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August 19 1812: Constitution Captures Guerrière



On August 19, 1812, at 6:30 p.m., the Britith frigate Guerrière, after being severely damaged, strikes its flag and surrenders to the USS Constitution. Guerrière is so damaged that next morning her crew is transferred to the Constitution, and Hull orders her burned.   The defeat of the Guerrière was a shock to the British whose mastery of the seas had not been challenged. The London Times wrote in shock: ”It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, and enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. …how important this triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.” Stephen Budiansky describes the sea battle between the two vessels vividly when he writes:
At 2 o'clock on the afternoon of August 19, the Constitution spotted a sail in the far distance off the port bow. Hull was on deck instantly, followed quickly by nearly every man on board. "Before all the hands could be called, there was a general rush on deck," said Able Seaman Moses Smith. "The word had passed like lightning from man to man; and all who could be spared came flocking up like pigeons from a net bed. From the spar deck to the gun deck, from that to the berth deck, every man was roused and on his feet. All eyes were turned in the direction of the strange sail, and quick as thought studding-sails were out, fore and aft."
The Guerrière spotted the American ship almost simultaneously. On deck Dacres handed [William B.] Orne [1]  his glass and asked if it was an American or French frigate. Orne said he thought American for sure, but Dacres replied that it "acted most too bold to be an American." Dacres paused, then added, "The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him,"even remarking to Orne that he would "be made for life" as the first British captain to capture an American frigate. The British crew facetiously hung a barrel of molasses in the netting for their prisoners-to-be: Yankees were said to like a drink of molasses and water known as switchel. Dacres allowed 10 impressed Americans in the crew to go below, and turning politely to Orne, the captain asked if he would like to go below as well and help the surgeon tend to any wounded from the battle—"as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen."
Just before he left the deck, Orne saw the main topsail backed—the yard rotated around so the sail caught the wind and checked the ship's forward motion—as the Guerrière stood by to let the rapidly approaching American come down. A British ensign flew forth from each masthead, and the drum began to roll to bring the men to quarters.
Since the Constitution was to windward, it held several theoretical advantages in a ship-on-ship engagement. A ship to leeward, heeling away from the wind, exposed a portion of its hull below the waterline to the enemy's shot; in a close action the smoke from a windward ship's guns might envelop an opponent, obscuring the aim of its gun crews; the sails of the ship on the windward side could block the wind and becalm the leeward ship, hindering its maneuverability. But most of all, the commander of the ship to windward held the power of decision; he could haul away and avoid a fight, and an equal opponent to leeward could never intercept and catch him, or he could use the wind to steer a direct course to come up as quickly as possible to close with the enemy.
That posed its own risks: The more direct the angle of approach the more exposed the approaching ship was to the enemy's broadside, while unable to answer with its own. But that was the course Hull chose. As the American came up, Dacres several times changed his course to fire broadsides. The first fell short, and others went too high, and each time Hull ordered his ship to yaw slightly to take the enemy fire on the side of the bows and avoid being raked down the vulnerable length of the deck. Ships usually went into battle with only topsails to avoid the danger of sails catching fire from their own cannons' flaming wads and to keep to a minimum the number of sail trimmers needed, but Hull ordered more sail in order to close rapidly and bring his ship right alongside the enemy. The crew broke out with three cheers.
With the Constitution coming up on the Guerrière's windward quarter, the sternmost guns on the British ship now began to bear and some of its shots started to tell. Several men on the Constitution were mowed down, and Lieutenant Charles Morris impatiently asked the captain for permission to fire. "No, sir," Hull replied. A dead silence hung over the ship. "No firing at random!" Hull shouted. "Let every man look well to his aim." At 6:05 p.m. the Constitution was directly alongside, two dozen yards away, less than the reach of a pistol shot. Then came the first crashing broadside from every gun on the Constitution's starboard side, double-shotted and fired right into the deck and gun ports of the enemy.
Orne, crouching in the cramped cockpit below the Guerrière's waterline, heard "a tremendous explosion…the effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerrière reel, and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake." Almost instantly came an even more tremendous crash. And then, as the smoke from the last shot cleared, the men on the Constitution were cheering like maniacs: The Guerrière's mizzenmast had gone by the board.
"Huzzah boys! We've made a brig of her!" one of the Constitution's crew shouted. "Next time we'll make her a sloop!" said another. Hull, who had literally split his dress breeches when he excitedly leapt atop an arms chest for a better view, exclaimed, "By God, that vessel is ours." The cockpit of the Guerrière was instantly filled with wounded and dying men, barely leaving room for the surgeons to work at the long table in the center that they knelt or bent over. From the decks above, Orne said, blood poured down as if a washtub full had been turned over.
Most of the Constitution's sails and spars were still undamaged, and it began to forge ahead. Hull ordered the ship brought to starboard to cross the Guerrière's bow. The British ship attempted to turn in parallel to foil the maneuver, but the drag of its fallen mizzenmast in the water prevented it from answering its helm, and the Constitution began to pour a murderous fire, two full broadsides, into the enemy's port bow. Grape shot—clusters of balls weighing a couple of pounds apiece that separated like a shotgun's blast when fired—swept across the decks and mowed men down while round shot continued to take a toll on the Guerrière's masts.
