Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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USS Hornet vs HMS Penguin

Late in 1814, the United States Navy prepared a small squadron at New York City, to attack British shipping in the Indian Ocean. The squadron consisted of the frigate USS President commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, the sloops of war USS Peacock  commanded by Master Commandant Lewis Warrington, USS Hornet commanded by Master Commandant James Biddle and the brig-rigged tender USS Tom Bowline.

On January 15, Decatur tried to break out alone in President. However, the President was captured after being pursued by the waiting British squadron.

On January 22, the other ships sailed out under a storm and evaded the blockade. They made for a pre-arranged rendezvous off Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. During the voyage, Hornet lost touch with the other two vessels. Peacock and Tom Bowline reached the rendezvous first, on 18 March, but they had to leave because off weather. Hornet reached the island on 22 March.

Biddle, was about to drop anchor when a sail was sighted to the southeast. He went to investigate. This was the brig-sloop HMS Penguin, commanded by Captain James Dickenson. Sometime earlier, Penguin was sent from Cape Town to hunt an American privateer, which had been attacking British merchant ships.

As soon as Hornet was sighted, Dickenson prepared to engage. Penguin had the weather advantage and for a time, Hornet ran before Penguin. The two vessels exchanged broadsides for 15 minutes.

Dickenson turned downwind, to close with Hornet in an attempt to board and capture Hornet.  He was killed in the process. Penguin's bowsprit ran across Hornet's deck between the main and mizzenmasts, badly damaging the American rigging. Penguin's crew did not attempt to board Hornet and Hornet's crew prepared to board but Biddle stopped them, to continue the gunnery duel. Biddle believed that the British had surrendered at this point and prepared to step aboard Penguin but was shot by the British crew and wounded.

As the two vessels separated, Penguin's foremast fell, breaking off the bowsprit. The brig was severely battered by American shot, and unable to maneuver, Lieutenant McDonald, now in command of Penguin, surrendered. The British had lost 14 men killed and 28 wounded. The brig was severely damaged. By comparison, the Americans had lost only 2 killed, and 7 wounded.