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“By Heaven, That Ship Is Ours!”
So roared Captain Isaac Hull as Old Ironsides closed in mortal combat with the British frigate Guerrière. On the accuracy of his prediction hung all of America’s naval prestige in 1812
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
At 5:15 A.M. one of the frigates astern had approached within five or six miles, the ships on the lee quarter were two or three miles distant, and the remainder were about ten miles astern. Suddenly, to the Americans’ dismay, the wind died altogether. The Constitution would not answer her rudder, and her head began to fall around toward the pursuing ships, which retained a light breeze and continued to gain on the Constitution . The nearer frigates began firing their bow guns, and shot spla.hed into the water around and even beyond the American frigate. The distance was too great for accuracy, however, and no shot struck the ship.
The Constitution rapidly hoisted out her boats, and half an hour’s hard rowing brought the ship’s head around to the south again. The enemy ships also got out their boats to tow, and with a light air favoring them, came up rapidly. At 6 A.M. the Constitution set all her light canvas. A gang of men trundled the long 18-pounder aft from the forecastle, and another gang swayed up a long 24 from the gun deck. Part of the taffrail was cut away to run these guns out the stern, and two more long 24’s were directed out the cabin windows.
At 7 A.M. Captain Hull ordered one of the stern guns fired at the nearest ship, but the shot fell short. One advantage remained to the Americans—the enemy ships could not tow within gunshot, for if they did their boats could be sunk by the Constitution’s stern chasers. Still, if they could get near enough to disable one of her masts by a lucky shot, she must certainly be captured. One of the smaller frigates was using long sweeps, like a row galley. “It now appeared that we must be taken,” Captain Hull later reported, “and that our escape was impossible, lour heavy ships nearly within gunshot, and coming up last, and not the least hope of a breeze, to give us a chance ol getting oil by outsailing them.”
At this juncture (about 7 A.M. ), First Lieutenant Charles Morris had an idea. 11 the water was shallow enough, why not try kedging? The lead was thrown- twenty-lour fathoms. Rather deep, but still it might be possible. All the rope in the ship’s lockers was spliced into two cables, each about half a mile long: one was attached to a spare anchor, rowed out ahead of the ship, and dropped. When the anchor was caught, the men on deck seized the hawser and walked alt, thus pulling the ship toward the anchor. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the Constitution gathered way. At 7:30 she set her ensign and fired a shot at her pursuers, who for the moment could not understand how she was gaining on them. Meanwhile, the other hawser was attached to another spare anchor, and soon the Constitution had two kedges working, one being rowed out while the men hauled up the other. With each kedgc she gained some six hundred yards.
It was not long before enemy spyglasses discovered the Constitution’s secret, and the English quickly got out kedge anchors of their own. The boats from the Africa were sent to tow and kedge the nearest frigate. By 9 A.M. this ship was gaining rapidly and began to fire at the Constitution , but the shot fell short. The Americans returned the fire, and thought they saw a few shot go on board the Englishman. But the Constitution’s stern had so much rake that the muzzles of the guns in the cabin were discharging directly beneath the taffrail. The force of the explosions was so great that every shot lifted the deck and threatened to blow oft the stern. Captain Hull ordered the guns to cease firing.
At nine minutes past nine a breeze sprang up from the southward. James Fenimore Cooper says in his History of the Navy of the United States , “The beautiful manner in which this advantage was improved, excited admiration even in the enemy.” The Constitution braced round to the southwest on the larboard tack, her boats ran alongside and were hoisted clear of the water, and not a foot of advantage was lost. The boats that belonged to the davits were run tip, while the longboat and others were lifted just out of the water by purchases on the spare outboard spars, ready to be used again at a moment’s notice. This maneuver brought the Guerrière nearly on the lee beam, and she came around, firing her broadside. Shot splashed into the water just short of the men in the dangling boats; they responded with jeers and raucous laughter.