To keep the Guerrière from passing across its stern and raking the Constitution in turn, the American ship bore up, but the Guerrière's bowsprit and jib boom crossed its quarterdeck and became entangled in the mizzen rigging. Men crowded on the forecastle of the Guerrière preparing to board or repel boarders, and Lieutenant Morris quickly suggested to Hull that he call the Constitution's boarders too, and then joined the men running for the ship's stern preparing to board the enemy. As Morris began to wrap a few turns of a stout line over the enemy's bowsprit to hold the ship fast, a musket ball tore into his abdomen, knocking him to the deck, grievously wounded. Lieutenant William S. Bush, the captain of the Constitution's marines, leapt on the taffrail at almost the same moment, sword in hand, shouting, "Shall I board her?" when he was drilled through the cheek by a musket ball that tore through the back of his head, shattering his skull and killing him instantly. The barrel of molasses hanging over the Guerrière was riddled with holes, and molasses poured over the deck. During the closest part of the battle, the Constitution's gunners fired a hundred rounds of canister shot—cylinders packed with bullets, nails, bolts, scraps of old iron—which were even more deadly than grapeshot at short range.
Although only a few of the Guerrière's forwardmost guns would bear, the British sailors ran one of the guns almost into the window of the captain's cabin on the Constitution and a flaming wad came aboard, starting a fire, but the Americans quickly put it out. Marines in the Constitution's mizzentop kept up a steady barrage of musketry, shooting down over the head-high breastwork of hammocks packed into the netting over both ships' rails, clearing the forecastle of the enemy and wounding Dacres in the back as he stood on the piled hammocks. Hull was about to climb back onto the arms chest when a sailor grabbed him by the arm. "Don't get up there, sir, unless you take them swabs off!" the sailor said, pointing to Hull's epaulets, which made him a prime target for sharpshooters.
Boarding would still have been extremely dicey at this point, the boarders having to make their way single file over the bowsprit of the Guerrière in a heavy running sea. But in rapid sequence the ships tore away, the foremast of the British ship fell in a cascade of spars and rigging over its starboard side, and then the mainmast went too. Not a spar was left standing on the Guerrière but the bowsprit. Hull immediately ordered his sails filled and hauled off.
For half an hour the Constitution stood off nearby as its rigging was repaired. The sun had gone down and it was hard to see if any of the enemy's colors were still flying, though the guns had fallen silent. Orne made his way up onto the Guerrière's deck. The scene was "a perfect hell," he said. Blood was everywhere, like a slaughterhouse. Men were throwing the dead overboard, but many of the petty officers and crewmen had broken into the spirit locker and were screaming drunk. The mastless ship, with nothing but a jury-rigged scrap of canvas flying from the bowsprit, lay "rolling like a log in the trough of the sea," its main deck guns under water. Water poured in from 30 holes smashed through its side below the waterline. A British ensign was still flying from the stump of the mizzenmast, but with a crack the spritsail yard carried away, taking with it any hope of bringing the ship before the wind and fighting on.
The American ship now wore back and stood across the Guerrière's bow, completing the picture of helplessness. From the Constitution a boat rowed over under a flag of truce and Lieutenant George Read hailed the ship: "I wish to see the officer in command." Dacres stood on the deck appearing slightly dazed. Read hailed again: "Commodore Hull's compliments, and wishes to know if you have struck your flag."
The British officers had already held a council and agreed that further resistance was futile, but Dacres seemed unable to utter the fateful words. "Well, I don't know," he finally said, "our mizzen-mast is gone, our main-mast is gone—and upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag." Read asked if the Americans could send their surgeon to lend assistance. "Well, I should suppose you had on board your own ship business enough for all your medical officers," Dacres replied."Oh, no," said Read, "we have only seven wounded, and they were dressed half an hour ago." Dacres then turned to Orne and said, "How our situations have suddenly been reversed: You are now free and I am a prisoner."
The British captain came across in the boat to present his sword to Hull and formally surrender. "Your men are a set of tigers," he said to Hull in wonderment. Not a single shot had hulled the Constitution; casualties were seven dead, seven wounded. The British ship officially reported 15 dead and 62 wounded but Orne was certain that at least 25 more crewmen were dead, their bodies dumped over the side, or swept to their deaths with the falling of the masts. The American victory had taken 25 minutes, and the accuracy of American fire had been decisive. Hull would later single out for praise his black sailors: "I never had any better fighters…they stripped to the waist, and fought like devils, seemingly insensible to danger, and to be possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors."
All night, the Constitution's boats went back and forth removing the prisoners. By dawn the condition of the Guerrière was clearly hopeless; Hull declared the ship "a perfect Wreck," and he hastened to get the remaining wounded men off before it sank. Six feet of planking had been completely shot away in one place below the waterline, there was five feet of water in the hold, and the pumps could not keep up. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon the two captains watched in silence from the Constitution's quarterdeck as Lieutenant Read's boat began to row back for the last time, and minutes later the British frigate was ablaze from the scuttling charge Read had set, its guns discharging in succession as the heat of the flame reached them; then, even before Read could get aboard, there was a momentary silence followed by a deafening roar. It was like waiting for a volcano to erupt, Moses Smith remembered; the quarterdeck, immediately over the magazine, heaved skyward in a single piece and broke into fragments, and the Guerrière's whole hull parted in two. Seconds later the entire ship disappeared beneath the sea's surface.
Notes

1. William B. Orne had been master of the American merchant brig, the Betsey, that had been bound for Boston from Naples  when it was catpured by the Guerrière on the Western Banks of Newfoundland on August 10 1812.  Orne had been taken as a prisoner. 

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