Military history


Love of Fame Is a Noble Passion

THIS TIME a whole procession made its way up the harbor, Constitution in the lead, the Guerriere’s flag flying beneath the Stars and Stripes from her peak, then the frigates President, United States, and Congress, then Argus and Hornet taking up the rear. Word had spread through Boston from the moment of the Constitution’s arrival in the outer harbor the day before, anchoring at the lighthouse in the early hours of Sunday, August 30, 1812. Now, as the ship passed Long Wharf, chorus upon chorus of huzzahs echoed from a huge crowd gathered there, repeated by each of the merchant ships in the harbor.

Earlier in the morning, having anchored in Nantasket Roads overnight to await a favorable wind to carry her into the narrows, the ship had been sent tearing to quarters when her lookout spotted five unidentified armed vessels nearing Boston light. At 6:30 a.m, roused from his first peaceful night’s sleep in weeks, Hull gave the order to cut the two anchor cables and make all sail to try to get under the protection of the harbor forts before their last chance of escape was cut off. Hull had already decided to “sell our lives as dear as possible” in what he expected to be a last stand against the entire British squadron when he made out the American flag on the leadmost of the approaching men-of-war and recognized the outlines of Constitution’s half sister the President.

All day, boats surrounded the frigate at her anchorage at the navy yard, cheering the victorious crew; Bainbridge went aboard, as did Decatur from the United States and James Lawrence, now a master commandant and captain of the Hornet.

Rodgers’s squadron had returned with little to show for its ten-week cruise but an outbreak of scurvy that had left scores of his men dangerously sick. On June 23, two days out of New York, they had chased a lone British frigate, the Belvidera, off Sandy Hook, but Rodgers had bungled the engagement from the start. Rather than bring the outnumbered and outmatched enemy to close action as quickly as possible, Rodgers had repeatedly yawed to bring the President’s broadside to bear, hoping to cripple her with a long-range shot. Some of the President’s shots struck home, but each time he turned his ship, the chase got farther ahead. Ill luck added to miscalculation: ten minutes after the President began firing, one of her bow guns burst, killing and wounding sixteen men including Rodgers, whose leg was broken, and setting off the powder box with an explosion that destroyed both the main and forecastle decks around the gun. The Belvidera dumped fourteen tons of drinking water and threw her boats, anchors, and spare spars overboard to lighten ship and two and a half hours from the start of the action had run out of gunshot; in another few hours she had disappeared into the vast stretches of the Atlantic.

Back on the trail of the Jamaica convoy, Rodgers had sailed for three weeks across the Atlantic until he was within a day and a half of the English Channel before abandoning the futile chase. Twice the Americans had come within a whisker of their prize: on July 1 they had sailed into a floating sea of coconut shells and orange peels, and on July 9 they had taken a British merchant brig whose crew told Rodgers they had seen eighty-five sail the night before. Rodgers disconsolately wrote Secretary Hamilton on his arrival at Boston that his had been a “barren” cruise; they had taken only six British merchant ships and had also recaptured the Betsey, William Orne’s schooner that had been snapped up by the Guerriere and ordered to Halifax just before her battle with the Constitution. (The Betsey was recaptured yet again five days later, by the British frigate Acasta; two other of Rodgers’s prizes were also recaptured before they could make their way to an American port.) The “only consolation” Rodgers said he could take was “derived from knowing that our being at Sea obliged the Enemy to concentrate a considerable portion of his most active force and thereby prevented his capturing an incalculable amount of American property that would otherwise have fallen a sacrifice.” But even that was mostly wishful thinking; knowing that Rodgers had taken nearly the entire American navy on a wild goose chase far to the east had allowed Captain Broke to separate the ships of his squadron in the meanwhile, returning to the American coast with all but the sixty-four-gun Africa, which he left with the Jamaica convoy, and proceeding in Rodgers’s absence to send in a stream of prizes to Halifax.1

The next morning, September 1, Hull stepped ashore at 11:00 a.m. to more cheers and a seventeen-gun salute from an artillery company, returned by the Constitution’s guns. The captain “had barely room to plant his feet on the stone” as he clambered onto the pier from the boat that had rowed him ashore, said Moses Smith, so dense were the throngs; Smith estimated that thousands were there. From adjacent buildings women waved handkerchiefs and threw flowers. A letter awaiting Hull at the Exchange Coffee House carried the news of his brother’s death two weeks earlier.2

On Saturday night, the fifth, a huge dinner was held at Faneuil Hall for the Constitution’s officers, five hundred guests, and all of Boston’s leading citizens, with magnificent wreaths of flowers adorning the walls and a model of the Constitution in the gallery above with colors flying as they were during the battle. John Adams was unable to attend, pleading his age and the inclement weather, but he sent a couple of barbed toasts to be read on his behalf, each punctuated by an artillery salute from the street:

May every Commodore in our American Navy soon be made an Admiral, and every Captain a Commodore; with ships and squadrons, worthy of their commanders and worthy of the wealth, power, and dignity of their country!

Talbot, Truxton, Decatur, Little and Preble—Had their country given them the means, they would have been Blakes, Drakes and Nelsons!3

For weeks Federalist Boston celebrated in spite of itself. The manager of Boston’s Federal Street Theater hastened into production a new addition to the bill:

A new naval Overture composed by Mr. Hewett

To which will be added, the first time,

A New Patriotic Effusion, called the


A Tribute to the Brave!

written to commemorate the late brilliant Naval


Amos Evans went to the theater to see it on opening night; “a very foolish, ridiculous thing,” he said in his diary, remarking too that the actors of the serious works on the program needed to study Hamlet’s advice to the players, so awfully had they “butchered” and “murdered” their parts with overacting.4 But the manager knew his business: the house was packed. The dramatization of the naval battle ended with a song, “Huzza for the Constitution,” with the chorus, “With our true noble Captain we fought on the main … And we hope that with him, we’ll soon conquer again.”5

A raft of other odes to Hull and the Constitution appeared on broadsides around town.

They met with a Warrior, by name and by nature,

That had challeng’d the whole Yankee fleet,

Our sailors, they stood, every man at his station.

The Briton disdain’d to retreat.

In a broadside or two, not a mast was left standing,

The deck it was cover’d with slain;

So Hull gave the Guerriere a good reprimanding

For disturbing the rights of the main.6

And, to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”:

Come, come my lads, the glasses raise;

Let’s drink to gallant Hull, Sir,

For well, our Constitution, he

Sustain’d against John Bull, Sir.

Where’s now the Guerrere? Deep she sinks

Beneath old Neptune’s Acres; Hull,

Hull’s the lad, will make them glad

To bear away with Dacres.

Our good Live Oak ’gainst British Oak

On Ocean shall maintain, Sir,

With Yankee balls and Hearts of Oak

Its claims to Ocean, vain, Sir.7

A few of the more skillful editorial writers for the Federalist papers twisted themselves into logical knots trying to explain the contradiction of celebrating victory in a war they opposed. Boston’s Repertory newspaper opined that the pleasure to be derived from Hull’s success came chiefly from the proof it offered “that in this disastrous war which will terminate most certainly in our ruin on the ocean, we shall have the consolation of shewing that it is neither through want of naval skill, or courage, or good conduct in our officers or men, that we shall not succeed, but to the imbecility, or treachery, or lukewarmness of our administration.” The editor added that the town’s Republican newspaper, the Chronicle, which “has uniformly been the zealous opponent of a naval establishment,… to be consistent ought to lament Hull’s victory.”8

But those barbs cut two ways; part of the glee that Boston took in the first triumph at sea was undeniably due to news arriving at the very same instant of the first disaster on land. William Hull—Isaac Hull’s uncle, no less, a Revolutionary war officer who was leading the western prong of what was to be a three-pronged attack on Montreal, Niagara, and the Detroit frontier—had already become the butt of a relentless series of facetious barbs for his disorganized and hesitant start. In the same issue that lauded the Constitution’s victory, the Repertory ran an item under the headline PROGRESS OF THE WAR that was par for the treatment he had been receiving from the war’s critics: “The news from Gen Hull’s army is that he has taken 836 Merino SHEEP, which will probably be detained till a cartel is arranged for exchange of prisoners.”9

Two days later, on September 3, news arrived in Boston that General Hull and his entire army had been taken prisoner on August 16. Evans noted that at the dinner at Faneuil Hall one of the guests had said he couldn’t resist observing that “we had a Hull Up and a Hull Down,” but the news at the Exchange Coffee House a few days later added details that stilled the humor, even as they fed Federalist schadenfreude. General Hull had apparently surrendered Fort Detroit without any resistance at all, panicked by rumors that a vast band of Indians was preparing to descend on the fort and massacre all the women and children. The rumors were actually a hoax planted by the British army commander, Isaac Brock: he had written a letter addressed to a fellow British general at a nearby post asking that no more Indians be sent to reinforce his position because he already had five thousand and was running short of provisions. Brock arranged for the letter to fall into American hands, then sent Hull a surrender demand stating, “It is far from my inclination to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond controul the moment the contest commences.” And so without consulting any of his officers Hull had waved a white flag, surrendering his twenty-five hundred men without firing a shot.10

