Hurricanes and the War of 1812:
Documents on Selected Storms Affecting Naval Operations

New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricane of 19 August 1812
Charleston, South Carolina, Hurricanes of August and September 1813


Related Resources:

Typhoons and Hurricanes: The Effects of Cyclonic Winds on U.S. Naval Operations


New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricance of 19 August 1812

On 9 July 1812, news that three weeks earlier the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., had declared war on Great Britain arrived at New Orleans, the location of the US naval station the farthest from the nation's capital. Captain John Shaw, USN, commandant of the station, had at his command some four hundred officers and men, distributed among two brigs of war and eleven gunboats. Just as Captain Shaw was attempting to set his small force on a war footing, a devastating hurricane struck the Mississippi delta. The 19 August hurricane was the worst experienced there in years. It set back military preparations many months, with great material damage and some loss of lives, as detailed in the reports that follow. The first is Captain Shaw's, written only four days later. Following this account are two from Lieutenant Daniel Dexter who provides a vivid description from the perspective of a gunboat division commander. Reports such as these afford an appreciation of the weakness of the naval forces on the New Orleans station and show how vulnerable they were to natural catastrophes. A fourth document contains Secretary Paul Hamilton's reaction to news of the storm which had reached Washington before Shaw's report. In this instance, the secretary, through his chief clerk Charles Goldsborough, shows himself entirely sympathetic to Shaw's distress and authorizes wide discretion in rebuilding the station flotilla, including the procurement of two blockships.

Captain John Shaw to Secretary of the Navy Hamilton

New Orleans August 23rd 1812

Sir,

I greatly deplore the necessity I am under of communicating to you, the calamitous condition of the small naval force attached to this station--of the City of New Orleans--and, as I presume, of the surrounding Country; produced on the afternoon and night, of the 19th instant, by a hurricane (from the N.E.) which, both in violence and duration, exceeded any thing of the kind, within the recollection of the oldest inhabitant of the country:

The Brig Enterprize, which, by considerable exertion, I had got fully manned, and which was on the very eve of dropping down to the Balize, was driven ashore, high & dry; but fortunately, however, without loss of lives, and with little or no injury to her hull: The relaunching of her, the bottom being a soft mud, will, I am apprehensive, be attended with considerable difficulty and consumption of time. The Brig Viper, also in Port, undergoing some slight repairs, was completely unrigged, and, with the loss of her bowsprit, mainmast, and guns, completely cut-down, fore and aft, to her waterways: This was occasioned in part by the extreme violence of the gale, and partly by the accidental circumstance of three or four large Merchant vessels running foul of her. Gun Vessel No. 64, commanded by Mr William Johnson, was stranded in Lake Ponchartrain, within about half a mile of Fort St. Johns: The lives of none of her crew, however, were lost, nor has she received much injury; but as she has been forced, by the violence of the tempest, over an extensive level shallow mud bottom, we anticipate much trouble in getting her off again. The Ship Remittance, which had just been purchased for service as contemplated when I last wrote you, has received but little, or no injury. The Ketch Etna, which had for some time previously been employed as a sheer-hulk; being driven from her position, by several large Merchant vessels, sunk, and had Two men drowned. The Navy-hospital, had one half of its roof carried away, and the Kitchen and other appendant buildings, blown down; and as it contains upwards of an hundred patients, it appears indispensably necessary, that it be immediately repaired. I feel much anxiety for the fate of the Brig Siren, which as I had heard had just got in and was at anchor off Ship-island, as well as for that of the Gun Vessels at, and in the vicinity of, the Bay of St. Louis, and at the Balize; from none of which, have we as yet, had time to receive any intelligence.

In the Arsenal-yard, much injury has been sustained: The Sail-makers loft and the joiners shop, both under the same roof, as also the office, and the pursers Store-room, two seperate apartments in another building, were blowed down. In short the injury sustained to the Naval Service, by the hurricane, cannot be repaired at a less expense, than from twenty to thirty thousand dollars.

