The Naval history of Great Britain:
from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV
On the 19th August, at two o'clock in the afternoon, being in the latitude 41° north, longitude 55° 30' west, standing by the wind on the starboard tack, under easy sail, with her head to the westward, the Guerrière discovered a sail on her weather beam. This was the Constitution.
At three o'clock each ship made out the other to be an enemy's man-of-war ; and at half past three each discovered, with tolerable precision, the force that was about to be opposed to her. At half past four the Guerrière laid her main topsail to the mast, to enable the Constitution the more quickly to close. The latter, then about three miles distant, immediately shortened sail to her topsails, and hoisted colours. At three quarters past four the Guerrière hoisted hers, and at fifty minutes past four opened her starboard broadside at the Constitution; then filled, wore, and on coming round on the larboard tack, fired her larboard guns, "her shot", says Captain Hull, "falling short;" a proof. either that the Guerrière's people knew not the range of their guns, or that the powder they were using was of an inferior quality: both causes, indeed, might have co-operated in producing the discreditable result.
At about five minutes past five the Constitution opened her fire; and, it is believed, none of her shots fell short. To avoid being raked, the Guerrière wore several times, and continued discharging her alternate broadsides, with, owing to her constant change of position and the necessary alteration in the level of her guns, about as little effect as when her shorts fell short. After the Constitution had amused herself in this way for half an hour she set her main top-gallant-sail, and in five minutes brought the Guerrière to close action on the starboard beam; both ships standing before the wind. At six o'clock, owing to the heavy and destructive fire of the Constitution, the Guerrière's mizen-mast came down by the board: it fell over the starboard quarter, and, by acting as a back-water, brought the ship up in the wind. By this accident to her opponent, the Constitution would have quickly ranged ahead: but, luffing up, she quickly placed herself in an admiral position on the Guerrière's larboard bow. Now the American riflemen in the Constitution's tops had an opportunity of co-operating with their friends on deck; and a most sweeping fire of great guns and small arms was opened upon the British frigate, whose bow guns were all she could bring to bear in return.
At about ten minutes past six the two ships fell onboard each other, the Guerrière's bowsprit getting foul of the Constitution's larboard mizen-rigging. The crew of the latter now prepared to board the Guerrière; but, a well directed shot from a British marine bringing down the American lieutenant of marines while leading forward his party, the attempt was abandoned. The riflemen in the Constitution's tops, meanwhile. continued their unerring fire: among those who suffered on the occasion were, captain Dacres himself, by a severe wound in the back, (but who would not leave the deck,) the master, Robert Scott, shot through the knee, and a master's mate, Samuel Grant, very severely. At length the two ships got clear, and the Guerrière comimg-to a little, was able to bring a few of her foremost guns to bear; some of the wads of which set fire to the Constitution's cabin. The flames were soon extinguished; and the American frigate continued pouring in her destructive broadsides; when a shot, or rather, a brass swivel fired from one of the Constitution's forecastle guns, brought down the Guerrière's fore-mast. This, in falling, carried away the rotten main mast. The Constitution shooting ahead, the Guerrière began clearing away the wreck of her masts, to be ready to renew the action. Just, however, as she had succeeded in doing so, her spritsail-yard, upon which she had set a sail to endeavour to get before the wind, was carried away.
The Guerrière now lay an unmanageable hulk in the trough of the sea, rolling her main-deck guns under water: to secure which required increased efforts, the rotten state of the breechings, as well as of the timber-heads through which the long-bolts passed, having caused many of them to break loose. While the British frigate was in this sate, the Constitution, at about three quarters past six, having rove new braces, wore round and took a raking position within pistol-shot distance. It being utterly in vain to contend any longer, the Guerrière fired a lee gun, and hauled down the union jack from the stump of her mizen-mast.
Out of her 244 men [ Captain Dacres, much to his credit, had, the moment the Constitution hoisted her colours, ordered seven Americans that belonged to his reduced crew to go below: one accidentally remained at his gun, the remainder went where they had been ordered.] and nineteen boys, the Guerrière had her second lieutenant, (Henry Ready,) eleven seamen, and three marines killed, her Captain, (severely,) first Lieutenant, (slightly,) master, two master's mates, one midshipman, forty-three seamen, thirteen marine, and one boy wounded; total fifteen killed and sixty-three wounded, six of the latter mortally, thirty-nine severely, eighteen slightly. The Constitution, out of her 468 men and boys, had one lieutenant of marines and six seamen killed, three mortally, four severely, and it is believed, six slightly wounded; total, seven and thirteen wounded.
As it would be both absurd and unjust to compare together the totals of two crews of men and boys, in a case where each opponent uses the latter in so very different a proportion as the British and Americans, we shall, making an example allowance for those in the American crew, exclude the boys altogether from the estimate.
Comparative force of the combatants.
Even this statement, with the one-third disparity it exhibits, will not convey a clear idea of the real inequality of force, that existed between the Guerrière and Constitution, without allowance is made for the ineffective state in which the former commenced the action. There is one circumstance, also, which has greatly contributed to mislead the judgement of the public in deciding upon the merits of this and its succeeding fellow-actions: a belief, grounded on the official accounts, that British frigates, of the Guerrière's class, had frequently captured French frigates, carrying 24-pounders on the main deck.
Desirable, indeed would have been the Guerrière as a trophy; but the shattered state of her hull precluded the possibility of getting her into port. At daylight, on the day succeeding the action, the American prize-master hailed the Constitution, to say that the Guerrière had four feet water in the hold, and was in a sinking condition. Quickly the prisoners were removed out of her; and at half past three in the afternoon, having been set on fire by Captain Hull's orders, the Guerrière blew up.
As well may be conceived, Captain Hull was greeted with applause by his government, accompanied by a present of fifty thousand dollars. We will not stay to scrutinise captain hull's official letter: indeed, we feel the less disposed to find fault with an American naval officer for swerving a little from the truth, because we are convinced that it is his mercantile education, his practical experience in the tricks and frauds in the carrying trade, that has taught him to regard such little slips of the pen as anything but criminal. Captain Dacres, much to his honour, praised captain Hull and hid officers for their treatment of the Guerrière's men; but, after he had despatched his official letter, captain Dacres found he had been premature in his acknowledgements: in fact, the American officers used every art it inveigle the British crew into their service, eight Englishmen, however, were all that remained in the United States; and but two of those entered on board the Constitution.
After the details that have here been given of the action between the Guerrière and the Constitution, it will be almost needless to state, that captain Dacres and his surviving officers and crew, on their return home to take their trial for the loss of their ship, were most honourably acquitted.
War of 1812