Evans noted in his diary that two of the Guerriere’s officers, free to move about town on parole while waiting to be exchanged as prisoners of war, had come by to see him and reported that they were delighted with the attention paid to them by the citizens of Boston, and had been overwhelmed with invitations to dine.11

“WITH OUR true noble Captain we fought on the main … And we hope that with him, we’ll soon conquer again”: on the stage of the Federal Street Theater the chorus of officers, sailors, and marines of the Constitution had marched up State Street in the final scene, colors flying, after singing that refrain; but it was not to be. The same day Isaac Hull set foot ashore and received the news of his brother’s death, he had closed himself in his room at the Exchange Coffee House and written to Secretary Hamilton asking to be relieved of his command:

Having had the misfortune to lose a brother since my departure from this place, on whom depended my father’s family, and with whom all my private concerns have been left ever since I joined the Navy, makes it absolutely necessary that I should take a short time to make provision for my younger brothers, and to see my father placed in a comfortable situation. I have therefore to request that you will be pleased to order a commander to the Constitution to take my place.12

His family obligations were real enough, but so too was his manifest desire for some tranquillity; Hull never had the killer instinct or the boastful drive of a Decatur or Bainbridge or Rodgers. “It is so dreadful to see my men wounded and suffering,” Hull confessed to a friend, and Moses Smith recalled that his captain “even looked more truly noble, bending over the hammock of a wounded tar, than when invading and conquering the enemy.” Beyond offering praise for the bravery of his crew, Hull never once afterward spoke or wrote—even privately to friends—of his part in the taking of the Guerriere. He even sent Hamilton a second, much shorter account of the action a few days after his first report, fearing the first would sound too vain; he told Hamilton, “As it’s my opinion that the less that is said about a brilliant act the better, I have therefore given you a short sketch which I should prefer having published.”

Bainbridge, who had missed by a day or two getting the command of the Constitution when she was in port a month earlier, wrote Hamilton hard on the heels of Hull’s letter, offering what he saw as the perfect solution: he would take the Constitution, but without giving up his claim to the Boston Navy Yard whenever he wanted it back. “Captain Hull could be appointed to the command of this Navy Yard, during my absence from it,” Bainbridge proposed. Agreeing to the switch and no doubt feeling he had enough troubles without worrying about hypothetical future assignments, Hamilton replied on September 9, ordering the change of commands and not addressing Bainbridge’s “during my absence” proviso.13

At four in the afternoon of September 15 Commodore William Bainbridge went aboard the Constitution, hoisted his broad red pennant, and found himself with a mutiny on his hands before he could even open his mouth.

Breaking ranks, the crew swarmed around Captain Hull, begged him to stay, gave him a thundering three cheers, and swore they would sail out and take the British flagship, the sixty-four-gun Africa, with him as their captain. But if they had to serve under Captain Bainbridge, they demanded to be transferred, at once, to any other vessel. In the midst of the uproar the ship’s armorer, Leonard Hayes, was placed under arrest and hauled off onto one of the nearby gunboats “on the charge of insolent and mutinous language.”

Finally Bainbridge addressed the crew. He demanded to know whether there were any among them who had actually sailed with him before and refused to go with him now: “My men, what do you know about me?” It was the wrong question: they knew plenty. One after another of the men spoke up to say that they had indeed sailed with him and would not do it again if they could help it. One man declared he had been with Bainbridge on the Philadelphia “and had been badly used.” Though the man allowed “it might be altered now,” he would still prefer going with Captain Hull, “or any of the other commanders.”14

Eighteen sentries were posted all over the ship that night, but that did not prevent two of the crew from slipping over the side and stealing the cutter to try to make a break for it. They were quickly caught when they floated past an anchored gunboat nearby and were returned to the Constitution in the morning.

All hands were called aft, and Bainbridge for the first time in his career decided that he might gain more by not flogging a recalcitrant crewman. Addressing the assembled crew, Bainbridge proposed a deal: “I will not punish these men as they deserve if you will consent to go in the ship.” Moses Smith recalled that “this was appealing to our best feelings,” and “nearly every man consented, to save his brother sailors from punishment.” The only punishment recorded aboard the Constitution for the next two and a half months occurred a week later, and even that won Bainbridge support from the crew: a seaman named George Mitchell, ashore on liberty, was returned to the ship one afternoon by an army recruiting agent. If Mitchell had just run away he probably would still have had the crew’s sympathy, but attempting to enlist in the rival service, and pocketing the eight-dollar bounty for it, was another matter. “No one could justify him,” Smith said. He got twelve lashes, probably the mildest sentence Bainbridge had ever awarded for such an offense, too mild as far as most of the crew was concerned.15

Hull spent the rest of the fall settling his brother’s estate and quickly proposing marriage to, and equally quickly being accepted by, a lovely, intelligent, and much-sought-after young woman from his home state of Connecticut. Ann Hart was twenty-one, just over half his age. One of her male acquaintances reported with ill-concealed jealousy that “Miss Ann Hart bestowed her hand … on Victory as personified by our little fat captain, Isaac Hull, who is now reposing in the shade of his laurels”; and Hull himself could not resist gloating in a letter to John Bullus, “I find the last frigate I had the good fortune to capture as tight a little boat as I could wish … I only wish you could have seen more of her before I took my departure. Had you I am sure you would have liked her construction.” Ann, for her part, told a friend, “What a delightful thing it must be to be the wife of a hero.”

The only sour note to the beginning of what would prove to be thirty years of happy marriage was predictably provided by William Bainbridge. On the newlyweds’ return to Boston from New York, where Hull had been temporarily assigned for a few months before taking up his post at the Boston Navy Yard, they discovered that Mrs. Bainbridge and her children were still occupying the commandant’s house and refused to move out. The Hulls had to rent lodgings. Mrs. Hull and Mrs. Bainbridge hated each other at first sight.16

ON SEPTEMBER 26 a report on the Exchange Coffee House books in Boston noted that Sir John Borlase Warren, Baronet, Knight of the Bath, Admiral of the Blue, had arrived in Halifax to assume command of all of His Majesty’s naval forces in the northern half of the American hemisphere. The Admiralty had decided to consolidate all four stations in British North America and the Caribbean into a single unified command; besides the 32 ships of the North American station based in Halifax, Warren was to have at his disposal the 28 ships of the Leeward Islands station based at Antigua, the 18 of the Jamaica station based at Port Royal, and the 12 of the Newfoundland station based at St. John’s—some 90 ships in all, among them 18 frigates and 5 ships of the line. Warren arrived on the seventy-four-gun San Domingo, accompanied by a second ship of the line, the seventy-four-gun Poictiers, plus two sloops of war and a schooner; two more frigates were to follow as soon as possible.17

Warren was fifty-nine, a man of good looks and smooth manner, former ambassador to Russia, former member of Parliament; all in all, more a diplomat and politician than an admiral. He had previously served as commander in chief of the Halifax station from 1807 to 1810, sent out at that time to smooth things over with the United States after the British government had recalled Admiral Berkeley in the aftermath of the Chesapeake affair.

