1812 On the High Seas
At the start of the war, the defense of the Atlantic coast was divided, with Commodore John Rodgers commanding the squadron off the northern half and Commodore Stephen Decatur commanding the squadron off the southern half. John Rodgers departed New York on June 21 in order to destroy British ships and outposts before they knew of the war declaration. Two days later his squadron chased H.M.S. Belvidera, which escaped him and took a warning into Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In response, Captain Philip Vere Broke, Commodore of Halifax, Nova Scotia, formed a squadron of his own and put to sea. On 15 July he encountered the United States Brig Nautilus just out of New York Harbor and captured it. This ship was still in the control of his squadron when on 17 July he encountered U.S.S. Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull commanding, off New Jersey. He gave chase, but the wind was light to calm, giving neither side an advantage. The chase continued for three days, with Constitution managing to stay just out of range of the British canon first by having its rowboats tow the ship and later by kedging – having the rowboats tow the ship’s anchors forward and drop them and dragging the ship forward by reeling in the rope. Finally on the morning of the 20th, Hull was able to take advantage of a light wind by wetting his sails and escaped to Boston. Broke’s squadron soon dispersed to cruise individually.
U.S.S. Essex, Captain David Porter commanding, had been delayed from joining Commodore Rodger’s squadron in June, but the ship was soon overhauled and put to sea from New York Navy Yard on 3 July. He patrolled up and down the east coast, seizing a number of prizes and prisoners that he sent to St John’s, Newfoundland, for exchange. On 15 August he easily captured the H.M.S. Alert in a “trifling” skirmish, the first British warship to be taken in the war.
After briefly stopping in Boston, Isaac Hull returned to sea in U.S.S. Constitution and continued his search for British warships, taking a number of smaller merchant prizes. Finally he received word from an American privateer that a British warship cruised south of Newfoundland, and Hull turned in pursuit.
On the afternoon of 28 August, Hull encountered a large enemy frigate and cleared his ship for action. After H.M.S. Guerriere’s first broadside fell short, it spent the better part of an hour trying to maneuver into a better position. Just after six o’clock the ships were close enough to begin heavy firing. Within fifteen minutes Guerriere had lost its mizzen mast and enough sails and rigging to make control of the ship difficult. The ships continued maneuvering and firing another fifteen minutes until Guerriere’s other two masts were completely shot away. Captain James Richard Dacres, surrendered his ship and Hull ordered its crew and baggage onto Constitution. The next day he burned the hulk, as it was too damaged to sail further.