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Argus Burning British Vessels

Command Changes In 1813

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Command Changes In 1813

In November 1812, President James Madison won re-election by a comfortable margin, supported by pro-war states in the south and west.  Most of New England formed a solid block of opposition, due to the damaging effect the embargo and the war had on trade.  Buoyed by the successes at sea and determined to correct the weaknesses that led to losses along the Canadian border, Madison rearranged his appointments.  Paul Hamilton had been overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his office, and in his stead Madison appointed William Jones, a former sea captain, merchant, and banker.  Jones aggressively began reorganization of the Navy.

Though the United States Navy had enjoyed a number of significant naval victories in the first months of the war, the situation began to change early in 1813.  The British Admiralty increased the force assigned to the North Atlantic station, expecting that Admiral Warren would use them to bring an end to the war.  Warren reinforced his blockades, and before long many American ships were trapped in port.  To keep the British from harassing American ports and shipping, William Jones allowed United States ships to cruise alone and encouraged them to cruise the Caribbean, where the British buildup on the North American coast would leave the islands unprotected.

After U.S.S. Constitution departed Brazil on January 6 with the prize H.M.S. Java, U.S.S. Hornet continued the blockade of Bahia until chased off by the arrival of a 74-gun British frigate.  Captain James Lawrence then took his ship northward and captured several merchant prizes.  On 24 February he encountered H.M.S. Peacock.  After a battle of fifteen minutes Peacock surrendered, her captain dead and the ship sinking fast.  Lawrence rescued as many people as he could, which included the crew of the merchant brig Hunter of Portland, Maine, which Peacock had captured a few days before.  Not having sufficient supplies to sustain them, Lawrence turned for home.

U.S.S. Chesapeake, based in Boston, had spent from mid-December 1812 to mid-April 1813 in a largely fruitless cruise near the equator and off the east coast of South America under the command of Samuel Evans.  It returned to Boston needing a new main and mizzen mast, which would delay its return to sea.  Secretary Jones expressed his disappointment in a letter to Evans and further criticized his extravagance in acquisitions for the ship’s cabin and wardroom.  Evans, who suffered from an old wound to his left eye, requested duty ashore.  He was given command of the New York Navy Yard and James Lawrence received Chesapeake.  Master Commandant James Biddle took command of U.S.S. Hornet.

Wishing to keep his fleet active, William Jones ordered Lawrence to take Chesapeake to sea at the earliest opportunity.  Like the other ports, Boston was under a blockade.  One enemy waiting off Boston was H.M.S. Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke.  Broke watched the refit of Chesapeake and longed to engage it.  He sent a challenge for single combat between the ships, but Chesapeake had already sailed on 1 June.  Chesapeake sighted Shannon as it departed the deeper waters of Boston Harbor and gave chase.  Broke’s crew had practiced gunnery skills in anticipation of this opportunity.  Lawrence’s crew was mostly untrained.

Commodore John Rodgers in U.S.S. President had slipped out of Boston in April in company with U.S.S. Congress to search for prey.  He spent a difficult five months patrolling British trade routes of the North Atlantic, taking eleven merchant ships and the British Navy schooner High Flyer.  Compared with his previous cruises, Rodgers was disappointed with his results, but he had caused the British admiralty to divert a number of their ships into an unsuccessful hunt for President.

In June, two weeks after the loss of Chesapeake, Lieutenant William H. Allen left New York Harbor in U.S.S. Argus on what would be the ‘most destructive cruise taken by an American naval vessel during the war.’  The ship carried the new United States Minister to France, William H. Crawford, and after landing him safely, commenced action against British ships in the English Channel and off the coast of Ireland.  The voyage was so successful, taking nineteen prizes, that several British ships were dispatched to deal with the menace.  On 14 August, H.M.S. Pelican encountered Argus, gave battle, killed Lieutenant Allen, and took the ship as a prize.