Warren was the epitome of the aristocrat who had made an effortless ascent in the Royal Navy. Entered as an able seaman on the books of the ship of the line Marlborough in 1771 when he was eighteen—and actually attending Cambridge University—he did not begin serving on a naval vessel until six years later. Within a year he was a lieutenant, three years after that a captain. Warren had, however, gone on to distinguish himself as a squadron commander, in 1798 intercepting a French flotilla off the coast of Ireland that was carrying five thousand troops, a feat for which he was voted a gold medal by Parliament. But he had never commanded a force larger than a frigate squadron and had never had to deal with larger questions of naval strategy.18

Warren came bearing both carrots and sticks. Empowered to open negotiations with the American government, he wrote at once to Secretary of State Monroe proposing an immediate cessation of hostilities based on Britain’s revocation of the orders in council.19

He was also immediately inundated with the administrative responsibilities of managing four stations: ninety ships and twelve thousand men to supply and keep fed, complaints from merchants to be answered, chronic shortages of dockyard supplies to deal with. Then there was the avalanche of forms that the Admiralty bureaucracy constantly demanded: statistical compilations of punishments inflicted on each ship; weekly returns of the sick and wounded on His Majesty’s vessels itemized by number on the sick list, number confined to bed, number in hospitals, number discharged back to duty, and then broken down by cause—intermittent fevers, continued fevers, catarrhs, pneumonic inflammation, consumption, rheumatism, venereal disease, scurvy, ulcers, wounds and accidents, dysentery, diarrhea; preprinted grids two pages wide to be filled in for each ship listing how much bread, beer, brandy, wine, rum, beef, pork, pease, oatmeal, flour, suet, fruit, butter, cheese, rice, sugar, oil, vinegar, and water was on board, how many men short of complement each was, what condition each ship was in.20 Adding to all the paperwork was an accounting task that unmistakably occupied a good deal of Warren’s attention, filling ledger after ledger with meticulous entries tracking the value of every prize brought in to the vice admiralty courts at Halifax and Bermuda, calculating the one-twelfth share due the flag admiral, converting Halifax and Bermuda currency to sterling, deducting the prize agent’s 5 percent commission and the 5 percent of the remainder assessed to support the naval pensioners at Greenwich Hospital, and subtracting miscellaneous advances the admiral had had his prize agent in Bermuda make for house rent, printing bills, twelve dozen bottles of Champagne, a pianoforte, hire of a horse and gig, two rounds of beef, a sheep, his annual subscription to the Halifax Bible Society, pocket money. He was said to employ one clerk full-time just keeping track of his prize money accounts, and by the end of his first year of managing Great Britain’s war with America on the high seas the admiral’s take, even after deducting all those living expenses his agent had advanced, was 15,238 pounds, 16 shillings, and 2 pence—about $60,000 in 1812, the equivalent of something like $1 million today. He would receive another £13,602 in prize money a year and a half after that.21

When the admiral turned his attention to running the war, he found that much of the strength of his force was illusory and many of his options were distinctly limited. His predecessor in Halifax, Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer, had done almost nothing to prepare for war. Sawyer had waited until June 22 to return to Halifax from Bermuda, where the squadron had spent the winter, and most of his ships arrived home in a state of disrepair and well below their complement owing to sickness and desertions and a severe shortage of naval stores and trained shipwrights in Bermuda. The Halifax dockyard was in a shambles too. A proclamation offering a full pardon to any naval deserters in the Maritime Provinces who returned to duty brought few takers. Then a series of mishaps in August and September wreaked more havoc. The brig Emulous ran aground in a storm off Nova Scotia; the schooner Chub was fired on and damaged beyond immediate repair in a case of mistaken identity during a foggy night; the frigate Barbadoes struck a notorious shipwrecking bar off tiny Sable Island two hundred miles southeast of Halifax, and although her crew and £60,000 she was carrying for the dockyard payroll were saved, the ship was bashed to pieces on the beach; and a severely undermanned sloop of war, the Laura, was taken by a French privateer in a battle that left almost half the British crew dead. The small squadron that had put to sea under Broke in July—the four frigates plus the sixty-four-gun Africa that had chased the Constitution off New Jersey—represented almost the entire serviceable portion of the station’s paper strength for most of the summer.

Hundreds of American privateers were already swarming the waters off the Maritime Provinces, and Halifax itself remained woefully undefended, but a request from Sawyer to the Newfoundland station for reinforcements was rebuffed; most of its ships were busy protecting the fishing fleet on the Grand Banks. The Caribbean stations had their own problems, not least that their available ships were similarly committed to escorting convoys and few could be spared to initiate offensive operations on the American coast.22

In early October Warren issued a flurry of sailing orders, trying to cover as many contingencies as possible: The flagship San Domingo, in which Warren had just arrived, would cruise the Grand Banks with the Africa for the “succor and protection” of several valuable British convoys. A squadron consisting of the ship of the line Poictiers, two frigates, two sloops of war, and a schooner was ordered to the capes of the Chesapeake to protect British trade passing to and from the West Indies and gather intelligence on American naval movements. The frigates Shannon, Nymphe, and Tenedos and the brig sloop Curlew were to cruise the North Atlantic “for such time as circumstances of Wind and Weather or information may tender expedient, but taking care to return here by the 15th of November” while looking out for the convoys from Newfoundland that Rodgers’s squadron was believed to be pursuing. Several frigates and smaller ships were to bottle up Charleston harbor; the frigate Belvidera to cruise the mid-Atlantic coast of America for six weeks for “the destruction and annoyance of the Enemy”; a powerful squadron of nine ships to patrol the coast and harbors of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and “in the event of invasion” to “proceed forthwith to the point of attack with the whole of your squadron to cooperate with and aid and assist the Army.”23

At the same time he sent his own urgent plea to the Admiralty in London for reinforcements “to enable me to meet the exertions of the Enemy, who seem to be determined to persevere in the annoyance and destruction of the commerce of Great Britain.”24 He enclosed a copy of an American privateer’s commission found on the prize master of a captured British ship retaken by the San Domingo; it was numbered 318, which seemed to fully confirm his worst apprehensions about the size of the problem he had on his hands protecting British convoys and guarding against surprise attacks on the Maritime Provinces.

Warren’s orders authorized him to “attack, sink, burn or otherwise destroy” the commerce and navy of the United States but also instructed him to “exercise all possible forbearance” while the prospect of negotiations remained alive.25 In many ways, both sides were still treating it as a short, civilized war in the early fall of 1812. Amid all his preparations for belligerency, Warren casually dispatched the frigate Spartan to the island of Madeira in November to pick up a shipload of wine to keep the squadron supplied in its accustomed fashion.26 Monroe took an early opportunity of writing to Warren that “it is the sincere desire of the President to see (and to promote, so far as depends on the United States,) that the war which exists between our countries be conducted with the utmost regard to humanity.” And officers on both sides had gone out of their way to make honorable, even chivalric gestures to one another: Dacres’s magnanimous act of allowing the impressed Americans in the Guerriere’s crew to go below during the battle was widely noted, as was his praise of the treatment the British had received aboard the Constitution after being taken prisoner. “I feel it my duty to state,” Dacres wrote Vice Admiral John T. Duckworth in Newfoundland, “that the conduct of Captain Hull and his Officers to our Men has been that of a brave Enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our Men losing the smallest trifle.”27

Arrangements for exchanging naval prisoners of war were quickly agreed to, with cartel vessels chartered to carry prisoners back to their respective countries. The agreement stipulated that prisoners on both sides would be returned without delay and established relative values for officers of different ranks: one admiral was worth 60 men, a commodore 20, a captain of a line of battle ship 15, a frigate captain 10, a lieutenant 6, a midshipman or the master of a merchant vessel 3. If the balance sheet did not even out on both sides, prisoners would still be returned promptly, in the meantime giving their parole of honor that they would not resume any naval or military duty until regularly exchanged.28 In August, when David Porter in the frigate Essex captured the British sloop of war Alert in the middle of the Atlantic about five hundred miles west of the Azores, the two captains quickly reached a gentleman’s agreement skipping the formality of having to take the British prisoners back to America at all. Porter put the Alert’s crew back on their own ship, threw their guns overboard, and accepted their parole for themselves and their ship. The agreement transformed the prize directly into a “sea cartel” that would sail to St. Johns, put the prisoners ashore, and then proceed to New York with any American prisoners released in exchange. A single lieutenant from the Essex was placed aboard the Alert to command the ship.29 This was actually playing fast and loose with the laws of war, and such a procedure was definitely not to the strategic advantage of a naval power like Britain that enjoyed such a huge numerical advantage of force: Admiral Duckworth wrote to Secretary Hamilton protesting the arrangement “in the strongest manner,” pointing out that it not only relieved the capturing vessel of the burden of her prisoners without having to break her cruise or even diminish her crew by manning the prize, but also secured the prize against recapture, since it was now effectively sailing under a flag of truce. Duckworth noted that to be properly recognized as a cartel, a ship first needed to enter a port of the nation by which she had been captured.

Nevertheless, the admiral continued, he was prepared to honor the agreement as a token of British goodwill:

I am willing to give proof at once of my respect for the liberality with which the captain of the Essex has acted, in more than one instance towards the British subjects who have fallen into his hands; of the sacred obligation that is always felt, to fulfill the engagements of a British officer; and of my confidence in the disposition of his royal highness the prince regent, to allay the violence of war by encouraging a reciprocation of that courtesy by which its pressure upon individuals may be so essentially diminished.30

The Alert subsequently arrived in New York as agreed, carrying 232 released American prisoners.31

But even in the first months of the fighting, humanity was already beginning to fray against the inevitable rough friction of war. On September 11 a cartel arrived in Boston with the crew of the brig Nautilus, which had been captured July 16 off New Jersey, the first American navy ship taken in the war. They had several stories to tell of the less-than-chivalric treatment American prisoners had received in Halifax. One midshipman, manning a prize that was recaptured by a British frigate, had his sword taken from him by the captain, who then stamped on it, threw it overboard, and said, “There’s one damn Yankee sword gone.” Both sides traded accusations of attempts to “seduce” their prisoners to desert and join the other’s navy.

