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Escape from an Enemy Squadron, 1812

Old Ironsides' Battle Record: Documents of USS Constitution's Illustrious Deeds

When war was declared on Great Britain, 18 June 1812, the Constitution had just left Alexandria, Virginia, destined for Annapolis, Maryland. After resupplying she set sail for New York. What her captain, Isaac Hull, did not know was that a squadron British ships was organizing off New York to blockade the harbor. On 15 July, Constitution ran into HMS Guerriere, which was soon joined by four other vessels in chase of the American warship.

Captain Hull's official report to the Secretary of the Navy outlines the three-day chase off the coast of New Jersey. In his own words he describes how he successfully outmaneuvered and outran the British squadron in one of the most dramatic American naval episodes. Eventually, Hull was able to dock Constitution at Boston. Just a few weeks later Constitution would meet Guerriere again under much different circumstances.

21 July 1812
Captain Isaac Hull to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton

U.S. Frigate Constitution
At Sea July 21st 1812

Sir,

In pursuance of your orders of the 3d inst I left Annapolis on the 5th inst and the Capes on the 12th of which I advised you by the Pilot that brought the Ship to sea.

For several days after we got out the wind was light, and ahead which with a Strong Southerly current prevented our making much way to the Northward On the 17th at 2 PM being in 22 fathoms water off Egg harbour four sail of Ships were discovered from the Mast Head to the Northward and in shore of us; apparently Ships of War The wind being very light all sail was made in chase of them, to ascertain whether they were Enemy's Ships, or our Squadron having got out of New York waiting the arrival of the Constitution, the latter of which, I had reason to believe was the case.

At 4 in the afternoon a Ship was seen from the Mast head bearing about NE Standing for us under all sail, which she continued to do until Sundown at which time, she was too far off to distinguish signals and the Ships in Shore, only to be seen from the Tops, they were standing off to the Southward, and Eastward. As we could not ascertain before dark, what the Ship in the offing was, I determined to stand for her and get near enough to make the night signal. At 10 in the Evening being within Six or Eight miles of the Strange sail, the Private Signal was made, and kept up nearly one hour, but finding she could not answer it, I concluded she, and the Ships in Shore were Enemy. I immediately hauled off to the Southward, and Eastward, and made all sail, having determined to lay off till day light, to see what they were. The Ship that we had been chasing hauled off after us showing a light, and occasionally making signals, supposed to be for the Ships in Shore.

18th. At day light, or a little before it was quite light, Saw two sail under our Lee, which proved to be Frigates of the Enemies. One Frigate astern within about five or Six miles, and a Line of Battle Ship, a Frigate, a Brig, and Schooner, about ten or twelve miles directly astern all in chase of us, with a fine breeze, and coming up very fast it being nearly calm where we were. Soon after Sunrise the wind entirely left us, and the Ship would not steer but fell round off with her head towards the two Ships under our lee.

The Boats were instantly hoisted out, and sent ahead to tow the Ships head round, and to endeavour to get her farther from the Enemy, being then within five miles of three heavy Frigates. The Boats of the Enemy were got out, and sent ahead to tow, which with the light air that remained with them, they came up very fast. Finding the Enemy coming fast up and but little chance of escaping from them; I ordered two of the Guns on the Gun Deck, run out at the Cabbin windows for Stern Guns on the gun deck, and hoisted one of the 24 Pounders off the Gundeck, and run that, with the Fore Castle Gun, an Eighteen pounder, out at the Ports on the quarter Deck, and cleared the Ship for Action, being determined they should not get her, without resistance on our part, notwithstanding their force, and the situation we were placed in. At about 7 in the Morning the Ship nearest us approaching with Gun Shot, and directly astern, I ordered one of the Stern Guns fired to see if we could reach her, to endeavour to disable her masts, found the Shot fell a little Short, would not fire any more.