The Military has also sustained much injury: The Barracks are for the most part, unrooffed; and a brick-wall of considerable height, fronting them and the parade-area, and making a part of that, by which the whole were enclosed, was entirely demolished. The losses of a more private and individual character, are incalculable: The Market-house, which, in point of spaciousness and elegance, was perhaps equaled by scarcely any in the United States, was completely leveled; and under the ruins of which several, perhaps many, persons, were buried, who had sought shelter from the storm. Many of the houses in the City and Suburbs, perhaps upwards of an hundred, were destroyed, and a still larger number, were unroofed: Indeed, the devastation which presented itself to the view, on the succeeding morning, appeared well calculated to produce a solemn, unaffected gloom on the countenances of the inhabitants of the country; and to attune their hearts to the "humiliation & prayer," for which, by the President's Proclamation, the day had been set apart.

The subject of my last communication being one which lies near my heart, and which is, in my opinion, the greatest importance to the well-being of the Service in which I have the honor to hold a commission, I hope to be pardoned for again adverting to it, and, in the most respectful manner, soliciting such orders and instructions, in reply, as shall enable me with certainty to pursue, without any apprehension or danger of mistaking, my duty, such as shall clearly point out and define the nature of the situation and command in which I am placed; and by which I shall learn whether or not, after having for twenty-two years, sustained the character of a Seaman, and more than half of that time, that of a Naval officer, I am now to consider myself, as having found my way and sorely against my will too--into the army. No officer will go greater lengths than I will to serve my country; I am ready, with all my heart and soul, to cooperate with [Brig.] Gen. [James] Wilkinson, [USA] or with any branch of the government, in the execution and support of its laws--in which I should consider myself as fully discharging my duty as an officer, and which certainly ought to satisfy the General: But no; nothing but being directly under his orders, as well as subject to his requisitions, will serve his purposes; but to which I cannot submit, without direct orders to that effect from Government through its regular and legal organ, the Honorable Secretary of the Navy; to whom alone, and the senior Naval officers in the Service, do I owe obedience. According to the principles which the General is desirous of establishing, and the arrangements he wishes to adopt, the naval as well as the Military appropriations, must be subject to his control; or in other words, he would possess the Command over, and allow me to be responsible for, that portion of the Naval appropriations, allotted to this station. Should the Naval Commg officer in this quarter, be necessarily subjected to the command of the Military (from which I can anticipate nothing but a chaos of confusion) I must beg leave to repeat the request which I made in my last, of being removed from my present, and of being placed in the command, of a Frigate, where I shall not fear to meet the "tug of war." I wish to seek honorable employ, and to continue to perform those duties, incident to that, in which I commenced.

From a full view of the peculiarity of my situation, arising from the circumstances insisted on; I am persuaded Sir, that you will not be disposed to construe any of the foregoing remarks in to a disrespect for the head, or for any of the Departments of the Government, than which, nothing can be more remote from the sentiments of my heart. With great respect [&c.]

John Shaw


Lieutenant Daniel S. Dexter to Captain John Shaw

U.S. Gun Vessel No 162, August 23, 1812.

Sir,

In pursuance of your order of the 2nd instant, I sailed from the Balize on the 15th, in company with Gun Vessels Nos 27, 66 and 163. On the 17th we came to anchor between the Free Mason's Keys, and the North Chandellies Islands, the N. Changelies bearing N.N.E.

On the 19th got under way, but came too again soon after, expecting, from appearances, a heavy gale from the Eastward. At 5 o'Clock P.M. the storm commenced, for which we had made every preparation, letting go our second anchor, striking yards and topmast, &c.

On the 20th at 1/2 past One, P.M. the tempest having increased to an almost indiscribable degree of fury, we parted one starboard cable, and lost our large Cutter; at 3 parted the starboard Cable & kept away before the wind, until we had time to bind the remaining parts of our cables to the two six pounders, and get them overboard; which, together with the kedge, which was let go at the same time, brought her up. At the time of parting our best bower Cable, we also lost our green Cutter, leaving us entirely destitute of small boats.