Much more seriously, six of the crew of the Nautilus had been detained in Halifax and were not returned with the other exchanged Americans. Claiming that the men were British subjects, Captain Broke ordered them sent to England for examination and possible trial on a charge of bearing arms against the king, which was treason, punishable by death.32 Commodore Rodgers learned of this just as the cartel ship was leaving Boston harbor on its way back to Halifax with the prisoners of the Guerriere; he sent a boat to halt the ship and took off twelve of the British prisoners in retaliation, announcing that they would be held hostage and subjected to whatever fate the Americans were.

The British chargé d’affaires protested this “outrage,” and Warren sent a warning of his own directly to Monroe threatening retaliation against any repetition of Rodgers’s “extremely reprehensible” conduct.

The admiral added, however, that it was “still very much my wish … during the continuance of the differences existing between the two countries to adopt every measure that might render the effect of war less rigorous.”33

IN LITTLE over a month of solo cruising, the Essex under David Porter’s command had taken eight enemy merchant ships and a sloop of war, amply affirming the wisdom of dispersing the small American naval force for maximum “annoyance” of the enemy. Porter estimated that along with the 424 prisoners he captured, he had taken or destroyed property worth $300,000.34 In taking the Alert he had been able to decoy the smaller British ship by a ruse de guerre of discreetly throwing out two drags astern while sending a few men aloft to put on a disorganized show of trying to shake out the reefs in the topsails, looking for the world like an undermanned merchantman trying to make a desperate getaway. The crew went to quarters and cleared for action but kept their gunports closed until the Alert came within range, whereupon Porter ran up the American ensign, the gunports flew open, and the Essex fired a broadside, shooting the tampions out of the end of the guns along with the first round. The Alert struck in eight minutes. Of course it was an uneven contest, but it also showed what a single frigate sailing alone could do.35 Upon his arrival at the mouth of the Delaware in early September, Porter wrote Bainbridge, “I hope however to have another slap at them ere long that will gall them still more.”36

With the example of Constitution and Essex before them, both Bainbridge and Rodgers wrote Secretary Hamilton reiterating the advantage of having the American frigates sail singly to strike most effectively at the enemy’s commerce. “It will at the same time afford now and then an opportunity to our Frigates and theirs, of falling in singly, to our advantage,” added Rodgers. Bainbridge promised the secretary that by ordering the ships to venture out individually “you would occasionally hear glad tidings of us,” whereas “if we are kept together in squadron … the whole are scarcely of more advantage than one ship would be.” Rodgers thought that there might be a benefit in keeping in small squadrons while leaving port and separating once at sea to confuse the British as to the disposition and intentions of the American force, and Hamilton agreed to that suggestion. He ordered Rodgers in the President, Bainbridge in the Constitution, and Decatur in the United States to form their squadrons by selecting, in order of seniority, one of the smaller frigates from among the Congress, Chesapeake, and Essex; each would also be assigned a small brig to complete his squadron.37

But Hamilton left it entirely up to the three senior captains to decide where they would cruise, which while satisfying their personal inclinations for independence abandoned any attempt at strategic planning or coordination of the fight at a higher level; Hamilton did not even suggest that the captains consult with one another to make sure their plans did not conflict. And so each absurdly kept his intentions a secret from the others.

While the Constitution awaited the completion of her repairs at the Charlestown Navy Yard, Bainbridge wrote his old friend William Jones of Philadelphia asking for advice on where the best pickings might be had. Jones replied with a long letter, promising to forward a copy of Elmores Indian Directory, which included details on the sailing schedules and routes of the British East India trade, and drawing on his own expertise as a shipping merchant and captain to recommend six cruising grounds best suited “for intercepting the British trade.” Jones thought Rodgers had erred in his recent cruise by being too far north along the meridian of the Azores; the West India fleets tended to pass to the south of the tail of the Grand Banks to avoid the fog and pass near the Azores before turning to the north after passing east of the islands, and “from one or two degrees North” of the Azores “is an excellent position.” Other promising spots were along the coast of Portugal, on the track of convoys between Britain and Gibraltar; off Cape Canaveral, where “in the outer verge of the Stream you intercept to a certainty everything from Jamaica through the Gulph and have the ports of Georgia and the Carolinas near you”; the Crooked Island passage in the Bahamas, “to intercept trade from the East end of Jamaica”; and the coast of Brazil, “with which the British drive a valuable trade and the returns are very frequently in a very convenient Commodity Viz Gold Bars and Coin and other compact valuables.” Jones added that “a Brilliant Cruize ought no doubt be made in the Indian seas, but for the distance and absolute deprivation of a Single friendly Port to refit in Case of Accidents to which you would be much exposed”; on balance there was probably “too much of chance and responsibility to warrant the enterprize with so important a part of our Gallant little Navy.”38

The Constitution had sustained significant damage to her spars and rigging that needed the full attention of the navy yard, but all the ships that had come into Boston needed resupplies of provisions and stores as well. Complete supplies for even one of the smaller frigates included twenty tons of bread in a hundred casks, ten tons of beef and ten tons of pork in another hundred barrels each, three thousand gallons of rum, two tons of cheese, six tons of flour and cornmeal, two tons of rice, and eighty barrels of potatoes. There was coal for the galley stove and forge, five hundred pounds of musket balls, a thousand flints, a hundred pounds of slow match, seventy cartridge bags and like numbers of round shot and grapeshot or canister shot and several hundred pounds of powder for every gun. There were huge lists of supplies and spare parts that every ship needed to keep on hand and well stocked at all times to deal with the emergencies that arose at sea, everything from fifty pounds of 20d nails to caulking mallets and rasps and hundreds upon hundreds of gallons of paint and turpentine and varnish, spare pump chains and bolts, sewing twine and iron bar stock, fishing lines and fire buckets, barrel hoops and soldering irons.39

The simultaneous arrival of Hull and Rodgers nearly drove the navy’s Boston agent, Amos Binney, to despair. He also had no money. By the third week in September the warehouse at the navy yard that could hold 1,200 barrels of salt provisions was empty. On October 7 Binney wrote Hamilton that he had actually advanced $52,501.96 on his own account, borrowing from banks and even personal friends to meet the navy payroll, procure medicines and provisions, and proceed with repairs of the battle damage sustained by the Constitution and the President: “I have exhausted every resource within my controul, and am paying interest on the most of this sum. I have been induced to make these extra exertions that the Squadrons should not be detained in port one moment on my acct at a crisis like the present.”40

The Constitution needed all new lower masts, many other new spars, patches to the outer layer of her hull, an entire new set of standing rigging. Bainbridge wrote Jones that he was even working Sundays to get the work done: “So you’ll perceive, that I dare even break the Sabbath in this Religious Land.” He was also so envious of Rodgers’s having the President that he offered him $5,000 to switch ships. Rodgers declined, and both Rodgers’s and Decatur’s squadrons got under way October 8, “whither bound, I know not,” Bainbridge said.41 It was actually Decatur’s ship that was now considered the poorest sailer of the three large frigates: the United States was known derisively as the “Old Wagon.”

The Constitution followed them out to sea three weeks later. Passing a fort in the harbor, the ship was hailed with three cheers from the soldiers. Before they sailed, Amos Evans noted in his journal that the congressional elections in Maryland had just gone strongly in favor of the Federalists. “What miserable dunces the people are to be so easily gulld!” Evans fumed. Widespread revulsion over the Baltimore riots had cost the Republicans their majority in the state, and among those newly elected to the House was Alexander Hanson, the editor whose newspaper, the Federal Republican, had been the chief target of the mob.42

·    ·    ·

HIS BRITANNIC Majesty’s frigate Macedonian, Captain John Surman Carden, had been assigned to the Lisbon station since leaving Norfolk the previous winter, and among its tedious tasks was to carry home from the Peninsula the invalided Marquis of Londonderry, Charles William Stewart. Stewart had been serving as Wellington’s adjutant general in the campaign against Napoleon’s army in Spain, and when the nobleman arrived at Spithead, he expressed his “gratification of the Comforts & attentions he had receiv’d” on the voyage, Carden recalled, and asked the captain “what in the way of the Naval Service he could do for me.” Carden replied that the command of a frigate was all he could wish for, but ventured to suggest that the “only possible” addition to his ambition would be “a Cruise on the Western Ocean, where chances would be more favourable to my future prospects.” It was a wish, Carden later ruefully recalled, which only went to prove “how short sighted are the Creatures of this World.”43

In the ways of the Royal Navy and the influence of the well-connected, Carden received orders on September 29, 1812, to convoy an East Indies merchantman past Madeira, at which point he would be free to sweep the Western Ocean, hunting any French or American prizes he could find, for as long as his water and provisions held out.

