Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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USS Hornet vs HMS Peacock

On October 26th 1812, the frigate USS Constitution and sloop USS Hornet left Boston, Massachusetts. Their orders were to raid British shipping along the coast of South America. On 13 December, the two American ships arrived off Salvador, Bahia Brazil, where they found the British sloop of war HMS Bonne Citoyenne. Hornet went to blockade Bonne Citoyenne and Constitution went looking for other prizes.

Aboard Hornet, Master Commandant James Lawrence was aware from Portuguese sources that a British ship of the line was expected. On 24 January 1813, HMS Montagu appeared and Lawrence retreated into Portuguese territorial waters. After dark, he headed north along the South American coast.

On 24 February, Lawrence pursued a British merchant brig into the mouth of the Demerara River. Lawrence then noted a British brig-sloop, HMS Espiegle, at anchor in the river, and another, HMS Peacock, approaching from the sea.

Hornet gained the advantage of the windward position. Lawrence then tacked, and as Hornet and Peacock passed each other on opposite tacks, they exchanged broadsides. The British fire was high and some American sailors were killed and wounded in the mastheads. The Hornet’s aim was better and the Peacock suffered heavy damage to the hull.

Captain William Peake of Peacock turned downwind but Lawrence had carried out the same maneuver more rapidly. The bow of Hornet came up against the stern of Peacock from where the British could not bring any guns, and from this position, Hornet's gunners shattered Peacock in a mere four minutes. Peake was killed and his First Lieutenant surrendered and almost immediately made a distress signal.

The British lost 5 men killed and 33 wounded, the Americans lost only 1 man killed and 4 wounded most to Peacock's first broadside.

Both vessels anchored. An American prize crew went aboard Peacock and tried to plug the holes below the waterline and throw the guns overboard to lighten the brig, but Peacock sank suddenly. Three Americans and nine British sailors were trapped below deck and drowned. Peacock sank in only 33 feet of water.