At 8 o'Clock, the gale still continuing with unabated fury, we lost our kedge and hauser, from which time we kept gradually dragging until 10, when the starboard Cable, with one of the six pounders, parted again; between 12 and one, the wind shifted to S.S.W. and shortly after to S.E. and continued to blow a most tremendous gale, before which we drove with great velocity; our larboard cable and six pounder not keeping her head to wind; and not being able from the violence of the tempest; to show the least sail.


Image of "A Map of the Southern Section of the United States..." From A Military and Topographical Atlas of the United States..., no. 3, John Mellish, Philadelphia, 1815. (Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.)

Image of "A Map of the Southern Section of the United States..." From A Military and Topographical Atlas of the United States..., no. 3, John Mellish, Philadelphia, 1815. (Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.)


In this situation we continued until nearly day light, when we discovered by her swinging, that the larboard cable was gone; and in a moment after she struck, broadside on, but by running up one of the head sails instantly, and putting the helm hard up, she payed off, and was prevented from being knocked down on her beam ends; and the ground being soft, as the swell raised her, she gradually chopped round, until right before the wind, when we hauled down the foresail and let her remain in that situation till day light; when we found she had worked herself so firmly into the Bank, that, though the water fell and left us high and dry by ten o'Clock, she still stood out upon her keel, not having received the smallest damage in her hull. From where we are ashore, Cat Island bears N and by E. distant 3 1/2 Leagues. I have sounded with Mr [Midn. Thomas S.] Cunningham's Boat, and find 8 feet water, only one Cable's length astern; and am under the impression that the vessel may be got off without much difficulty, provided anchors and cables &c with a vessel to tighten her was sent to me soon.

I send this by Mr Cunningham's small boat, which he sent over from Cat Island. He informs me that he parted both cables shortly after I did, and slung his two six pounders, by which he rode till day light, when seeing land directly under his lee, having lost one of his cables and guns, and the other not being sufficient to keep him off shore, he was obliged to cut it away; and stood in under his jibb and reefed trysail for Cat Island, when he came too with several pieces of kentlege slung to a hauser, the gale having abated. He represents his vessel to be in a very crippled condition, having carried away all his running rigging; &c.

This gale has been one of the most violent I have ever experienced in this Climate, and I am apprehensive has done more damage than we are at present aware of. Gun Vessel No 27 was seen yesterday standing in for Ship Island; but I am fearful No 66 is lost, not having seen nor heard any thing of her. Some vessel is ashore on the Freemason's Keys or Chandalies Islands, as we have heard guns very distinctly from that quarter yesterday and the day before. Several vestiges of wrecks have drifted ashore near us, which proves that the damage has been extensive. I have the honor to be [&c.]

(Signed) Danl S. Dexter

Commodore Shaw Bay St. Louis


Lieutenant Daniel S. Dexter to Captain John Shaw

U.S. Gun Vessel No 162, 4th Sept. 1812.

Sir,

Your letter of the 31st ultimo has been received, and for the intimation it contains of your intention to confer on me the command of the 20 gun ship you are fitting out in New Orleans, I have to return to you my grateful acknowledgments. For these several days past I have expected the pleasure of seeing you at this place; but, concluding that your visit might have been prevented by business of more importance, I have deemed it proper to give you a detail of the measures I have taken to get this vessel off, and the prospect I still have of being able to effect it.

Since the date of my last letter by Mr Cunningham, I have used every exertion, and put in practice every method in my power, to effect that so wished for object; but, as yet, without success. A trench has been dug from her stern down to the water's edge; the earth all taken out from underneath her except what is barely necessary to keep her erect, and empty water casks lashed under her bottom to assist in raising her; all the anchors I could procure have been carried out; a kind of capstone or crab has been made, of considerable power, and other strong purchases rigged; and with the assistance of the crews of the two Gun Vessels here, we have, every high tide for these 8 or 10 days past, made an attempt to start her, but without effect. We hove home the Siren's stream anchor, and the one sent me from the Bay; took them out again, and backed one of them with the Small bower anchor of No 156, and the other with a kedge and several pieces of kentledge, and at last, parted the Siren's Cable, without moving her.

