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Engagement with HMS Guerriere, 1812

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

Just three weeks after escaping from the British squadron off of New Jersey, Constitution was once again at sea patrolling. On 19 August 1812, Constitution again came into contact with H.M.S. Guerriere, the same British frigate that had begun the chase of Constitution a month prior. This time, however, the English frigate was alone, and both ships closed in battle.

Captain Hull's official account of Constitution's victory over the 38-gun Guerriere is followed by the official British version of the battle by Guerriere's captain, James R. Dacres. The Constitution's victory was a rare bright spot for the United States' military in the opening months of the war and gained the ship her beloved nickname, "Old Ironsides."

Captain Isaac Hull to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton

U S Frigate Constitution
off Boston Light August 28th 1812

Sir,

I have the Honour to inform you that on the 19th inst. at 2 PM being in Lattitude 41° 42° Longitude 55° 48° with the wind from the Northward, and the Constitution under my command Steering to the S.SW. a sail was discovered from the Mast head bearing E by S. or E.SE. but at such a distance that we could not make Out what she was. All sail was immediately made in chace, and we soon found we came fast up with the chace, so that at 3 PM. we could make her Out to be a Ship on the Starboard tack close by the wind under easy sail. At 1/2 past 3 PM. closing very fast with the chace could see that she was a large Frigate, At 3/4 past 3 the chace backed her Maintopsail, and lay by on the Starboard tack; I immediately ordered the light sails taken in, and the Royal Yards sent down, took two reefs in the topsails, hauled up the foresail, and mainsail and see all clear for action, after all was clear the Ship was ordered to be kept away for the Enemy, on hearing of which the Gallant crew gave three cheers, and requested to be laid close alongside the chace. As we bore up she hoisted an English Ensign at the Mizen Gaff, another in the Mizen Shrouds, and a Jack at the Fore, and MizentopGallant mast heads. At 5 minutes past 5 PM. as we were running down on her weather quarter She fired a Broadside, but without effect the Shot all falling short, she then wore and gave us a broadside from Larboard Guns, two of which Shot Struck us but without doing any injury. At this time finding we were within gunshot, I ordered the Ensign hoisted at the Mizen Peak, and a Jack at the Fore and MizentopGallant mast head, and a Jack bent ready for hoisting at the Main, the Enemy continued wearing, and manoeuvering for about 3/4 of an hour, to get the wind of us. At length finding that she could not, she bore up to bring the wind, on the quarter, and run under her Topsails, and Gib, finding that we came up very slow, and were receiving her shot without being able to return them with effect, I ordered the MaintopGallant sail set, to run up alongside of her.

At 5 minutes past 6 PM being alongside, and within less than Pistol Shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all of our Guns, loaded with round, and grape, which done great Execution, so much so that in less than fifteen minutes from the time, we got alongside, his Mizen Mast went by the board, and his Main Yard in the Slings, and the Hull, and Sails very much injured, which made it very difficult for them to manage her. At this time the Constitution had received but little damage, and having more sail set than the Enemy she shot ahead, on seeing this I determined to put the Helm to Port, and oblige him to do the same, or suffer himself to be raked, by our getting across his Bows, on our Helm being put to Port the Ship came too, and gave us an opportunity of pouring in upon his Larboard Bow several Broadsides, which made great havock amongst his men on the forecastle and did great injury to his forerigging, and sails, The Enemy put his helm to Port, at the time we did, but his MizenMast being over the quarter, prevented her coming too, which brought us across his Bows, with his Bowsprit over our Stern. At this moment I determined to board him, but the instant the Boarders were called, for that purpose, his Foremast, and Mainmast went by the board, and took with them the Gib-boom, and every other Spar except the Bowsprit. On seeing the Enemy totally disabled, and the Constitution received but little injury I ordered the Sails filled, to hawl off, and repair our damages and return again to renew the action, not knowing whither the Enemy had struck, or not, we stood off for about half an hour, to repair our Braces, and such other rigging, as had been shot away, and wore around to return to the Enemy, it being now dark, we could not see whether she had any colours, flying or not, but could discover that she had raised a small flag Staff or Jurymast forward. I ordered a Boat hoisted out, and sent Lieutenant Reed on board as a flag to see whether she had surrendered or not, and if she had to see what assistance she wanted, as I believed she was sinking. Lieutenant Reed returned in about twenty minutes, and brought with him, James Richard Dacres Esqr. Commander of his Britannic Majesty's Frigate the Guerriere, which ship had surrendered, to the United States Frigate Constitution, our Boats were immediately hoisted out and sent for the Prisoners, and were kept at work bringing them and their Baggage on board, all night. At daylight we found the Enemy's Ship a perfect Wreck, having many Shot holes between wind, and water, and above Six feet of the Plank below the Bends taken out by our round Shot, and her upperwork[s so] shattered to pieces, that I determined to take out the sick and wounded as fast as possible, and set her on fire, as it would be impossible to get her into Port.

