In early May, 1800, Constitution was cruising in the Caribbean in search of French privateers that might have been preying on American shipping. In the harbor at Port Plate on the island of Hispaniola, they discovered the French corvette Sandwich safely anchored under the cover of the harbor fort's guns. Unable to bring Constitution into the shallow harbor, Captain Silas Talbot planned to surprise the French by sending a small detachment of sailors and marines to storm the ship and sail her out of port. The following documents tell the story of the mission from several different vantage points: First from a member of the cutting out party, followed by the official report of the seizure by Captain Talbot, and other members of the crew. The Sandwich was eventually returned to France by the United States because it had been seized from a neutral port.
Explanatory: Extract of a letter from Commodore Silas Talbot, addressed to Mr Secretary Stoddert, dated May 12th 1800:
I have now to acquaint you, Sir, that I have been for some time meditating an enterprize against a French armed ship, lying at Port Plate, protected by her own guns and a Fort of three heavy cannon. It was my first intention to have gone in with the Constitution, and to have silenced the fort and ship, which has all her guns on one side to co-operate with the fort in defending against any hostile force; but after the best information I could gain, I found it to be somewhat dangerous to approach the entrance of the harbor, with a ship of the draft of water of the Constitution.
Having detained the sloop Sally, which had left Port Plate but a few days before, and was to have returned there previous to her sailing for the United States, I conceived that this sloop would be a suitable vessel for a disguise. I therefore manned her at Sea from the Constitution, with about ninety brave seamen and marines, the latter to be commanded by captain Carmick and lieutenant Amory, when on shore; but the entire command I gave to Mr. Isaac Hull, my first lieutenant, who entered the harbor of Port Plate yesterday in open day, with his men in the hold of the sloop, except five or six to work her in. They ran alongside the ship, and boarded her, sword in hand, without the loss of a man, killed or wounded. At the moment the ship was boarded, Agreeably to my plan, captain Carmick and lieutenant Amory landed with the marines, up to their necks in water, and spiked all the cannon in the fort, before the commanding officer had time to recollect and prepare himself for defence.
Perhaps no enterprize of the same moment was ever better executed; and I feel myself under great obligations to lieutenant Hull, captain Carmick, and lieutenant Amory, for their avidity in undertaking the scheme I had planned, and for the handsome manner and great address with which they performed this dashing adventure.
The ship, I understand, mounts four sixes and two nines; she was formerly the British packet Sandwich, and from the boasting publications at the cape, and the declaration of the officers, she is one of the fastest sailers that swims. She ran three or four years, (if I forget not,) as a privateer out of France, and with greater success than any other that ever sailed out of their ports. She is a beautiful copper bottomed ship; her cargo consists principally of sugar and coffee.
I am, &c.
This capture was made about twelve o'clock. When taken, the ship was stripped, having only her lower masts in; her rigging was coiled and stowed below. Before sun-set Lieutenant Hull had her completely rigged, royal yards athwart, guns scaled, men quartered, and in every respect ready for service.
Source: Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War between the United States and France (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937), 5: 503-4.
Whilst the Frigate Constitution, under the command of Captain Talbot was cruising in the neighbourhood of St Domingo an Expedition was determined upon, to cut out a French Corvette of l4 Guns then in the harbour of Porta Plate in that Island, for this purpose a small Sloop belonging to Providence R.I. was made use of & the Expedition placed under the direction of Isaac Hull, then first Lieutenant of the Constitution, who with the Officers & men selected left the Constitution & went on board the Sloop about sun down being at that time a long distance from the land; In standing in the Sloop was fired at by a British Frigate and a boat was sent from the Frigate to ascertain the destination of the Sloop, The British officer was much surprised on getting on board the Sloop to find the Hatch ways filled with American Officers and seamen--Lieut Hull informed him that under disguise he intended to run into Port Plata and endeavour to cut out the French Corvette there loading with Coffee for France, the British Officer intimated that the British Frigate had been watching the movements of the French Vessel with the same intention, Lieutenant Hull replied that it must be effected before the next morning or the Frigate would be too late, as he (Lt H.) should certainly take her out if he found [her] there in the morning, the British Officer left the Sloop wishing success to the Expedition.
In the morning, the Sloop was still a long distance from the port, but the sea breeze springing up early, the Sloop succeeded in entering the port about twelve O'clock, the Pilot who was at the helm of the Sloop was directed to lay the Corvette aboard on the Starboard bow, whilst Lieut Hull stood ready to let go an Anchor from the Stern of the Sloop the moment she came in contact with the Corvette--Not a man was to be seen on board the Sloop & the object was not discovered until the pre-concerted signal was given to board--immediately on the signal being given the men sprang from the hold of the Sloop the Officers from the Cabin, and boarded in handsome style, carrying all before them and taking possession of the Corvette without the loss of a man, Orders had been given to the men to discharge their pistols in the air if but little resistance was offered--As soon as possession was obtained a Boat, manned with Marines under the charge of Captain Carmack & Lieut Amory was sent to the Fort to spike the Guns, which was effected in a very short time; All this was done at noon day within musket shot of the fort, the broad side of the Corvette bearing upon the Sloop as she entered the port, & the wind blowing directly into the harbour.
The Corvette was dismantled having nothing but her lower Masts standing, and not a Rope over the Mast heads-- By sundown she was completely Rigged sails bent, Royal yards aloft ready for Sea, in the mean Time the Guns of the Corvette had been scaled, re-loaded & brought to bear on the Town, the men ready for any emergency, at about twelve o'clock at night the Wind came off the land & the Corvette was got underway & stood out the most perfect & complete success having attended the Expedition & without the loss of an individual.
Source: Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War between the United States and France (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937), 5: 504-5.
Constitution, at Sea,
12th May, 1800.
Captain Talbot has put his plan into execution respecting the cutting out the ship. I performed my part with very little trouble the only disagreeable part of the business was being cooped up in a small vessel for 12 hours--for we fortunately took a small American vessel that had been in the port a few days before, and was to return there in a short time. By this means it was easy to take the vessel by surprize; it put me in mind of the wooden horse at Troy. We all remained below until we received orders from the officer, the only one of us who remained on the deck of the sloop, whose business it was to lay us on board, which he did on the starboard bow. The men went on board like devils, and it was as much as the first lieutenant and myself could do to prevent blood being spilt. I believe it was not half an hour before the ship was taken, that I had possession of the fort and all the cannon spiked, and returned again on board the prize before they could get any succours from the city. I presume they were rather surprized when they found the cannon spiked; we had then possession of the harbor, we took our time to rig the ship, as she had her topmasts down and all her sails unbent. By 6 o'clock the lieutenant had every thing in order, and the men stationed at the cannon, ready with my marines to oppose all their force, which we understood was about five hundred men--they sent several flags of truce, making different requests, to which we answered that we had only executed the orders of our commander. On shore they were not ignorant, that it was impossible for us to get out until the land breeze came off which you know is in the morning; he concluded we must have been pretty determined before we undertook the business as we had no other alternative than to die or succeed; he however remained very quiet, and we came out in the morning and joined our commodore.
The night before we performed this business, in going to Porto Plate, we were met at 12 o'clock at night by an English Frigate, who fired two shot and brought us too; we went on board and after examining us we proceeded; we suspected he was going on the same business we were upon--he will peep into the harbour La Plate to day and find his plan frustrated. The English Captain informed us, that he was cruising to intercept a French frigate arrived at St. Domingo from France, and was to proceed round to Cape Francois.
Source: Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War between the United States and France (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937), 5: 500-501.
25 October 1999