The Macedonian had a reputation as a “crack ship”; she was also as unhappy a ship as there was. Carden was, to be sure, an experienced captain who appreciated the value of a well-trained crew, and he constantly exercised his men at the guns. He even encouraged incompetent men to desert with the winking assurance that he would not try to pursue them. The captain would eye a man with a meaningful look and order him to go ashore “to cut broom.” The “broomers” would not return, and nothing more was ever said about them. But Carden was also an unflinching disciplinarian, regularly meting out sentences of three dozen lashes; punishing a man who was accused, probably falsely, of stealing a midshipman’s handkerchief with three hundred lashes; and teaching a lesson to the ship’s drummer who dared to demand a court-martial over a trivial offense by making sure he received a sentence of two hundred lashes through the fleet, a warning to any other men who had the insolence to question the captain’s authority to order punishment.

The real trouble was Carden’s first lieutenant, David Hope, a man who was not only a disciplinarian but a sadist, and especially enjoyed watching the ship’s boys being whipped. Since Hope joined the ship, punishments had become “an almost every-day scene,” said seaman Samuel Leech, who remembered the “gleam of savage animation” that would come over the lieutenant’s face when one of his victims was stripped and seized to the grating in preparation for a flogging.44

On Sunday morning, October 25, the Macedonian was about halfway between the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands, having parted company with the Indiaman three days earlier. For several days a shark, with its attendant pilot fish, had accompanied the ship: an ill omen that more than a few of her crew declared to be a presentiment that they would never see England again. The Sunday morning had brought a stiff breeze from the southeast. Just after breakfast the crew was mustered on the spar deck in their customary Sunday dress clothes—blue jackets, black glossy hats with black ribbons bearing the name of the ship painted on them—when the lookout on the masthead hailed the deck: “Sail ho!”

Since leaving Madeira, Carden had been more anxious than usual, on deck nearly all the time, constantly hectoring the man on the masthead to “keep a good look-out.” Carden came on deck in a flash, hailing, “Mast-head, there, where away?” The lookout reported that she was a large, square-rigged ship, on the lee beam. Then a few minutes later he added, “A large frigate, bearing down upon us, sir!” The crew was murmuring its own views of the stranger’s identity when Carden interrupted with “Keep silence, fore and aft!” and then “All hands clear the ship for action!”45

Eight impressed Americans were on the crew, and one of them, John Card, ventured to approach the captain and declare his objections to fighting against his own countrymen, should the ship prove to be an American. Carden was not the man to make the kind of magnanimous and chivalrous gesture Dacres had when he allowed the Americans on the Guerriere to go below. Erupting in fury, he ordered Card to his station and threatened to shoot him if he made the request again.46

At around 8:30 a.m. the approaching frigate was about three miles away when she suddenly wore around in the opposite direction, revealing the Stars and Stripes flying from her tops. Lieutenant Hope had just been urging Carden to steer directly for the enemy’s bows and risk taking a raking fire during the approach in order to close as quickly as possible; he brushed aside the captain’s concern about keeping the weather gauge, saying it did not matter whether they engaged from windward or leeward “as long as we went close alongside of the enemy.”47 Carden proposed keeping to windward and using that advantage to get past the enemy’s broadside at a safe distance and then wear around on to her stern, so he could then close the gap between the ships without being exposed to raking fire while also taking advantage of the apparently superior sailing speed of his ship. But the enemy’s maneuver seemed baffling on all counts. The British officers at first thought it must mean that she had thought better of seeking a fight and was fleeing. Carden ordered his ship brought closer to the wind to keep the windward position and the possibility of carrying out his original intention. The ships were now on a parallel course, sailing in the same direction, a lateral distance of about half a mile separating their tracks.

Then the enemy wore again, back on to her original course, though a bit farther off. As the two ships passed on opposite tacks, at about 9:00 a.m., the enemy’s entire lower gun deck erupted in a billow of flame and smoke. All the shot fell short, but Carden now knew he was up against one of the large American frigates, armed with a broadside of fifteen 24-pound long guns. A few minutes later he wore in pursuit.48

With the battle joined, Carden no doubt felt honor bound to close as rapidly as possible in the traditionally aggressive British fashion, but having let himself be baffled by the enemy’s initial maneuvers had placed him in the least favorable position to do so. A substantial lateral distance still separated them, and Carden was now facing a long, angling approach that exposed him to constant fire from the broadsides of an enemy whose guns substantially outranged his own eighteen-pounders. Overconfidently he pressed on; almost at once the American frigate’s fire began doing horrific execution. Samuel Leech had the job of powder boy, running filled cartridges from the magazine up to his gun, and all around him men were dropping. On one trip up from the magazine he suddenly saw blood flying from the severed arm of one of the men at his gun; he had seen nothing strike the man, just the instant effect of an incoming shot. A Portuguese boy stationed on the quarterdeck was carrying powder when it ignited, searing most of the flesh off his face. The boy “lifted up both hands, as if imploring relief, when a passing shot instantly cut him in two,” Leech said. Another man had his hand cut off by a shot, and then almost at the same moment a ball tore through his guts. Two seamen nearby caught him by the arms and, seeing the hopelessness of his situation, simply threw him overboard to a comparatively merciful death. Another man was carried past with the blood coursing out of him. “I distinctly heard the large blood-drops fall pat, pat, pat on the deck,” Leech recalled; “his wounds were mortal.” The goat kept by the officers to supply the wardroom with milk had her legs shot off and was thrown overboard. “The work of death went on in a manner which must have been satisfactory even to the King of Terrors himself,” Leech wrote.

At one point the American frigate made a sharp jog to starboard, then back on course, increasing his range, drawing out the British frigate’s ordeal. A little over an hour into the battle, when Carden finally succeeded in getting within half a musket shot, one hundred yards, it was over. All three of the Macedonian’s topmasts were gone, the main yard shot through and hanging in the slings that were rigged to hold up the spars during action. All the quarterdeck carronades on the starboard side were disabled, crippling the only weapons that offered a justification for closing to short range in the first place.49 The American ship backed her mizzen topsail to keep from shooting ahead and continued to pour on her broadsides, now bringing her spar deck carronades into play as well.

And then the American filled her mizzen topsail and majestically pulled ahead across the Macedonian’s bows, momentarily holding her at mercy; then, without firing a shot, the American frigate pulled off. Some of the Macedonian’s men broke out in cheers, thinking the American was abandoning the fight, but all the officers except for Lieutenant Hope knew better. Hope himself had been wounded, and when he was brought below to have his wound dressed, Leech said, “there was not a man in the ship but would have rejoiced” had he never risen up off the surgeon’s table. Hope was soon back on deck, urging the fight to continue. But at that moment the mizzenmast, “in a toppling state,” fell by the board. Once again a British frigate was described by her captain as “a perfect wreck, an unmanageable log.”50 An hour later the American ship came up again, having repaired her minor damage, and took up a raking position as the Macedonian hauled down her colors.

A boat came across from the American ship, and Carden was rowed back to deliver his surrender and found himself facing his old acquaintance from Norfolk, Stephen Decatur. “I am an undone man,” Carden said. “I am the first British naval officer that has struck his flag to an American.” Decatur smiled and, returning Carden’s proffered sword, replied, “You are mistaken, sir; your Guerriere has been taken by us, and the flag of a frigate was struck before yours.” And then he jokingly turned to his marine officer and said, “You call yourselves riflemen, and have allowed this very tall and erect officer, on an open quarterdeck to escape your aim?” But Carden thought Decatur might have spared the attempt at levity; of the fifty-two men and officers on his quarterdeck, he would later recall, forty-three had been killed or grievously wounded.

Decatur wrote his wife not long after, “One half of the satisfaction arising from this victory is destroyed in seeing the distress of poor Carden, who deserved success as much as we did, who had the good fortune to obtain it. I did all I can to console him.” Decatur paid Carden $800 to purchase his personal stores, including several casks of wine and the musical instruments of a band of French musicians whom Carden had recruited out of a prison hulk in Lisbon, and who now gladly agreed to join the United States.51

Decatur’s victory was as lopsided as Hull’s had been. A third of the Macedonian’s crew were casualties, 43 killed and 61 wounded. Among the dead were two Americans—including John Card, the man Carden had threatened to shoot if he did not fight. The United States had suffered a total of 7 killed and 5 wounded. Each ship had fired about 1,200 rounds; the Macedonian had taken 95 hits in her hull to 5 in the United States’.52 But Decatur’s aim all along had been to bring in his prize intact; a great deal of the American fire, especially at the start of the battle, had been aimed at the Macedonian’s spars, with devastating effect. Barrages of chain and linked iron bar and double-headed shot joined by rods sliced through the Macedonian’s sails and rigging while leaving her hull intact. Decatur unhesitatingly ascribed his victory to the accuracy of his own men’s gunnery, and singled out for praise the efforts of his first lieutenant, William Henry Allen, in training the gun crews.

