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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
By 10 A.M. the wind had died away, and the boats and kedges were sent ahead once more. The Constitution pumped out 2,335 gallons of her precious water to lighten the ship. More and moru of the enemy’s boats were sent to tow the foremost ship, and more and more steadily she gained. Throughout the day the terrible duel continued. When it was calm, the boats toiled on the glassy sea, and the Englishmen gained. When a light breeze or even a tew cat’s-paws were felt, up went the boats, and the Constitution drew ahead. For several years she had been a dull sailer, but her recent scraping at Washington had transformed her, and she outsailed all her pursuers, to the surprise and delight of her officers.
Nothing that might be of the slightest benefit was neglected. The hammocks were removed from the nettings to keep them from deflecting the slightest wind, the sails were kept wet to close the texture of the canvas, and the towing and kedging went on endlessly. At 11 P.M. the wind was steady enough for the boats to be hoisted up, and although it died away again at midnight, none of the ships put out their boats, and the weary crews slept undisturbed at their stations.
If the chase on the seventeenth was a towing contest, that of the eighteenth was a sailing contest. By 6 A.M. that day the wind had steadied, and it did not again become necessary to tow or kedge. The emphasis throughout the day was on tactics. At daylight, six sail were still in sight from the Constitution’s deck, seven from the masthead—one frigate on the lee beam and three on the lee quarter, two to three miles distant, and the liner, brig, and schooner several miles farther to leeward. Shortly after 4 A.M. the Guerrière , forging ahead to a position on the lee bow, tacked to come down across the Constitution’s course and bring her within gunshot. If the Constitution also tacked, she would pass within range of the Aeolus , now on her lee quarter; if not, she must fall in with the Guerrière . Captain Hull chose to tack to the east, about 4:20; at 5 the Constitution passed to windward of the Aeolus within long gunshot, but the English frigate did not fire; she and the other frigates tacked in the Constitution’s wake. The Aeolus was a small frigate, mounting 12-pounders (as opposed to Constitution’s 24’s), and some have thought her captain did not fire because he feared the Constitution’s superior strength. Captain Hull thought it might be for fear of becalming himself, the wind having continued light. Whatever the reason, the Aeolus did not fire the shots that might have disabled the American frigate.
The Constitution now stood to the east under all sail, all her pursuers astern. The wind from the southeast gradually freshened; at 6 A.M. it was possible to run up the last of the boats. The launch and the first cutter ran alongside and hooked on as the frigate gathered way; Captain Hull personally directed the operation, and it was accomplished with so little hesitation or change of sails that the pursuing squadron could not imagine what had become of the boats. At 9 A.M. skysails were set, and at about the same time another ship appeared in the southeast, apparently a merchantman. The English ships set American colors to lure her down; the Constitution immediately set English colors, and the stranger hauled off without further investigation.
By 11 A.M. the breeze was fresh enough for the skysails to be struck. Slowly but steadily the Constitution drew away from the enemy. By noon she was doing ten knots; every man remained at his post, wetting the sails and trimming them to catch every gust. By this time the nearest frigate was three and a half miles distant, the others were four or five miles astern, and the battleship was hull down. At 2 P.M. the Constitution was bowling along at twelve and a half knots, and as Lieutenant Morris wrote later, “Our hopes began to overcome apprehension, and cheerfulness was more apparent among us.”