At 8 four of the Enemy's Ships nearly within Gun Shot, some of them having six or eight boats ahead towing, with all their oars, and sweeps out to row them up with us, which they were fast doeing. It soon appeared that we must be taken, and that our Escape was impossible, four heavy Ships nearly within Gun Shot, and coming up fast, and not the least hope of a breeze, to give us a chance of getting off by out sailing them. In this Situation finding ourselves in only twenty four fathoms water (by the suggestion of that valuable officer Lieutenant [Charles] Morris) I determined to try and warp the Ship ahead, by carrying out anchors and warp her up to them, Three or four hundred fathoms of rope was instantly got up, and two anchors got ready and sent ahead, by which means we began to gain ahead of the Enemy, They however soon saw our Boats carrying out the anchors, and adopted the same plan, under very advantageous circumstances, as all the Boats, from the Ship furthermost off were sent to Tow, and Warp up those nearest to us, by which means they again came up, So that at 9 the Ship nearest us began firing her bow guns, which we instantly returned by our Stern guns in the cabbin, and on the quarter Deck; All the Shots from the Enemy fell short, but we have reason to believe that some of ours went on board her, as we could not see them strike the Water.

Soon after 9 a Second Frigate passed under our lee, and opened her Broadside, but finding her shot fall short, discontinued her fire, but continued as did all the rest of them, to make every possible exertion to get up with us. From 9 to 12 all hands were employed in warping the Ship ahead, and in starting some of the water in the main Hold, to lighten her, which with the help of a light air, we rather gained of the Enemy, or at least hold our own. About 2 in the afternoon, all the Boats from the line of Battle Ship, and some of the Frigates, were sent to the Frigate nearest to us, to endeavour to tow her up, but a light breeze sprung up, which enabled us to hold way with her notwithstanding they had Eight or Ten Boats ahead, and all her sails furled to tow her to windward. The wind continued light until 11 at night, and the Boats were kept ahead towing, and warping to keep out of the reach of the Enemy, Three of their Frigates being very near us. At 11 we got a light breeze from the Southward, the boats came along side, and were hoisted up, the Ship having too much way to keep them ahead, The Enemy still in chase, and very near.

19th. At day light passed within gunshot of one of the Frigates but she did not fire on us, perhaps for fear of becalming her as the wind was light Soon after passing us, she tacked, and stood after us, at this time Six Sail were in Sight under all sail after us.

At 9 in the morning saw a Strange sail on our Weather Beam, supposed to be an American merchant ship, the instant the Frigate, nearest us saw her she hoisted American colours, as did all the Squadron in hopes to decoy her down, I immediately hoisted English colours, that she might not be deceived, she soon hauled her wind, and it is to be hoped made her escape. All this day the Wind increased gradually and we gained on the Enemy, in the course of the day Six or Eight miles, they however continued chasing us all night under a press of Sail.

20th. At day light in the Morning only three of them could be seen from the Mast head, the nearest of which, was about 12 miles off directly astern. All hands were set at work wetting the Sails, from the Royals down, with the Engine, and Fire buckets, and we soon found that we left the Enemy very fast. At 1/4 past 8 the Enemy finding that they were fast dropping astern, gave over chase, and hauled their wind to the Northward, probably for the Station off New York. At 1/2 past 8 Saw a sail ahead gave chase after her under all sail. At 9 Saw another Strange sail under our Lee Bow, we soon spoke the first sail, discovered and found her to be an American Brig from St Domingue bound Portland, I directed the Captain how to steer to avoid the Enemy, and made sail for the vessel to leeward, on coming up with her, She proved to be an American Brig from St Bartholemews, bound to Philadelphia, but on being informed of War he bore up for Charleston, S.C.

Finding the Ship so far to the Southward, and Eastward, and the Enemy's Squadron stationed off New York, which would make it impossible for the Ship to get in there. I determined to make for Boston to receive your further orders, and I hope that my having done so will meet your approbation. My wish to explain to you as clearly as possible why your orders, have not been executed, and the length of time the Enemy were in chase of us with various other circumstances, has caused me to make this communication much longer than I would have wished, yet I cannot (in justice to the brave Officers, and crew under my Command) close it without expressing to you the confidence I have in them, and assuring you that their conduct whilst under the Guns of the Enemy was such as might have been expected from American Officers and Seamen. I have the Honour to be [&c.]

Isaac Hull

Source: National Archives, Record Group 45, Captain's Letters, 1812, Volume 2, No.127.

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25 October 1999