Even when it was all over, the British would never understand what hit them. The court-martial of the Macedonian’s officers focused on Carden’s “over anxiety” to keep the weather gauge but showed no comprehension that he had been outmaneuvered from the start. Hope testified that he believed the key opportunity had been lost in not closing rapidly when they had a chance, and the fact was that Carden compounded his initial hesitation to risk a brief raking with his subsequent impetuosity in closing when it meant taking a long-drawn-out battering. Unlike Hull, who had used his windward position on the Guerriere to come up rapidly, but on a zigzag course that kept him from being raked each time the British ship fired and kept the enemy gunners guessing as to the proper lead to put on their aim, Carden had shown no finesse at all when he finally chose to close in on the United States. But the fact also was that Decatur’s maneuvering had left Carden no good choices: by wearing twice at the start, he had forestalled Carden’s plan to get past him and on his stern, and by keeping his distance during the heat of the battle, he had played to the advantage of his longer-range guns while forcing Carden to make that long, exposed approach.

A prize crew from the United States commanded by Lieutenant Allen quickly took charge of the British frigate. Lieutenant Hope was surly to the end, petulantly replying to Allen’s polite invitation to get into the boat by saying, “You do not intend to send me away without my baggage?”

“I hope you do not suppose you have been taken by privateersmen?” Allen answered.

“I do not know by whom I am taken.”

“Into the boat, Sir!”53

Allen put a guard on the officers’ baggage and sent it over later in the day and set the prize crew to work at once fothering two large leaks below the waterline by working a sailcloth under the ship’s keel. Seven feet of water was pumped out of the hold while the cloths temporarily held the sea from rushing back in. With that makeshift fix the carpenters could get at the holes from the inside to plug them more solidly, with wooden patches and oakum, while other work crews rigged jury masts. The work took five days; the whole time the two ships hove to along a well-traveled shipping lane. But Decatur’s luck held; the only vessel that appeared was a Swedish merchantman bound for Cádiz. Decatur allowed Carden to put his purser aboard carrying his official dispatch for the Lords of the Admiralty in London that began, “It is with the deepest regret I have to acquaint you …”

And then the two ships sailed for home, 2,200 miles across strangely empty seas, the British captain each day scanning the horizon in vain for a British man-of-war.54

AGAIN THERE were dinners and celebrations, salutes and odes; the legislatures of Pennsylvania and Virginia voted Decatur ceremonial swords; and after two weeks at Newport and New London, where the Macedonian was given a quick sprucing up, the ships arrived in New York, where the city presented Decatur with a gold box containing the Freedom of the City and still more honors, dinners, parades, theatrical tributes, everything else the city could think of to outdo what Boston had done to celebrate Hull’s victory. Decatur had put his prisoners ashore in New London when he arrived there December 4, installing them in a not very well guarded barn, and about a hundred promptly ran for it so that they would never have to serve in the British navy again. Samuel Leech slipped into New York City a few weeks later with the all-but-open conniving of the Americans, having earned money in the meanwhile by giving tours of the captured frigate to throngs of gawking sightseers. Several more of the prisoners signed on to the United States’ crew.55

One of Decatur’s lieutenants was Archibald Hamilton, the twenty-two-year-old son of the navy secretary, and Decatur dispatched him directly to Washington with his official letter announcing the victory. The young lieutenant made a dramatic entrance at a “naval ball” that had already been arranged for the evening of Tuesday, December 8, in the capital to honor Hull, Morris, and other officers of the navy. Bursting through the doors of the hotel ballroom at 10:00 p.m. bearing the Macedonian’s colors to a loud huzzah and the embraces of his mother and sisters, Lieutenant Hamilton knelt at the feet of Dolley Madison and laid the flag of the captured British frigate before her.

“This was rather overdoing the affair,” thought one of the guests, Mrs. Benjamin H. Latrobe. She was the wife of the British-born architect responsible for much of the Capitol, and she wrote a long, vivid, and drily humorous description of the scene to a friend, concluding seriously:

Now, between ourselves, I think it wrong to exult so outrageously over our enemies. We may have reason to laugh on the other side of our mouths some of these days; and, as the English are so much stronger than we are it is best to act moderately when we take a vessel; and I could not look on those colours with pleasure, the striking of which had made so many widows and orphans. In the fullness of my feelings, I exclaimed to a gentleman who stood near me, “Good Heavens—I would not touch that colour for a thousand dollars,” and he walked quickly away, I hearing the gentleman say, “Is it possible, Mrs. Latrobe.” I looked around and it was a good staunch Federalist from Rhode Island, Mr. Hunter, the Senator, so that I shall escape hanging after so treasonable a speech. I came home at 12 with a raging headache.56

Along with the exultation over victory came an outbreak of squabbling and jealousy among American naval officers. In a burst of enthusiasm over the Guerriere victory, Secretary Hamilton decided to promote Charles Morris directly from lieutenant to captain, which brought the secretary a deluge of outraged letters from other officers objecting to the decision, especially to the fact that Morris was being advanced two grades in a single leap. One master commandant complained that “if we are to be over topt by every brave Lieut on whom fortune may smile, there will be no stimulus left us”; an aggrieved lieutenant added that he “cannot discover from the Official letters of Captain Hull” that Morris “particularly distinguished himself any Special Act of Gallantry.” Bainbridge objected on behalf of several officers he wanted to see promoted, and Master Commandant James Lawrence threatened to appeal directly to the Senate to see his “legal rights” protected—and to resign from the navy altogether if he did not get satisfaction.57

The prize money that Decatur was due for bringing in an enemy ship of war was rapidly becoming another source of ill feeling. Under the navy department’s regulations, the officers and crew of a ship capturing an enemy of equal or greater force were entitled to share the full value of the prize but were awarded only half the value of a captured ship of lesser force. Two referees were named, one by Hamilton and one by Decatur, and they promptly decided that the Macedonian was worth $200,000, which was fair enough, but also that she was of greater force than the United States, which could only be described as a bald-faced lie. Like all British thirty-eights, she was a smaller ship than the American forty-fours, armed with fewer and lighter guns. The captain’s share, three-twentieths, put $30,000 in Decatur’s pocket.

It was up to Congress to decide whether to grant Hull and his crew a reward in lieu of prize money for having destroyed the Guerriere, and the House Naval Committee at first reported a resolution authorizing $50,000 total. Hull and Hamilton testified to the committee that $100,000 would be a fairer compensation, and the bill was accordingly altered. But faced with having to come up with $200,000 for the Macedonian, the House cut the award for the Constitution’s crew back to $50,000, leaving Hull $7,500.58 Hull, normally a modest man, was bitter and incensed and even two years later was still fuming about it, writing Connecticut’s senator David Daggett:

There has not been an action fought since, even by a sloop of war, but the commander has shared equal honors and more money. Look at the U States and Macedonian,—there Commo Decatur shared upwards of thirty thousand dollars, and for what? Because he was not so unfortunate as to shoot away her masts and got her safe in, for which he was allowed the whole of the ship, when the world knows that the Guerriere was a much heavier ship and the U States full as heavy, indeed heavier than the Constitution. Why such things are, I know not; but they are facts.… when I am led to think on the subject of the Navy I cannot but feel hurt at many things relative to myself that have taken place.59

Decatur meanwhile backed out of a gentleman’s agreement he had made with Rodgers to “share and share alike” in all their prize money. Rodgers’s prizes about equaled Decatur’s by that point thanks mostly to Rodgers’s capture of a British post office packet ship, the Swallow, on October 15 near the Grand Banks, just a few days after he sailed from Boston in the President on his second cruise of the war. On board were eighty-one boxes filled with gold and silver specie, tons in all, worth $150,000 to $200,000. But Rodgers had little else to show for his considerable efforts, and for a second time he was left expressing his sheepish frustration to Secretary Hamilton. On this cruise he made only two prizes in two and a half months at sea, an even poorer showing than the six merchant ships he had taken in July and August on his first cruise of two months’ duration. “It will appear somewhat extraordinary,” Rodgers wrote Hamilton, “when I inform you that in our late cruise we have sailed by our log nearly 11’000 miles, that we chased every thing we saw, yet that we should have seen so few Enemies Vessels.” Decatur did not explicitly state to Rodgers the reason he now “would prefer going on our own accounts for the remainder of the war,” but he probably did not have to: fortune had chosen to favor him and not his comrade.60

Meanwhile, jockeying for the best ships only grew more intense as the tantalizing lure of glory grew brighter with Hull’s and Decatur’s victories. David Porter grumbled to Hamilton that the Essex was the worst frigate in the service due to her bad sailing and the idiosyncratic decision to arm her completely with short-range carronades, and insisted that he had a claim to exchange his command for the Adams: “An Officer junior to myself has command of a 36 Gun Frigate,” he complained to Hamilton. Lieutenants assigned to shallow-draft boats in out-of-the-way stations inundated the secretary with pleas for transfers to cruising vessels, citing years of service and the hardship “of my being Kept on a Station, where no opportunity could be afforded me to distinguish myself for want of proper vessels,” as one lieutenant wrote from New Orleans.