I fear all of our efforts will be vain, until the next spring tides, unless we should be favoured with a strong wind from the Southward and Eastward, for eight or ten hours, which would without doubt raise the water so that we could heave her off with ease. We have, now, at high water, 3 1/2 feet water forward and aft, in the trench we have dug, though the tide does not rise as high now, by a foot and a half, as it did at the time I wrote the last. That foot and a half, would at this time, with the assistance of the water casks, raise her so that we could heave her off with very little difficulty.

The Flying-fish Schooner, (a fisherman) from Bayou St Johns, came in here last night from Britain [Breton] Island, which she left the night before last. The crew of her inform me that the day before yesterday, they saw a cutter and a very large Barge, full of armed men, in a small bay at Britain Island. That as soon as they saw the flying fish, they all made for their boats, and the fisherman, supposing them to be Englishmen, made the best of their way back to this place. They saw no large vessel in the offing, to which the boats could have belonged.

I should have dispatched one of the Gun Vessels here in pursuit of them, had not the wind came out from the Eastward; and wanting the assistance of the Crews to improve the first favourable opportunity of heaving off, I was induced to delay it, at least for a few days. I have the honor [&c.]

(Signed) Danls S. Dexter

Com. John Shaw,
Comdg. Naval Officer, New Orleans.

Secretary of the Navy Hamilton to Captain John Shaw

John Shaw Esqr
Comg Naval Officer: N Orleans
Nav: Dep'mt
25 Sep. 1812

We have not heard from You, since the 17. ulto Letters however have been received from new orleans which state, that the public vessels & gunboats, on that station, have sustained the most serious injury, by a Tornado on the 19. & 20th: & the object of this letter, is, to authorise You to make every necessary provision to supply the place of any boats, that may have been lost, & to defend the Water passes to new orleans.

A competent force, must be provided, without delay. If the gun-boats can be repaired, let it be done without delay; If they cannot be repaired, You are authorised to purchase suitable vessels, if in Your power, & fit them up: for carrying guns--& in fitting them You will use all the good materials of the gunboats to save expense. If the gunboats cannot be repaired, & You cannot purchase vessels to answer the purpose, Your next, & only alternative will be I presume, to build--But this I apprehend You will not be able to do in time: under these circumstances, & considering your great distance from the seat of Government, You will consult with general Wilkinson & the Navy Agent, & either repair the Boats, or purchase or build others, as may be in Your power, & as the good of the Service may suggest the object being to provide an adequate defence with every possible expedition & on the best possible terms. You may, should it be judged absolutely necessary, fit up, or procure twenty boats, calculated to carry, one to two guns each. If such boats could be hired, at a reasonable rate, & valued by disinterested competent judges, & the United States to pay for them, at such valutation, in the event of their being destroyed, or captured by the Enemy. it would be, a more desirable arrangement than any other exception that of repairing the boats should they be worthy of repair: but it is hoped, that a less number than 20 Boats will be sufficient with the two Blockships, which You were authorised to procure by my letter dated a few days since.

for P Hamilton
Chas: W Goldsborough


Source: Dudley, William S. and Michael J. Crawford eds. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Volume I, 1812 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985): 399-408.
[This series of edited naval documents is widely available in libraries including some, but not all, Federal Depository Libraries.]



Charleston, South Carolina, Hurricanes of August and September 1813

Hurricane Damage to the Southeastern Stations

Over a three-week period in August and September 1813, in the middle of a war against Great Britain, two successive hurricanes rocked the naval stations at Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Marys, Georgia.1. Damage these gales caused would hamper naval operations along the southeastern coast well into the new year.

1. For additional information on the first of these two storms, consult David McWilliams Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870 (Boston, MA: American Meteorological Society, 1963): 58-59.

