of gunshot, till another morning came. The breeze, though still light, then allowed Hull to take in his boats, the Belvidera being two and a half miles in his wake, the Shannon three and a half miles on his lee, and the three other frigates well to leeward. The wind freshened, and the Constitution drew ahead, until, toward seven o’clock in the evening of July 19th, a heavy rain squall struck the ship, and by taking skillful advantage of it Hull left the Belvidera and Shannon far astern; yet until eight o’clock the next morning they were still in sight, keeping up the chase.  2
  Perhaps nothing during the war tested American seamanship more thoroughly than these three days of combined skill and endurance in the face of the irresistible enemy. The result showed that Hull and the Constitution had nothing to fear in these respects. There remained the question whether the superiority extended to his guns; and such was the contempt of the British naval officers for American ships, that with this expedience before their eyes they still believed one of their thirty-eight-gun frigates to be more than a match for an American forty-four, although the American, besides the heavier armament, had proved his capacity to outsail and out-manœuvre the Englishman. Both parties became more eager than ever for the test. For once, even the Federalists of New England felt their blood stir; for their own President and their own votes had called these frigates into existence, and a victory won by the Constitution, which had been built by their hands, was in their eyes a greater victory over their political opponents than over the British. With no half-hearted spirit the seagoing Bostonians showered well-weighed praises on Hull when his ship entered Boston Harbor, July 26th, after its narrow escape, and when he sailed again New England waited with keen interest to learn his fate.  3
  Hull could not expect to keep command of the Constitution. Bainbridge was much his senior, and had the right to a preference in active service. Bainbridge then held and was ordered to retain command of the Constellation, fitting out at the Washington Navy Yard; but Secretary Hamilton, July 28th, ordered him to take command also of the Constitution on her arrival in port. Doubtless Hull expected this change, and probably the expectation induced him to risk a dangerous experiment; for without bringing his ship to the Charlestown Navy Yard, but remaining in the outer harbor, after obtaining such supplies as he needed, August 2d, he set sail without orders, and stood to the eastward. Having reached Cape Race without meeting an enemy, he turned southward, until on the night of August 18th he spoke a privateer, which told him of a British frigate near at hand. Following the privateersman’s directions, the Constitution the next day, August 19th, [1812,] at two o’clock in the afternoon, latitude 41 deg. 42 min., longitude 55 deg. 48 min., sighted the Guerrière.  4
  The meeting was welcome on both sides. Only three days before, Captain Dacres had entered on the log of a merchantman a challenge to any American frigate to meet him off Sandy Hook. Not only had the Guerrière for a long time been extremely offensive to every seafaring American, but the mistake which caused the Little Belt to suffer so seriously for the misfortune of being taken for the Guerrière had caused a corresponding feeling of anger in the officers of the British frigate. The meeting of August 19th had the character of a preconcerted duel.  5
  The wind was blowing fresh from the northwest, with the sea running high. Dacres backed his main topsail and waited. Hull shortened sail, and ran down before the wind. For about an hour the two ships wore and wore again, trying to get advantage of position; until at last, a few minutes before six o’clock, they came together side by side, within pistol shot, the wind almost astern, and running before it, they pounded each other with all their strength. As rapidly as the guns could be worked, the Constitution poured in broadside after broadside, double-shotted with round and grape; and without exaggeration, the echo of these guns startled the world. “In less than thirty minutes from the time we got alongside of the enemy,” reported Hull, “she was left without a spar standing, and the hull cut to pieces in such a manner as to make it difficult to keep her above water.”  6
  That Dacres should have been defeated was not surprising; that he should have expected to win was an example of British arrogance that explained and excused the war. The length of the Constitution was one hundred and seventy-three feet, that of the Guerrière was one hundred and fifty-six feet; the extreme breadth of the Constitution was forty-four feet, that of the Guerrière was forty feet: or within a few inches in both cases. The Constitution carried thirty-two long twenty-four-pounders, the Guerrière thirty long eighteen-pounders and two long twelve-pounders; the Constitution carried twenty thirty-two-pound carronades, the Guerrière sixteen. In every respect, and in proportion of ten to seven, the Constitution was the better ship; her crew was more numerous in proportion of ten to six. Dacres knew this very nearly as well as it was known to Hull, yet he sought a duel. What he did not know was that in a still greater proportion the American officers and crew were better and more intelligent seamen than the British, and that their passionate wish to repay old scores gave them extraordinary energy. So much greater was the moral superiority than the physical, that while the Guerrière’s force counted as seven against ten, her losses counted as though her force were only two against ten.  7
  Dacres’s error cost him dear; for among the Guerrière’s crew of two hundred and seventy-two, seventy-nine were killed or wounded, and the ship was injured beyond saving before Dacres realized his mistake, although he needed only thirty minutes of close fighting for the purpose. He never fully understood the causes of his defeat, and never excused it by pleading, as he might have done, the great superiority of his enemy.  8
  Hull took his prisoners on board the Constitution, and after blowing up the Guerrière sailed for Boston, where he arrived on the morning of August 30th. The Sunday silence of the Puritan city broke into excitement as the news passed through the quiet streets that the Constitution was below in the outer harbor with Dacres and his crew prisoners on board. No experience of history ever went to the heart of New England more directly than this victory, so peculiarly its own: but the delight was not confined to New England, and extreme though it seemed, it was still not extravagant; for however small the affair might appear on the general scale of the world’s battles, it raised the United States in one half-hour to the rank of a first class Power in the world.  9

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