Hamilton had for so long been in the habit of deferring to his officers and letting slide the mounting administrative demands of his office that when he now occasionally tried to put his foot down it only led to derisive hoots from the press and contempt from his subordinates. The secretary petulantly replied to Lawrence’s threat to resign with a curt note that was widely reprinted in Federalist newspapers: “If (without cause) You leave the service of your Country, there will still remain Heros & patriots to support the honor of its flag.”61 Porter, who had sparred with Hamilton for months over his demands for promotion and choice of ships, had already turned against the secretary back in February 1812 when he wrote a colleague, “The secretary is unpopular here with the cloth, from the highest to the lowest he is disliked; it is supposed he has been too long in the habit of driving slaves to know how to regard the honorable feelings of gentlemen, added to his propensity to ‘toss the little finger,’ it is believed disqualifies him for the station.”62

There were indeed increasing rumors and stories that the secretary was spending most of his day drinking. In October a Boston newspaper ran a short item:


It is said, is fond of a glass.… would it not be better, that the department of the navy should be furnished with a secretary who likes business more than drinking? The tune of the cabinet seems to be:

Let the drums rattle,

We’ll drink and prattle;

Let the cannons roar,

Give us one bottle more.

Hamilton was reported to have been intoxicated at the naval ball in Washington in December and also two weeks earlier at a celebratory gala held aboard the frigate Constellation in the Potomac, attended by the president and the cabinet. The New York congressman (and physician) Samuel Mitchill commented in December 1812 that Hamilton suffered from “the too free use of stimulant potation” and was usually to be found asleep at his desk by noon each day.63 But it was Hamilton’s disinclination for business more than his inclination for drink that was the real problem. With the coming of war not even the surprising successes of the American navy could conceal the secretary’s fundamental incapacity for his job.

The presidential election in the fall of 1812 was a drawn-out affair, the results drifting in over the course of two months as each state voted according to its own rules. Madison’s chief opponent was a fellow Republican, New York City mayor DeWitt Clinton, whom the Federalists decided to support on the basis of his promise to promote commerce and end the war. Clinton ran a frankly disingenuous campaign, his northeastern followers vowing that their candidate would negotiate with the British for a quick settlement, his supporters in the pro-war southern and western states attacking Madison for not prosecuting the war vigorously enough.

Madison, for his part, was prepared to stake everything on the war. In late October, Secretary of State James Monroe replied to Admiral Warren’s armistice proposal by firmly shutting the door on any face-saving compromise that fell short of the aims the United States had gone to war to attain. Monroe stated that the president could not accept any peace terms that did not include a resolution of the issue of impressment. He proposed that the differences between the countries could be resolved by the United States’ agreeing to forbid by law the employment of foreign seamen in its merchant marine in exchange for a British agreement to cease its practice of impressing men from American merchant vessels. But he also insisted that any armistice, pending negotiation of a final treaty, had to include a British pledge to halt impressment immediately in the interim. Monroe insisted that the citizens of the United States could never appear to acquiesce in “a practice, which while it degrades the Nation, deprives them of their rights as freemen, takes them by force from their families and their Country, into a foreign service, to fight the Battles of a foreign power, perhaps against their own kindred and Country.”64 Though couched in diplomatic language, Monroe’s reply was clearly less an offer for negotiation than a pronouncement of American resolve aimed at domestic consumption.

“Day after day, like the tidings of Job’s disaster,” wrote Samuel Mitchill to his wife in late November, news of both military and electoral setbacks reached the “thin and solemn” gatherings in the president’s drawing room.65 On the Niagara and Montreal fronts, equally humiliating failures followed General Hull’s ignominious defeat at Detroit. Henry Dearborn, Jefferson’s secretary of war, was named to head the assault on Quebec, but he was fat, slow, sixty-one years old; his own troops called him “Granny.” The commander on the Niagara campaign was Stephen Van Rensselaer, a forty-eight-year-old militia officer with no previous military experience, a Federalist chosen by New York’s governor entirely in the hopes of shoring up political support for the war. In October and November, Dearborn and Van Rensselaer both launched attacks across the Canadian border with superior forces only to withdraw in failure.

By December it was clear that Clinton had carried four New England states, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and part of Maryland, but Madison took Pennsylvania and the entire South, delivering a 128 to 89 electoral vote margin. In late December, with his victory secure, Madison summoned Hamilton to the White House and told him that unless he resigned, Congress would never vote future appropriations for the navy. On December 30 Hamilton bowed to the inevitable and submitted his resignation, asking the president to state whether there was “anything in the course of my conduct, in that station, reprehensible.” The president’s reply the next day praised Hamilton’s “patriotic merits,” “faithful zeal,” and “unimpeachable integrity,” earning Madison a scornful editorial in the Federal Republican that mocked him for praising the virtues of a man he had just compelled to resign for his manifest want of them.66

ON DECEMBER 2 the Constitution had put in at Fernando de Noronha, a Brazilian island two hundred miles off the coast and one of several planned rendezvous points where Captain Bainbridge hoped to meet up with David Porter in the Essex, which had sailed from Delaware Bay on October 28. The Constitution had passed only a few ships on her way from Boston. A few days out, flying English colors, she had halted an American merchant brig, the South Carolina, bound from Lisbon for Philadelphia, and the boarding party kept up the ruse, telling the master they were going to send him into Halifax. At that point the American merchant captain produced a British license—and the Constitution took possession and ordered her into Philadelphia as a prize. The brig’s master “appeared much chagrined,” noted Amos Evans, and “said we had worked windward of him this time but he be damn’d if we ever did it again.”67

William Jones had suggested Fernando de Noronha to Bainbridge as a good resupply point if he decided to head for the coast of Brazil for his cruise: “It has a good Harbor on the NW side … Here you will find wood water and refreshments particularly turtle.” Jones also noted that no women were allowed on the island; it served as a Portuguese penal colony for “male exiles and convicts, who for their sins are deprived of all Sexual Intercourse.”68 The Constitution sent her boats ashore with water casks to be filled and the men returned with eggs, melons, coconuts, bananas, cashew nuts, and pigs. There was no sign of Porter, and so Bainbridge, pretending to be the captain of the British frigate Acasta, left a note with the island’s governor addressed to “sir James Yeo, of His Majesty’s frigate Southampton, to be sent to England by the first opportunity.” It read:

My dear Mediterranean Friend, Probably you may stop here … I learnt before I left England, that you were bound for the Brazil coast; if so, perhaps we may meet at St. Salvadore or Rio Janeiro; I should be happy to meet and converse on our old affairs of captivity; recollect our secret in those times.

Your friend, of HM.’s ship Acasta.


The “secret” he was referring to was their use of invisible ink while prisoners in Tripoli back in 1804, and a postscript to Bainbridge’s letter that could be revealed only when heated read “I am bound off St. Salvadore, thence off Cape Frio, where I intend to cruise until the 1st of January. Go off Cape Frio, to the northward of Rio Janeiro, and keep a look out for me. Your Friend.”69

Every few days the crew of the Constitution exercised the great guns, or the marines practiced firing at marks, or the boarders exercised with small arms. There was no punishment recorded until December 6, when five seamen received a half-dozen to a dozen lashes apiece; then three days later a marine private convicted by a court-martial that Bainbridge had convened on board received fifty lashes for threatening the life of a midshipman. “Altho’ very young he bore it much better than many hardy veterans would have,” Evans observed.

