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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND
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Alert

 

I

 

(SlpW: t. 325: b. 29'; dr. 11'; cpl. 100; a. 2 12-pdrs., 18 32-pdr. car.)

 

After short service carrying coal from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to various ports in the British Isles, Oxford—& collier built in England in 1803—was purchased by the Royal Navy in May 1804, was converted to a 20-gun sloop of war, and was renamed Alert. Little is known of the sloop of war's service in the Royal Navy before the War of 1812. Early in that conflict, in the summer of 1812, Alert—under the command of Capt. Thomas L. P. Laugharne, R.N.—was cruising in the North Atlantic west of the Azores about a third of the way between that island group and the Delaware capes when one of her lookouts aloft reported sighting an unidentified vessel. The stranger, which looked like ". . . an English Indianman, captured by the Americans," immediately began clapping on more sail in an apparent effort to flee. Despite the fact that the escaping ship was flying the British flag, Laugharne, hungry for a prize, set out in pursuit of his questionable quarry. However, when Alert came within range of her adversary, the seemingly helpless merchantman pulled down her English colors and hoisted the American flag. As the stranger simultaneously cast off her lamb's clothing by removing the covers from her gunports, Alert vented her displeasure at the deception by firing a broadside.

 

The English guns did the American warship little harm, but they received a reply which thoroughly demoralized the British sailors and the officers who commanded them. Only a few minutes after he realized that his ship faced a formidable enemy, Laugharne ordered her colors hauled down, and Alert became the prize of Capt. David Porter's frigate Essex and had the dubious distinction of being the first British warship to surrender to a fighting ship of the United States Navy during the War of 1812.

 

Since Essex was already carrying a large number of prisoners taken from merchantmen she had captured earlier, and since her own crew had already been depleted to make up the crews for these prizes, Porter put all of trie British sailors on board Alert and ordered her to carry them to Canada to be exchanged as prisoners of war. At St. John's, Newfoundland, Admiral Sir John T. Duckworth, then the senior officer of the Royal Navy in those waters, objected that Alert was not a true cartel ship since she had not departed from an American port. He argued that allowing ships dispatched at sea to be considered cartel ships would be tantamount to granting all prizes immunity from recapture and would give them ultimate safe conduct to a port friendly to the captor.

 

However, in this instance, Duckworth felt himself honor-bound to respect Porter's conditions and, therefore, allowed Alert, to embark some 200 homesick American prisoners of war and sail for New York where she delivered them safely in the early autumn. Alert was condemned by the New York Admiralty Court and sold to the United States Navy.

 

However, the former British sloop of war was found to be unfit for cruising; and she was converted to a storeship by the New York Navy Yard. She served as such in New York harbor until 1818 when she was fitted out for duty as a receiving ship. Her service in that capacity ended in 1829, and Alert was then broken up at the Norfolk Navy Yard.