At 3 PM. all the Prisoners being out, Mr Reed was ordered to set fire to her in the Store Rooms, which he did and in a very short time she blew up. I want words to convey to you the Bravery, and Gallant conduct, of the Officers, and the crew under my command during the action. I can therefore only assure you, that so well directed was the fire of the Constitution, and so closely kept up, that in less than thirty minutes, from the time we got alongside of the Enemy (One of their finest Frigates) 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, and the Constitution in a State to be brought into action in two hours. Actions like these speak for themselves which makes it unnecessary for me to say any thing to Establish the Bravery and Gallant conduct of those that were engaged in it, Yet I cannot but make you acquainted with the very great assistance I received from that valuable officer Lieutenant Morris in bringing the Ship into action, and in working her whilst alongside the Enemy, and I am extremely sorry to state that he is badly wounded, being shot through the Body. we have yet hopes of his recovery, when I am sure, he will receive the thanks, and gratitude of his Country, for this and the many Gallant acts he has done in its Service. Were I to name any particular Officer as having been more useful than the rest, I should do them great Injustice, they all fought bravely, and gave me every possible assistance, that I could wish. I am extremely sorry to state to you the loss of Lieutenant [William S.] Bush of Marines. He fell at the head of his men in getting ready to board the Enemy. In him our Country has lost a Valuable and Brave Officer. After the fall of Mr Bush, Mr [Lieutenant John] Contee took command of the Marines, and I have pleasure in saying that his conduct was that of a Brave good Officer, and the Marines behaved with great coolness, and courage during the action, and annoyed the Enemy very much whilst she was under our Stern.

Enclosed I have the Honour to forward you a list of Killed, and Wounded, on board the Constitution, and a list of Killed, and Wounded, on board the Enemy, with a List of her crew and a Copy of her quarter Bill, also a report of the damage the Constitution received in the Action. I have the honour to be [&c.]

Isaac Hull

Source: National Archives, Record Group 45, Captain's Letters, 1812, Vol. 2, No. 207. This report, written on 28 Aug., was the first and most detailed report Hull wrote on this action, but he sent a shorter version, dated 30 Aug., to the secretary with a note stating that he had drafted a "short sketch" which the secretary might deem more worthy of publication.


Captain James R. Dacres, Royal Navy, to Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer, Royal Navy