On December 18 the Constitution rejoined the sloop of war Hornet in company off São Salvador, Brazil. James Lawrence was her captain, and he had just come from the port, where he had called on the American consul to gather what intelligence he could on British naval activity in the area. There were several British merchantmen in the harbor and a British sloop of war, the Bonne Citoyenne; the consul said that a British seventy-four was at Rio. He also said that the Bonne Citoyenne was rumored to be carrying $1.6 million in specie and was planning to sail in the next ten to fifteen days. Lawrence tried to goad the Bonne Citoyenne into a fight, sending her captain a challenge offering to meet him outside Brazilian territorial waters and pledging his and Captain Bainbridge’s honor that the Constitution would not interfere in their duel. The British captain prudently declined, replying in a note to Lawrence that were he to prevail, the Constitution’s captain would not be able to avoid the “paramount duty he owes his country” and remain “an inactive spectator, and see a ship belonging to the very squadron under his command fall into the hands of an enemy.” Bainbridge fumed about the insult to his own “sacred pledge” that was implied.70

The next day the Constitution and the Hornet again parted company, Lawrence remaining off São Salvador to keep an eye on the British ships. At nine in the morning on December 29 two sail were spotted off the weather bow. While one of the ships made for São Salvador, the other steered offshore for the Constitution. A little before noon the Constitution and the strange ship each hoisted signals that the other could not read and went unanswered, and fifteen minutes later they were close enough to see their respective English and American ensigns flying. The ships made straight for each other with no preliminaries, and the action that began a little after 2:00 p.m. would be the bloodiest yet between a British and an American frigate, a battle of close maneuver for two hours as the ships ranged alongside each other and each sought again and again to cross the other’s bow or stern to raking position. The British ship held the weather gauge from the start and twice in the first thirty minutes tried to pull across the Constitution’s bows; Bainbridge responded each time with a broadside and then suddenly wore away under the cover of his own smoke.

It was immediately apparent that the British frigate was a faster sailer, and Bainbridge took the risk of setting his main course and fore course to compensate. Almost at the start of the battle a musket ball struck Bainbridge in the left hip, but he later said he did not even feel the pain until nine hours later. At 2:30 a shot entirely carried away the wheel of the Constitution and a flying bolt struck Bainbridge, this time in the right thigh. A line of midshipmen was quickly assembled to relay his steering orders down to men hauling the tiller’s huge tackles in the steerage space behind the wardroom two decks below.

The two ships were side by side running east, and now the British frigate tried to tack to larboard, preparing to make a three-quarter circle to cross behind the Constitution’s stern. But her jibboom had been shot away, and without her head sails she hung agonizingly in stays; with her head to the wind and her stern fully exposed, she took two full broadsides before finally coming around. Again Bainbridge wore away, turning back to the west; again the British ship kept the weather gauge and this time headed right at her, obviously intending to run her aboard and take her by storm. But the British captain misjudged his timing, and the remains of his bowsprit skewered the Constitution’s mizzen rigging, almost exactly as the Guerriere’s had, pinning the British ship under the full weight of the Constitution’s broadside and musket fire. Her foremast was cut in two, then plunged straight down, spearing right through two decks before coming to a stop. Then the ships broke free and again were sailing side by side to the east, again the British frigate to the windward; Bainbridge wore to starboard and crossed the enemy’s stern twice, each time pouring in a devastating raking fire. “At 3.55 Shot his mizzen mast nearly by the board,” read the Constitution’s “Minutes Taken during the Action.” They continued:

At 4.5    

Having silenced the fire of the enemy completely and his colours in main Rigging being down Supposed he had Struck, Then hawl’d about the Courses to shoot ahead to repair our rigging, which was extremely cut, leaving the enemy a complete wreck, soon after discovered that The enemies flag was still flying hove too to repair Some of our damages.

At 4.20

The Enemies Main Mast went by the board.

At 4.50

Wore ship and stood for the Enemy

At 5.25

Got very close to the enemy in a very rakeing position, athwart his bows & was at the very instance of rakeing him, when he most prudently Struck his Flag.71

All but one of the Constitution’s eight boats had been reduced to splinters during the action, shot to pieces on their davits. The lone remaining boat was sent across and returned at 7:00 p.m. with Lieutenant Henry D. Chads, second in command of the frigate Java. Her captain, Henry Lambert, lay in his ship mortally wounded. The Java had been on her way to Bombay, carrying the new governor general of India, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Hislop, and a hundred other passengers. Chads maintained that the Java’s casualties were 22 dead and 102 wounded, but a letter accidentally dropped on the Constitution’s deck by one of the British army officers taken prisoner told of 65 killed and 170 wounded, and when Bainbridge examined the British ship’s muster roll and compared it with his list of prisoners, there were at least 53 who had not been accounted for.72 At 3:00 p.m. on New Year’s Day the Java was set on fire and blown up, not nearly as spectacular an explosion as the Guerriere, Evans observed, owing to her smaller quantity of powder in the magazine.

The Constitution had suffered severely too. There were 12 killed and 22 wounded. In his official report Bainbridge tried to downplay the damage his ship had received, but he wrote his old friend Dr. Bullus a far more candid account a few weeks later:

U.S.F. Constitution 23d Jany. 1813

At Sea Lat 4.20 N°. Long 36 W.

Homeward Bound

Dear Bullus.

Knowing the interest you take in the success of our navy, I am confident the enclosed paper, will afford you pleasure.

The damage the Frigate Constitution received in the action with the Java and the decayed state in which she is in made it necessary for me to return to the U. States for Repairs—Otherwise I should beyond doubt, by following my intended plans, have made a most successful Cruise against the Enemies Commerce and thereby have made the fortune of myself & Crew.…

The Constitution was a good deal cut. Some Shott between wind & water. Her upper bulwarks considerably Shott. Foremast & mizzen mast Shott through. Main & mizzen Stays Shott through, Eight lower shrouds cut off. Fore top, mast Stays, & every back Stay and all the Top Sail eyes Shott of. And almost every Topmast Shroud. All the Braces standing and Preventers, and Bowlines, were three times Shott away during the Action. But rove again the very heat of it. 7 Boats out of 8 destroyed by Shott. Our Sails extremely cut to pieces. The main Topmast, Main Topsail yards, Jib Boom, Spanker Boomb Gaft & Try Sail mast were all so Shott as to render them unserviceable. Yet this damage, is incredibly inconceivable to the wreck we made the Enemy. The Sea was smooth, that havock could not been otherwise than great.73

His long-looked-for victory made Bainbridge exultant but not magnanimous, almost oblivious to his own wounds and eager for more glory, yet ungenerous even in triumph. “I was wounded in the early part of the action by a musquet Ball in my Hip and a piece of langrage in my Thigh,” he told Bullus. “But did not feel the inconvenience so great as to cause me to quit the Deck to have it dressed until 11 oclock at night, after which, returning on Deck and remaining on my Legs nearly 3 days & nights, brought on such inflammation & violent pains in my wounds as to heave me on my Beam ends for some time. Ten days after the action, the Surgeon extracted the piece of langrage by operating at the wound. And I am now I thank God almost perfectly recovered. And ready to hazard again a leg and an arm for such another victory.”

And then he added with his usual sourness, “My Crew owing to the constant Exercise we give them, are very active & clever at their Guns, but in all other respects they are inferior to any Crew I ever had.”

The crew had, though, apparently let off some unauthorized steam; after the prisoners were put ashore at São Salvador on parole, Lieutenant Chads wrote to London, “I am sorry to find that the Americans did not behave with the same liberality towards the crew that the officers experienced on the contrary they were pillaged of almost every thing.” He also reported the names and descriptions of four of the Java’s men who had entered on board the Constitution.74

Bainbridge spent the trip home writing other letters carefully designed to burnish his stature and milk the maximum benefit from his accomplishment. One, to a “friend” but obviously intended for publication—it was widely reprinted in American newspapers almost as soon as he got home—modestly abjured any interest in prize money for himself while making the strongest possible case for a large cash award for the capture of the Java. For officers such as himself, of course, “patriotism and laudable thirst for renown” were motivation enough; “the applause of my countrymen has for me greater charms than all the gold that glitters.” But his “poor fellows” the crew, alas, required the stimulus of prize money to keep up their spirits and ardor. “For if it is, as I hold it, the indispensable duty of the commander to destroy the captured vessel, on account of the gauntlet he would have to run with both the prize and his own ship—and the captain to receive all the honor, and otherwise no compensation—is it not natural to suppose that the ardent desire which our seamen at present so strongly manifest to get into battle would diminish?”75 Like Hull, Bainbridge would eventually receive $7,500 of a $50,000 payment voted by Congress in lieu of the prize money that would have been awarded had he brought the enemy frigate home intact; each sailor and marine aboard the Constitution got about $50.

Porter had shown up at Fernando de Noronha on December 15, ten days after Bainbridge passed through, retrieved the letter to “sir James Yeo,” and sailed immediately for Cape Frio. But he was far to the east on a futile chase of a small five-ship British convoy when Bainbridge passed north along the Brazilian coast heading for home.

Porter waited until January 13 before turning west for St. Catherine’s, five hundred miles down the coast from Rio, one of the two final rendezvous points Bainbridge had set for the squadron.

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