 

Captain John H. Dent to Secretary of the Navy Jones

The Honorable William Jones Charleston 28 Augt 1813

Sir,

It is with regret, I have to inform you, that the weather for some time past has indicated a gale--which came on yesterday about noon from the N.E. and by 9. P.M. increased to a hurricane, which blew with greater violence until 12, than I have ever recollected, to have experienced; the City and wharves present this morning a melancholy aspect; it is impossible as yet to give any idea of the damage, but it has been greater than that Sustained in 1804, the Nonsuch, Carolina, and Hospital Ship, are the only vessels safe, the latter dismasted, some of the barges in seeking safety in the docks were carried in the streets, with the general Wreck, and are much damaged, the tide rose so high that Ships are now on the wharves--the beautiful new Bridge over Ashley river is entirely destroyed, and washed away. the Prison Ship parted her cable and is now on shore at James Island, a wreck of a vessel on fort reef--not Known whether the people on board were saved.

I had the honor to inform you in my letter of yesterday that I should proceed to port Royal with the barges, the weather prevented it, at the moment of departure, which I consider a fortunate escape. I shall be able tomorrow to give you a correct report of the damage sustained by the Schooners & Barges under my command. I Have the Honor to be With great respect Yr. most obt Svt

J H Dent


Commodore Hugh G. Campbell to Secretary of the Navy Jones

St Mary's 18 Sept. 1813

Sir

We had yesterday morning and night proceeding one of the most severe Gales I have ever witnessed--It commenced about 6 PM at NNE and veered to NBW when it blew with the greatest force and continued until about 1 A,M, at which time the Tide, which had Risen to an uncommon hight ceased to flow, and for about one hour we were favored with a calm--About two oclock the Gale recommenced at sw and blew until daybreak with equal, indeed I think encreased violence--here the destruction commenced, every Vessel in harbor drove on shore or sunk at their moorings--Gun Vessel No. 164 Jno. R Grayson commander, that had just returned from convoying Troops to Beaufort, upset at an anchor and of 26 souls on board at the time she went down only six were saved--Mr Grayson and two men reached the marsh on the Florida side and with Great difficulty supported themselves through the night and until 11 oclock next day, when they were discovered and taken off-- Mr Lecompt mids. on board, and two men were taken off from an old wreck about 2 1/4 miles down the River between this place and Point Peter, to which place they were taken No. 161 in ordinary Lies sunk a little above the harbor, I am in hopes she will be got up--No 62 the Vessel which was reported as condemnable, which Lay off the Town, having on board the men attached to vessels in ordinary, sunkat her anchors, but fortunately no lives were lost-- Nos. 160, 158, 63 and 165 are on shore above high water mark, they will be got off with little damage the two former are in ordinary-- No. 3 Hospital Vessel parted her cables and drifted over abody of marsh about 3 miles, and is now on the Florida shore have sent her assistance and hope she will be got off No 168 John Hulburd commander Laying off the south end of cumberland, not being able to fetch into this river above Point Peter, run for the harbor of Fernandina and anchord. above the Town, from which situation he driven some miles over a marsh and is now on shore about 6 or 7 miles from this place with the loss of his mainmast-- The damage attending the Gun Vessels on shore, I flatter myself will be trifling-- a few new Boats and 3 or 4 Cables & anchors will be required, some canvas and carpenters work-- The Gun Vessels and almost every Vessel on shore lay in the street-- No. 63 has lost her rudder and channels, Nos. 160 and 165 the Iron work of their rudders--the saucy Jack, Privateer of Charleston Laying ready to sail is now laying high and dry on a marsh that must be at least 5 feet above the line of Low Tide She draws 14 feet, seven feet being the common Rise

This town has suffered much Seven Inhabited houses blown down and several in frame, but no lives Lost,--much more fortunate than its neighboring town Fernandina, where I am told by a gentleman Just from that place, that 20 houses are blown, down every Vessel in port drove on shore, except a Swedish Brig, and a considerable amount of Mercantile property destroyed I have the honor to be With Great Respect Sir your obedient servant

Hugh G Campbell


Source: Dudley, William S., et al. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Volume II, 1813 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1992): 399-408.
[This series of edited naval documents is widely available in libraries including some, but not all, Federal Depository Libraries.]