Naval History: August 19th, 1812

August 19th, 2007 by xformed

On this date 195 years ago, a historical naval battle took place, which spawned a legendary nickname for one of the first warships built in the course of our nation’s history: “Old Ironsides.”


Painting by Michael Corne
Captain Issac Hull, commanding USS CONSTITUTION, would take on the British Frigate HMS Guerrière (44 guns), commanded by 28 year old, but experienced, Captain James Dacres, in a short and furious engagement in the vicinity of 41° 42’N 55°48’W, approximately 750 miles East of Boston.The CONSTITUTION’s crew sighted sails at 2PM and the ships closed for the deadly engagement. Shortly before 6PM, at the CONSTITUTION closed within gun range of the British ship, the HMS Guerrière began firing some long range shots. Captain Hull held fire, even after having taken a hit in a gun port at 6PM.When the CONSTITUTION was broadside to the HMS Guerrière at a distance of about 75 yards, First Lieutenant Morris asked “Shall we fire now?” At 6:05PM, Captain Hull replied to LT Morris with “Yes, sir, you may now fire.”

Double shotted loads spoke in a single thunderous voice from the side of CONSTITUTION, and the entire structure of the ship shook from the blast, and the crew gave a triple cheer that was clearly heard aboard HMS Guerrière. The result of this fire discipline? When the smoke cleared, the HMS Guerrière’s mizzenmast had ruptured just above the main deck and falling into the sea and the mainyards were shot away, taking the sails, too. The American sailors gave another triple cheer.

It was in this interval, when an American sailor saw a British 18lb cannon ball bounce off the Ship’s side and said “her sides are made of iron!” The nickname for the USS CONSTITUTION was born.

Captain Hull maneuvers his vessel into position, providing the Marine sharpshooters the opportunity to fire at the confused British crew, then a second, close range broadside was loosed with the same fury against the enemy. The ships closed and became entangled, and boarding parties was called for. Stern chasers and bow guns were employed at close range, and the CONSTITUTION’s main batteries could still fire into the HMS Guerrière. The heaving and plunging of the heavy seas finally tore the ship’s loose from each other.

The HMS Guerrière was dismasted and most of her officer’s out of action, dead or wounded. Captain Dacres struck his colors at 6:30PM.

In 25 minutes, the US Navy won a victory, aided and abetted by the foresight of Joshua Humphreys. How? That will be the subject of tomorrow’s Monday Maritime Matters post.

This account was derived from the book “Six Frigates” by Ian Toll. The details of the battle covered there are presented in far greater detail.

In the mean time, the Historical Naval Ships Association site for the USS CONSTITUTION is here. Points of interest there include that the below poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes kept her from the scrap yards in 1830, and the money of school children collected in 1927 restored her to her 1812 condition.

Old Ironsides

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar; —
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
Or know the conquered knee; —
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

Another website found while researching this material was The Captain’s Clerk, a site set up as “an archive specifically created to contain historically accurate stories and other information on that fabled frigate, the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”).”

Come back tomorrow to read how another field of my academic background is put to use to tell more of this story!

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 19th, 2007 at 9:38 am and is filed under Marines, Maritime Matters, Military, Military History, Navy, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 responses about “Naval History: August 19th, 1812”

  1. Deborah Aylward said:

    This was truly fascinating and thank you for providing the accompanying links. I look forward, with pleasure, to tomorrow’s continuation.

    Veritas et Fidelis Semper

  2. Monday Maritime Matters - - It’s not random, it’s CHAOS! said:

    […] « Naval History: August 19th, 1812 […]

  3. Monday Maritime Matters - - It’s not random, it’s CHAOS! said:

    […] the Captain of the USS CONSTITUTION during the famous battle against the HMS Guerrière’s on August 19th, 1812. Born in Derby, CT on March 9, 1773, he was the son of a mariner and regularly accompanied his […]

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