Boston 7th September 1812

Sir,

I am sorry to inform you of the Capture of His Majesty's late Ship Guerriere by the American Frigate Constitution after a severe action on the 19th of August in Latitude 40.20 N and Longitude 55.00 West At 2 PM being by the Wind on the starboard Tack, we saw a Sail on our Weather Beam, bearing down on us. At 3 made her out to be a Man of War, beat to Quarters and prepar'd for Action. At 4, She closing fast wore to prevent her raking us. At 4.10 hoisted our Colours and fir'd several shot at her. At 4.20 She hoisted her Colours and return'd our fire. Wore several times, to avoid being raked, Exchanging broadsides. At 5 She clos'd on our Starboard Beam, both keeping up a heavy fire and steering free, his intention being evidently to cross our bow. At 5.20, our Mizen Mast went over the starboard quarter and brought the Ship up in the Wind. The Enemy then plac'd himself on our larboard Bow, raking us, a few only of our bow Guns bearing and his Grape and Riflemen sweeping our Deck. At 5.40 the Ship not answering her helm, he attempted to lay up on board at this time. Mr [Samuel] Grant who commanded the Forecastle was carried below badly wounded. I immediately order'd the Marines and Boarders from the Main Deck; the Master was at this time shot thro the knee, and I receiv'd a severe wound in the back. Lieutenant [Bartholomew] Kent was leading on the Boarders, when the Ship coming too, we brought some of our bow guns to bear on her and had got clear of our opponent when at 6.20 our Fore and Main Masts went over the side, leaving the Ship a perfect unmanageable Wreck. The Enemy shooting ahead, I was in hopes to clear the Wreck and get the Ship under Command to renew the Action but just as we had clear'd the Wreck our Spritsail yard went and the Enemy having rove new Braces &c, wore round within Pistol Shot to rake us, The Ship laying in the trough of the Sea and rolling her Main Deck Guns under Water and all attempts to get her before the Wind being fruitless, when calling my few remaining officers together, they were all of opinion that any further resistance would be a needless waste of lives, I order'd, though reluctantly, the Colours to be struck.

The loss of the Ship is to be ascribed to the early fall of the Mizen Mast which enabled our opponent to choose his position. I am sorry to say we suffered severely in killed and wounded and mostly whilst she lay on our Bow from her Grape and Musketry, in all 15 kill'd and 63 wounded, many of them severely; none of the wounded Officers quitted the Deck till the firing ceas'd.

The Frigate prov'd to be the United States Ship Constitution, of thirty 24 Pounders on her Main Deck and twenty four 32 Pounders and two 18 Pounders on her Upper Deck and 476 Men-her loss in comparison with ours was triffling, about twenty, the first Lieutenant of Marines and eight killed and first Lieutenant and Master of the Ship and eleven Men wounded, her lower Masts badly wounded; and stern much shattered and very much cut up about the Rigging.

The Guerriere was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless. As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her on fire, and I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his Officers to our Men has been that of a brave Enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our Men losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded who through the attention and skill of Mr [John] Irvine, Surgeon, I hope will do well.
I hope though success has not crown'd our efforts, you will not think it presumptuous in me to say the greatest Credit is due to the Officers and Ship's Company for their exertions, particularly when exposed to the heavy raking fire of the Enemy. I feel particularly obliged for the exertions of Lieutenant Kent who though wounded early by a Splinter continued to assist me; in the second Lieutenant the Service has suffered a severe loss; Mr [Robert] Scott, the Master, though wounded was particularly attentive and used every exertion in clearing the Wreck as did the Warrant Officers. Lieutenant [William] Nicoll of the Royal Marines and his party supported the honorable Character of their Corps, and they suffer'd severely. I must particularly recommend Mr [William] Snow, Masters Mate, who commanded the foremost Main Deck guns in the absence of Lieutenant [John] Pullman and the whole after the fall of Lieutenant [Henry] Ready, to your protection, he having serv'd his time and received a severe contusion from a Splinter. I must point out Mr [John] Garby, Acting Purser, to your notice, who volunteer'd his Services on Deck, and commanded the after quarter Deck Guns and was particularly active as well as Mr [John W.] Bannister, Midshipman who has passed.

I hope, in considering the circumstances, you will think the Ship entrusted to my charge was properly defended; the unfortunate loss of our Masts, the absence of the third lieutenant, second Lieutenant of Marines, three Midshipmen, and twenty four Men considerably weakened our Crew, and we only muster'd at Quarters 244 Men and 19 Boys, on coming into action; the Enemy had such an advantage from his Marines and Riflemen, when close and his superior sailing enabled him to choose his distance.

I enclose herewith a List of killed and wounded on board the Guerriere and have the Honor to be Sir, Your most obedient &c.

Sign'd J R Dacres
Vice Admiral Sawyer
Commander in Chief
&c &c &c Halifax

Source: British Public Record Office, Admiralty 1/502, Part 4, 541-45.

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25 October 1999